How do we help players to experience a deeper Otherworld-immersion? The goal is relatively simple to understand but much harder in the execution, especially if your players are experienced roleplayers used to doing things in the regular way.
We begin with this: you need to lessen the amount of time players spend doing things that are not specifically roleplaying.
When speaking of roleplaying, I am going to broadly define it as the act of making a decision in-role as if I was the character whose part I am playing. If I am playing Thrynn the Warrior and am facing a tough situation, the decision I make is roleplayed when it is made from the perspective of Thrynn himself. What does he know? What does he think and feel about the situation? What choice would Thrynn make?
Surely we are doing this all of the time when we play in roleplaying games? You would be surprised how little time at the regular kind of roleplaying game table the players are truly roleplaying. Of course it varies depending on many factors but in general the truth is that we do a lot of other things.
We inhabit the gaming table as ourselves and we switch between our own thoughts and those of the character we are inhabiting. We are listening to the others at the table, perhaps the Gamemaster now and then another player as they describe their decisions. We are looking up data on character sheets, rolling dice and doing maths in our head, writing down notes as a clue gets revealed.
The tasks at the gaming table are many and varied. Each different task that we attempt has a psychological price, what psychologists call a “switching cost”, as we shift between activities. The myth of “multi-tasking” is a very expensive one in our culture generally but it is especially costly at the gaming table.
Think about a typical scene in the regular kind of Dungeons & Dragons game: the adventurers are facing a group of goblins in a tense situation. This is the goblin’s lair and the adventurers are invaders in their territory. The so-called heroes are on a quest to rescue two children that the goblins abducted, presumably for some nefarious cultic ritual. Yeah, I know – my gaming tends towards the dark side. How does Thrynn make a decision about what to do?
Consider the scene: Thrynn’s companions are Kell, a sly and dextrous rogue, alongside Yusef and Peri. Yusef is a worshipper of the Thunder God and Peri is an arcane spellcaster. I bet you are already labelled them as Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, and Wizard – a very specific invocation of the way in which the D&D rules categorise characters. But nevermind that for now.
Thrynn can see six grey-skinnned humanoids of about four feet tall which he calls “goblins”. He believes they are cruel and evil creatures deserving of death. The room is an ancient stone tomb wherein he can smell the sweaty rags the goblins wear and see their scratty bedrolls scattered around a small campfire. The goblins are looking from one to another, which Thrynn reads as nervousness, and they are armed with a mix of short stabbing swords, shields, and a couple of short bows.
How do you make the decision?
It could be that you make a rules-based calculation: you know that goblins have few hit points, their weapons do (perhaps) 1d6 damage, and they probably don’t have any magic. You know that one or two decent hits on each is enough to kill them. You calculate the odds and decide that you and your friends characters can take them. In my experience, most roleplayers don’t roleplay in this situation. They calculate.
Of course, all decision-making involves an element of calculation, doesn’t it? Well, consider taking away the in-game rules knowledge from the situation. What if we change the parameters a little?
Thrynn sees six small blue-skinned humanoids with wide open-mouthed grins who are carrying a mix of weapons. Four of them have short, hook-shaped blades and round shields. These four are gathering into a line and bringing their shields together to form a shield wall. Two of the creatures are standing further back with short bows and arrows, standing beyond the fire, perhaps 15 feet behind the shield wall. One of the blue-skinned creatures spits out some kind of challenge or insult in a tongue you don’t understand. What do you want to do?
Engaging with the scene as it’s described, without reference to rules knowledge, makes it more likely that your decision will be made in-role. You will begin to roleplay. What will you choose? In my experience, there is more chance that Thrynn and his companions will parley than fight.
But that’s not all we need to consider. What if we do fight goblins in that dark chamber? How does that break down for Thrynn’s player at the table?
Combat means switching between roleplaying your decisions, looking up statistical information on your character sheet, rolling dice, doing maths in your head, reporting results from dice rolls, making notations on your character sheet as statistics change, asking questions about the situation, listening to the GM’s comments and statements, imagining the scene as it unfolds in your mind, listening to the other players, maybe even moving miniatures on a gridded board (if you use them).
Phew! No wonder you feel tired after a combat scene. There’s an awful lot of complex stuff going on.
What if the rules stuff became invisible?
Thrynn decides to run forward and swing his sword at the nearest creature, bringing up his shield to protect himself as he does so. He slices the blade sideways, aiming for the blue head above the round shield. The creature tries to duck but is too slow as Thrynn’s blade bites into the creature’s skin, cleaving deep into the skull. Thrynn watches as the thing’s eyes roll up into the sockets and feels the muscles of the creature’s body loosen, watching it fall backwards unconscious or dead.
Imagine the dice rolls are done behind the screen. The calculations are being made by the GM without reference to any of of the usual back-and-forth conversation we usually engage in as players. Thrynn’s player declares his actions. He hears the clatter of dice and then the GM describes the outcome before moving to the next player: “Thrynn has felled the first blue-skinned creature. Peri, what do you do?”
The key is to remove, as much as is practically possible, the distractions of rules from the attention of the player. In addition, the trick is to describe to the player only what that player’s character can reasonable know in the moment. It’s about placing the player into the perception of the character as much as possible, while simultaneously removing as many other distractions from play. In other words, we seek a methodology in which the player can be immersed in the “reality” of the Otherworld, through the perception of their character, for as much of the game time as possible.