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Saturday 12 July 2014

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 LotFP "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 are as old school as ThAC0.


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(reposted May 1, 2013, from the old blog)


  1. I agree; it's all well and good to say to role-play it, but some sort of mechanic can definitely be useful as well. It's not like they're mutually exclusive. In fact, I included a Sanity stat mechanic as an optional rule for Mythos-inspired campaigns in the Adventures Dark and Deep Game Masters Toolkit.

  2. It's why Pendragon personality mechanics work so well for the Arthurian romance genre: the characters are subject to massive emotional forces that can seize them at any moment. (Although it does help that the player in Pendragon gets to establish at the start of play and subsequently through his or her choices during the game which emotional forces run the risk of taking control.)

  3. The key, I think, is to have mechanics that assist roleplay; I am as always a staunch opponent of mechanics that REPLACE roleplay, or interfere with roleplay by their very presence.

  4. For my games I divide it up to three different healths. Wounds for physical health and if that gets to zero your dead. Heroics which pretty much serve as the buffer health which if that gets to zero, then harm can be done to the other healths. Finally spirit which is your sanity and spiritual health. That goes down to zero it is game over for your character.

    By making it work like HP you got a sanity mechanic that doesn't get in the way of role playing, but still has a effect in the game.

  5. That's not a bad idea, but again, it's something I'd only use in certain types of games. You don't necessarily need a mental health stat for vanilla D&D, for example.




  6. What do you think of later Ravenloft approaches to Fear and Horror checks, which came with the advice "If the players roleplay the response well, run with that; if they try to shrug things off, roll the dice"?

  7. I'm not entirely clear on how those worked, I don't know if I've read those (if I did, it was a long time ago).

  8. I agree 100%.

    Regarding Ravenloft. Essentially they worked as Saving Throws you made when characters were subject either Horror (things man wasn't meant to know kind of stuff) or Terror (fear for your life kind of stuff). Depending on whether you were rolling for Horror or Terror, on a failure you would roll on an additional table. Terror tended to produce short lived immediate responses (flight, the shakes, etc), whereas Horror produced more longterm responses (things that could take time to shake off and would be triggered by similar circumstances). But the rules also specified that the GM could decide not to roll if players were adequately role-playing their fear or horror. So a player who just wades into a pit of zombies might be asked to make a roll, whereas one who runs in the other direction from fear, wouldn't be asked to do so.

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