Monday, April 11, 2011

9 Ways to Enhance Game Immersion

I’ve played lots of roleplaying games with lots of different people over the years, and some sessions have definitely stood out as being more memorable than others. I often ask myself: what are the common characteristics of the sessions that evoke the most colorful memories? More specifically, what were the conditions and refereeing styles that helped certain games glow in my imagination more than others? Games where I smelled the ozone when walking through an interdimensional gate or tasted the blood in my mouth after having my abdomen punctured or felt the sinking fear and confusion of a supernatural threat beyond my understanding. I guess immersion is the word I’m looking for.

I like roleplaying sessions that maximize immersion. I prefer them actually. But I realize a lot of people don’t and that’s okay. I too enjoy gamier games that are largely tactical in nature, and I respect and enjoy the diversity of play styles out there. With this post I’m not criticizing people that like different play styles, I am simply recommending the common elements associated with the most memorable sessions I've played in. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t always follow all of these recommendations when running my own games – but perhaps I should try to.

1. Don’t use miniatures or battlemats. Most of my favorite sessions as a player have lacked minis and grid maps. Period. This being said, as a referee I use minis and mats frequently because my players specifically request them and I do like the visual and tactile quality of minis. They're fun, what can I say? The minis question is something that tortures my soul endlessly. When will I be able to walk away? Do I want to?

2. Turn off the background music. I’ve always gamed with background music, so it was a revelation to me about a year ago when I realized that the weirdest and most intense gaming moments I can recall have been when the room was completely silent and you could hear a pin drop or dog fart between the referee’s words. Background music seriously diminishes a referee’s ability to control the tone and atmosphere of a roleplaying session. This being said, I still often run games with background music when I am at other peoples’ houses. I don’t want to tell them to turn off their music, ya know?

3. Don’t use a screen. The referee screen creates a barrier between the players and the referee and obscures the referee’s hand gestures. I go back and forth between using my screen - I’d prefer to never use it but it's just too handy for displaying reference tables and hiding maps and minis. Lately I’ve been trying to keep the screen off to my side side so I can take advantage of it without having it sit between me and my players.

4. Sit down and look your players in the eyes. This is simple public speaking advice and it works. Again, this is a rule I often break. I stand a lot because of the whole miniatures thing.

5. Don’t allow distractable players at the table. Players constantly messing around with smartphones or talking about movies or restaurants or other out-of-game stuff are GAME DESTROYERS! Eject these players immediately. Or better yet, don’t invite them in the first place - play Settlers of Catan or something with them first to see what their attention spans are like.

6. Use your words and your voice to evoke atmosphere. Again, this is no-brainer public speaking advice. I like to think of it as refereeing like you’re presenting an audio book, meaning that you can be expressive without turning the game into an overboard theatrical performance. It’s easy to start a session nicely, but during a long game don’t forget to keep dropping occasional color adjectives (odors, sounds, temperature, etc.) and leveraging the volume, speed, and tone of your words.

7. Think about your opening spiel before the game starts. I do a lot of public speaking as part of my job. I can tell you that in any presentation the first five minutes is crucial for establishing your credibility and tone. In roleplaying games the referee has to ad lib once the adventure starts moving. The opening intro – whether it’s a campaign recap or background spiel for a one-shot – is the only moment a referee can specifically prepare for, and it can dramatically affect how the players will approach the session. Take advantage of this and make the opening as clear and as eloquent as you can. I love playing in games that kick off with a great background monologue from the referee.

8. Don’t look up rules while you’re playing
. This wastes time, ruins the momentum of a game, and makes you look bad as a referee. Don’t do it. Make things up if you have to. The only possible exception to this is if you have some tables bookmarked that you can get to immediately. Opening the rulebook before or after the adventure to help with character bookkeeping is fine, of course.

9. Don’t be afraid of interesting NPCs and first-person roleplaying. Sessions that include roleplaying with compelling NPCs are ALWAYS the best and most memorable. A lot of people get real squirmy doing first-person roleplaying, and that’s okay - you don’t want to decrease fun by making players do something they don’t want to do - but if the referee and at least some of the players are into it, first-person interactions add serious color to sessions. It doesn’t have to be a LARP or psychotherapy session, but having at least a few conversations with NPCs with complex or mysterious motivations will make any session more memorable.

Have fun!


  1. Great advice.You make a great point with #7. Latley I've been agonizing over the minis battle map thing myself. And #5 is a real pet peave of mine. I have one player who is a tech nut. I let him use his lap top to run his character in my Pathfinder game. Let me tell you how much of a mistake that was! Whenever it wasnt his turn he was looking at other stuff, and then showing some of the cool things he found on the web to other players and distracting them too!

  2. Except for #5 and #9 I do all of the above!

    Being consistent in how I play a character is really my biggest weakness as a DM, I've been getting better at it as I've been real conscious about improving my acting ability.

    My patience with distracting players dropped big time over the last few months. I'm likely to skip a players turn if they are taking too long or being distracting instead of waiting for some stupid pop culture, or off topic story to finish.

    This trick seems to have had the best results, but pulling it off without seeming like a hard ass is difficult. Maintaining the flow and momentum of the game is the most important part of skipping a players turn for being unprepared.

    Ejecting distracting players is a tough one, I do not like to be exclusive, but more and more I've been becoming just that.

  3. I wish I could manage to play with #8. Game rules just aren't tnings that stick with me. I guess I need a really rules lite game.

  4. As a screen alternative, consider a loose leaf notebook. You can tilt it toward yourself, prop it on the table, or keep it closed. Also good for referencing the Very Few Rules you should need at the table.

  5. I guess I need a really rules lite game.

    Yes - I recommend them!

  6. As a screen alternative, consider a loose leaf notebook.

    Yeah - a couple weeks ago I played with a DM who used a notebook like this. Maybe I'll give it a try.

  7. About 8:

    Some things you'll need to look up - for example, if playing Shadowrun then you might need to look up an LTG number, or more than one, in a session.

  8. I require that the players do first person roleplaying and I do the same with my NPCs

    Looking the players in the eyes as you talk to them is also a must.

    Some very good principles here.

  9. yes. To all of it.

    The music one is tricky: I've found it really good for maintaining mood, especially if exploration of a single environment stretches over multiple sessions - you put the same mood track on and the players go " oh right, we're in the jungle and there are those creepy thing making noises again." Obviously it depends on the music, I'm talking about atmospherics you can leave on infinite loop.

    What I've found works brilliantly is weather sounds. The BBC did a series of CDs: rain, distant thunder, drips, all on long loops. Sound + game experience leads to mnemonics of tension.

  10. All excellent advice.

  11. All excellent advice, and the tip that really rings true for me is #1. After a few years, on and off, of using a mat in my games, I ran a filler GammaWorld game to see if we liked the Alternity rules. (we did.)

    With no mat, players start to ask interesting questions about their surroundings that go beyond what you could draw... I'm never going back to one, unless they demand it.

  12. I've only used music in game sessions twice, and both times involved symphonic music based around a "Magneto with sonics" supervillain's special-effects.

    Reading this post, though, makes me seem like I'm in the minority as far as tunes go....

  13. For #3 What I've found works well for me is using a swing arm report cover. I slip in maps of the current dungeon and wandering monster charts as facing pages. On the back of the wandering monsters I write a list of the session's party members (mostly just for their ACs). I can lay it down and no one sees my map. I have one for various dungeons and can carry them around in my bag like little modules.

  14. We are on the same page. I rarely use miniatures in role-playing games exactly because it tends to impair immersion. I try to keep my screen to the side, too. It's less dangerous than sitting on the back of one's chair to get a better view of the players, which is what I did when I was a teenager.

  15. Great list! I read somewhere recently a report of using an PDF rules on an iPad, in which the author was really pleased with being able to zip directly to rules via bookmarks.

  16. Re: #5 - My problem there is I am the distractable player.


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