Limits of Immersion

At RopeCon, I saw plenty of GMs who dressed the part. They had pseudo-medieval outfits. Of course, this is partly cosplay, not necessarily having anything to do with the GMing itself, but some apparently do it to be (or seem) better GMs.

I think that’s too much. I have an imagination and I have a sense of humor (no matter how sick and twisted these may be). When someone in a cloak tries to be serious and is explaining my experiences within the game in a deep, foreboding voice (or their best imitation of one), I think that’s pretty funny and thus distracting. On the other hand, if someone in a sarcastic t-shirt explains the same thing in a normal voice, my imagination kicks in.

Of course, I’m just one instance and everything I say is anecdotal and shouldn’t be used as a basis for anything bigger. On the other hand, despite all evidence pointing otherwise, I’m still human and I thus have a human brain, which triggers in much the same way everyone elses does.

That’s not to say the GM shouldn’t try to create immersion, but he or she should also understand the limits.

Should one use music? Preferably, yes (not in cons, but otherwise). Many people just do this completely wrong. Their music choices are often just too good in the sense that they are good music, but not in the sense that they fit the situation. The problem is, when you hear a song you know and like, its – again – distracting. You need music that isn’t designed to catch your attention. Movie scores are always a good option as they are designed to heighten the mood, but stay just outside your consciousness, and quite a few GMs are using this pretty obvious tool. However, I still see GMs using popular music. Just don’t do it. It pulls the attention away from the game, whereas a good score or, say, Godspeed You! Black Empereor and Sunn O))) will push you into the mood.

What about props and miniatures? Props, yes. Miniatures… maybe.

I’ve done props in the past. Usually for the heck of it. And I’m not talking about anything complex here. Just making paper look old and simple stuff like that. When I hand it over, what’s the first question in the players’ mind? Not what is, but how I made it. Obviously, this strokes my ego in all the right ways, but that’s not the point.

Miniatures can be a good thing, but often not. Think about it this way. You are in the middle of a scene and things go awry. Everyone pulls their gun. Now, why would you break the tension of the moment to get out the map and the miniatures? If we’re playing a tactical game, this might actually be important to getting into the moment, but in a more narrative game, this just isn’t what you want. You don’t want to interrupt the flow.

Finally, the system. Yes, were talking about those again.

I don’t know how many of you remember the bad old days of THAC0. If you don’t know what that is, its the old D&D way of telling you how well you are able to hit your opponents. It stands for To Hit Armor Class 0. The idea was that because AC started from 10 and went down, you’d just subtract the AC from your THAC0 and you’d know how much you need to roll to hit.

The thing is, this is quite counter-intuitive. Although mathematically the current system isn’t much easier, its much easier to grasp. Adding is just that much more natural to us than subtracting, especially subtracting negative numbers. Even with this small difference, immersion is again easily broken.

Anytime you need to look something up, its distracting. Simpler is better. However, this has degrees as well. When I’m looking at the list of stuff I can do in AW after having succeeded in a roll, I’m still in the moment as I’m thinking about where I want this to go. Whereas if someone else is doing the same, I lose focus.

In the end, its all about the complexities of the human brain. Its a wonderful thing, but it can also be easily manipulated in ways we don’t really understand. Breaking immersion is regrettably easy (although, in the bigger picture probably a good attribute) and we keep doing things to distract each other without even understanding it. Our hunter-gatherer brains will focus on things like movement and faces, because that’s how we survived way back when. Much of that stuff is still in there, because not enough generations have passed for us to lose those qualities. I’m not sure we ever will.

2 thoughts on “Limits of Immersion

  1. I usually weigh these with usefulness vs. the amount of work. I suck at making a playlist, so for me It takes too much time to make a playlist compared to what you get out of it. I might, however, use quite a bit of time to search for a good character portrait in the web, because visual aids make it so much easier to follow a large cast. I might act out a character’s behaviour and mannerisms for everyone’s amusement, if I get the inspiration right then and there – I never plan nor rehearse these.

    This is just my take as a GM, of course. I still fondly remember a Vampire campaign I played in Ireland. The local GM went for the storytelling with all the bells and whistles and it was really entertaining. Personally I’d never do that, but it was wonderful to be in the audience.

    I also used to think that “never break the flow”. I’m not so sure anymore. When the fictional situation is really tense, it’s sometimes good to take a step back and visualise it. This gives everyone time to think it through and not push forward with gut feeling. Especially in games where players strongly feel for their characters it’s good to remind oneself that this is not about my reaction to this situation, but my character’s. Or if there are new players in the team who aren’t yet in sync with everyone else, a little pause for thinking seems to be a good call. It’s like reinforcing the concentration by breaking the immersion.

  2. I’m all for breaking the flow every once in a while. I think its important because being in the head of your character or characters constantly for hours is exhausting. This might even be appropriate for some games, but generally I’d like everyone to be performing well until the end. Otherwise the ending might fall flat.

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