A Foray into the Immersion of RPGs
Paul Carboni, Play Unplugged
I spent the day at the theater recently, watching a couple of stellar, high-octane movies. I don’t know about you, but every time I watch a movie I enjoy, I start mentally trying model what’s happening on screen in RPG terms. For instance, I try to picture how O’Connor and Han’s driving skills stack up against Toretto’s (Roman clearly being bottom of the barrel). Then I get going on the rest of the crew, Gisele’s weapon skills and Tej’s tech. I begin imagining what rules would be needed to model a street race in detail. And of course, I imagine the central beliefs directing each character, and which actions made in the movie would earn the players rewards based on those beliefs.
Even while I am doing this, however, the exercise remains hypothetical and abstract. Ultimately, the movie is not a game. Like a book, I get to stand next to the characters and go along on their ride. But I am not an active participant in the story. I have no part in directing the tale that is unfolding before me. All I get to do is suspend disbelief and determine if the story being told is worth following.
And that, really, is the core of why I personally find role playing games to be one the best forms of storytelling. It’s collaborative; so I get to affect the story and the world with my actions. I get to argue and work with my fellow players. I decide what my character would do in their tough situations. And even though I know that ultimately my character is distinct from myself, it doesn’t change the fact that when something big happens to them, I feel it on a visceral level.
That kind of immersion is indescribable to people who have not tried these games. Or at least, I’ve never been able to do it justice. I’ve tried to stack the experience of playing role playing games against other forms of storytelling, and in the department of immersion I always find them lacking in some feature. As I said above, books and movies allow you to be there in the thick of things, but render you a ghost along for the ride, unable to interact with anything in the story. Video games are closer because you assume a persona in the world, and you watch the effect your actions have, but with few exceptions you are still on the dev team’s railroad tracks, unable to make true, lasting change to the world (and even the most “sandbox” of games seem to have to trade the extent of a player’s ability to affect the world with how important those alterations are). Most board games don’t have much story, people often play them more for the mechanics than anything else.
With role playing games, you are interacting with the world and with each other on two levels simultaneously. These two levels are distinct, but inextricably intertwined. You recognize the difference between player cognition and character cognition, and you recognize that ultimately your character is under your control. But if you commit to playing a character’s personality true, you carry a piece of your fictitious persona. I know that I have felt my character make decisions for himself in games, especially when those decisions are forks in the road for their development. And when interacting with the other players I definitely feel the discussions taking place both on player and character levels, both as spectator and active participant, paradoxically being surprised by and creating the various ironies and twists. And that is why I keep coming back to the table, both as player and GM to throw dice and make believe with friends.
It may have sounded like I was bashing other narrative forms in this article. While I do think that RPG’s are unrivaled when it comes to immersion in storytelling, I also recognize that sometimes immersion isn’t what we want from our stories. The visual medium of movies and T.V. far outpace what RPG’s can offer in terms of visual storytelling (duh), and written stories can offer more satisfying aesthetic appeal in their own right (plus, sometimes you just want to be told a story). What do you all think? I’m genuinely curious to hear from you about how you approach these games, and how you describe them to your non-role playing friends. Are you able to explain the appeal of RPG’s such that they “get it”? Drop a comment below.