Saturday, 21 January 2012

Doing what your character does is immersive.

The story-games thread I started on Dungeon World has meandered into something quite different and interesting. Somebody made the remark, commenting on the way Old School games can lead to brick walls, that:

If setting is largely indeterminate, then the Players actions and Move/Abilities will determine the fiction. However, if the setting is largely pre-determined, it will heavily constrain the the actions and outcomes of the Players.

For example:

[I]f there's a puzzle-trap in [Apocalypse World] as a result of a role, the MC can just ask how the character solves it or knows the solution: "I've dealt with Sand Mutants before, they always use the same snares." In D&D however, the trap is what is it is. While the party might come up with a clever solution to solving it, that solution is always heavy constrained by the specific details of the puzzle-trap. Fr'ex, touching the pressure plate with a ten-foot pole. But if that puzzle-trap says range 20ft, then the party is still effected.

 I don't really see this as a problem, because, as I put it in the thread:

I wouldn't disagree, but this is when it starts to become interesting for somebody like me. When the players' actions are constrained, they have to think hard about how to do things. They have to brainstorm and come up with solutions. And when they overcome an obstacle, they feel like they really have overcome an obstacle.

It's very 'gamist', but also in its own way very immersive, because the players invest a lot in this problem-solving aspect of the game, just as their in-game characters probably would. 

It's something I've noticed - and this may merely be a result of my GM-ing style, which doesn't have a heck of a lot of truck with "story" - that in my games, the moments when players seem to be investing the most emotionally, psychically, and psychologically in their characters are the moments when they are doing exactly what their characters are doing within the game. They may like combat because it's exciting and you get to roll lots of dice to see how many people you kill, (in fact they like dice-rolling in general), and they may like monsters and magic and big guns, but it's when they are "inhabiting" their characters that I think the game really comes into its own.

And these moments happen in certain specific scenarios: when the players are deciding on a strategy, brainstorming plans, trying to solve a problem or puzzle, and (to a certain extent) interacting with an NPC. Those moments when the players are sitting around heatedly debating what to do next, and everyone is really involved in the process, offering opinions and counter-opinions and bickering, and you can just imagine their characters sitting around doing exactly the same thing in the game, are probably my favourite moments as a GM. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, really, it's what role playing's USP is.

But this arises at least in part through precisely the kind of restrictions talked about above. If you have a trap with concrete, specific details, the players are forced into doing precisely the kind of immersive problem-solving process I'm talking about. If you, however, have a system in which a player can just roll dice and posit a solution based on succeeding ("I've dealt with Sand Mutants before, they always use the same snares"), you lose the opportunity for that.

Which isn't to say that I don't like games like Apocalypse World or Blood & Honor, which don't restrict players with the setting the way that Old School D&D does. The setting-creation-through-play-by-ceding-narrative-rights-to-the-player thing they do is something I really enjoy. But at the same time they're missing something in limiting the opportunities for immersive brainstorming/strategising/problem-solving/arguing on the part of the players.

In any case, the discussion continues here and here. Food for thought, if nothing else.


  1. I agree. In fact I prefer character knowledge to match player knowledge as much as possible. My players' characters are usually strangers to the setting, so that they can learn about it as their characters do. If sand mutants always use the same snares, it's because the player has noticed that and can plan accordingly, not because the DM told them, or the player pulled it out of their arse - where's the fun in that?

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  3. Agreed. Also, I can't take anyone who says "fr'ex" seriously; you've got some mocha in your goatee, mate.

  4. John: I do think there's fun of a different sort when the players can pull things out of their arse - it makes things unpredictable and interesting for both them and the GM. I just don't think it's immersive.

    Kelvin: I know, it does my head in. Do they actually say it in conversation, do you think?

  5. I agree, but the enjoyment of debating what to do next as a kind of immersion may be an OSR thing. The guys who played with Michael Mornard, an original player from Arneson and Gygax's groups, said that he would throw a random encounter at you whenever you stopped to discuss what next (see that story-games thread). Here the assumption that what the players are doing, the characters are also doing leads to a different kind of immersion - you are acting at the table as if you are surrounded by hostiles and have to speak only in whispers and make quick decisions under pressure, lest another kobold arrow come out of the darkness.
    - Tavis

  6. I agree, and I've been mornarded so many times. It's always when someone is falling off a cliff on fire that they stop to open a debate on what they should do about it. An old favourite DM of mine would regularly say "well, you've been bickering outside the wizard's door for so long that he's come out to see what the commotion is."

    I dislike fr'ex b/c it's long-winded: just write eg. But then I also say cf (never qv) and nb, which might annoy some folks.

    I've run diceless descriptive combat before, which is like verbal fencing with the implicit rule that your counters and parries have to be more outrageous than the attacks. The arse-pulling convention intrigues me, but seems incompatible with gamist goals, except in 1e Mage, which represents perhaps the biggest single innovation of my personal gaming experience, where magical prowess really consisted of skillfully bullshitting the DM.

  7. Tavis: I do that from time to time, sure. I've thought about using an egg timer or something with the explicit premise that I turn it over when the discussion starts and when the sand runs out "something bad happens".

    Richard: Isn't Amber Diceless sort of like that? With the fighting I mean.

  8. noisms: I think it's possible for players to pull things out of their arse without breaking the immersion, if they're only making stuff up about themselves. Like if the players are faced with crossing a river, and the elf player declares that elves are naturally buoyant and can be used as flotation devices, to me that kind of arse-pull is distinct from, say, declaring that some friendly riverboat gypsies ferry them across. The former adds detail to the world, while the latter mucks about with its sense of reality and "empiricism", for lack of a better word. I'm not sure I explained that very well.

  9. just as i appreciate Jeff Rients reading Wraethu so I don't have to and I appreciate James Grognard reading Snake of the Mountain Fortress Place so I don't have to, I appreciate you reading story-games so I don't have to.

  10. I don't know that I agree. I don't completely disagree but there are other ways to look at this.

    I don't feel particularly invested in my character when the only way way out of a trap is to determine what you (the GM) think he should do. That can be done by any character. It's not immersive per se.

    Brainstorming plans, strategy, etc. is all very reactionary. You as GM create a problem and I have to solve it, from a trap to an invading army to defeating some monster.

    If I were to be able to overcome an obstacle my way, whatever way that is, I would feel far more immersed then if I had to come up with a way to fight and defeat an opponent because, you know, I have to. That's the way out of this mess. That's the way the game is played. Not my way. The GM's way.

    I was talking to a friend recently about investigating things in the InSpectres RPG. In that game, it is the players who comes up with the clues they find and it's up to the GM to splice them altogether into a sensible mystery. Now that's a challenge for both sides of the screen.*

    *Figure of speech. Never use a screen.

  11. @barking

    I will say what noisms has said many times before
    (and which I agree with) on this subject since he's probably asleep or at work.

    Problem solving in this paradigm is not coming up with the _one_ answer the GM finds acceptable (in fact noisms has already written a post about how lame and pixelbitchy that idea is). It is coming up with a solution the GM may not have even thought of that also happens to fall within the parameters the GM has set down.

    The word "immersion" here can mean "immersed in making the story interesting" (a story-gamey meaning) or "immersed in thinking like your PC would have to in that situation" (noisms meaning here).

  12. @Zak - OK, I get where you're coming from. Still, I've never found that part of the game to be particularly more or less immersive then interacting with NPCs, learning the local culture or having your PC's personal background elements come into play.

    It could just be my rather improv heavy group and our preferences. As you noted once a while back, my games require a bit more buy in then most.

  13. @barking

    yeah. i mean, if I'm learning the local culture as opposed to trying to negotiate the tripwire-crystal-alligator trap then I'm equally immersed.

    The only downside is: now I'm learning the local culture, as opposed to negotiating a tripwire-crystal-alligator trap.

    Your mileage may vary.

  14. Barking Alien: Basically, what Zak said.

    Although I will add this: interacting with NPCs and learning about the local culture is sort of the same thing as what I'm talking about - you're still "doing what your character is doing" in some sense.

    I'd also add that I think "learning the local culture" type games are interesting and enjoyable, but I think I'm in the minority - so I usually put that on a back burner and lean more towards tripwire-crystal-alligator traps.

  15. @Noisms - As Zak said, your mileage may vary.

    I don't not have the tripwire-crystal-alligator traps in my games. I simply have them in addition to negotiating, making friends, making enemies, falling in love, falling in hate, tasting the local cuisine, etc.

    For me and my players, the trap by itself is interesting and exciting while we're in it or trying to escape it. The other stuff immerses them the rest of the time. I can't drop a trap every 5 seconds, though I'm sure some do.