Immersion and Emergence

By | November 23, 2013

Hello and welcome!

This column’s going to be a little more personal than they usually are, so fair warning: I’m going to get more than a bit into why we’re building what we’re building by delving into my own psyche.  What you see inside this column may feel to you to be an attack on other games.  I want to assure you up front that this is most certainly not the case; here I will be exploring not why these games are bad, but why these games don’t work for me personally, and how they’ve inspired me to build a game of my own.  Because, you see, I have a confession to make: I don’t really like playing games.

This can be a rather problematic issue for the founder and lead game designer of a gaming company.  But at the same time, this strikes at the heart of what we’re trying to do with Infinite Earths.  

When I’m playing a game, I crave a story.  Some cohesive narrative of some kind that explains why I’m doing what I’m doing.  Ostensibly, that would mean story games like Fate and Fiasco should be perfect for me, right?  Turns out, no: they expose the structure of the story too much, so that I feel like I’m playing a writer in a writer’s room rather than roleplaying a character.

The only “story game” that I’ve been able to play that doesn’t have this effect on me is the superlative Quiet Year, but in that game you’re acting as an “agent of the community” and not really roleplaying any specific character.  While it was introduced to me as a story game, its creator’s use of “map game” to describe it I think is much more accurate.  The set of assumptions going in to play is not quite the same.

So story games have enough story for me, but it’s too much – because I can seize control of the narrative, it feels less like I’m a participant inside the story and more a partial storyteller.  Well, what about traditional games, where I’m an actor in someone else’s story?

Well, in these instances I get bored entirely too easily.  So often adventures and stories are “on rails” that trying anything new or strange (which, apparently, I do on a regular basis although I assure my GMs that it’s perfectly logical to me) can throw the whole thing off.  Just recently a friend of mine was distressed because he’s got a player leaving the party, and his story literally couldn’t support the character being removed.

When plots get that tight, I’ve found, I (and my character) no longer have agency.  It feels to me like I’m just present to roll dice so the GM can fudge the results so I can beat the bad guys so the GM can continue telling his story to me.

This was also highlighted by a question I recently heard (which I will paraphrase here):  “Are dice-rolling mechanics just something for players to do with their hands while they wait for the next big part of the drama to arrive?”

And that identified quite plainly for me why I lost interest in games:  there’s this undercurrent of thought that either players are there for story-and-that’s-it or dierolling-and-that’s-it.  And there’s a lot of people who’re rather prickly about those notions.

But for me, I’ve always liked playing where there’s a story and the dierolling supports and changes the story.  A blend of story games and traditional games, wherein I am an actor in someone else’s story. . .but my actions actually result in that story being modified.  Not just in a “oh, I beat this bad guy in an unexpected way” manner, but in a “oh, I changed this bad guy to the side of good, and now he fights with me against the evil” kind of way.

And it’s taken me quite a while to figure out how to phrase this properly.  What I crave is immersion.  Story games can’t give it to me, because they’re explicitly exposing the plot structure.  Traditional games can give it to me, but only with very good GMs.  I’ll tell you true, in 18 years of roleplaying, I’ve only encountered 3 GMs who could consistently give me the kind of game experience I crave.  One of them is Ray Watters, one of the co-founders of this company.

For a long time, I thought it was because I just preferred GMing to being a Player.  But that didn’t quite fit, because with the right kind of game it turns out I love to play!  But it’s got to be one in which I am fully immersed in the game, in which I’m thinking as my character thinks and feeling as my character feels and I ultimately become my character for the duration of the game.

Sarah, my wife and the other co-founder of this company, calls it “Method Roleplaying.”

So, ultimately, what this means is that I was looking for a game wherein the rules didn’t just support emergent story, they required it.  Because dice rolls shouldn’t just be something for your hands to do – they should be something that has real effect on the story and the characters within it.  For that same reason, dice rolls shouldn’t be able to be “fudged” – if the dice are able to be fudged, then the dice don’t matter.  If the dice don’t matter, then they have no real effect and are therefore irrelevant.

But so long as the dice have real effect, there is something outside of the story-as-planned that is governing how the story is going to go.  In essence, every die roll can “tilt” the story in a new direction (to borrow a phrase from Jason Morningstar).  And when that happens, because it’s out in the open, both the Players and the Guide have to deal with it.  The Guide can’t just handwave it away.

That in essence makes Infinite Earths a traditional game with open rolls.  On the face of it, you could do this with any traditional roleplaying game.  I encourage you to do so – it’s great fun!

And it’s the inescapability of the dice results that makes them have meaning, and which enforces an emergent story.  The fact that the story by this definition can’t be on-rails, and that I as a player don’t have to be exposed to the inner workings of the story in order to experience and enjoy and interact with it, makes Infinite Earths for me a game that fuses what I like to play (games where tactics matter, games with stories) with how I like to play (as a completely different person than myself).

So that’s my confession, and how this maybe-not-so-dark secret has shaped the design of our game.  Thanks for reading, and may you have a joyful Thanksgiving holiday for our US readers, and a great week for our non-US readers!