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Exploring Immersion and Crunch in RPGs

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With so many different RPGs on the market, it's common practice to compare them to one another. The thing is, comparing RPGs is tricky -- and, as a result, is often done poorly. It's easy to get caught up comparing individual features between two systems, when what you really want is something more holistic. The crucial thing you really need to know about an RPG is, of course, what sort of game you can play with it!

Some groups will have a pretty similar experience no matter what system they pick up. Some systems will feel different to different groups. Be that as it may, we can come up with some vocabulary that -- in general terms -- will tell us about the sort of play experience a certain game is designed to create. In the end, this should let us more effectively explore different play styles, as well as choose games appropriately once we've figured out which styles work for us.

The key ideas we'll be using are crunch/smoothness and immersion/detachment. Let's quickly define these terms.

Crunchy games use numbers to model the in-game world. They have a robust rules structure underlying play which allows a great variety of penalties, bonuses, spells, abilities, combat maneuvers, you name it. Unsurprisingly, they tend to have thick rulebooks to explain all of the nuance, and lots of boxes on the character sheets in order to show it off.

Crunchy games tend to feature characters defined on multiple levels. In Pathfinder, for example, a character's ability to find traps is based on their Wisdom modifier and their number of Perception ranks, but is also affected by whether or not the character is a rogue, and their choice of feats and traits. In GURPS, a character's accuracy with a sword depends on their Dexterity and their skill level in Broadsword, plus they may have fancy advantages like Weapon Master (which grants bonuses when using one specific weapon, such as Aragorn's Anduril). As a result, creating and advancing characters takes a lot of time. On the plus side, this means that players have a great deal of freedom in crafting their characters. Some of them will find this to be satisfying, and may even build characters that will never see play just for the sake of exploring synergies. The downside, of course, is that GMs sometimes become irritated when their five-hour creations are taken down in the first five minutes of combat.

Just as players have detailed control over their characters, GMs have detailed control over the environment. Difficulties for rolls can be fine-tuned to exactly where the GM wants them to be. Baddies can have exciting trademark moves -- PCs can be petrified by a gorgon or drained by a vampire. Those options exist within the rules, so there's no haggling or worrying about how best to do it.

The strength of crunchy games is that there are rules to handle whatever you want to do. The weakness is that you have to keep track of the rules. With that in mind, let's look at smooth games.

If crunchy games are high-tech office buildings with HDMI cables built into the walls and independent thermostats in every room, smooth games are log cabins. You lose all of the features, but what you gain is simplicity.

Smooth games hand-wave away basically all of the numbers. The rules have a few general structures, but don't explicitly handle weird corner cases. Character sheets are just a sketch of the character -- they can guide your play, but they certainly don't simulate anything in detail. Difficulties for rolls are coarsely assigned, if they exist at all.

Lasers & Feelings character sheet

At the intensely smooth level, you have games like Risus and Lasers & Feelings, where you can easily fit the character sheet on a quarter of a sheet of paper. Fate and World of Darkness fall at a more mainstream level, and are still pretty smooth. They have thick rulebooks, but they're mostly examples -- you can honestly fit the rules in a dozen pages or so, as they illustrate on Free RPG Day.

At the immersive end of the scale, play tends to focus on immersing the player in their character's experiences, often through detailed question-and-answer about the characters' surroundings. The line between player and character can even become blurred, as characters benefit a great deal from player skill -- actions are often resolved using a player's problem-solving skills or social savvy, rather than with dice and ability scores.

The process of searching a dungeon corridor for traps is a common and illustrative example of immersive play. A player may ask detailed descriptions about the walls, floor, and ceiling of the hallway, wary of scorch marks or blowdart-sized holes. They may pour water on the floor to look for deep cracks or a gradual incline. They may even carry ten-foot poles, used to check the floor for trap-triggering pressure plates.

The upsides of immersive play are fairly evident -- players feel close to in-game events, and player skill is rewarded. There are downsides as well, of course. The pace of play is slowed, significantly, compared to more detached games -- detailed discussion takes time! In addition, immersive games typically use dice for physical tests (swimming, climbing, kicking down doors) but not for social and mental tests (such as negotiations with NPCs or perception checks). Some folks object to this dichotomy, since physical and mental/social skills tend to be treated symmetrically in the rules as written.

Immersive play is traditionally associated with the old-school camp -- gamers who play old editions of D&D or retroclones inspired by them. In fact, this style of play is explicitly endorsed in the often-shared Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

As far as I can tell, old-school D&D is conducive to immersive play because players interact minimally with dice. This is not to say that the original D&D was a smooth game -- a quick look at the to-hit tables and arbitrary-feeling level restrictions will show you that it's not -- but it's never imperative that the players be the ones to deal with the mechanics. Taking this idea to its logical extreme (the most immersive game possible) would probably mean handing all of the character sheets and dice to the GM, and having them handle everything behind the curtain. Players would be strictly role players, never interacting with the mechanical nitty-gritty. They wouldn't even need to know the rules of the game! There are quite a few games that could (in principle) be played this way, including BRP, World of Darkness, and even GURPS.

Detached play -- that is, play where the players are "zoomed out" from their characters -- is the opposite.

In detached play, immersion is deprioritized, allowing players to engage directly with the mechanics, such as through tactical combat with strict movement and action restrictions, or abilities which may optionally be applied to a character's rolls (think the attribute pools in Numenera or Power Attack in Pathfinder).

Detached games can also have actions available to the players (whereas in an archetypal immersive game you act exclusively asyour character).Games like Fate, Savage Worlds, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, and Edge of the Empire give players poker chips which they may spend as a resource of narrative control. These briefly blur the line between player and GM, allowing a player to add a new story detail or skew the odds of a roll.

Fate Core character sheet

Unsurprisingly The player/character divide is more pronounced in detached play than in immersive play, and that greater divide is mediated by dice. Rather than a player's social savvy, the success of a negotiation will depend on the number of skill ranks a player has invested in Diplomacy, or whether or not they consider this conversation important enough to spend a poker chip. Rather than a detailed back-and-forth about flagstones, a player will locate a trap based on their Burglary skill.

Playing in the detached style keeps the game moving faster, which in turn can emphasize the broader plot rather than becoming immersed in the scene at hand. A detached perspective also invites players to ask a question you're unlikely to see in an immersive game: "would it be good for the story if my character failed here?"

Bringing it Together
Now that we have these concepts fleshed out in the abstract, how do we apply them?

Well, I have some homework for you. Think of your favorite game. Where does it sit on the immersed/detached scale? Where does it sit on the crunchy/smooth scale? Now pick a game that falls somewhere completely different -- you can change one variable or both. Get your group together, and give it an honest try. Report back here with your experiences.

Here are some examples to get you started:

Crunchy and detached: Pathfinder. Loads of options for races, classes, spells, and abilities, including many that require direct player attention to the mechanics (such as Power Attack, a very common feat, as mentioned above).

Crunchy: Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Like 3rd Edition/Pathfinder, this game still has plenty of mechanical heft behind its character creation. However, there's much less emphasis (at least judging from the basic set) on the sorts of feats and special abilities that break immersion.

Crunchy and immersive: GURPS. There's a lot of crunch here, to be sure, but there's no reason that the GM can't handle it all behind the curtain. Direct player involvement in the mechanics is rare.

Detached: Numenera. The game is smoother than you would expect from the size of the rulebook. The core action resolution mechanic demands that players engage in resource management.

Neutral: Swords & Wizardry. This is one of the most well-respected retroclones. It's about as smooth as you can get, and about as immersive as you can get, while still keeping the Vancian magic system, which requires tracking a bunch of numbers level-by-level and doing resource management during play. Another option for this spot is Savage Worlds, a sort of GURPS-light with a few poker chips thrown in.

Immersive: Basic Role Playing. It's not smooth, but it's far less crunchy than the heavy hitters like Pathfinder or GURPS. If you wanted to literally have the GM handle all of the rolls behind their curtain, this would be a pretty easy system to do it in.

Smooth and detached: Fate. The heavy use of aspects allows Fate to be a robust universal system without much mechanical structure, but the poker chip economy is a crucial part of making this work, so play is unambiguously detached.

Smooth: Risus. This game is incredibly smooth, but I honestly have trouble assessing where it falls on the immersive/detached scale because it's so goofy. I think you could really go either way with it.

Smooth and immersive: This one is the trickiest. There are loads of indie games, retroclones, and homebrews that try to hit the sweet spot here, but I have yet to be satisfied with any of them (which is why I'm building my own homebrew to put here). For now, check out Lasers & Feelings/Swords & Scrolls.

About the author: Charles is a Minneapolis-based physicist who likes to understand, redesign, and simplify things. He enjoys answering interesting questions, whether or not anyone else cares enough to ask them: Does this game still work without stunts? What happens if I grill these? Can I fix this with a hacksaw? From time to time, these projects end up on his blog, Cooking with Charles.

Nice article.

Amber Diceless is Smooth and immersive if you need an exemplar.

Mr. Kent:
Very well-thought out article. It makes me consider which styles of game I prefer--so far leaning towards immersive, but only semi-crunchy.

Thanks for the replies!

I thought about Amber, but the fact that it's diceless screws up the comparison. It's really in its own category.

I think immersive play is probably more common, but I encourage you to give detached play a try! We jumped straight from Pathfinder to Fate in my main campaign and it was great.

Lord Mhoram:
Came to this a couple months late....

I blow your curve so to speak. I play Pathfinder and Hero and am a complete immersive.

If I have to think outside of the rules, then I'm not immersing in character, I'm solving a puzzle or problem as the player. In a game like Hero where every roll of the dice is mapped to a single specific action then it drives immersion for me. Rolling the dice for my Security system rolls = my character disarming that trap. I never get out of character. When you have high mechanics and very robust rules like Hero or Pathfinder, is that after a certain amount of play, the rules are known, and I don't have to think of them.. just like in real life I don't have to do the calculations of mass and momentum when driving a car.

At that point the rules fade to "laws of physics" and I never had to think in game terms. All of my focus and concentration is feeling the emotions the character feels, and choosing all my actions from within the framework of what my character knows and is capable of.

But then the immerson for me isn't the "asking detailed descriptions about the walls, floor, and ceiling of the hallway, wary of scorch marks or blowdart-sized holes" but in becoming as close as I can, to being my character.


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