Thursday, September 16, 2010

What Ever Happened to Immersion?

Yes, yes, I know we all play roleplaying games. But one thing that has been missing in most of the games I’ve played since returning to the hobby has been…well…roleplaying. Our games used to run something like this…

DM: Okay, you remove the steel grate and drop your silk rope down the shaft. After a second you hear it land at the bottom with a splash. Extinguishing the parties torches, you peer into the darkness as your eyes begin to adjust to the velvety blackness. The dank smell of mold assails your nostrils and you can hear the faint sound of dripping water. What do you guys do?

Dwarven Warrior: I’ll go down first. I sheathe my sword, slide my shield onto my back, and slither down the rope…but only halfway! Do I see anything with my infravision?

DM: Nope, it looks like the floor is covered with cold water but you can’t tell how deep.

Dwarven Warrior: Okay, I slide down the rope slowly and see if I can reach the bottom. I yell up at the others “Don’t drop me boys, I’m almost down.”

Halfling Thief: “Ha! If you didn’t eat so much you wouldn’t have to worry!”

Dwarven Warrior: “Quiet runt, or I’ll eat you next!”

DM: As you reach the bottom of the rope you dip your feet into the water and find that it’s only ankle deep. The water seems unusually cold and you’re standing in what appears to be an old sewer of some kind. The walls are hewn from a grayish stone which is now saturated with water and largely covered with bluish-green algae. There is a small tunnel to the north. It’s large enough for you to walk through, but your taller companions may have to stoop a bit. [DM rolls some dice] You can faintly hear the sound of splashing water coming from the corridor the north. In short order, the splashing grows louder as whatever it is seems to be speeding toward you. You can now hear the sound of clanking armor and a voice barking guttural orders.

Dwarven Warrior: “Come on guys, we’ve got company. Hurry up before I take ‘em all myself!”


You get the idea. I’m not the greatest player in the world and I’m certainly not the greatest DM but we enjoyed being as vivid as we possibly could. It really helped with the immersion and fired our imaginations. The role playing was actually fun. It wasn’t something we skipped over just to get to the combat. I don’t know if the emphasis upon description and RPing are features or hallmarks of old school gaming but in every single game I’ve participated in since returning to the hobby about 6 months ago, they tend to go more like this…

DM: Okay, you see a hole leading into a sewer. What do you guys do?

Dwarven Warrior: I’ll go down first. Do I see anything?

DM: [rolls dice] Nope.

Dwarven Warrior: Okay, I slide down.

Halfling Thief: [Yelling from the kitchen] Where is the Mountain Dew!?!

DM: Okay, you’re in the sewer. [rolls dice] You hear some orcs running toward you. What do you do?

Dwarven Warrior: Hurry up and get down here guys I only have half my hit points left over from the last fight!


Granted this evidence is anecdotal since it relies on my personal experiences over the last six months. Still, I’ve played with close to six different groups in that time. On several occasions, the DM says he’s been playing since the White Box or since AD&D was first released. What’s the deal? I’m beginning to wonder if my gaming groups as a kid were just filled with oddballs or if people just don’t play that way anymore.


  1. Interesting.

    I know that I personally am all for the more immersive style, as are the people I game with. A couple thoughts off the top of my head as to why that style may be waning:

    - I don't think there's as much emphasis on the "art of DMing" anymore. This is probably partly a reflection of the mechanical turn D&D has taken since 3rd edition, making the DM more of a rules referee. That's certainly one of the cornerstones of the OSR philosophy, restoring the DM to the role of preeminence that the role once enjoyed.

    - It's also possible that player demographics have shifted. Immersive role-players may simply be playing games other than D&D in much larger numbers these days. White Wolf, indie games, etc.

  2. I wonder if the issue is one of time though. I run a game but I don't have the time I used to have to really imagine a place inside and out. In addition to that gone are the multi-day marathon sessions of my teens. I get 5 hours every 2 weeks on Sunday. I feel my players are more interested in advancing either characters, story or both more than getting the sense of the braided rope as they slide into the sewer.
    @sirlarkins I have to disagree with your referee thoughts many old systems were big on the concept of referee. I agree that the rules do affect the immersion quality though from the GM perspective. It could just be from not having as strong a grasp of the new rules but I feel I have less room to build that imaginative space because if I say something like difficult terrain or stunned there's a rule for that. I was looking at Pathfinder rules and there are about 30 different statuses that players can be affected by (daze, stun, dead, dying et cetera). When I guess at them I get pretty close to what is written but I feel constricted to follow those rules. I miss just being able to say you take a -1 penalty on attack roles.
    In short I'm older and have less time to prep and play and feel more constrained by the rules of the more modern mainstream systems so some of the flourish is gone.

  3. I miss just being able to say you take a -1 penalty on attack roles.

    That's basically the point I was going after. I'd say that GMing back in the day was more of an act of "judging" rather than "refereeing" - the GM was allowed some leeway to interpret rules, even in the more rules-heavy systems. In many systems, the GM today is expected to be more of a walking rulebook, as you alluded to. It's essentially what the old school movement means when it talks about getting back to "rulings, not rules."

    As RPGs have increasingly become an adult hobby, you're right in the fact that time constraints do indeed put an additional pressure on things. I could definitely see that being another element in the problem. For me personally, for example, I just don't have the time to think about the act of GMing and how to improve my game in between sessions.

  4. Hmm,
    some friends and me play FRGs since Mentzer red Box 83'.
    And we noticed exactly what you noticed.
    Gaming somehow lost something on the way through the editions.
    We, me as referee and the players made a conscious effort to rekindle the immersion as you described it above.
    And know what?
    It worked!
    Even though we use 3.5 as our system of choice.

  5. I've got that sort of play in spades... when I play online. Real-time text play really seems to encourage both varied and detailed description on the part of the DM and character immersion among the players. I think it's mostly because we're not distracted by seeing Tom get Cheeto crumbs all over his character sheet, and can only really interact with Fingold Foeslayer. That and the safety of having an internet between you and the others means there's less embarrassment when it comes to really cheesing it up. ;)