No, I don’t mean that you keep ALL the details of the World behind the screen and never tell the players anything. That would be silly. What I want to talk about is the idea of keeping everything the characters don’t know, don’t need to know, and couldn’t yet know out of sight until they discover it.
One of the principle reasons that I began to experiment with taking the game rules behind the screen is that I wanted to offer the players the chance to experience a deeper sense of Otherworld-immersion. In conversations with Daniel Jones, who coined the phrase, I realised that reducing the time spent thinking about rules would increase the time available to imagine being the character.
To help explain how this works, here’s a quotation from the excellent book, “Tabletop Role-Playing Therapy” by Megan A. Connell describing the research of Gary Alan Fine from 1983:
In his work Fine found that… players tended to think and play in three distinct frames: the frame of the person, the frame of the gaming system, and the frame of the character.Tabletop Role-Playing Therapy” by Megan A. Connell (2023), page 27
Fine theorised that players shift between three types of thinking (“frames”): being themselves in the real world; messing around with the rules stuff; and being in the mindset of the character. The third frame is when we are role-playing as our character, making decisions and probably doing things that we’d not do in the first frame (as our “real” selves).
I love the experience of being in the third frame. I enjoy being immersed in the perception of my character – imagining the World and the situations as if I were that persona. This marrying of the perception of the character with the perception of my real self is highly rewarding. Daniel calls this Otherworld-immersion and it’s the main reason I play RPGS.
When it comes to presenting the World as the GM, I believe that it’s best to hide everything the character does not or cannot know from the perception of the player. In other words, if the character doesn’t experience it then neither does the player… as much as possible, anyway.
Fine’s work points out that without the second frame – the engagement with the rules of the game – there can be no shared imaginary experience. What I think is important to remember is that this doesn’t necessitate having the players fiddle or even know all the details of the rules system.
It’s enough to know that the rules are there, to know that the GM will adjudicate using them consistently, and then to allow yourself to focus on shifting into the third frame. Hence, experimentation at the table has taught me that Daniel is correct when he says the players can experience deeper Otherworld-immersion (read: more time spent in the third frame) if we reduce their time fiddling with rules.
This goes deeper than the mechanisms of play.
The “rules” of the World includes the answers to key questions which focus on the nature of “reality” in that game World. For example, most fantasy worlds include the “reality” of gravity, based on the experience of gravity in the Primary World we live in. That said, some more cinematic games alter the rules of gravity to allow incredible stunts not possible on Earth.
Players would know about gravity through the prior knowledge of their character. That said, if we extend the example of playing in a cinematic reality, it is a lot of fun to discover the possibilities of the more flexible rules of gravity through play – perhaps the characters witness some incredible feat, or they are taught by a Master some of the tricks possible in that World.
I prefer my Worlds grounded in real-world physics rather than cinematic physics but the principle is the same: players of characters who don’t know about magic or the gods (or lack thereof) are best left in the dark until something happens to reveal this information to them. Just as with the first frame of real life, it’s a pleasant experience to suddenly “get” a realisation about the rules of the World through play.
Thus, I’d recommend moving more of the secrets of your fantastic World behind the GM’s screen (so to speak) and revealing the “truth” through play. Resist the urge to tell players about the magic spells, the god and goddesses, the organisations, and the kinds of special abilities open within your World. Hide it away and find creative ways to drop clues into play.
My primary engagement is discovery. I want to explore your World and find out for myself how things work. If you spoil the surprises, well, I don’t get the pleasure of discovering them and being surprised. Let’s work towards keeping everything the characters don’t know, don’t need to know, and couldn’t yet know out of sight until they discover it.
In practice, this means telling the players less upfront and encouraging them to go find out for themselves. It also means less work for you as the GM because you don’t have to write and deliver copious factoids at the table or ask your players to read the World notes. Instead, everyone can learn organically through play.
The play’s the thing, right?
Discovery in play is an aspect that I really enjoy. Even in games where character competence and player familiarity with the setting precludes it in the classic sense, I find it works its way into things via exploration, investigation, competition, invention, or some other framing mechanism for the unknown but knowable things which can support wonder and drive play. The truth is out there…