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Immersion in larp

Immersion. One of the most commonly used and misused terms in larp, very few people will view immersion in the same way. To put it simply, it's a state of mind where player doesn't need to actively suspend disbelief in the fictional surroundings. All the mental blocks are removed, and the flow of role-play is as smooth as if you were truly the character you're playing. And you truly start feeling like your character, as if the stuff happening to your character is really happening to you.

Camp details and game props can help you achieve immersion - besides serving as plot locations.

Several scientists have broadly defined these different types of immersion:
  1. Tactical (or Sensory-motoric) Immersion is experienced when performing tactile or physical operations that involve skill. Players feel “in the zone” while perfecting actions that result in success.
  2. Strategic (or Cognitive) Immersion is more cerebral, and is associated with mental challenge and decision making. Chess players experience strategic immersion when choosing a correct solution among a broad array of possibilities, without a corresponding physical set of reactions to effect that decision.
  3. Narrative (Emotional) Immersion is realized when the immersant becomes emotionally invested in a story or experience.
  4. Spatial Immersion occurs when the immersant feels the simulated world is perceptually convincing and feels he or she is really “there” and the simulated world looks and feels “real”.
  5. Total Immersion occurs when all four types of immersion previously described are realized in a single experience.
There's another type of immersion - "water immersion" aka bathing which is not discussed here, but please do it often and always before a larp. Anyways, larps can provide total immersion deeper than any other art or game. In the movies and other media that portrays gaming negatively, such people are often depicted as escapists, tragically losing themselves within the game until they're unable to differentiate it from reality. However, that is not immersion I'm talking about - there's no switching reality and fantasy there and it's not a mental disease.

Not everything is glory. Being wounded in-character can help you immerse. It's an excellent RP opportunity.

Larp immersion typically takes place in a carefully prepared larp environment without out-of-game distractions (or with as little as possible), and typically with a group of other good roleplayers. Immersion is a goal, actively sought and something that doesn't last long - an interruption like a non-player entering and asking what's going on is very annoying and immersion-shattering. The closest analogue I can think of is like when you're in the middle of a good movie in cinema, and suddenly movie stops and light turns on.

Only, the larp immersion gets stronger than that. Reason for that is quite simple - larp is way more involving than other media. And true, all arts and media can get you a certain sense of immersion. But if you're reading a book you're only using your eyes to read and imagination to build up everything else. In movies, you see and hear stuff happening. In computer games, you control nearly everything. Tabletop roleplaying has even more freedom, but you're back to imagining stuff, like with books. But larps are completely different because they're about experience.

A healing experience involves both the wounded and the healers, giving them time and opportunity to roleplay.

You walk where you walk. You're really there. You're feeling hot and cold, you can touch the bark of the tree you're passing. You can smell the evening campfire. You can hear and feel the wind and nature around you. And of course, you can actually fight those zombies.

Unlike other interactive experiences, in larp all your senses are involved in creating both conscious and unconscious experience of larp - plus, there's no difference between creators and consumers of the content. Suspension of disbelief is the essential detail in making it work, as it makes your character do actions in pretend-game world. Actively suspending disbelief is our normal reaction when we role-play, but it is also blocking fully natural reactions our characters are supposed to do... and supposed to feel. And when suspension of disbelief becomes something unconscious, a part of the background, immersion is achieved until it is inevitably broken, sooner or later.

In a battle, adrenaline kicks in. It's one of the oldest larp tricks to make you suspend reality for a while.

An inexperienced onlooker would probably miss the immersion, and would be more drawn to the more visible narrativistic (or dramatic) style of people who play primarily to provide a good experience for others, and use good acting to achieve it. The third apparent style are gamists, a group of players who are here primarily here to solve challenges such as quests, puzzles, or fight enemies. Very few players could be described as falling strictly in one group or another, as most are somewhere in between with some traits more dominant than others.

Camp gates can be visually stunning - and give guards a place where they can guard from. It all helps achieve immersion.

Immersive approach is also similar to simulationist approach, with one key difference - a simulationist will try to emulate what his or her character does the best he or she can, while immersionist will try to feel as his or her character does for maximum immersion and experience.

This can sometimes cause an effect called "bleed". Bleed is experienced by a player when her thoughts and feelings are influenced by those of her character, or vice versa. With increasing bleed, the border between player and character becomes more and more transparent.

Bleed can be very useful as it allows for a much deeper experience, but it can also be dangerous and require some time to get your mixed feelings sorted after a larp, to separate what happened in game and what is your own, both positive and negative. Playing for heavy bleed is common in Nordic and Nordic-style larps. (By the way, it just needs to be said: if someone ends up hating you out-of-character because of something you did in-character - or vice versa - he's not having bleed, he's just being an idiot. Don't confuse the two.)

Costumes, gadgets, props, environment, larp design, and players are all pieces of a puzzle to make an immersive larp

Somewhere in that time, immersion is achieved - sometimes you can even achieve catharsis through action of your character. But it can differ from person to person. Events which triggered immersion for me might not do the same for you, and vice versa. It's all very personal, and all of us have different responses. Basically, here's some sound advice which might facilitate immersion:
  • Aim for a 360º illusion. As many as possible elements should be period. If you have any gizmos they should work with a minimum of GM explanation. Mimimize objects which represent another. Use special effects when you can instead of simulating stuff or just imagining it's there.
  • Quality costumes and props (such as weapons) help a lot!
  • Rule system (if there is one) should impose minimum restrictions. Your-character-can-do-what-you-can-do should be a golden standard, everything else should add to that, not reduce from that.
  • Plan to be full-time in character and communicate to players clearly that this is what the game is about.
  • Make sure characters have plenty to do by either playing around their character traits, backstory, conflicting them against another player, introducing an NPC-supported plot, etc. or a combination of those.
  • If you're a player, do your own stuff too - it's your game and don't forget that!
  • If you're creating a character, make your character purposeful and detailed. The Bulgarian larp blogger Buskador has some good advice on his blog.
  • Avoid meta-gaming abuse. This article on larping.org explains the issue. Designing the larp to avoid the possibility (or necessity) of meta-gaming can get it closer to being more immersive.
  • Read and research. Check out larp theory. Improve your understanding of larp. Try out the new stuff. Do what hasn't been done before. Push the limit.
  • It's not necessarily complex or expensive to achieve immersion. There are simple tricks that will do.
These costumes won't go unnoticed. Great costumes simply invite good roleplay.

Here are some larps where I personally had some of my best immersion as a player - and what triggered it:
  • Summer Session 2001. (Character: Žaoka Presvetli) My first larp. They tend to be remembered because they're each player's first taste of larp immersion.
  • Summer Session 2003. (Character: Žaoka Presvetli) I found it in my roleplay to sacrifice a character due to external influence. Something similar happened again last year on Jaska 8 (Character: Maksimilijan Vurnovečki).
  • Jaska 6 in 2010. (Character: Maksimilijan Vurnovečki) The expected player night-time attack kept me on my toes, and sleeping outside in a hammock with one eye open. When the attack finally happened, I just woke up and cast spells from a hammock...
  • Utvrda Svjetlosti 2011. (Character: Maksimilijan Vurnovečki) - an environment including a real fortress lit by torches and excellent role-play triggered many immersive moments.
  • Majčin Gaj 2011. (Character: Luc du Pointeaux) - I pretty much did my own stuff (with other players) during the course of the larp and it was quite fun.
  • Jaska 9 in 2011. (Character: barkeep whose name I forgot) - the long night with savages attacking sometimes was at times boring, but at other times pretty deep. Cold and tiredness worked against us, and the GM team's dedication and hard work to provide the content is still unmatched to this day in what I've seen...
  • Love is Blue on Eurocon 2012 (Character: Slaven) - horror atmosphere helped by the fact you barely see stuff because it's dark, and a cheerful music playing together with psycho murderer's pre-recorded speech at predetermined times... Heck, the music still gives me flashes.
  • Drachenfest 2012 (Character: Vjenceslav Podbreški, which was btw fun when Germans tried to pronounce it) - the copper camp is a heavy believer of simply doing plenty of stuff. With everyone around me busy following their superiors, and a lot of stuff happening everywhere at once it was an extremely immersive and humbling experience just watching stuff happen around.
  • Para pokreće svijet: Vrata rata (Character: René Pointeaux) for various reasons, read about them here.

Leaving Mundania features viewpoints of several larp scenes, styles and their goals.

When I'm more heavily involved in an organization of a larp, the effect is often lost... but if you're running a larp it can be extremely rewarding in other ways. Yet deep immersion is still something that's very special. But never forget - immersion and what it takes to achieve it can vary. What works for someone might not work for someone else.

Turku School of Roleplaying logo

One of the earliest people who wrote about the immersion was Mike Pohjola from Turku, Finland who wrote the Turku Manifesto in 1999 which heavily influenced larps in Nordic countries, and other groups worldwide. The text is quite provocative, and you can read it here. Another part is its vow of chastity which you can read here. These two texts deal with larp design and player approach for maximum immersion as a goal (seriously, read them, they're some of the most influential texts ever written about larp).


Next time you're on larp remember: never deny yourself the experience of total immersion. Know it and embrace it.

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