Thursday, October 13, 2011


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!


  1. Hi Keith, great article!

    Until recently I've participated in primarily 2-4 hour sessions. But I just joined a group of Dark Heresy players who play EIGHT HOURS at a time. I was worried I might get burned out, but the opposite was true. I've never had the opportunity to really set in to a role and a game. Dark Heresy is definitely a game that encourages RP and in particular, information gathering and clever solutions to problems that avoid combat, as it tends to be rather deadly and gruesome. So this opportunity to really dig in to the story and to my character was extremely rewarding.

  2. Hey J! Thanks for commenting. Back in the day (playing 1st Ed D&D) we had marathon sessions like that. Epic fun. Nowadays it's hard to find blocks of time larger than four hours. However, I have joined an Eberron group that has a reputation for longer sessions. As you pointed out, it really gives you a chance to inhabit your character thoroughly.

  3. I think for me, I find what I would call moral motivation a great way to get into a character. By moral, I'm not implying "good" per se. I mean more a greater purpose. Getting money doesn't do it for me. That may work for some, but I'd rather not be Han Solo with 4 other Han Solos sitting next to me.

    For instance, in my WoD Geist game, our particular group act as facilitators in helping the dead pass on, and keeping the "system" and underworld from getting gummed up (people dying and leaving ghosts anchored behind because of unresolved issues). We are all on the same page, more or less, but of course some may have different methods. Some may try the nice way, others may burn the house down to get rid of the anchor. But the larger goal answers the "what's my motivation" question. And it also answers the question of why my character is at that time and place with those people.


  4. Hey Patrick! Thanks for sharing what immerses you. I'm glad you've found a group and a set of rules that lets you explore that. The "what's my motivation" question makes me think of method acting. I know more than a few players for whom that is one of the core questions. So, as a GM, I feel like it's my job to help the player find an answer. I'd be curious if your GM operates the same way, or is it totally on you players to work it out?

  5. I think it's a combination, but the GM has to be flexible with subplots. Larping (my Geist game)is a bit of a different animal because their tend to be more players, and sometimes you have to make your own way and develop your own subplots.

    In my Hero system game I just started, the GM makes sure to have copies of everyone's sheets and know their background so he can seed stories with it. For instance, last week one character's little sister ended up missing. This is kind of an x-men world with mutants who are feared/discriminated against.

    We all work for The Institute where she disappeared from (my character is a graduate). Even though she's not my sister, she's "one of my own" so to speak. If you can connect your character with an emotion ("one of us in danger dammit!"), you can better immerse yourself in their personality and connect with them.

    I should add I am a terrible method actor. But I try (and I get to see much better ones to learn from).


  6. For me, there are several elements that contribute to immersion.

    1. Subplots involving individual character motivation. In the games I regularly play (World of Darkness – Geist, Mage, and soon to add Lost), the subplots give me the opportunity to flesh out my characters and her motivations. It makes them seem real to me. I’ve been very fortunate to have STs (GM/DM equivalents) who have encouraged that activity with all our players and they are more than willing to incorporate those subplots into actual overarching main plots. I also have fellow players who are willing to participate because they have their own subplots going on. It’s a give and take. Now, this is a LARP so we are not tied to a table, but a lot of the work occurs in other parts of the building, on email or during downtime. And, even though I know what she’s going to do, I don’t necessarily know how the other players will react or what the ST will do in reaction.

    Case in point. My Geist character committed suicide last week in the Underworld by having her drug dealer ghost boyfriend stab her to death (long story.) I developed that subplot over months with the support/guidance of my ST. It happened on the sides without having to dominate the main plot, but it slowly built and I incorporated it into my character’s erratic behavior when we were “on stage.” People didn't know what I was up to, but rumours were circulating. Finally, on the day of death, all kinds of things happened that I didn’t expect. That was real because people were acting like real people and reacting like real people. That’s just as random as dice-rolling, I think.

    2. The real possibility of death. If I may die, then that’s real. It’s great to have gnarly powers, but if you can regenerate, then that really takes the risk out of the game. It may be a shock to die, but then you just roll a new character and go with it. Sometimes having too many powers takes away from the game. I’d rather figure things out. The more vulnerable the better. At a board games night, we played Mansions of Madness based on Lovecraftian themes. The Keeper made one of the players go mad and crush my character’s skull with a fire extinguisher! And my character was a nun…..HARSH! But I just got another character and started all over.

    3. The world should seem real and dangerous. But if nothing happens and nothing threatens me, then it’s just a pretty gothic picture. ST/DM/GMs should have their own unique visions, but I want to share in them as a player.

    4. Interparty interaction. I don’t think everyone needs to be plotting to kill each other, but to have no allies, betrayals, give and take, etc. is illogical to me. It’s then not role-playing, but miniature-moving. But I believe that takes a certain camaraderie within the group of players and individual self-confidence not to take things personally. That means a minimum amount of effort at relationship-building outside the game to offset action in-game.

    JMHO. Anna

  7. Cool examples of immersive elements you guys. Thanks for sharing. It's clear that you guys react to the emotional hooks in a game (as a key ingredient among many). This is something that's pretty often overlooked in more traditional RPGs. However, since the elements you've cited are so strongly social, rather than game-mechanical, they can be incorporated into any game, provided players and GMs invest in them.

    Giving characters something to love or hate (either via background or through the course of gameplay) provides hooks for everyone to play with.