Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Preface: I posted this on theRPGsite about four-an-a-half years ago, and stumbled across it while searching for something else - which is kinda ironic, considering the subject matter. It's meta in that it's not about cape-and-sword roleplaying specifically, but I'm re-posting it here so that I can reference it in the future.

In the fall of 1996 I attended a search manager's training class at Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park. The students consisted of sheriff's deputies and park rangers who worked in search-and-rescue operations.

The first day was spent on lecture and a case study; we divided into teams and ran through a scenario involving a lost hunter. Each group functioned as the planning team for the search, so we were busy with establishing a command post, allocating resources, identifying search areas, calculating probabilities of search and detection, and applying our knowledge of lost person behavior. The instructors responded to our requests for information, told us when we found clues, resolved our requests for additional resources, responded to our interviews with witnesses and family members, and so on and so forth. The instructors used slides to show us what the terrain and vegetation cover looked like, as well as the condition of clues we found.

In due time we located the missing hunter, conducted a debriefing on the incident, and called it a day.

The next morning was a short lecture and our second search scenario, two hikers missing in Rocky Mountain National Park. The complexity of the search increased: more challenging terrain, more resources to manage (searches in national parks tend to resemble the circus coming to town), lost persons with less experience than our outdoorsman from the previous day, tougher calculations. I have to say our group did very well; we quickly identified the highest priority areas to search based on lost person behavior, and after awhile the instructors announced we'd found one of the two hikers, the girlfriend.

The slide on the screen was the body of a woman partially covered with snow.

The room got very quiet.

The lead instructor then announced that we located the second hiker as well, further down the drainage where we concentrated our searchers. Another slide of a body in the snow, this time a man.

The room went pin-drop silent.

The lead instructor looked around the room at the assembled deputies and rangers. "Don't look like that," he said. "You did your job."

I remember the sharp feeling of failure, tinged with anger and sadness, when I saw those slides, and I remember distinctly the expressions on the faces around the room mirroring much of what I felt in the moment.

Everyone one of us in that room was an experienced searcher, and I don't doubt for a moment that most of us encountered death in the field before that day. That preceding summer I'd participated in a search-and-recovery for a backpacker who slipped off a corniced pass and fell about six hundred feet to his death, and I spent a week on a complex, physically- and emotionally-challenging search for a ranger, one of my colleagues, who went missing in the backcountry. (The Morgensen SAR, and the circumstances surrounding it, would become the subject of an extraordinary book, The Last Season).

We conducted this exercise across a folding table in an air-conditioned auditorium in the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. We debated plans, told war stories, got soft-drinks and snacks, talked about the weather (it would reach 117 degrees Fahrenheit later that week, which is still pretty cool for Death Valley, but then it was October, not August), joked about the obese roadrunner that hung around the entrance to the VC looking for handouts from visitors (I called him 'Butterball'), and marveled at the Czech visitors who were all over the park that week (good exchange rate + off-season = eastern European visitors in droves).

None of this detracted from the very palpable feeling of loss we experienced at the conclusion of the exercise. Lunch took on the feel of an informal CISD as we reflected on our experiences with death in SAR ops, couched in the morbid humor of experienced professional rescuers.

I read a lot of really stupid things about immersion in roleplaying. There are the "true Scotsmen" who insist that anything less than "TOTAL IMMERSION!" isn't really immersive. There are the idiots who ascribe mental illness to immersion, that feelings resulting from imagination are inherently pathological.

In my experience, even more well-meaning and favorably-disposed gamers make out immersion to be something terribly complicated, and while it's not something which can be reproduced like a formula for soda or barbecue sauce, I've found some common features in immersive roleplaying games: a convincing setting, multi-faceted characters with believable responses, consistency of game-world physics, all of which, for me, point toward the ability to encourage and enhance the willing suspension of disbelief as one of the key elements of immersion in roleplaying.


  1. Whew. Heavy story. Should have read this after work.

    As far as gaming goes if I can get my guys immersed enough to realize that the world doesn't stay static until they come into a room, it moves, evolves and actions have results beyond the immediate situation good or bad or both.

    Good story. Great example.

  2. Good post.

    I think what's difficult is getting the amount of immersion desired by various members of a group to mesh. If you have a core group that's played a long time, this works itself out, but in the short run it can cause some dissatisfaction.

    1. That's a good point, Trey. Expectations setting can ameliorate this somewhat, but it still takes most gaming groups some time to gel.

  3. I had a marvelously immersive experience at NTRPG Con this past year playing in Jeff Dee's Cavemaster game.

    Based on that and on my experience with past experiences of spontaneously occurring immersion I don't find anything in your summation with which I could disagree.

    Immersion is like joy: it occurs when you're not looking for it under conditions you really can't control and attempts to "manufacture" the experience will inevitably fail.

  4. Great post, Mike.

    gamers make out immersion to be something terribly complicated

    My 5 year-old routinely achieves immersion with Lego bricks and toy superheroes. I think that part of the genius of Gygax, Arneson et al was to find a way to channel the natural, immersive roleplay tendencies of children into a flexible structure that allows them to persist into adulthood. Thus RPGs are arguably a form of neoteny (retention, by adults in a species, of traits previously seen only in juveniles).

    As putative adults, I suspect we often need more "setting logic" (Greg Stolze's term) than mere Lego bricks (hence your well-put "convincing setting, multi-faceted characters with believable responses, consistency of game-world physic"). But sometimes that disbelief switch can be flipped by the smallest detail -- like folks who start to feel tipsy at the sound of the wine bottle being uncorked, or perk up at the first gurgle of the coffee maker.

  5. Ouch. That hurts, I've done SAR planning [at sea] and we lost one of the Cuban refugees we pulled out of the water, but it's different when they pass away after you find them. Won't say I'm happy to be out of that business because I know that the work I did there more meaningful that anything I've done since.

    Still it reminded me of Poul Anderson's <a href="http://www.baenebooks.com/chapters/1416555692/1416555692.htm><i>The Saturn Game</i></a>. A very appropriate story for gamers.


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