2016-04-19 Immersion

Recently, William Nichols argued on Google+ that some games avoid the dichotomy of Sandbox vs. Railroad one often sees discussed. This was in reply to me sharing a hilarious video, about 15min, about two campaigns: the sandbox that turned into The Hobbit and the railroad that turned into The Lord of the Rings. It comes with many asides that I remember myself thinking when I was younger, e.g. the idea that players had a social obligation to go along with what I had prepared.

William basically argued that some rules designed the problem away by using improvisation and he listed Dungeon World (which I have run) as well as Fiasco and Apocalypse Now (both of which I have played).

I think these examples are definitely role-playing game designers trying to design their way out of the problem space of “wasted prep” – either because it’s a lot like work for the GM or because it affords railroading, which is not fun for players.

But then again, if you manage to set expectations such that people know that some parts of your game are not improvised, then these locations on the map will be “more real” than things you all just thought up. That’s how I work, at least.

So that’s the counterweight I see: we can design away the option of a railroad, but we must be careful not to design away an important source of immersion, the suspension of disbelief that there is an actual, imagined, shared, pre-existing world out there. For me, that idea is powerful. In games that afford a lot of improvisation, this is often lost, I feel.

Dungeon World navigates this by suggesting the creation of a map beforehand and Perilous Wilds even offers a procedure to create a shared map at the table.

To make a long story short: I think it’s important to remember that adding more improvisation also means that you loose something. Being aware of that trade-off is important.

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Comments

I partially agree on the “more real” part, but for a different reason. I think things created through collaboration are fun and useful, but feel soft to the players. Things fully in control of the GM, whether prepped or improv’d, feel harder and “more real”.

– Aaron Griffin 2016-04-19 16:54 UTC


Yeah, I don’t really know how this belief in the imagined world is created. In 2014 I wrote that rolling treasure on a table made it “more real” than simply making it up, so even I as a DM benefit in some weird way. To use your nomenclature, rolling random encounters and random treasure on a pre-existing table makes it “feel harder” and thus “more real”.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-04-19 17:20 UTC


The discussion in that G+ thread continued. I was asked, “is there disagreement to the proposition that prep is a product of design?”

I don’t think we ever had a disagreement. To argue that there is only sandbox and only railroad would be foolish. When I posted that link talking about sandboxes and railroads, it was mostly for entertainment reasons. Also, my preference is sandbox classic D&D, but I have played plenty of indie games to feel that I’ve made an informed choice. Up above, I argued why a lot of improvisation is no solution for me. But clearly, improvisation is an important skill and there are various techniques that are useful to any GM out there. Prep is a product of design, I agree, but improvisation is not a panacea. I guess that was my point somewhere in all of that.

Further down, the conversation turned to prep. William argued that good game design would make sure that very little time would be spent in prep otherwise “my time as GM is not valued.” And furthermore, the requirement for prep “is one more way we keep people not like us out of the hobby.”

I personally find more than half an hour prep per three hour game of classic D&D is my upper limit. Sadly, the older D&D versions did not come with a good discussion of efficient prep. Luckily, we have blogs and oral tradition and where as new games incorporated all this accumulated wisdom into the actual text of their rules, nothing stops a DM from eclectically building their own procedures for prep. So yes, I concede that the actual rules are lacking, but it will still work for people. And one aspect we haven’t touched upon is that prep can also be an enjoyable solo activity. It’s not for everybody, but if it is, then D&D is for you.

So, what about those other players at my table. Are the rules of D&D and the requirement to prep holding them back? I’d say that I don’t want the others at the table to GM because they don’t want to GM, as far as I can tell. Those that do get to run their games, using their preferred rules, no problem. And I scratch my itch for other games by having an indie game night. There’s no need for my game to be the one game to serve all people.

So, does D&D need an excuse for it’s community of bloggers, of oral tradition, of advice given? Is all of that necessary because it’s simply badly designed?

Our lives are full of activities that are not fully prescribed and these lacunae allow us to bend these activities to our preferences, and to make blunders, yes. But that doesn’t mean that all our games need more rules. I don’t share the enthusiasm for the designed experience. I prefer my games to be less like a board game. I want there to be gaps.

Let’s go back to the beginning, however. What are we talking about? The conversation started with the contrast between a sandbox and railroad. Then we argued whether improvisation could help solve this problem, and we talked about the perceived burden of preparing our games. I basically argued that not improvising and instead preparing for games also increases verisimilitude, and I argued that preparation is also an interesting activity in and of itself. And thus, for people like me, for people who enjoy this kind of game, classic D&D remains an option.

Perhaps we need to reevaluate where this discussion is supposed to go. Are we trying to come to agree on a single answer to what’s best in RPG design? I don’t think this will be possible. I’m trying to illustrate the width and depth of the space we’re talking about and I guess I was warning against thinking that improvisation would be a cure-all, and I’m warning against thinking that no-prep is a cure-all. I guess I’m arguing for an appreciation of the variety of human needs and the design space available to all of us as we write our RPG rules, or house rules, or rule variants.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-04-20 14:34 UTC


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