Sunday, April 26, 2015

Observation I: Immersion has nothing to do with rules (design notes for LSotN)

The day before yesterday had been the second time for me to test Lost Songs of the Nibelungs in actual play. As those things are bound to do, it showed me what worked, what was missing and what didn't work as I intended it to. Here is the first part of some random observations on what's missing, what needs to be changed and why. While it helps to have some idea what I've been writing about the last 5 months, the general ideas and insights should be interesting for all the games we play ...

The Brawl and the Tears

Since I had three new players at the table (two of them completely new to role playing games), I thought it interesting to start with the Pub Brawl to give them an impression of what I am trying to do with the game. After that I proposed a test run for combat with weapons (a skirmish, if you will) and some role playing to close the session. The tears had been mine, by the way. But let's start from the beginning.

The Pub Brawl worked as it should. As with all the previous players new to the game, they all thought it terribly difficult at the beginning, but realized how easy it actually was pretty fast and started to talk strategy immediately after that. One might think that seeing all the rolls and stats of the other players would hinder the immersive part of the game, but the opposite was true and that's interesting for several reasons.

What is immersion and where does it come from?

I know that there are opinions out there claiming that games with light rules are ideal for getting players immersed and I'm not saying they are wrong. Light rules systems allow some room for immersion in a game, but they (in my opinion, at least) are doing that mainly by staying out of the way. In other words, if the DM and the players don't take that opportunity and fill the blanks between the system with "fluff", the game will turn out to feel flat. Sure, a good DM can make such a game sing, it's just nothing the game brought to the table, it's something the game stays away from.

But that doesn't mean that rules-heavy games will have better results, as far as immersion goes. And the argument for this is basically the same as for the light rules systems, just for other reasons and heavily dependent on the type of crunch a game offers. I believe that with rules-heavy games the story emerges to a huge degree from the meta-gaming aspects of the game, because talking strategy at the table means screening a situation in-game and in detail, which in turn leads to immersion (or the feeling to experience something in the game more intensive).

So no, immersion is not the opposite of meta-gaming as many people would make one believe. Instead it's just another way to get there.

He looks immersed, doesn't he? "Gaming makes beautiful!",
Amiga Joker 07/92 [source]*
A DM not able to work this magic and without players willing to go those places will, again, reduce the game to something flat and soulless (as a side note, I believe the heavy reliance of board game mechanics in D&D 3e and 4e make them work well in the cases immersion isn't reached, just like a board game would, but that's neither here nor there ...).

And that's why the Pub Crawl worked. Thinking strategy (and talking about it) meant finding an understanding of what was happening in the fight and that resulted in a narrative that explained how it played out. The process of talking about how it came to pass drops into the background really quick and what's left is people talking afterwards about how that punch k.o.-ed a player or how a move resulted in an awesome action, stuff like that. The kind of immersion you'd want to have in a game.

Happy tears first, but ...

There's maybe more to say about immersion in role playing games. But this is not the post to do so. The Pub Brawl brought the players into the right mood and worked well with the newbies. It made me happy. The melee test-run after that not so much, as it turns out that just adding options to the Pub Brawl wouldn't work as I wanted it to (at least the options I chose seemed to break the game and make it weep ...). But those observations are for another day.

* I had this poster hanging in my room for years back in the 90s and when I started thinking about immersion for this post, it somehow emerged it's ugly head from my subconscious. Found it online, thought I'd share it :) 

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