A few weeks ago, there was some discourse going around on Twitter about metagaming and it brought up the idea of immersion, and that somehow these two things run antithetical to one another. I don’t think they do. In my current style of gaming, I am a fan of using metagaming to help set things up so that I can do some deeper immersion. I think the reason that works for me is that my view of how immersion works is different from those that would disagree with me.

Let’s talk about it.

What Is Immersion?

You know I am a fan of definitions, so let me define immersion for you. 

Immersion is the moments in play where we embody our character (PC or NPC) in the first-person, and we speak through them and think like them. 

I hope that you have experienced this before, but just in case you are not sure, what it feels like is when you get so into your character and what is going on with them, that you are in the space of the game, and the room drops away, and you are in the scene. This is often also associated with losing track of time since that is also exterior to your character. 

Why is it “Fun”?

For me, some of my best role-playing happens when I am in that deep immersion. In those moments I feel the emotions of my character, and the things I say come from their heart. It could be a deeply romantic scene, or it could be my blood boiling for vengeance. In those moments when I am deeply immersed, is where the game goes beyond dice and numbers and has heart and feelings. 

For many people, that is one of the reasons they come to the table. There are many other reasons and even for people like me who love deep emotions, there are plenty of other things I like in a TTRPG that are not immersive. I love crafting stories collaboratively. I like creative rules and procedures in a game. I like telling jokes and dropping movie quotes with my fellow players. 

It can’t all be Immersion

Way back in 2016, on the Misdirected Mark podcast (Episode 209) we talked about the idea of layers of focus in a game. The main concept was that there are different foci that our mind occupies during the course of a game. Some of those foci include: 

  • Player level (I am hungry. I need to go to the bathroom.)
  • Game level (What is my bonus to hit? How does that spell work?)
  • Character level (I must get revenge for my father. I need more gold to build my kingdom)

There were more levels than that and over the years it’s less about levels and more about foci that your mind travels to. 

So immersion is then the time when we occupy the character level, based on our definition above.

This gets to the idea of total immersion. 

Because of these foci and the fact that your mind is constantly traveling from one focus to another, total immersion in a game is not possible. You cannot remain only in the character level and roll to hit someone. The second you need to see if you hit someone your mind is at the Game level. It may jump right back to the character level, but it might not, it might hang out at the Game level to see how everyone’s turn goes and where the enemy is located and what spell you might use in this situation. Or you might have gotten thirsty after making your roll and go and get a drink.

This is where I think people make a mistake about wanting or trying to achieve immersion at the table. Total immersion is a myth. You can’t both play the game and be your character without some change in your foci. So don’t worry about it, and don’t struggle to try to achieve it. Rather, let me suggest the idea of… 

Pockets rather than Total

So if we can, through focus, move ourselves to the character level, then you can make immersion happen in specific scenes or moments and then jump back out to do other things in the game.

This is what makes what we call story games a lot of fun. You can at one focus jump into your character and have a deep and dramatic scene with someone, and then move your focus to the story level and discuss with the group what might work for the next scene. 

I have had a great experience with this in playing Fiasco. This is a game that through its procedures requires you to set the scene as well as determine its outcome. So at the Story level, you can have the discussion at the table about what the scene should be about, where it takes place, and who is in it. Once that is set, then jump into the Character level and play out that scene as deep and intensely as you want it to be. Then when the scene is over, jump back to the Story level and help the players set up the next scene. 

 The advantage of this is that you get the great feelings and experiences that immersion brings without cutting off other modes of play. Have your immersion but also do some metagaming, story building, and tactical play. 

The advantage of this is that you get the great feelings and experiences that immersion brings without cutting off other modes of play. Have your immersion but also do some metagaming, story building, and tactical play. 

That also means that if you love other parts of gaming, like tactical play, get into some immersive scenes. Feel those feelings of vengeance when you reclaim your ancestral lands from that demon. Have that dramatic dialog just before you drop the dice on the table and get into a massive combat. 

Enjoy it all. 

Focus for Effect

Immersion is an amazing facet of play in TTRPGs. For many of us, it is one of the main reasons we play the game. Immersion can happen for any length of time during the game. Total immersion is an unobtainable state that really cuts off other experiences of the game in favor of one mode of play. The beauty of TTRPGs is that games have many facets and we should strive to enjoy as many of them as we want. Learn how to harness your focus so that when you want to be immersive, you can, but also learn how to move your focus around to different parts of the game. When you do, you are on the path to creating the best gaming experience.

What are your thoughts on immersion? Do you enjoy it? Are you striving for total immersion or enjoying pockets of it when you can?