On the Immersive Lie

CyLoo*** CybeleEloy
Immersion isn't really a thing.

In fact, it is kind of a lie.

First, there is the problem of definition. Gamers use it to mean different things. Two people using the same words with different meanings causes inevitable confusion.

Second, there is the problem of culture. Different gaming groups place different values on immersion. To some it is a goal, to others it is not.

Third, there is the problem that it generally describes a personal state, a subjective one, not an objective one, meaning that the process for achieving it is a highly personal one.

Personally, I suggest you play with people who are your friends.

That's not what I'm actually talking about today, I'm going to talk about Immersion in Social Interaction.


Immersion in Social Interaction

If we add mechanical resolution to social mechanics, does it reduce immersion? 

If you are rolling or mechanically resolving things, does this cause you to be removed from the experience of play? After all, if you stop to roll dice, don't you feel like you're pulled out of the conversation?  It's best if you're handling social conflicts freeform with the Dungeon Master taking your social statistics into account, correct?

There is a slight disconnect here that is pretty subtle. It is certainly true that the experience of having to stop talking and resolve actions does require some adjustment. However, when engaging with the world in order to resolve conflict, what is actually occurring is the exact opposite of the stated desire to immerse yourself in a fantasy world. 

Some of the following seems obvious. The conclusion is not.

  • If you the player, want the goblin to open the door, then you talk as your character to convince the goblin to open the door. 
  • The Dungeon Master takes the role of the goblin. 
  • Then you, as the player, seek a convincing, in-game reason that the goblin might want to meet your request (threat, bribe, manipulation). 
  • Then the Dungeon Master either A) by fiat decides that the goblin is convinced or B) By fiat adds a modifier based on your argument to the roll that he uses to determine if the goblin meets your request.
But wasn't this an immersive scene? 

Only if you wanted to be immersed in the player persuading the Dungeon Master, not the character persuading the goblin. 

It appears as if they are actors talking to each other, but the reality is whether the result is effective is either based on A) personal social ability or B) personal social ability modifying character skill


A Social Problem?

The above is fine. I do not find it particularly immersive. I believe I have a better solution coming soon.

I use a lot of negotiated actions in my game, so I'm not opposed to players and the Dungeon Master reaching an agreement on the fictional positioning or outcome of events. I do believe it's pretty inaccurate to describe that interface as immersive, even if we negotiate those actions while talking in-character.

There are many. . . unintentional misunderstandings of things I say. 

Last week, I talked about how stopping play to force someone to describe the action of the game was disruptive to play. Some people noted that for them, the game was in the description! Of course it is! However, the game is not in shutting everything down while someone is put on the spot - if you're going to have a game focused on fictional descriptions, then you should work towards minimizing all the times that isn't happening because nothing is happening while waiting for people to jump through subjective hoops. 

Similarly to this week, this isn't an injunction against negotiated social encounters based on character skill or personal social skill. I have played and run many games that use exactly that system. But to portray them as something else then they are is dishonest and worse, counterproductive and not useful from a design standpoint. 

Also, it is possible to have actually broken or bad design. Pointing out the objective characteristics of that design is not one-right-waysim. It is a discussion about what the nature of something is, drawbacks and advantages to it, and how to improve upon it. 

This is best portrayed by extreme examples: A magic card costing one colorless that does 12 damage to any creature or player that is uncounterable. A first level fighter with a +12 sword. Teleporting your second level group from their beds in town into a sealed chamber with 2 ancient red dragons. 

These are design decisions that are not used for clear objective reasons. Can you make them work? Possibly. But you'd begin by immediately altering the design. 

28 comments:

  1. "Last week, I talked about how stopping play to force someone to describe the action of the game was disruptive to play. Some people noted that for them, the game was in the description! Of course it is! However, the game is not in shutting everything down while someone is put on the spot - if you're going to have a game focused on fictional descriptions, then you should work towards minimizing all the times that isn't happening because nothing is happening while waiting for people to jump through subjective hoops. "

    I don't think I understand this section here. Do you think you could expand on it?

    An example from my "fiction-first" game the other night:

    DM states NPC's action: "She climbs on the unconscious dragonborn and digs her thumbs into his eye sockets. He'll be blinded if she hits."
    Player states PC's action: "Crap. I'll knock her off with my chains."
    Add up modifiers: "You give the dragonborn a +2 to his AC, but he's unconscious so it's a base AC of 5 for a total of AC 7. She's using her attack roll which is +4, +2 situational modifier for being on top of him."
    "I have +9 with the chains and +2 for my infernal heritage."
    "Add another +2 as a situational modifier because she's sitting there not focused on you."
    Roll, both succeed.
    Resolve actions: "She digs her thumbs into his eyes but you knock him off before he's maimed, since you opposed her action. He takes 6 damage, you deal 4 + whatever your mods are to her. I think that knocks her out."

    My feeling is that when we're adding up modifiers and such we're not playing the game. We're not describing anything, we're translating the previous descriptions to numbers. I'm not sure how to deal with that. I guess I could leave them out, but if I do, the action taken loses weight - there's less player skill involved.

    I think subjective judgement calls like those above are a feature, but I'm not 100% behind that idea.

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    1. That comment was about this post here.

      I would say these things.

      I believe games are collections of interesting choices. I would say that you are playing because you are adding up the result of a choice. That seems like part of play.

      I personally prefer less modifier heavy games.

      I would say that if you're dealing with modifiers, that's not player skill, that's character skill. Player skill would be gathering information and making choices. The above seems like a test of character skill.

      I think judgement calls are fine - in fact, a strength of role playing games in general. But it helps if you have good judgement.

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    2. Thanks for the reply!

      "I believe games are collections of interesting choices. I would say that you are playing because you are adding up the result of a choice. That seems like part of play."

      I'm not sure what you mean here. I have some ideas, but I'm sure there's some bias - I think I'm probably reading things into what you've said. Could you expand on that?

      "I would say that if you're dealing with modifiers, that's not player skill, that's character skill. Player skill would be gathering information and making choices. The above seems like a test of character skill."

      I'm not sure: the player needs to make decisions that grant modifiers. Modifiers come from the choices the players make instead of from the character. (For the most part.)

      To expand: the player is supposed to angle for modifiers. The player must take into account the fiction/game world (and thus "immersing" themselves in the game world - by that I mean picturing what's going on) in order to gain modifiers. Those modifiers help the PC succeed in whatever they're trying to do, and usually results in XP, so there's a clear reward cycle.

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    3. I would say, that if you make a choice calculating the result of that choice follows under play. Whether that is counting up coins in Small World, or adding modifiers. So when that's happening you are 'playing the game' because it's not just the choice that's interesting, it's also the result. I should note that this process can often be exciting. This is my gut feeling, I have not thought on this at length.

      I am actually much less concerned about 'what is a game' then my writing would tend to indicate. If you focus on the "You are sitting in a room with friends" part is more akin to the reality of play. My concern with "What is the game" is both what is annoying to other people that is enjoyable to the player and what can be eliminated because it is a waste of time.

      Second, in your list of modifiers, little to no player choice was involved during play (Granted there was some choice during the build of the character, but I talk about that problem here.)

      Protect another: Standard action
      Attack Roll: Character level
      High Ground: Situational Modifier
      Weapon Bonus: Character Build bonus
      Infernal Heritage: Character Build bonus
      Flank attack: Situational Modifier

      All of the above are rules, based on character builds or combat rule structures. I'm building the character for the bonus, and I'm mastering the abstract table rules for maximizing my advantage.

      Is it a choice if there is one answer that is always best?

      I.e. Can she somehow not get the bonus for high ground to gouge out eyes? Can he somehow not get the bonus for blindsiding her?

      Is there any case where it would be to his advantage to somehow get her to focus on him, instead of attacking her without her beingaware of the attack?

      If there is one best choice, then it really isn't player skill, character skill, or any kind of skill at all, besides perhaps rules mastery. It is just something you have to remember to play by the rules of the game. If there is only one best option, it's not a real choice.

      Ignoring the use of the word 'immersion' (which remains totally undefined), it is true that the characters have to consider the fictional positioning to account for modifiers, but as described above, If you total up all the modifiers from the "build" (+11) and all the modifiers from the game rules (+2), the only choice comes in during the standard action of aiding another, which simply improves an armor class by 10%.

      I am not certain you have experienced it against what I am comparing it to. Which is a section of play which has very very few modifiers (basically in few cases one modifier, entirely based off fictional positioning), high risk/reward to the players, and is reliant solely on their ability to ask questions and make choices.



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    4. Again, thanks for the reply. I am going to take some time to think about this; I think you've made some good points.

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  2. I totally agree that adding a mechanic for conversation is the way to go. I have players who are simply uncomfortable with "immersive" conversation, so it would help to give them a mechanic so that they have a better idea of how successful or unsuccessful their attempt will be before they are forced to make themselves uncomfortable. Heck, I am a veteran of improv theater, and *I* find making up conversation and characters pretty uncomfortable sometimes. Looking forward to your ruleset.

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    1. +1

      Figured I'd go for a clean sweep here.

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  3. But wasn't this an immersive scene? Only if you wanted to be immersed in the player persuading the Dungeon Master, not the character persuading the goblin. It appears as if they are actors talking to each other, but the reality is whether the result is effective is either based on A) personal social ability or B) personal social ability modifying character skill.
    Why must that be the case?

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    1. I would think it's truistic.

      If the human being who is the dungeon master is playing an NPC, and nothing occurs but the player talking to the dungeon master, then ultimately the only thing that occurs is that the player convinced the dungeon master.

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    2. That's not the same statement. If, as you say, the player seeks to find a convincing in-game reason that the goblin might want to meet their request, and the DM then adjudicates their success, it doesn't then follow that the adjudication was in any way based on the player's personal social ability. Technically, he above resolution doesn't even have to involve any in-character conversation whatsoever. The DM just has to decide whether the stated reasons would be sufficient or likely to convince the goblin.

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    3. I would think that's a truistic description of the player convincing the Dungeon Master.

      " If, as you say, the player seeks to find a convincing in-game reason that the goblin might want to meet their request, and the DM then adjudicates their success"

      However, re-reading your original statement, I see that the question is more about 'is this personal social ability', rather than 'is this one player just convincing another'.

      My experience is that personal social ability includes the ability to structure arguments as well as present them, so I consider them the same.

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    4. Once the player has stated what pressure they're bringing on the goblin, they're not then required to "convince" the DM or argue their case. The DM listens to the player's stated approach, evaluates its effectiveness, and pronounces judgement. It's exactly the same method used to cross a chasm or bypass a trap or any other puzzle. There's no more social ability involved at minimum.

      If the player disagrees with the DM's initial judgement - and obviously a good DM should be very open to persuasion, ask questions rather than just making flat decisions, etc - then social skill may come into play in the player's ability to form a cogent argument, but again, that's exactly the same as the procedure for every other problem.

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    5. Basically, I don't understand why you're singling out NPC interaction for special attention.

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    6. The difference is, and this is subtle, is that in the second one with the chasm, trap, or puzzle, you are dealing with physical law. Usually there can be some sort of baseline for this - after discussion understanding can be had. In the first it is about the mental state of another imaginary creature.

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    7. That means the DM's decision is more arbitrary, but I don't see that it has to involve more interpersonal skill.

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    8. More? The only factors in the decision are 'whatever the DM thinks' and 'what the player can say to change his mind', unless I am missing something.

      That seems like the definition of 'personal social skill'. The other extreme is just using character skill (Bluff vs. Sense Motive).

      I'm interested in "Player skill". That is presenting several designed options, which information can be gathered about, and then an informed choice can be made by the player.

      Note that this is the procedure for actual play - The DM describes a scene, the players gather information by asking questions, and then they take action (Rather than the players stating something outright and it being evaluated and judged by the DM).

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    9. You're confusing me. I've obviously missed some important point or assumption.

      For me there simply isn't any difference between your description of player skill, and what in my experience happens when players interact with NPCs. In both cases the players explore their options, then make a decision based on what they've found out, which the DM adjudicates. The properties of the obstacle are set arbitrarily by the DM beforehand. With a chasm, they're simple and obvious. With a trap, they might need to be discovered through physical exploration. With an NPC, they usually need to be discovered through dialogue, or from other NPCs or clues. The main skills needed are observation and induction. The only really significant difference that I can see is that a person is much more complicated than a chasm, so the DM has to be more arbitrary in deciding how they act and how to portray their character. That makes the NPC a more difficult and less "fair" puzzle, but it doesn't require more interpersonal skill on the part of the player, so long as the DM is judging them on the strength of their ideas rather than how eloquently they present them.

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    10. I think there might be some difficulty in communication, because we may be using the same words to mean different things.

      You are saying that NPC's are designed by the DM, explicitly like a room or a trap? And that these design elements are given to the players, explicitly? And then the players can then investigate these choices and make a decision? Because if so, then we are talking about the same thing.

      If, on the other hand, the DM presents the NPC, and forces the players to 'pixel bitch' (i.e. guess the right thing to say in coversation in order to uncover information), or doesn't design the NPC beyond "The goblin here doesn't want to let them through the gate", or no information is given about possible consequences of choices, then we are not talking about the same things. Note the list in this paragraph isn't exhaustive.

      I want to note the word 'explicitly'. It is very difficult to describe the totality of any situation using a few quick sentences, or even an 'acting' depiction of an NPC. Since the action takes place entirely in everyone's imagination, differences frequently flare up. Explicitness is the defense against that.

      To be clear, the DM is designing and presenting explicit options before hand, and then allowing the players to gather information about them, and then informing the players of likely consequences of their actions?

      Your reply of the main skills needed being "Observation and Induction" lead me to believe that this is not the case.

      If you are curious of what I am describing, you are welcome to follow +Numenhalla on G+ and join me any Saturday morning for a posted game.

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    11. Could you give an example of what a designed encounter with the same goblin would look like in the DM's notes (or head, if he's lazy to put it down)? What key differences would there be compared to "goblin guard (stats), doesn't want to let the party through the gate"?

      I am not hundred percent sure that I understand everything you say so an example would prove useful, I believe.

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    12. Well, as noted in the post, I'm writing a whole book about it.

      Watch this space to find out when it's published. You can subscribe to a notification and bonus newsletter here to be e-mailed when it's released (and likely get a discount.)

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    13. I remember you saying something about its release date but I cannot remember what it was...

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  4. I'm a bit confused. To reference your "Wasn't this an immersive scene", er, scene that you outline you state that is is only a player persuading a DM and not a character persuading a goblin. This is difficult to argue against because it is objectively true (you are not your character, we are not in a dungeon, and (hopefully) the DM is not a goblin). That said, it is also somewhat misleading. First, the GM does not have to give fiat-based modifiers in systems that require rolling to resolve social encounters. I don't have to grant a +2 to a roll because the player actually told me what his character says. If the PC has a high bluff skill then they are interacting with the game elements by creating the situation "I want this PC to be good at bluffing."

    Assuming that you don't like games with rules for social combat though (I personally don't like such) - then it still does not mean that the situation is strictly - Player vs. DM - as hopefully (again, I'm presuming a well-run game in a non-adversarial group) the DM is actually not thinking like the DM. The DM is considering not if he would be persuaded (why would he be? It doesn't matter to him one bit if a fictional door gets opened or not.) but rather, viewing the scene entirely through the lens of the goblin in question, based on the goblin's established game stats.

    I frequently run diceless games (Amber DRPG mostly) where the entire action of the game is wrapped up in what you would term "fiat" but which we view as an ongoing fictional negotiation filtered through rules that allow for comparison of abilities to determine the most likely outcome. And in about 15 years of running Amber games I've never encountered a situation where we ground the game to a halt to "figure out the rules."

    You don't have to like playing that way... I know plenty of people who don't, and that's fine. But I find your basic premise to be a little confusing... I'm not sure who or what it's really directed at... and the part about portraying a game as immersive being dishonest is more than a little odd. I read this and was left wondering who you were mad at... that's just how it came across to me.

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    1. I am not mad.

      I am tangentially familiar with Amber, but iirc correctly it is via paradigm control that the game is played.

      I would assume the discussion in Amber is a conflict about paradigm control. In that case, you might not need to convince a Dungeon Master, because it is fairly explicit that your rank in psyche or endurance is higher than another.

      I totally agree with your point that the DM should not be thinking like the DM. I think there is a secondary level where one person convinces another - it's just now the convincing is about fictional positioning, instead of reason.

      "And in about 15 years of running Amber games I've never encountered a situation where we ground the game to a halt to "figure out the rules."

      Well, I would hope not. The post was explicitly about the injunction in Apocolypse world that the MC refuse to let play advance until the player phrased his action in a manner that was acceptable to the MC.

      The basic premise is that if you read decades of discussion on social mechanics, one of the first responses is that people don't like them because they aren't immersive. As the article above says, "Immersion" is poorly defined and completely subjective. The most frequent example is the 'conversation free of mechanics' between a player and a Dungeon Master. That example seems like the worst one to pick to my eyes, being that the only thing that is occurring during the conversation is argumentation between two people in a room.

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  5. I think what you're going for with all of this is to show that rolling the dice as a resolution mechanic isn't any less "immersive" than talking to the GM in character. I'm a little bit confused about that point though, because you start off by talking about how immersion isn't a thing or is "a lie." To me, this confuses the issue, because while immersion is certainly difficult to define, and different people experience it in different amounts, I think that it's still important to the game.

    I may not personally immerse as much as the next person, but if a rule leads to an irrational consequence, it bothers me in a way that I consider "breaking my immersion" in the game.

    I understand (or at least, I think I do) your arguments that player skill and character skill should be kept strictly separate, and that you can't adjudicate results objectively for the player without some mechanic that is necessarily going to "break immersion" for that crowd of people who find rolling dice (or randomizing in some other way) distracting to their personal immersion in the game.

    On the other hand, I don't know that I'd go so far as you to say that Immersion is a lie and that listening to a player talk (in character) to the GM (also in character, as the goblin) is not an immersive thing for the players involved, or the other players at the table. I can imagine my scammy rogue friend trying to talk his way past the goblin at the door, and if that conversation between player and GM is interrupted too often, I think the actual immersion in the game suffers.

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    1. If immersion means a different thing to different people, because it lacks a measurable definition, then every time you use it as a word it communicates nothing beyond your personal experience.

      You say it yourself in your reply. ". . . you can't adjudicate results objectively for the player without some mechanic that is necessarily going to "break immersion" for that crowd of people who find rolling dice (or randomizing in some other way) distracting to their personal immersion in the game.. . .

      It's like taste, neither objectively wrong or right. Just intensely personal. Which means, for purposes of discussion, it isn't a thing. People who say "That isn't immersive" aren't speaking the truth - unless they are only talking about their personal experience.

      I don't know whether listening to the player talk to the Dungeon Master is immersive. It's personal for every person and essentially meaningless (i.e. "not a thing" or "a lie"). What I do know is in that conversation, the only thing you are watching is interpersonal manipulation between two people, equivalent to a discussion over who's going to make the phone call to order pizza.

      "I can imagine my scammy rogue friend trying to talk his way past the goblin at the door, and if that conversation between player and GM is interrupted too often, I think the actual immersion in the game suffers."

      Your subjective experience of it, at any rate.

      It's these kind of statements I'm referring to when I call it a lie, because the only definitions are personal ones. So an objective claim like "immersion in the game suffers." can't be true by definition.

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    2. Just because something is a matter of taste, doesn't mean you can't have any objective conversation about it. When it comes to "immersion" at the table, it's too important to the game, and too universal, to call it "nothing."

      Colors are subjective, since everyone experiences them differently. Still, we have a color red, and we talk about red pretty objectively. When we get to the edges, some people might start calling it brown, or pink - but in the end there's still a large area we ought to be able to talk about in common.

      I think we ought to be able to say things like, "a race to solve a rubix-cube to resolve the consequences in an action of a story game is likely to break immersion." Really, I think we should be able to say that a combination of time, effort, and un-relatedness all threaten to break immersion. The more of any of those things, the worse it can get.

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    3. I believe you are confused.

      Colors are an objective phenomena - they are defined by the wavelength of light (which is measurable). They are only subjective in the "Cognito, ergo sum" 'invisible demon' sense of the word that ALL existence is subjective based on our perception being internal stimuli.

      But red? Red is objective. It's light at a wavelength of about 650 nm. We measure those wavelengths and assign names to them. We understand about additive and subtractive light and how it generates color, and can measure and prove every statement made about it.

      It is true that every person has a different ability to see color. That is measurable also. Rods and cones can be counted.

      You can say whatever you want. But if you use an undefined term like immersion to say something about a rubik's cube, then sure as someone's personal definition of "I'm focused on the rubik's cube and it's representative of the puzzle in the game, so I'm immersed" means communication has failed.

      Perhaps you think time, effort, and un-relatedness break it for you. But that has little to do with the meaning being that immersion is a personal emotional state - often times triggered by the very things you say break it. And in that instances (two people saying the same word to mean different things) communication fails.

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