Immersion in role-playing games takes many forms. For the game master, immersion might occur most during the process of crafting worlds, adventures, or encounters. Or, it might occur in a play session, when the players bring it all to life (or dash it all by racing off to explore some yet-to-be-described portion of the map!) For players it can be anything from the game mechanics of character generation or combat, the establishment of a business for their character, a re-enactment of a favorite character from a novel, to an exploration of their own heroic leadership capabilities in the (relatively) safe environs around the gaming table.
As a GM, I tend to get immersed in world building. While I pilfer whole-heartedly from any and all published materials at hand, I call it all my own (and try mightily to make it nigh impossible to determine the source.) When I’m running the game, sessions zip past and are over quickly enough that I wring my hands in anguish that I’ve provided enough entertainment for my players. For the most part I needn’t be worried. My experiences as a player are enough to put my mind at ease.
Players aren’t typically worried about the GM’s agenda, or the “big picture”. When I’m playing I could be immersed in the process of making my character more effective through character generation, or by acquiring specific equipment or training. Or maybe I’m immersed in the action of the moment, looking for an opportunity to display a quirk or talent to the rest of the party. I might be frantically seeking ways to survive an encounter. Or banishing a particularly traitorous set of dice to the bottom of my backpack, with promises that their fate awaits them at home, ground to powder in the grip of the vise clamped to the workbench.
And that’s all just me. Others, both GMs and players, have their own points of immersion. Lately, I’ve had a lot of fun observing what those are, and making mental notes about what involves certain players, and what I can do as a GM to feed that involvement and immersion.
In my home game, we’re using a hybrid rule set that draws from various sources. It has some 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons under the hood. I’m immersed in the process of writing, editing and evolving the rules, as well as in the creation of the campaign setting. My patient players have immersed themselves enough in the game that they’ve played through several iterations of rules with the same characters. A few of them even enjoy the evolving-rules process! The bottom line is that they come back each month to play. Between us, we are creating enough immersion that people want to continue.
I also run weekly 4e D&D Encounters sessions at CardKingdom, one of my friendly local game stores. This has given me some tremendous insights into what hooks players. The people at my Encounters table are new to me, and I’m new to them. We don’t have a history of inside jokes and gaming stories to share. What we have in common is the game. Some of them are brilliantly proficient with 4e rules. Others are completely new to RPGs. We have a limited two-hour session. We have a pre-defined story, unfolding over something like 14 weeks. Most sessions have a little bit of role-playing, and at least one combat encounter.
Some nights the table includes an RPG veteran or two. The type that wants to go off the beaten track to solve a problem. Their choices and actions could easily derail the fairly linear adventures I’m tasked with presenting. I’ve got to juggle the consequences of their choices, and find ways to steer the resulting action in the general direction the writer of the session intended. But I’ve got to let them choose. That’s what keeps them immersed. The combat hound rattling dice impatiently in the corner needs feeding too. I know I’ll be able to feed that need. But what about the role-player? The person who wants to chat up the non-player characters over a pint of frothy and some rat-on-a-stick?
There’s room for them too. One technique I’ve used is to name the opponents in a combat encounter (where applicable.) Throw some dialog into the battle. A tiefling band whose guard drakes are beloved pets that they’ve named? They’re furious when the PCs have the gall to kill the drakes! (Of course, it doesn’t take much to raise the infernal ire of a tiefling.)
I’d love to hear what other GMs and players find immersive about their favorite RPGs. Share ‘em here, if you’re so inclined!