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This question is posed in a great way over on the Paizo boards, where I hang out since I play/run a lot of Pathfinder. Immersion is one of the key parts of the RPG experience to me, so I loved the question, and wanted to open it up to this community and also generalize it to other RPGs.

What are your favorite techniques - as a GM or even as a player - for promoting and maintaining character immersion (aka "roleplaying your character") over metagaming? Where metagaming is "I know what I rolled," "I know all the monsters in the manual," "In 90% of plots this guy would be the bad guy," or other things that should properly be outside the game fiction? I've tried to do this as a GM but also struggled with it as a player; I resent it when I feel like I'm "forced to metagame" by the scenario or GM to keep the adventure going.

In the OP, there's a lot of focus on making rolls behind a screen, especially skill checks and saving throws and the like, or having the GM track hit points instead of the players. Some of that works well, but in practice could overwhelm the GM and disenfranchise players who want some sense of "ownership" over their characters. I'd like to hear techniques people have actually used (not untried opinions) and how well they worked and what their side effects were.

To set a good example, here's one answer from me - I ran a multiyear campaign where as GM I practiced strict information compartmentalization - I didn't say things in front of the group that only a subset of the party witnessed. I passed notes and took people aside. This worked very well in terms of helping people immerse and keep a realistic in-world viewpoint. But it did slow the game down, especially once things got more interactive and the player was writing multiple notes back for clarification, or a "take half the party aside" turns into 30 minutes of action excluding the other characters. I tried to mitigate that by going back and forth to spread spotlight time, but sometimes one group would just say "We sit here and wait for them to be done with whatever the hell they're doing..."

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Important distinction: Are you going for immersion where players take on the roles of their characters in the game world as much as possible, or engagement where the players are really into the game whether or not they're in character? Ideally both, I assume. But would an answer focused on player engagement using techniques that break the 4th wall (or jump the GM's screen?) work in this instance? –  T.W.Wombat Apr 27 '11 at 14:52
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The former only. We used to call that "roleplaying" till the term got diluted, so we changed to immersion, which is also getting diluted. In character only is my intended scope. –  mxyzplk Apr 27 '11 at 17:05
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9 Answers

up vote 25 down vote accepted

OK, I don't have time to answer this as I want to. My background is in psychology, and I fell into Roleplaying games when I turned 10 in 1976. So by the time I was in college, understanding where the term Roleplaying game really came from, I understood the critical nature of immersion, how it is the most important ingredient for game success. And to be clear, the definition of immersion is to "Immerse oneself into the identity and Role of the part one is playing. To respond, as much as possible, as the person one is playing, not as oneself."

And before getting into the smaller details, I will dive right into the fact that the very system/game one chooses has a huge amount to do with the amount of Immersion.
Metagaming is the opposite of immersion. You use both terms, but I need to make that absolute definition from the beginning. This also means rules that encourage metagaming decrease the immersion in a game and therefore, decrease the main ingredient of a roleplaying game. The mechanics are called "Dissociated Mechanics", a term coined by Justin Alexander. This is very worth reading, because it gets into many of the larger picture issues with players being able to use in-game logic to see the world around them, as opposed to the rules forcing dissociation from in-game logic.
Once the players assume that rules are going to determine the content of an encounter or treasure (based on EL, or whatever) instead of what the enviroment or history of the area dictate, verisimilitude is lost.

Vreeg's Rules of Setting design are also heavily immersion related. My current campaign is 26 or so years old (started in '83). Building verisimilitude is a huge part of this.

  • Vreeg's first Rule of Setting Design
    Make sure the ruleset you are using matches the setting and game you want to play, because the setting and game WILL eventually match the system.

    • Corollary to Vreeg's First Rule
      The proportion of rules given to a certain dimension of an RPG partially dictate what kind of game the rules will create. If 80% of the rulebook is written about thieves and the underworld, the game that is meant for is thieving. If 80% of the mechanics are based on combat, the game will revolve around combat.

      • Multiply this by 10 if the reward system is based in the same area as the preponderance of rules.
    • 2nd Corollary
      Character growth is the greatest reinforcer. The synthesis of pride in achievement with improvement in the character provides over 50% of the reinforcement in playing the game. Rules that involve these factors are the most powerful in the game.

  • Vreeg’s Second Rule of Setting Design
    Consistency is the Handmaiden of Immersion and Verisimilitude. Keep good notes, and spend a little time after every creation to ‘connect the dots’. If you create a foodstuff or drink, make sure you note whether the bars or inns the players frequent stock it. Is it made locally, or is it imported? If so, where from? If locally made, is it exported?

  • Vreeg's Third Rule of Setting Design
    The World In Motion is critical for Immersion, so create 'event chains' that happen at all levels of design. The players need to feel like things will happen with or without them; they need to feel like they can affect the outcome, but event-chains need velocity, not just speed.

  • Vreeg's Fourth Rule of Setting Design
    Create motivated events and NPCs, this will invariably create motivated PCs. Things are not just happening, they happen because they matter to people (NPCs). There is no need to overact, just make sure that the settings and event-chains are motivated and that the PCs feel this.

  • Vreeg's Fifth Rule of Setting Design
    The 'Illusion of Preparedness' is critical for immersion; allowing the players to see where things are improvised or changed reminds them to think outside the setting, removing them forcibly from immersion. Whenever the players can see the hand of the GM -even when the GM needs to change things in their favor- it removes them from the immersed position. (Cole, of the RPGsite, gets credit for the term).

Remember that part of immersion is the lack of feeling walls around and rails under the characters. This means that the players should not feel that there are things that their character cannot do solely because of the rules or the GM's mindset. The job of the GM is to enable roleplay, not to inhibit it.
This also means the GM must be as immersed as the players, or more.
I will try to add to this a little later. I am at work. And this is just my opinion about something that means a lot to me; your mileage may vary.

Another big-picture thing that may irk some folk who sell stuff is that published settings can hurt immersion. They don't destroy it; but when the players have a lot of knowledge about a setting that their character would not have, this increases the opportunity to use it, consciously or unconsciously.
Similarly, if your setting has its own bestiary that the characters learn as they go along, or at least a lot of homebrew tweaks, the players get used to working with the in-house data and not trusting the published sources.

If you have done all of this larger-scope stuff, the smaller scope stuff becomes easier. As a GM with miles on the tires, I find that playing up the level of knowledge my NPCs might have and do not have helps keep the players in the same mindset. Players key heavily off the way the GM plays their NPCs. They won't do the funny voices or the mannerisms if the GM does not, and if the GM is particularly careful about what their NPCs know and don't know, especially verbally, the players emulate this.

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Accepting this one, but @Runelinger's is excellent as well. –  mxyzplk Apr 29 '11 at 21:14
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Not an easy question!

What I try to do to enhance immersion while lessening the effect of metagame considerations includes:

  • Leading from the front. If I hope to make it easier for my players to immerse themselves in their roles, I must also be willing to immerse myself as much as possible in the NPC cast, and provide as much interaction as I can which does not require a separation between player and character. When it is time to shift to purely mechanical things, that transition needs to be clear.
  • Asking my players in pre and post game discussions to talk about specific scenes from their characters' points of view while asking them about the motivations they were considering as they chose the actions for their own characters, and asking them to speculate on what motivations they felt were guiding the other characters in the group, and among the opposing forces.
  • Having interactions with NPC characters, and my own scene-setting descriptions, reveal how the PCs are perceived by others. I find this to be quite effective if the player doesn't really have a consistent concept of their character's personality, or if their in-character actions are unintentionally ill-suited to the genre. Getting in-character feedback about how the character is seen by those around them can be quite motivating or helpful when the player is developing a connection to their character. It is of little use when the player has little or no interest in adopting a role.
  • Splitting the play group along dividing lines of interest if necessary, so that those who prefer certain styles of play can more easily satisfy those interests. Keeping the Beer, Pretzels, and Banter players separate from the Shakespearian dramatists in cases where their predilections impinge on each others' fun is not easy to do initially, but does increase the amount of good gaming stories that each group can share with the other. This can also be done by alternating between game styles with two different games and the cooperation of all the players. Splitting the group will increase the levels of immersion for the players that want it, and reduce the expectations for it for the players that do not.
  • Remembering as a GM when creating a story, to focus on what sort of experience I want to help evoke for the players and also the characters. I have to provide challenges that they would want to rise to face, and hooks that they have the skills and reasons to feel compelled by. If I am not doing these things I am not giving them a world in which to immerse themselves. If the stories and settings are not speaking to the characters, and entertaining the players... what are we doing?
  • Remembering as a player to address the other players as my character would, based on what is actually going on around us, has been going on around us, and what we believe will come to pass around us, as we make our way through events. This might seem like a no-brainer, but player-to-player banter which filters down into the in-character level can create a barrier to immersive play. If inappropriate nicknames, or metagame labels make up a significant portion of in-character dialogue, no one can realistically be expected to be in-character.
  • Trying to work out how we as a group of characters could possibly know/deduce/intuit some piece of information which we have gleaned from external sources. This might be fairy tales in a fantasy setting, or rumors on the waterfront in a noir detective game... whatever the method, the players and the GM ought to be trying to find ways together to address these disparities of knowledge from an in character perspective to ensure that acting as deeply in character as possible is not a detriment to the group's overall progress through and experience of the story being created.
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I had to split my play group when beginning a 5 year immersive campaign; some of the players were just not up for it. I ran a separate "pickup" game for whoever wanted that, but we had strict rules surrounding the immersion game. –  mxyzplk Apr 26 '11 at 14:05
    
I remember you mentioning that on your blog a while back. I have had to do it a number of times. As you demonstrated, it doesn't have to be negative or create problems in the play group, it should focus on enhancing the enjoyment of each player by openly clarifying what is expected... like rules for 1 on 1 basketball, poker, and so on. –  Runeslinger Apr 26 '11 at 23:41
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Some basic thing you can do to improve immersion are not game based but environment based.

  1. If possible turn off or silence cell phones so no one interrupts the flow with a unneeded phone call

  2. If you allow food and drinks have snacks set out ahead of time so players don't have to go get them when they get hungry

  3. If you are not on a time schedule don't have clocks visible in the room as someone will always get distracted by it

  4. If the game starts derailing and you still have a good amount of time left let the players take a short break so that they can rest their minds a bit and come back refreshed

In the game itself a number of thing can be done to improve the immersion of everyone involved.

  1. Even if the characters can don't have fights back to back as it gives the players no time to mentally recover

  2. Detail is fine but do not spend too long on flavor text because while this may seem counter intuitive long speeches about what the dungeon looks like will more likely bore the players instead of entrance them, to note though this is just a generalization and some players want a maximum amount of flavor so the time that is "too long" will vary from person to person

  3. While you don't need to make the whole world realistic use common sense when doing encounters because if the group fights goblins in one room and the next room has more goblins in it they will have a break in their immersion because logically the goblins should have reacted when they where fighting in the other room

Now for the metagaming issue. I don't have a list of things to do about it but I can suggest that you either home-brew your stuff so their out of game knowledge wont help or if you want to use a premade module or something like that change some key details such as trap placement or even better re-skin it so if say the dungeon was located in a desert instead have it be in a swamp so they won't know right away where they are. That and things like renaming NPCs can go a long way in keeping your players in the dark about where they are adventuring. As for monster knowledge some of it can be just assumed, after all if they are adventurers they should at least know what an orc is. If your players have memorized the monster manual or equivalent there is not much you can do other then either make your own or use 3rd party monsters.

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OK - I have read this a bunch again recently, of players memorizing the monster manual. Does this really happen that often? Even my most rules-lawyery players never did that - they might have known the general stats for one or two of the monsters from when they were running it, but... never memorizing it. –  aperkins Apr 26 '11 at 15:06
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well, memorize enough so that you know what all the monsters are from their description, as well as major strengths and weaknesses. I still have the 1e MM memorized in this way. "It's a big pig-cow looking thing with a long, long neck..." "Catoblepa! Death gaze! Hide yourselves!" –  mxyzplk Apr 27 '11 at 2:30
    
Memorising books can be something that simply happens by exposure. I never tried to memorise anything, but I still know that in book X if I flip to about page Y I will be near the rules for Z. It's even easier to remember the contents for monster manuals. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 16 '13 at 18:50
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In a lot of games I play, metagaming is the result of poor GMing, for example:

  • Every encounter boils down to combat, instead of providing any alternative solution (treaties, escape etc).
  • Each combat is too difficult for the characters. If they can only hit the enemy on a 19 or 20 (about 1 in 10 rounds), it isn't fun - they'll attempt to find ways to 'boost' their character.
  • The rules are followed religiously 'as written'. If the GM doesn't allow some free-thinking / leeway, players will often follow - resulting in min/maxing, stacked abilities etc.

I'm not saying that's what is happening for you, but I thought it worthwhile to bring up, because I see it all too often. :(

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That is true. And it can also be a result of uninteresting plots/settings, leaving the players nothing else to focus on. –  mxyzplk Apr 27 '11 at 2:31
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There are two main external factors that I've found that help.

  • Choose a setting that is self-consistent, not a joke, and which the players can relate to. Gamma World is fun, but not particularly immersive; Shadowrun can be highly immersive since it's set on the future Earth and we're presumably immersed here already; Forgotten Realms has many fantastic elements but it so well described that it's better described than a lot of foreign countries for most of us. (Do you know more about Harare or about Waterdeep?)

  • Choose crunchy, simulationist mechanics. I know they're falling somewhat out of style lately in favor of other things, but nothing brings out the metagamer quite so much as, "Well, I know if I can just get one more point, I can't be hit at all!" and stuff like that. Players spot extraordinary, powerful, and weird things that the rules let them do, and they do them to their advantage, but it rather spoils believability. Alternatively, use whichever rules you like, but use them in the range where they work well--for example, d20 works pretty well if everything you're rolling for is between about 5 and 15.

After that, it's up to the GM to provide an immersive description, and the players to play along. On the GM side, the hardest part is usually to provide rich interactions with "NPCs", who, immersively, ought to each be complex individuals with their own goals and schemes and so on (most of which, thankfully, is irrelevant to the players and thus can be skipped). Copious note-taking is valuable if there will be repeat encounters. On the player side, the hardest part is usually to accept that actions will have long-lasting consequences (e.g. you can fight the town guards who give you a ticket for not cleaning up horse dung (even though it wasn't really your horses that did it!) but this is probably foolish since firstly, the townsfolk and leaders will remember, and word gets around to neighboring villages that the PCs are violent thugs, etc.).

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Yeah, from the 10,000 foot view it would seem like less sim, more narrativist games, as they tend to be about more dramatic concepts, would be better for immersion, but I agree with you that my experience has been that sim leads to immersion. –  mxyzplk Apr 26 '11 at 13:59
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If the simulation is good, the players can largely forget about it and focus on the story. If it's bad, then either (1) the mechanics will cause something crazy to happen, or (2) the players will realize the mechanics can make something crazy happen that benefits them, and will do it (or at least will spend a lot of effort looking). –  Ichoran Apr 26 '11 at 14:05
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The best way I've found to foster immersion is to start off, before the first session if I can, by saying to my players "Hey guys, I want to run/play in a very immersive game." I then proceed to find out if everyone else wants that or is willing to give it a go at least, and then chatting with them to see how we can best do it for us. Pretty much every individual player has at least a slightly different answer, and I've known folk who immerse best in such very different ways that it's incompatible with others immersion.

TL;DR - Best way to foster immersion is to talk with your fellow players about it, then make it happen.

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I agree setting expectations is important. But it's definitely "easier said than done." –  mxyzplk Apr 27 '11 at 2:31
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When this was a problem in my campaign, there was one thing I tried. (I can't say what effect it had, as the mere fact that I had to try something got my players to be more careful, and the problem went away).

Only allow one player to talk 'out of character' at a time. I had an ornament to pick up: if you weren't holding that, whatever you said your character was assumed to say. So the game went on without having to write notes all the time; but discussions about the football game went on in the background of one character's interview with the Baron (who wasn't pleased), saying "Are you sure you can't hear anything yet?" actually reduced the chance of hearing anything, and I could ignore casual rule queries (if they weren't important enough to pick up the Out Of Character Wand).

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I'm not a really experienced DM but there is a method that I use to keep metagaming about the plot to a minimum.

Add plot twist when the players are least expecting them, and don't add plot twists when the players are expecting them. Sounds simple, right?

My last session was probably the most immersive game I have ever been in. The players went to a dungeon in a forest with a guide who is a Bard. They cleaned the dungeon, what did they expect? A boss. In the last room, there was an ugly man in brown kneeling before an altar and casting a spell. What did they expect? A necromancer or something, trying to summon a creature. But the man was actually trying to expel the evil soul that is bound to the altar and the Bard was actually a Sorceress in disguise (the fact that the Bard's instrument was missing was a good enough story for the players) trying to kill the PCs secretly while acting like she is helping them.

One of the players got suspicious of the Bard. In the end, they tied both NPCs up, and argued about what to do for like 15 minutes.

Getting players to think about the plot seriously and letting them make an important decision will increase immersion to maximum. Even the most experienced veteran on the table forgot about metagaming.

On another note, we also turn off the lights and light candles while playing some eerie music. Definitely gives that dungeon feel.

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Very Whedon-esque. I approve. –  SevenSidedDie Apr 2 at 15:39
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Since it's the Paizo boards, and therefore related to D&D style games, I'd say there's a pretty easy solution. Go the other way, expect players to increase metagaming, but give significant XP awards for immersive roleplaying. Double points for immersive roleplaying that doesn't split the party or cause serious divisions. Perhaps even throw in XP penalties for playing too gamey. IE, if the Paladin is supposed to be a good guy, he'd maybe not get XP for killing an insignificant enemy, but instead get the equivalent XP by sparing him. The Assassin could have a similar restriction, no XP for killing targets if there's no money involved - or more generally, he has to keep it strictly business. Making quest awards more significant than regular combat XP will also have the players focusing on having their characters complete the quest properly.

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Acting the way someone else wants != immersive roleplaying. –  mxyzplk Apr 28 '11 at 20:46
    
Getting in character without being influenced by unrealistic XP rewards is immersive roleplaying –  migo Apr 28 '11 at 21:05
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Acting in-character != experiencing immersion. At best, other people being well-in-character can help someone stay immersed, but that's not going to help until immersion is already happening. –  SevenSidedDie Apr 28 '11 at 22:04
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Expecting people not to metagame is pointless. What you need to do is direct metagaming to helping the game experience you want, rather than hindering it. –  migo Apr 29 '11 at 5:33
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@migo playing without metagaming is called "immersion" and it's my goal in this question. –  mxyzplk Dec 23 '11 at 0:05
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