Live Games and Immersion

RPG theorists like to tell us that gaming isn’t one homogeneous activity but is shaded by various styles and expectations, roughly expressed via threefold models, drama vs simulation vs game, &c.

One of those expectations is “immersion”, that ill-defined grail of gaming. The pursuit of immersion leads to all kinds of decisions and behaviour, like keeping knowledge from some players because their characters would not have that knowledge.

Live Action RP games are as diverse as tabletop games, but because they’re a bit of a niche in an already small hobby, they’re usually lumped into one mass. They do have one important thing in common, though — generally it’s easier to achieve immersion and partitioning of knowledge in a live game than a tabletop game. A lot of this is down to the relative autonomy characters must have in order to function with a very high player to GM ratio.

Let’s consider three sub-categories of LARP:

FLRP (Fantasy Live Role Play)1 is the traditional rubber swords, players vs monsters game usually with a single ref. The default mode is to go from encounter to encounter, have fights, and battleboard after, and organisation tends to be “bus a load of people to some woods and run around”.

Freeform is an indoor, players-as-actors type game which typically happens in a single big room but could be spread over several locations. Vampire (Mind’s Eye Theatre) fits into this category. The organisation is usually around meetings (of your secret society / mage cabal / vampire coterie etc.). There is (usually) no encounter structure.

Murder Mystery is like Freeform but with tighter control over the play area and what players can and can’t do, and more repeatable results (desirable for a commercial game).

All LARP games need a defined play area, and they need the players to know when they’re timed in and timed out. Aside from that they’re very different animals — even when they look like they’re doing the same walking-and-talking-in-character thing. Let’s specifically compare the first two:

FLRP

Freeform

  • Outdoors
  • Combat is high priority
  • Rubber swords
  • Encounter-by-encounter structure
  • Party focused
  • Monsters (players playing antagonists) outnumber party
  • Indoors
  • Verbal discussion is high priority
  • Fangs, capes and eyeliner
  • Meeting structure, with in-character recess but continuous time-in
  • Individual focused
  • GMs usually outnumbered (severely) by the players

A couple of comments:

  1. FLRP prioritises combat which is a measurable, game activity. Freeform prioritises verbal interaction, but more importantly de-prioritises the combat stuff (which can’t be done indoors anyway). A lot of Freeform conflict resolution comes down to negotiation, description, and who shoots first.
  2. FLRP’s encounter structure provides the same scene focus that indie games love. Freeform’s meeting structure can involve a lot of dead air as people wait for things to happen to them.
  3. FLRP’s party focus means they have a party-to-GM relationship. Freeform’s individual focus (with the incumbent secrets etc.) means the GM has not one relationship to maintain but many 1-2-1 relationships with each player as individual. And since there are usually fewer GMs in Freeforms (owing to the fallacy that these games “just run themselves”), the GM cannot possibly maintain all those relationships at once.

Now I freely admit that Freeform games are not my favourite — it’s not that they’re all bad, but they have a lot of potential to go wrong and not be much fun for the majority of the players. It usually follows the pattern:

  1. The Freeform game follows a regular meeting structure. However…
  2. The people who are actually interested in the formal meeting are in the minority (for example a Vampire game that includes a wide spread of status will usually involve the high-rank PCs grandstanding all evening while everyone else looks on)
  3. To keep the majority interested the GMs have to have exciting things happen outside the meeting, and go outside the game boundaries. In the past this would be contained in PBM-style turnsheets. However…
  4. …pretty quickly people stop respecting the in-game boundary (i.e. the physical room) and start with the secret meetings and players with their fingers in the air going off in breakout sessions.
  5. GM time is quickly consumed by having to be outside the room with a minority of players, leaving the majority of players inside with no GM. How long those players keep roleplaying small talk depends on their stamina and motivation.

Freeforms are set up to provide immersive roleplaying, but nothing breaks immersion like seeing another player standing in the room, going over to their character to talk, and being told “I’m not actually here, I’m off doing something else”. If the game is going to be split into multiple tabletops, you may as well not define the play boundary at all.

But all of this can be avoided. The Murder Mystery is a subset of Freeform games that can be commercially successful with repeatable results among players who aren’t familiar with roleplaying. How does it achieve this?

Most importantly this genre obviates need for nearly all GM-player interactions. The GM may be called on to be arbitrator, but not to invent situations on the spot where players transition from live roleplaying in the shared space to a pseudo tabletop outside the shared space. This is achieved by having game elements that can be played out between players without need for arbitration (e.g. what Minds Eye Theatre is supposed to do).

These games usually have one location or play area, and assume the real physicality of the location will be used by the players (rather than forcing the players to imagine a fictional landscape). A lot of MM games take place in big houses because… it’s easy to find a big house. The players are rarely permitted outside the play area, due to some constraint being baked into the setting (e.g. you’re on an island).

The third element is preparation to ensure balance and equal participation and unambiguity of backstory elements. A number of Freeform games fall down when there’s a large character briefing tailored to individuals, which place an expectation of action on those characters. MM games manage to state the premise and pertinent facts in a way that feeds the shared imagined space — in doing so the space is reinforced by what the group agrees it should look like. 

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p>Those elements together make for a better (more coherent) game, the question is, does it hurt immersion? Do these play elements get in the way because they remind players they’re playing with limited degrees of freedom? The expectation to be able to leave the play area and still be in the game (going off to do secret stuff) seems to be a big part of Freeforms, and therefore individual character immersion.

Since the methods used by MM games to transform Freeforms are formulaic and goal-oriented, and an immersion goal is often seen to be at odds with goal-oriented RPG theories, there’s an argument that yes — MM games are not immersive. But then there are arguments that immersion doesn’t exist, because every game-related action — reaching for dice, describing action, &c — breaks immersion. Clearly there’s scope to take some of the elements of Freeforms that people really like, such as the “always in character” and apply MM structures. The most obvious is to make the real world the play space and disallow players from being “not there” if they’re actually there — an approach taken in some long-term immersive games (usually modern fantasy).

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