Immersion and Deep Character Investment's Downside
I'm not actually going to be using a Sanity-Points-style character mechanic to handle fear issues in my upcoming Albion campaign, because I don't want the game delving quite that far from the heroic mold; just barely, but not quite there. But its certainly not because of any of the advice James Raggi provides in his LotFP Referee's Handbook.
There, Raggi suggests that something like fear-reactions are best roleplayed by characters. I strongly disagree. And the reason I disagree is, I suspect, the selfsame one he'd try to cite in favour of his argument: immersion.
He would say that when you have something like Sanity Points, and you take away control of a character's actions from the player to represent something like fear, this "breaks immersion", and to a certain extent, he's right. It can be jarring, disruptive, for a player who's sure his character would want to stand and fight to be told "no, you failed your sanity check, so you run in terror".
But the thing is, this is also a part of the trick of immersion: because you associate with your character, you, like your character, might imagine yourself more able to handle Things Man Was Not Meant To Know far better than you think you can. Raggi seems to think a good roleplayer will be able to just man up and have his character piss his pants in fear when the moment is called for; that has never been my experience. Players don't want to intentionally play a position of weakness, and running away is usually a position of weakness. There are two reasons why they might choose for their character to act in a way that unduly ignores the sheer terror of a horrific situation: the first is if they are thinking like players, of course, and don't want to "lose". But the second is in fact if they are IN immersion, and the character himself imagines that he would not act in a cowardly way. We all know people, and have perhaps faced situations ourselves, where we imagine that we would act in a far better, braver, nobler, calmer or cooler way than we actually do when the situation we speculated ends up in front of us.
These players are immersing to the character but not to the emulation of the world. So for the sake of the emulation of that world, the GM has to sometimes enforce the world-emulation on them, and that's where things like Sanity Checks come in. I'm not advocating using Sanity checks in every kind of game; as I mentioned, I won't be using them for Albion. There, save for perhaps some fear-inducing creatures that may pop up, I'm not going for an emulation of a world of supernatural TERROR, just dark fantasy. But if you are (and its pretty clear Raggi was as part of his whole "weird fantasy" schtick), then you NEED a sanity mechanic specifically to emulate that feeling of sheer terror, and the players can get to immerse in the sensation of not being in control of yourself anymore. That too is an emulative experience.
After all, SAN points more old school than ThAC0.
(originally posted July 14, 2011)