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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rules, Plot and Metagame: Part III

Part I
Part II

Any time there's a trend, there's usually something to examine that's behind it. In Part II, I talked about a trend involving metagame, rules, and different types of roleplaying games. While high-immersion games (low metagame scenarios, like in Alternate Reality Games) and low-immersion games (high metagame scenarios, like storytelling RPGs in the vein of Fiasco) both had a small amount of simple and abstract rules, it was the games in the middle which had complex rulesets. The more a game lies in this middleground between metagame and immersion, the more involved its ruleset is.

Two Opposing Forces
Well, that's a bit of a dramatic title, but it does describe the reality of games pretty well. See, if you think about it, roleplaying games exist as a way to bring together the ideas of metagame and immersion.

Metagame gives you the power to shape the course of the story, because it gives you knowledge over the flow of that story. Whether your metagame is knowledge of when monster's abilities will recharge or knowledge that this enemy isn't the final boss, but rather a pushover foe, that knowledge lets you plan and think in terms of the game world, and not in terms of a character. That gives you power. With this power, you can control how the story goes, and you have an assurance of your character's fate to some degree.

Immersion gives you the power to experience the story, because it restricts your knowledge. Your immersion, though it's a boundary, can be good because it lets you identify with the character you play. You make decisions more in line with what they would actually do, rather than basing them on out-of-character knowledge. Even if you're trying to stay in character, there's some things that you can't block out of your mind. So you're limited in your knowledge. Yet, paradoxically, that gives you power as well. It gives you the power to enter into the footsteps of your character. By denying yourself information, you do something that you couldn't do with metagaming.

A Compromise
Roleplaying games walk a fine balance between these two ideals. Here's why: you're playing a game. If you could be totally immersed in the game, you would be limited to your own capacities. Without a metagame, you can't play a character who has supernatural abilities, or one who has capabilities outside of your own. You have to have some sort of separation from that character, if you want to play anything other than yourself. Not only that, but some things in an RPG simply aren't possible to replicate in real life, either because of physical impossibility or because of danger to the players. For instance, the avant-garde method of resolving combat with real weapons. Not recommended. It gets messy.

Too much of a metagame, though, and you can't connect with your character. Some people have listed this as a flaw of Fiasco, although that particular game seems more to be about playing and enjoying the story as a story, instead of enjoying it as characters within the story. People have listed this as a flaw of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. And it easily could be. You lose touch with your character because you're tracking healing surges, marks, and the cleric's buffs.

But you have to walk a line, and play from both sides. Fortunately, we humans have something called imagination to do that. If you're metagaming, you still have the ability to step into your role, and pretend, and experience the adventure, even while knowing combat stats. If you're being immersed, you still can step outside of that immersion to be a little Genre Savvy, and remember there's a bigger story going on, so that you're not kept totally in the dark.

It's something that should always be remembered about roleplaying games. No matter where on the spectrum they fall, they always walk a balance between those two aspects. Don't knock a game for leaning heavily to one or the other, but try and meet it where it is, and inject some of your own imagination. It'll take you miles.


  1. BTW since you have spent so much time discussing immersion have you read this article from the 2007 Knudepunkt Book: http://www.liveforum.dk/kp07book/lifelike_holter.pdf ?

    You can the remainder of the book here: http://www.liveforum.dk/kp07book/toc.php

  2. Interesting article, but I don't completely agree with his conclusions. Even if "immersion" is highly subjective, which I agree it is, that doesn't mean you can't have meaningful use of the term. After all, we seem to use the idea of "love" pretty well and meaningfully.

    Some of those subjective definitions seemed to be pretty weak to me. I think that, generally, when most people speak of immersion, they refer to the context in which I've used it. That is, being able to connect with the environment as a character does, the place where role and player merge to a degree.

    Though I do agree it's a bad idea to use the idea of "immersion" without a context. As long as you provide a solid context, though, I think it's okay.

  3. I agree with you on the aspect on immersion needing to used in a context, but It is in no way my experience, that most people use it in the context, which you refer to it.
    This of course does not mean, that some people do use it in your context, but rather that where we think we agree, we actually does not, when we begin to explore the concept as Matthijs' article reveals.

  4. Well, it's true that it can be dangerous to use the term. But I've spent a while talking about what it means, and also setting it up as a counterpoint to metagame.

    Is there a term you have in mind which would serve the same purpose, the purpose of explaining the idea of connection with a character, and limiting oneself to the character?

  5. You have done a good job of setting 'immersion' up as a specific counterpoint, but that also seems to me the weakness, i.e. you chose a controversial term and gave it a specific meaning, rather than formulating a term for your type of immersion.

    I don't have a term right now, but normally I would suggest "indlevelse", which focuses on the connection with the character, and is often the term used in Denmark instead of immersion. Indlevelse is strongly tied to thinking, acting and feeling as the character, and responding to the surroundings. It is often tied to "systemløst" (systemless) play, which is a specific kind of freeform, that hardly is related to your description of freeform.

  6. Huh. I actually didn't know there was such a controversy over the term. I figured it was a handy and roughly accurate layman's way to put things.

    And I know this is a bit of an oversimplification of the matter, though at the same time oversimplification may be necessary to turn up interesting facts.

  7. I think in English most people mean "character immersion" when they say "immersion." I have heard some folks talk about "story immersion" vs "character immersion" but that seems to me to be an abuse of the word immersion...

  8. I enjoyed this series of articles, by the way. For some strange reason, the metagame and immersion aspects of RPGs are poorly understood and little discussed except on theory-wonk forums, which leaves Joe Roleplayer confused about why he likes some games and dislikes other "popular" games like 4e or FATE (or vice versa). Good insights.

  9. Thanks! I figured it was something that I thought was interesting, and I try not to get too theoretical for Joe Roleplayer. I can't always tell if I've succeeded in that, though, as I've spent my time around philosophy books written for the intellectual elites.

    I aim to keep it practical, though. Glad to know it's working. :) I think that I might make more efforts to take RPG theory out of "theory-wonk", as you term it (I like that phrase), and into helpful tidbits.


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