Thursday, January 24, 2013

Balancing I & I

For a few days now I've been contemplating the essay I need to write on the subject of How To Manage Players, specifically the relative importance of immersion versus interaction in the campaign.  As such, I want to float the subject a bit, and see what mines it hits and how far out to sea it gets before its lost completely.

To define our terms, immersion is generally understood to be a state of consciousness in which the individual has the perception of presence - or mental experience, if you will - in a fictional, non-physical environment (world).  Wikipedia says, "The term is widely used for describing partial or complete suspension of disbelief enabling action or reaction to stimulations [sic] encountered in a virtual or artistic environment."
In other words, you think you're really there.

Conversely, interaction is the potential multi-direction influence which various parts of an entity may convey upon one another, such as the interconnectivity within a system by which all parts in that system affect one another (as opposed to a one-way cause-effect relationship).  The most interesting result of this is something called emergent phenomena, in which complex patterns or systems arise from a multiplicity of relatively simple inter-reactions.

In other words, you actually are really there.

Now, video game designers are really fascinated by the idealism of immersion.  It is generally assumed that if you can create a visual experience which grabs the senses of the viewer believably, the viewer's pregenerated experience and social familiarity will fill in the gaps that you, as the designer, can't really create.  That is, if it looks like a war zone, and the blood on the screen looks like blood, the viewer's in-brain conception of blood and a war zone will produce all the necessary biological chemicals needed to really experience the situation - the adrenaline, testosterone, seratonin and other neurotransmitters necessary to bury the pleasure of the situation into the user's experience.

Obviously, interaction is important for this.  The physical trigger of the gun - translated into a button or stick or whatever - creates the physical sensation of affecting one's environment, encouraging the immersive qualities of the game.  At one point, interactive was conceived to be raised to the point where you would be helmeted, provided with a super-skin of contact points which you would wear, and placed on a platform, all of which would increase the button-pushing experience to the highest level.

Unfortunately, however, while the brain could be fooled into thinking that it was rushing through wind down a ski slope that was virtually 3-dimensional, the body was not.  The body was not moving, and because the brain thought it was, the result was the precise same causal effect of sea or car sickness.  People plugged into too much physical interactive technology tended to vomit.

The interactive part of the video game has never really recovered.  Actual physical interaction with the video game is minimal at best ... and hasn't really been improved with systems like Kinect or the Wii.  You may be using your arm to throw a virtual bowling ball, but there's no ball in your hand and the contribution to an immersive experience through interaction is minimal.

But we're not talking about video games, are we?  We're talking about D&D.

Here the immersive experience is limited to what I, as a DM, can say, to what I can display, and to what the player can imagine.  If I am not especially skilled at description, or the depiction of an NPC, or if the player has difficulty freeing his or her self from the stresses of the day, their hunger or the physical sensation of sitting at a table and not standing in the deepest pit of a dungeon, the situation is challenged at best.  Those people who do not like D&D are those people who cannot imagine D&D ... largely because they have not had pregenerated experience with dungeons and dragons like they may have had with war zones and blood.

I hesitate to give the 'interactive' quality of the game in the same terms as they are with video games.  Because video games are pre-scripted and electronic representations of reality, in the game one is extremely limited in what you can do with regards to the environment.  You have your weapon; your weapon has effects; you can move things which have been pre-specified as moveable; you can do what you're allowed to do.  You cannot, however, sit down and spontaneously choose to knit children's clothes in Call of Duty ... though admittedly that would be a poor choice of action given the circumstance.  You cannot get down on your knees and beg for mercy ... which can and DOES happen in war zones, often resulting in the pleading person not being killed.  And so on.

D&D is not as limited to the mechanicals of devices inherent in video games.  The dice can be used in a rich, creative number of ways.  The players can potentially affect any part of the given world in an infinite number of ways, limited only by the willingness or flexibility of the DM or of the players themselves.  Still, the interactive is also limited by the conception of interaction - if the nature of interaction is something which neither DM nor player understands, this severely limits the number of emergent patterns that might progress from the situation.

That is to say, close-mindedness could and does disregard elements of play that are fundamentally unexpected.  "This could never happen" is a common belief that is structurally inherent to every game that's played, based on whatever it is the DM thinks could never happen.

It is difficult to conceive of an example.  The real world has an infinite number - they are called 'coincidences' or 'miracles.'  Generally, when they occur, they are either discounted in large part by skeptics, even when physically observed, or they are venerated inaccurately by a large number of non-observers who have chosen to co-opt the event.  In probable fact, these events are now conceived to be necessary fallout from an inherently complex system which allows for so many possible variations that such coincidences must happen, as can be proven mathematically.

But I am getting very far out to sea now.  Let me come back.

What I mean to suggest is that as a DM designing your world, you are bound to produce an environment that bends towards giving the players an immersive experience or an interactive one.  Obviously, you would want to provide the very best mix of both ... but being a human being and being limited in your ability to produce one or the other, you're probably going to lean in a given direction.

My strongest advice on the matter is to be aware that you are leaning towards one or the other.

If the largest part of your campaign design is bent towards creating an unreal yet magnificent world of rich and profound originality - as I bad-mouthed people for doing a few days ago - then be particularly aware of whether or not your players know how to interact with that world.  IF the world is so different and so unusual that your players are universally dependent upon you to tell them how one interacts, then I am sorry, your world is probably only a mastubatory reflection of your own need for importance.  This was what I was trying to say before, only I'm repeating it a little more scientifically now.

If, on the other hand, your world is so rigidly interactive that it has no emotional quality at all - visceral quality, if you will, to pull in the other really mean essay I posted this last week - then it is probably very, very boring.  Pull sword A and kill monster B to collect treasure C over and over again is and has always been the worst form of campaign in D&D.  And the easiest to manage as a DM.

Personally, I've always been able to compensate my highly statistical bent with the ability to fabricate imaginative worlds of fiction ... two sides of the same coin.  It's not much use, I've found, to create all the esoteric parts of my world ahead of time - and I seem to be able to do all that on the fly anyway.  I have found that creating the structural basis of my world on the fly is pretty near impossible, and results in a crappy and crude structure that goes against my nature.

Thus, I seem to spend a lot of time on this blog building the boring frame of the world, and thus it would appear to the unfamiliar that the esoteric is ignored or non-existent.  This is why I started the online campaign ... to demonstrate that I am not all numbers, tables and rules.

Those are just the things it makes the most sense to talk about.


  1. For what it may be worth to you...

    I play a lot of Rainbow 6/Gears of War-type video games, and I have found that there are some games I emerge from with a feeling that I have really been on a battlefield, and some that don't capture it so well. The ones that capture it are not the ones you might expect from looking at the graphics. I have found, after some examination, that those games that give you the best "you are there" immersive experience are those with the most complete sound immersion. It goes without saying that you always hear your own gun, and those being shot at you, but the games that leave you sweating and shaking are those where you can hear firefights in the distance, helicopters passing by, radio chatter, things like that.

    Like I say, for what it's worth...

  2. Jack - I'm going to assume you are a GM, since you're reading the blog. Do you use sound clips or music while you GM? I tried it once, in the era of tape decks, and found it was just too hard to juggle in addition to the other stuff. Maybe it's easier now that there are .wav and .mp3 files you can double-click?

  3. ESR - I was a GM for a brief time in the 80s, and quit because I wasn't very good at it, and had no idea how to get better. I follow this site because Alexis is a brilliant writer whose posts apply to SO much more than just D&D! We don't always see eye-to-eye, but he always allows me to express my opinion without trying to shout me down, and I appreciate that as well.

    I flirted with background music in a few sessions, moody stuff by Enya mostly. I would have it playing when everyone showed up, but not long into to the die-rolling, someone would politely request that that particular distraction be curtailed. Sound effects... I could have recorded some battle scenes, given the technology of the time, to play during the fights, but that hadn't occured to me back then, and just writing it in stark black-and-white like this, it sounds pretty lame. That said, I'll stand by my statement above; the best VIDEO games are uniformly the ones with the most complete sound immersion. Whether that actually works at the game table, I couldn't tell you. If you try it, and it's spectacular, feel free to say you invented it...

  4. But I admit, Jack, to being curious about what your blog is actually about.

  5. Sometimes I do too! Anything that catches my easily distractable attention is liable to wind up there; just look at the Category log. It began as a family blog (The Tyler Gang) where scattered relations kept up with each other, and everyone drifted away until I was the only one producing material. Now it's become a museum of the unusual, a storehouse of the weird, the journal of a trip down the road less traveled, and I don't know whether to feel honored or embarrassed that you were over there looking at it. I just hope you found something entertaining...


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