Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Immersionism, Accepted Wisdom and Internal Conflict

"Let's go back to the jumping-off place here, then, which is playing your character in another character's memory. Really what jazzes me about it is that it's a trick like frickin' Matt Wilson's trick: it makes us think of our characters as characters, so we approach our stories as stories, not as made-up journalism."
Vincent reminded me of a post I promised months ago about internal conflict in roleplaying games. I want to see more about what Vincent means by "made-up journalism" as that's not necessarily the phrase that I would use. I would instead propose that it makes us think of our characters as characters, rather than seeing our characters as people. That is, independent people with their own existences outside of us, the people that play them. And yeah, that means I'm diving into the whole, ugly immersion argument.

So, for years, in roleplaying, the accepted wisdom was that immersion was the be-all-and-end-all of roleplaying. Getting into character was the most prized skill of any roleplayer, and he that could go more deeply into character was a better roleplayer. The idea is still common today, and is especially strong among LARPers. The Turku School of Roleplaying, based in Finland, has taken the immersionist idea to great lengths.

Obviously the idea of deep immersion holds great appeal for many players. I can't deny that. But I don't accept that it's the be-all-and-end-all of roleplaying either. I think getting into my character's skin is fun at times, but if I am constantly experiencing my character's life during play, I can't simultaneously appreciate his story.

In other words, I'm suggesting that I can't 'be' my character and think of him as a character in a story at the same time. And generally, I'd rather think of my character as a character in a story most of the time. That allows me to place him in situations that would be terrifying or traumatizing for him, but entertaining for me: I will unhesitatingly put him into the sort of blood and guts conflicts that characters in stories get embroiled in, and real people try like hell to avoid. It also allows me to place him and his actions in relation to the other players (including the GM) and their characters. When I keep an idea of him as a character rather than a person, then I retain the awareness necessary to use him to set up something interesting for a fellow player's character.

The latter is especially important to me. I find that I enjoy games the most when everyone at the table is conscious of and invested in all the protagonists (player characters) and their story arcs. So Mayuran is just as interested in seeing Alexander's character's story play out in a satisfying way as Alexander is. And they're both invested in the shape of my character's story. It's a very different experience than deep immersion, but I find the resulting play to be more entertaining and more rewarding.

And the crux of it is communication. The players need to be in constant communication, as players, about what they are liking and not liking, whether they feel something is stepping on their toes or not, etc. And here's where internal conflict comes in (I bet you thought I'd forgotten!).

Internal conflict is a staple of comics and novels. We get inside the character's head and see what makes him tick. In those media, internal conflict is easy to convey: the writer/author shares it with the audience/reader. 'I'll never be good enough for her, Marius thought.' Simple.

But it gets tricky in a roleplaying game. Our instinct, especially if we've grown up with the immersionist thinking, is not to share the conflict, but simply experience it. But that creates a problem for me, because then only the player of the character gets to appreciate the conflict. It exists only in that player's mind, much as Scott's Outsider-ness existed only in his own mind.

So how do you open it up to allow the other people to appreciate the internal conflict?

The first step is to recognize the lesson of the comics and novels. The writer has to communicate the conflict to the audience. In the case of a gaming group, the writer is the character's player, and the audience is the rest of the group.

Once we recognize that, we have some choices that can turn internal conflict into a real vehicle for serious play in RPGs.

First, we have the soliloquy, a favorite solution in the theater for dealing with this very problem. An excellent example of a soliloquy solution is the Thought Balloon from Michael Miller's phenomenal game, With Great Power (fair disclosure: I edited it). Whenever your character is experiencing an internal conflict, you grab the Thought Balloon, hold it over your head, and express the character's thoughts to the rest of the group. Once that happens, the rest of the group is aware of the conflict and is able to bring their resources to bear in stressing that conflict. It's fantastic.

The other method is to find a way to externalize the conflict. Try to take the conflict that is inside the character, and show it with an NPC relationship. One of the easiest ways is to develop a flag about the conflict. Flags are game elements that communicate a player's desires for his character to the GM and the rest of the group. For instance, let's say you have a character that is all about the following: "I believe life is sacred and no one has the right to kill, but some of these bad people might really have to die ."

In this case, I, as the GM would encourage the player of the character to look for an external factor to represent the obligation toward holding life sacred, whether it's a connection to a family that holds this philosophy, or a temple/church, or what have you. Once the group has that, they can start adding weight to the obligations. They can use their own scenes and characters to push the player's buttons for his character. If the player chooses to have his character kill, it's going to put the obligation in jeopardy. The nature of the relationship will have to change.

The GM, working with the other players, can create scenes that add to the obligation, juxtaposed with scenes that show that allowing these bad guys to live will spread disaster and death all around them. The climax comes at the point of serious choice: kill them and betray yourself, or stay true to yourself and allow them to live.

The group can also play up the human side of the villain. Show their obligations to their own family, the good things they do. And juxtapose it with scenes of the violence and horror they spread. Eliminating these people will stop the devastation, but will also destroy the lives of innocents around them. Now the climactic choice has much more weight.

All this works best when the entire group is on board to make this stuff happen; to bring that character or church or whatever into center stage whenever appropriate.


Brennan Taylor said...

Good stuff, Thor. I'm glad to see you posting here again.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Thanks Brennan! The panels at Dreamation and Vericon inspired me.

Matt Wilson said...

Excellent stuff, man. I'm totally on board.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hey, rock on Matt! Good to see you here.

Bankuei said...

That allows me to place him in situations that would be terrifying or traumatizing for him, but entertaining for me

Yep. I found Falling Leaves is a great way to get folks to try out that kind of play.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hey Chris. Welcome!

I have not played or read Falling Leaves as of yet. Can you tell me a little bit more about it and how it does this?

Bradley "Brand" Robins said...


I'm all down with you.

However, my wife is an interesting case on this issue. She can (I can testify to it) both be her character and see her character as a character in a story. It's this odd multi-tasking ability that she developed while doing improv and soap theatre in college, and it freaks out both story folks and other immersivists.

So, just as a data point, there are at least a few folks who can (in some contexts and to some degree) do both. Which makes me wonder about methods we might build to support building that set of skills.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hey Brand,

That's really neat! I can't even begin to imagine such a thing. I'd love to see a more in-depth description of what it's like and how it works!

monkeyking said...

Rock. You're on my Weblogs tab now.

Bradley "Brand" Robins said...


I'm trying to get her to write about it. If she'll ever finish her post about Immersion on Sin Aesthetics hopefully we'll have more grist for our mill.

In the meantime, I'm adding a link to this blog from Yudhishtira's Dice, if you don't mind.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Joshua: Reciprocated! Hope you're feeling better, BTW.

Brand: I'll be looking forward to it. And please link away. :)

Bankuei said...

Hi Thor,

Falling Leaves has this back and forth mechanic where the player in the conflict, and anyone else playing, take turns throwing consequences on one side or the other. "If you do X, then you will never see your true love again!" "If you do Y, then you will become the new king!" etc.

Because you are throwing direct input like an author, implicitly it becomes easier to see the character as a character and not as "my guy". It also becomes a lot more fun.

Thor Olavsrud said...


That sounds very cool. Almost like a super-directed form of stakes. Does that seem right?

Mayuran said...

thanks for the props, thor, but i'm just doing what my character would do.

also, i give it a week before happy conversation thor goes away and the force of rage and destruction returns.

J. Andrew said...

Hey Thor, this is really good stuff! And fuck, I had no idea you had a blog- Is there an RSS feeder thingy in Blogger that I can use to keep track of this blog?

One thing I'd like to add:

Trad games throw a brick into the works of standing outside the character and making things stressful for them.

In trad fantasy, dramatic stress that is within the rules means combat and danger, where the stakes are often life or death. Heck, in lots of games those are the stakes.

They're cool stakes, too, and can be really gripping. Here's the problem, though:

In any game where it takes you more than 30-60 minutes to make and fine tune a character (usually more for more trad games), you're dealing with more than just "character attachment impairing viewing your character-as-a-character", you're also dealing with a factor which I like to call, "My Conan OGL character is going to always play it safe, because it took us three motherfucking hours to make our characters in this fucking system."

The system inspires playing it safe and staying out of any danger where it's more than reasonable that you will "fail" 9especially in a setting where LIFE OR DEATH is always on the plate for stakes).

John Kim said...

Hello, Thor.

First of all, while I enjoy immersion, I am 100% with you that it is not the end-all/be-all. A few people have held up "immersion" as well as "story" and others as the end-all/be-all of role-playing, but I think most decent people have accepted that there is no one true way.

Thor wrote:
Our instinct, especially if we've grown up with the immersionist thinking, is not to share the conflict, but simply experience it. But that creates a problem for me, because then only the player of the character gets to appreciate the conflict.

Are you familiar with film theory, Thor? You emphasize the methods of comic books and novels -- but less so film and theater. Film in particular often shows internal conflict through method acting. Comic books have little expression in characters; while in theater the audience is many yards away from the actor. Thus, they use externalization devices like thought balloons and soliloquy. However, film tends to use close-ups and subtleties of dialogue to show internal conflict, as well as externalized action. A very common (though not entirely true) maxim of screenwriting is "Show, don't tell".

Personally, I find that under the right conditions, immersion is excellent for conveying the internal conflicts of a character. The character needs to be given power, information, and choice. But with those in hand, the choices which the character makes -- and how those are expressed -- say an awful lot about her internal conflicts.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hi Andrew,

Those are interesting points. I think what you're describing is certainly a part of the phenomenon. I suspect there's something more going on though. For instance, I've noticed some people in our Burning Wheel demos. They really love the pre-generated characters they are handed. They feel them. But they are afraid to do anything that puts them in harm's way. They play it safe and generally don't have a very good time. And these characters required zero investment as far as character creation goes.

You can find the site feed


Luke is the film theory guy. I'm the lit guy. ;)

That said, while I understand where you're coming from, I think that film almost invariably externalizes internal conflict in just the manner that I described.

Yes, fine actors can show the internal conflict of their characters through method, and I'm sure some fine roleplayers can too.

But because film is so very much a "show" medium, the elements of conflict are embodied in external relationships and obligations, and a good film makes those relationships and obligations clear to the audience. It gives context to the internal struggle of the character.

I point to comics and novels as problematic because one, many gamers' ideas of story are shaped by them, and two, it is not always necessary in those media to act on the struggle in the way it is with film. The audience often has direct access to the character's mind.

The important point here, from my perspective, is that communication with other players is key to the process of making internal conflict work in RPGs. As the audience, we need to be shown the conflicting relationships and obligations that compose the struggle. Then we can appreciate them and play into them.

Matt Wilson said...

I remember some really awkward play with hard-core immersionists maybe 6 years ago, and a lot of it had to do with all this purely internalized rationalization for the choices they were making.

Really, I think players who get into making their character a presence are pretty cool, and I'm happy to have people at the table who come up with character-defining dialogue and all that. I just need some insight now and then.

Bankuei said...

Hi Thor,

The real game of Falling Leaves is about how you set up the Stakes- the question of which direction you're going to take after they're set is part of play. Also, there's no way for your character to know these stakes ("If you do X, 3 years from now, your wife will die of poisoning"), so the decision process is made completely by the player.

John Kim said...

I've tried a few times, but haven't had much luck with soliloquys or narrated thinking in RPGs. They felt like they were stopping the game, and it seemed awkward for the player who was on the spot. I haven't tried WGP yet, though. Presumably the mechanics for the thought balloon make it more interesting for other players. (I'd be interested in more details on this.)

Interestingly, you didn't mention dialogue (either IC or OOC) as a window into character. For example, if you want to know what a PC is conflicted over, you can play out a dialogue where a confidant of the PC asks her what's troubling her. This just requires that the PC have a character they trust and open up to.

It's also pretty common in my experience to have out-of-game chats about the game and characters, which can shed further light on them. One technique we've used for the Buffy game is to have in-character blogs for all the PCs. So between sessions we have occaisional posts by the characters.

monkeyking said...

I'm way the fuck better. Thanks for asking, Thor. Ghah. That was the pits. As long as I didn't get anyone else sick, it was totally worth it to hang with everyone.

J. Andrews nails something really important, and I'd like to add to it:

Life-and-death stakes (which are actually rarer than they look in Middle Earth and Hyborea stories) in older games not only cost you your real-life resources of time and patience, but they also remove your ability to tell your story because all your resources are in the form of Your Dude. If you lose Your Dude, you lose all narrative control, so you gotta hang on.

Conversely, if you've got a dude (or none, or a bunch) in a Narrativist design, that dude is just one tool you have. In Dogs in the Vineyard, you get dice for dying. In Shock:, your resources become uninvested and you can put them elsewhere. In PTA, death has absolutely no effect on your ability to tell a story, you have to think up three new things about your new dude, and that's it; your Fan Mail stays in your pocket.

I think character death is something we've been deprived of for many, many years. No one's been able to stake their characters' lives on anything because it means staking so much more... and then, because those systems use task res systems, you don't even know what you're going to get out of the deal.

John Kim said...

I agree. One of the gaping holes of D&D / AD&D was that it never specified what to do when your character dies in play. Do you immediately roll up a new starting character? What if your old character get resurrected after a long time? Groups often developed house rules like making a new character starting at one level below the lowest party member, but that's filling in the gap.

Most RPGs have continued to leave this as an unspecified area of the rules.

The thing is, there's nothing particular radical about Dogs in the Vineyard on this front. All of your power is solely from your character. If you die, you have to write up a new PC in order to have any input. The only odd thing is that you get one extra die in your new character. In point systems, it is often common practice for a new PC to be the same points as an old PC. What makes it stand out is that it explictly gives a rule, where most RPGs leave it unclear.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Judd says it like it is.

"I want to run across immersion as a treat, not chase it down and forget the people I run over to get there."

monkeyking said...

John, one of the fundamental principles of Shock: is that adversity gives you resources. Dying (which only happens when your character is confronting Story Goal) is the same as your character getting up and out of this crazy life forever, or finally making good with his daughter, or anything else that resolves the character's story.

Then your character gets dissolved into temporary resources that your next character can use.

Dying (or leaving the story in any way) gives you stuff as a player without attaching it to the character.

Now, I agree, in Dogs, there's a lot of investment lost when a character goes down. But that's where we were 18 months ago. PTA showed us something new, and I'm hoping that I'm having an incremental effect on things, too.

Anonymous said...

terrific article, thor, I am going to chat about it over on nerds, but I thought i should drop a line to your blog, to thank you for writing it.