Gaming Theory: Rules and “Immersion” (aka The Squib Manifesto)

Somebody asked me to talk about Gumshoe. I will, but first I need to talk about a few terms. Like immersion.

A few years back, Jocelyn Robitaille and I and a few other people sat around on RPGNet and spitballed trying to lock down the concept of “immersion” as it applies to roleplaying games. It wasn’t a new idea: it’s existed as long as fiction. It’s simply the point where reality falls away and you have trouble knowing where the stage ends and the reality begins. As human beings, we’re very very good at confusing reality and fantasy. It’s why you can edit people’s brains using only a reflection of their arm. It’s also why we create so much damn literature and art, and part of why we’re so messed up by it all – we are addicted to getting lost between the two worlds. It’s something I’ve always been fascinated with, which is why I love stories about the power of narrative and genre tropes (like Discworld or Thomas Covenant or Roger Rabbit) or about breaking the fourth wall (The Real Inspector Hound, The NeverEnding Story etc). Also, I have mild dislocated synaesthesia, which means if I see somebody injuring themselves, I feel the pain physically in that part of my body, and I have strong emotional transfers as well, so the whole crossover issue is extremely important to me.

Roleplaying is fundamentally about layers of reality and creativity, and almost all of the comedy it naturally produces comes from that. Improvisational theatre feeds on layers of narrative assumption and sharing those assumptions – it depends fundamentally on the idea that if you fake punch somebody, they instinctively fake reel.  Or to put it another way: THIS.

I’m digressing like crazy. The point is, one of the important parts of fiction is immersion in the story, getting caught up in it, and sometimes it gets so strong, we get carried away. Actors talk about the point where they lose the boundary between themselves and the character. Audiences weep when their favourite characters die and reflexively cry out “Don’t go in there” even when they know the characters can’t hear them.  RPGs intrinsicly involve stories, and thus are full of this kind of immersion.

The problem is, that long ago in the history of roleplaying, the term immersion was used to mean something else. This was a style of play which basically rejected any and all rules-speak or so-called “meta-game” play, and demanded the player experience the entire gaming world through the eyes and mind of their character, concerned for nothing else. It was, even at its coining, a fairly extreme definition, and has remained so, to the point where it becomes, I think, fairly useless. Although it clearly involves a similar experience to being immersed in a story, according to its proponents it is unique to rpgs (and thus is unlike anything actors or improvisers feel, although some disagree about the latter), it is unique to players (it cannot ever be experienced by GMs) and most importantly, it is instantly and irrevocably destroyed by rules or metagaming or any outside concern.

It’s this last bit I particularly take issue with, because I believe that one thing rules are GREAT at is breaking down the boundaries between the real and the imaginary.

The simplest example is that if Throthgar the Mighty is swinging his sword, he feels tense because he does not know if his swing is mighty enough to fell a beast. Now, to the hard-core gaming-style Immersionist, there needs to be no extra information to this. He has become Throthgar in every way that matters, so his heart is full of trepidation solely from the story. For me though, I think what makes RPGs interesting is we can do something else to make a link to Throthgar. We can, in our world, have a player take a physical action (rolling some dice) which produce tension (an unknown, random result). This creates a feeling inside Bob the player which is inherently similar to the feeling inside Throthgar; and so without even using his imagination, Bob has a sudden, reactive, unconscious connection to Throthgar that goes beyond merely the imaginary.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am aware that this may not be precisely the same experience.  And for some, the real world sensory information they are getting from real-world activities can only ever be noise, not signal, to the imaginary information they are getting from the story actions. For those people, mechanics exist solely to create a story collaboratively, not to provide emotional information, and indeed, they find the very idea of mechanics often so noisy they distract from their emotional information.

I however, take a different view. I think since we HAVE to have mechanics of some sort, and since we can never escape the real world sensory information, we might as well use them to inform our imaginary information, and that this is precisely the purpose of RPG mechanics. Yes, they exist to share storytelling around and create narrative elements (whether diagetically or exogetically) but those are perhaps even secondary goals to the former. We are telling a story, and the rolling of the dice are tools to create emotional response, just as props and voice and sets and language are to other storytellers.

This isn’t exactly rocket science, but it does cause problems on the internet because for some people, if you talk about the concept of Immersionism, you can never talk about rules, and it is laughably, obviously counter-intuitive to do so. Hence I need to take all this time to establish the other point of view, jut in case. And on RPGNet, we ended up coining two different names for these things, to keep the Immersionist-Play-Stylers happy that we weren’t horning in on their turf. Currently their thing is called “deep character immersion” and the other thing “setting immersion”, a wholly unsatisfactory attempt to keep the peace. Again, I’m just making this clear so that anyone else who gets confused when I talk about immersion knows what’s going on – I’m talking about when reality and imagination blur, not a playstyle. Perhaps for the purpose of sanity we should call that something else, like Getting Into It or Squib.

Yes, squib will do nicely.

The interesting thing about Squib is that it is an art not a science, and that what squibs one person will completely fail to squib another, or different types of rules can cause different kinds of squibs. For example, in Tynes and Stolze’s Unknown Armies, the GM is encouraged not to tell the players how much damage they’ve taken. Why? Because in real life you don’t know how injured you are, and keeping that game information secret causes a squibbing connection from your real world self who does not know how close his playing piece is to being Out Of Play, and your imaginary self who has no idea if he has just a messy scratch or if he is about to take the big dirtnap. However, what this sacrifices is the OTHER sense of squib which comes from taking hit point damage. If I have 40 hit points and an attack does 38, that’s a huge amount of numeric information. If you think in numbers, as many people do, you feel the WEIGHT of that. That’s a big number, and it sends the mind reeling at the size of it. And THAT sense of bigness in the mind of your real self provides a squib connection to the severe physical pounding your imaginary self just took.

By choosing what kind of information to transfer, you can choose the kind of squib effect you want. However, not everyone interprets information in the same way. If you believe the Fleming/VARK model, there are four distinct ways in which people take in information – visually, aurally, textually and kinesthetically (through touch). I think what you might find, if you poked at this further, is that people who thrive on kinesthetic information might prefer boffer LARPs, people who are visual prefer costumed freeforms, and people who are aural like the GM to do long descriptions of their gushing wounds and wish he wouldn’t just keep talking about how many hit points he took, and people who are textual are quite happy to hear the hit point information and instantly translate it into the same description in their head.

What’s problematic is people often think that their way of getting information is the only/best way, and that therefore, if a GM is reducing everything to numbers, he is a “bad GM” and the GM who talks in adjectives is a “good GM”. You might also hear people say that the way it is done in Unknown Armies is “good design” and that hit points is “bad design”, despite both ways having just as much value for emotional transfer. Add the internet and these silly decisions can quickly turn into hard laws of design or holy wars of belief.

In truth, I believe that a good GM is like a good teacher – he tries to engage all four learning types at his table, and evaluates his players to find out how they prefer their information delivered – and knows their strengths, weaknesses and preferences in delivering information. A good designer doesn’t always have the options of covering all media, of course, but one of the impressive things we saw recently in RPGs last year was a much wider consideration of the kinesthetic, in games like WFRP 3rd ed and FreeMarket, which used lots more physical tokens.

Anyway. That’s how I see it.


The Stevies for 2011

Yes, it’s time once again for the event that I write and nobody reads but at least it quiets the screaming in my brain and pushes us ever closer to the end of this, the worst time of the year. As always, it has nothing to do with when the product came out, just what I did this year. So here we go:

Best RPG: Nothing really grabbed me this year – I respected a lot but nothing made me want to play it. I liked the simplicity of FU, I liked the marketing genius of Fiasco, I was blown away with the angle on Happy Birthday Robot, rewriting rpgs as narration games for kids, it should have won the Diana Jones, not Fiasco – but none of them made me want to play. I think Ashen Stars contains – as always, from Laws, – some of the greatest setting design stuff and genre savvy ever, but I still hate Gumshoe and everything it stands for. I’d like to give this to James Wallis’ bad-tv-show game Cop Show but it’s not out yet, so this goes to James Wallis’ Here On Business, an RPG that doesn’t bore you shitless because it’s written on a business card.

Best Board Game: This goes to Telestrations, a lovely party parlour game that does exactly what it should: produce hilarity and get out of the way. Lovely pieces, lovely fun.

Best Computer Game: This ALMOST goes to Portal 2, but Limbo was simpler, neater, prettier, more different and more stylish. It has a perfect simplicity that is missing from so many games. I’m sure Skyrim is great and all, but complexity just exhausts me, and explanations bore me. Why are we in Limbo? Who cares. It sucks, we want to leave. The rest is boring. And yet, despite the one line intro, it is incredibly evocative, and the setting has visual and narrative depth rivaling the mountains of Skyrim.

Best Movie: I barely saw anything this year, mostly because there was nothing I wanted to see. Muppets isn’t out yet, Tintin only just opened and I missed The King’s Speech and Thor. Probably the best thing I saw this year was rewatching The Neverending Story on You Tube, a vastly underrated movie with an actual, resonating message and very well crafted by Wolfgang “Das Boot” Petersen. I was also blown away by Iron Man 2, a film which did the opposite of most sequels: it kept all the good stuff and cut out all the guff from the first one. The more I see if Favreau the more I’m impressed with him: he REALLY knows what he’s doing, and he is getting to do it.

Best TV Show: Again, a lot of almosts in this category. Community is knowing and wise, but it’s just too damn dark and hostile. I finally got into Chuck and it’s lovely but it quickly drowns in its own soap opera. I have yet to torrent Parks and Recreation. This one I’m giving to Modern Family. After a rocky start this show built up some strong characters that managed to ride the line between amusingly flawed and inspiringly capable, presenting families that were distorted and even deformed, but functional and strong despite it all. Somehow, it managed to hit home without being too schmaltzy – by being a little bit honest in a cynical world. Nice.

Honorable mention to the Octonauts, the best new kids show of the year, up against some incredibly strong competition. Gaspar and Lisa was also excellent, but the Octonauts managed to be cute yet awesome and live under the sea, which puts them one point ahead of those interminably popular ponies.

Best Comic: Seanbaby’s Man Comics and their affiliates. NONE OF YOU ARE SAFE.

Best Anything: This image. It’s hard to even put into words the way this image makes me feel. Sometimes you get to feel history as it happens, and know it is history. Not since I watched the towers fall have I seen it so strongly. It is a new world now, and it starts with that photo.





Rules: What’s Your Point of First Contact?

Whether you give a damn about Marvel or DC, there’s heaps to learn about game design from Cam Banks and Josh Roby’s incredible work in Smallville and the new Marvel RPG, and Cam loves to go on podcasts and talk about his design approaches and why and how he makes the choices he makes.

This podcast with the Vigilance Press guys has Cam talking about the design of the new Marvel RPG and the just-released Captain America character sheet. The first 18 minutes or so is about the Marvel setting and how the game is dealing with that (event books) but after that there’s ten minutes on the aforementioned sheet and what the stats mean.

What I note is that Cam talks about choosing the “first point of contact”, ie the first die you pick up (and indeed, the first line on the character sheet, which is as it should be, really – char sheet design is SO important). For better or worse, most rpgs have freeform moments and structured moments, and it’s a really good idea to think about how the latter start. In a lot of games, it’s always the same, but it doesn’t have to be. Most D&D structured moments begin with “roll for initiative”, for example, yet the damn thing is impossible to find on most sheets. My Strength, something I never use or care about, is usually top of the list.

(Of course, character sheets can do more than just work in the structured part of the game, and what is front and centre can play a big part in helping you stay grounded in the unstructured parts – your name, your concept, your affiliations, your character sketch…it’d be great if, as I said a few weeks back, it also had your fellow PCs listed on it too, for just that purpose.)

Character sheet design aside, the first die does get a lot of focus in play because it’s the break moment. It’s the moment you start concentrating and reach for your first contact with the rules. So it pops up in your mind and yells “THIS IS IMPORTANT”. To an extent, therefore, it doesn’t matter what your CORE mechanic is, because your first gets more attention. Technically, D&D is about rolling to hit and damage, but roll for init is really what stands out. That’s probably why Fvlminata got so much stick for having an initiative system based on social rank – it wasn’t just that it rubbed sim people the wrong way, it was that they couldn’t get away from it. Every combat, it leapt up and demanded attention.

It’s worthwhile, therefore, to make sure your first contact it IS important to the kind of game you want to run. In Smallville, your first die is your value – what you believe in, why you care about this struggle at all. In Marvel, it’s what kind of team you’re in – are you the kind of person who performs better in a team, with a buddy, or solo. Right away, we have something central to Marvel’s enduring dynamic.

What’s your first point of contact? In every sense? Your cover art, your first line of text, your first line of the character sheet, your first rule after the break point? That’s what matters. Make it count.


Less is More

Somebody at a con once asked me how much prep they should do to ensure a good session for a game.  The obvious answer “as much as is fun” is not that helpful so I broke it down further. “Next game,” I said, “do a bit less prep, and see what happens. If your game doesn’t explode, do a bit less again the next time. Keep doing less and less until you see it actively and significantly harm the game, then go back one step.”

That’s not a bad strategy for a lot of life, too, and I think all design. Too often we are driven to do more and more and more without realizing that long ago we passed the point where more effort actually added more value.  Sometimes its much better to turn around and do less, so we can actually end up doing or having the right amount.

French author Antoine de Saint Exupery said “It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.”  Thoreau said “Simplify, simplify, simplify”. What’s in your current work you don’t need? Are you struggling to add more or fix something to make it perfect before it is released? Maybe its time to row the other way, cut it back, and find the elegance of simplicity, and the perfection of doing less.

How I Run Mysteries

Somebody on RPGNet was doing a survey on “general mystery running advice”. Since it’s been a while since I posted here, I thought I’d post my thoughts on that.

If there’s a mystery, I think of a whole bunch of ways players could find out the answer. Let’s call them Clues. eg let’s say a redhaired guy did it. Then a clue is: strands of red hair.

Then I put the clue wherever the PCs look. So it’s never “there’s red hair at the crime scene” but “there’s redhair wherever the PCs look”.

Sometimes you can even step back and be even more general about the clues, so “wheever the PCs look” there is “an appropriate clue that points to Teh Solutions”. eg if they go totally for motive then I will, on the fly, make sure there are heaps of motive clues that point to redhaired guy.

The other important thing is to use the idea of focus. If a scene is leading to a strong lead, I put lots of screen time into that scene. Like say there’s redhair at the crime scene, I describe it slowly. I call for lots of rolls. I play the NPCs up as dramatically as I can. I take the time to explain how fricking awesome the PCs are for finding the clues they do. Whereas if there is no lead, I just summarise and cut. You see this on cop shows all the time. If there’s no leads but the police think to do something, we don’t show them doing it, we just cut to the next scene and the cops go “we canvassed two hundred bars and nobody had seen our guy”.

Which is the final tip: watch TV. Crime shows are everywhere and despite the caveats that players aren’t Lennie Brisco, crime shows are written, for the most part, to allow ratiocination (ie letting the viewer solve the mystery). Hence they are good at skipping useless avenues and focussing on strong avenues, to name but one technique mentioned. And they’re good at Making The PC’s Skills Important – if one character is an expert in Ancient Japanese History then holy shit there will be a lot of crimes that can be solved through that. And learning that kind of mental judo, the art of going “no matter what the problem is, Ancient Japanese History can solve it” makes for good GMing, because you learn to go “whatever the PCs do solves the problem”.

This is what it always comes back to: WATCH TELEVISION. No medium ever created has had more in common with, nor more to teach the roleplayer. Sometimes I think I should do a Hamlet’s Hitpoints except focusing entirely on watching Law and Order.