Gamers come in many different forms. Some prefer the mechanics of a game above all else, some prefer player interaction, and others prefer a great experience filled with an interesting story and artwork. I consider myself a mix between the first and last points, but moreso I lean toward the latter. In the video game world there’s a word for when a game pulls the player into its world, and that word is immersion. I feel like tabletop games have the ability to immerse players within a new world (especially when it comes to RPGs but we’ll get to that later), but it does take some work. For a player like me immersion is important, and having some focus on it will really affect how I feel about playing a game.
First off, let me say that I believe immersion is available through three different types of tabletop games: miniatures games, board games, and RPGs. Unless you’re playing Legend of the Five rings, I don’t think card games or CCGs can immerse the player too much. They put too much focus on being competitive. I could be leaving out a couple of types of games, and if I am, tell me about it below!
For now, let’s talk a bit about how each type of game offers player immersion, and what it means to the players who enjoy those games.
The biggest miniatures game I play is Warmachine/Hordes. This full metal fantasy game sees giant robots clashing on the battlefield, giant beasts clashing on the battlefield, and even a mix of the two! In this game players get immersed, not so much through game mechanics, but more so through time invested in the game. Players assemble and paint models of all sorts to make different lists to play with. The game has an engrossing storyline behind it, and Privateer Press puts a lot of work into making the game’s fluff something that’s a must-read.
Players research the game’s factions to learn their back story, look into individual models’ history, and even find time to look up Mercenaries or Minions to add even more flavor to their armies. As you spend more and more time painting these models, adding scenery to the game, creating terrain for miniature locations to play in, and customizing your lists, you become immersed in the game’s universe. When you hit the battlefield with your army you really feel like you’re commanding a powerful set of warriors ready to do battle. Some players take their game even further by writing out storylines for their battles, creating giant story arcs for epic campaigns.
As a terrain-maker myself, this aspect of the game really allows you to get into the game’s world. You can craft mausoleums, great warjack workshops, necrofactoriums for the Cryx, giant forest temples for the Circle, and much more. You already have the blueprints for a world to play in, but it’s up to you how you shape it. Investing time this way lets you take a look at the game’s universe like never before.
I know what you’re thinking, “How can board games immerse a player? Isn’t it just rolling some dice/moving some pieces and seeing what happens?” The same can be said for RPGs, and I get it. But board game immersion is something that can, and does, happen. I never really paid attention to it until I finally sat down and played LEVEL 7 [ESCAPE]. The game is marketed as a survival horror game that uses fear to its advantage. You play as an average Joe who has been kidnapped and taken deep underground to a research facility known as Subterra Bravo. In this hellacious citadel you encounter armed guards and terrifying clones that are after you for trying to escape. The game is played through scenarios that each have a different goal for victory. You can choose to either help your fellow players escape or use them as stepping stones to ensure you make it out alive.
In the first scenario you’re desperately trying to find the lift to take you up to the next level, but the guards and clones come out of nowhere to stop you. They can lock doors, block your escape route, and sometimes cause enough damage to you to send you to the infirmary. Through your journey you’ll pick up items – some that can help in combat, others that help with searching/interacting with the environment – but no matter what you grab you’ll always feel a sense of being underpowered. That’s where part of the immersion comes in.
Privateer Press did a great job with working the game’s theme into creating immersion for the players. As I ran around inside Subterra Bravo I felt myself being afraid of where I’d turn next. I forgot about the outside world. All I was focused on was getting past the guards, avoiding the clones, and running my rear-end into the lift. Each step I took toward the lift was an adrenaline rush, and I felt my heart pounding in my throat. The more you play the game the more it sucks you in, and it’s a great feeling once you’ve successfully completed a scenario.
Another game I can mention here is Mice & Mystics by Plaid Hat Games. The game is laid out in story form, and each scenario is a different chapter to discover. Before you start each chapter there’s a little bit of back story to read, which really sets the mood. The story is full of magic and wonder, and as long as you have a little bit of imagination you find yourself in the shoes of the character you’re playing in no time. You’re immersed in another world.
I feel like this section could go without mentioning, but it does help make my point. When it comes to RPGs, it’s up to a Game Master to immerse players in a different world. He/she must use whatever game system rules are available to create a world for players to live and adventure in. Game Masters help bring players into another world by creating maps, offering player aids, and much more. For example, in my campaigns I like to print out and create a lot of letters, burned parchment, flyers, and the like. It helps get players into the game deeper than just reading to them what these pieces say.
You can immerse players in your RPGs in many different ways. Role playing is basically game immersion in and of itself! From the awkward old barkeep to the evil enchantress who lives in the dark castle on the hill, the Game Master will be portraying different characters that the players must respond to. This response can be through dialogue, or combat. Either way, you’ll be wrapping yourself up in the cloak of your character to do so, bringing you into the game at hand.
Even in cases such as filler sessions, where the players spend time in a town to do various tasks, can the players experience immersion. Players can level their skills, try to make some gold, and so much more. Before you know it you’ll be in the town market playing your lute to pick up some coin while your fighter friend trains his blacksmithing skill to make some new weapons for the party. You’re not just sitting at a table with dice anymore, you’re in a different plane of existence.
Of course, many can argue that the only thing needed for immersion in tabletop is one’s imagination. That statement isn’t wholly wrong. Of course it takes imagination to help bring out the immersion in tabletop games, but there’s also a great deal of game design that can help. Developers that truly put time into the stories behind their games can offer players the experience of a lifetime. I’ve played many games throughout my years that have transported me to one world or another, and each of them has provided a memory that’s become a story to tell along the way.
Immersion is important, at least to me, when it comes to tabletop. Does this mean I can’t enjoy cheeky, fun-for-the-gameplay games? Not at all. I enjoy a game of Magic (and more recently Karnickel) just like any other gamer out there. I just happen to really get into those games that have a rich story and mechanics/art/plots that really bring you into their world. What are some games that you feel have a great deal of immersion?