Transneptune Games

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Seeing the Machinery

I’ve been thinking about immersion lately. I know it’s a dirty word in RPG circles—no one can agree on what it means, for a start. And I’ve not taken part in many of those conversations, so I know there’s a lot of thought on the matter that I’m missing.

Here goes.

I was talking with Alex P. recently, and he observed that a lot of the complaints he sees—and some of the complaints he has—about what I’ll call Forge-style indie RPGs is that they make the machinery by which they produce a story visible and available for direct manipulation, and for a certain demographic, this leaves you wondering what you’re even doing there. No immersion, no surprise. You can see what you’re doing, and so you have to stay a little bit out of the mind of the character who’s caught up in living the story. You can see what you’re doing, so you get there with intention.

I could say that this is a failure of design, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s a matter of calibrating it to taste, and that “taste” is this old point of creative agendas.

So Austin and I have lately begun asking ourselves what it is we want when we sit down to play a game, in the most generic of senses. I think that I, fundamentally, want something that gives me the same feeling of story-glow I get from good TV or good novels. So, my agenda requires some degree of interpretive and especially editorial authority in the game. This, in turn, requires at least one someone to exercise control over the machinery of the story. Obscuring tools doesn’t help people use them, and my agenda needs those tools to be used!

I think that this is another case of managing expectations. You’re never designing all things for all people, so be clear with yourself and your audience about what bits of machinery the game exposes, for who to fiddle with, and we’ll all be better off.

But different people object to seeing different machinery, too! Alex doesn’t like seeing the raw mechanisms of the story. I don’t like seeing the raw mechanisms of the probability. All love to the guys at Evil Hat, but skill + 4dF vs. static difficulty loses some of my interest precisely because I see it as just adding a normal distribution in [-4, 4] to a comparison between two static values. I don’t know why, really—most dice systems are about this transparent.

(I don’t think that this is something you can design for, much. But it’s something to remember when selling people on your game, or reading reviews.)

One response to “Seeing the Machinery”

  1. Alexandr Pshenichkin Avatar
    Alexandr Pshenichkin

    Belated niggle! I think you have mischaracterized my position.

    I like (shared, actually-utilized) editorial authority, and I like the TV-show / novel experience you mentioned.  I enjoy a good bit of meta-commentary about themes and drama and pacing when I watch TV shows. But it’s not the pervasive level of the (hypothetical TV-Tropes-land) writers’ room where everything is reduced to narrative building blocks and I’m playing a game where you spend currency to Reintroduce a Trope or Invoke some Themes and there’s little room left to see the characters as people.