One of the most successful and enjoyable campaigns I ever ran and played in was the Alternity Dark*Matter game we ran around 1998 until 2001. The first period of play was run by me but the second was run by my wife. All in all, the campaign was highly engrossing and entertaining… and, looking back on it from 20 years later, I’ve finally worked out why.
In short, we were Otherworld-immersed.
Dark*Matter is a modern conspiracy-horror setting which was presented as being near-enough real world for the late 1990s. Thus, you played regular people who first discovered the weirdness was real, and then were drawn into the conspiracy as agents. Running it, you could use real world maps and details. Just give them a twist.
When my wife took over, she essentially stopped using most of the rules and switched to playing with a greater degree of GM Fiat. We didn’t know this at the time, of course, but she was focused on the “make believe” element of the game far more than on the “wargaming/rules” stuff. It made for compelling dramatic stories that arose from the collective experience of play.
In effect, the rules went behind the screen and we were not really paying much attention to the numbers on the character sheets. The GM was interpreting and adjudicating with very little meta-discussion and much more descriptive detail. We became increasingly immersed in the world that was like the real one but twisted. We were, of course, regular human beings with minimal special powers – it was more investigators with maybe one twist than super-heroes.
Playing the modern world with low-powered characters and investigating the weirdness that might just possibly be real was awesomely immersive. Of course, it’s only now – many years later and perhaps wiser – that I can see why we were so Otherworld-immersed. I think it’s an experience I know how to deliberately create and one I think I can perpetuate too.
In the end, what killed it was that the GM let on that she wasn’t using the rules at all anymore. It was 100% GM Fiat but we had not signed up 100% GM Fiat. Suddenly, the trust we had built up around using the rules to keep things fair was burst. It was a lesson to me at the time and remains one now: when we are playing a game, even if the rules are entirely out of sight and behind the screen, it’s still vitally important to have faith we are using them.
The other problem was that we were, near the end, given too much information and that spoiled the mystery. In an Otherworld-immersed game, the players need to only have the information that their characters could reasonable know. Even within the modern world, we can’t ever be truly sure of the reality we are experiencing and when the GM spoils the mystery, the game will end.
Still, it was a great campaign while it lasted. Sitting here now, I am looking back and realising that this was where my desire for deeper play was first achieved, almost by accident. I am sorely excited to experience it again.