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  • Writer's pictureFrancois DesRochers

GM Field Guide #16: Player Immersion and Engagement


INTRODUCTION


This is going to be another one of my omnibus posts; a holding site for several related articles. In the GM Field Guide #4: Baseline Publications for New GMs, I collected the reviews and recommendations for what books to buy first, based on the region you wish to experience while playing Rifts. In this case, I'm collecting a number of posts about various ways the GM can make their game more immersive, and generate more engagement from/for their Players.


WHY IMMERSION AND ENGAGEMENT


General. One of the key tasks of the GM is the generation of the adventure and the dynamics that the Player Characters will interact with. The overall success of the adventure depends on how well the Players interact with the injects a GM provides that leads to everyone’s enjoyment: Players get a sense of accomplishment from defeating obstacles; GMs get the same sense in more vicarious way. There is a certain amount of psychology that goes into making an immersive and engaging experience; don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a university-level dissertation. This series plan to provide GMs actionable methods and items to employ. Understanding what your Players enjoy, what they find enjoyable is a key element to the success of any TTRPG session. Put simply:


“TTRPGs are an interactive experience; the GM’s focus should be entertaining experiences. The GM is in the business of fun.”

Gaming Theory. The intent for these posts will be to present practicable discussions and solutions for Game Masters (new or returning) crafting their gaming experiences to best suite the group. Obviously, these require specific tweaks for individuals in your group, but should be generic enough to give you a start point. I’ll be touching on Player psychology and User Experience theory, drawing it into action items or topics for discussion.


EMOTIONAL ENGAGEMENT

STORY AND NARRATIVE


We want our Players to experience the game as intended; it’s their story to tell within the confines of their Player Character and the dynamics presented by the GM, so shaping the adventure to elicit those emotions is a bit of an art form a GM develops over time.Where the game is set, what the adventure is about, and how the PCs interact with obstacles or challenges. Rifts presents a plethora of fantastic world building and themes to use. The GM literally is unbounded when creating an adventure, which in and of itself can be an issue.

  • Themes, Setting and World. Survival, heroic adventuring, general warfare, loot hunting, you name it! It’s a post-apocalyptic sand box with several major antagonists (e.g. Atlantis, Coalition States, Federation of Magic, Yama Kings). I’d redirect you to the Scholar’s Review portion of the blog for reviews of World Books, Sourcebooks, Conversion Books and Dimension Books.

  • Environmental Storytelling. The use of imagery from the books and the ‘lore’ of Rifts and lacing it throughout the adventure. One of the greatest aspects of the game setting is the mythical pre-apocalypse treasures waiting to be found. Remains of wreckage and buildings, underground bunkers, submerged cities to be explored, all are up for grabs. Even better, the GM can exploit the local Players’ community into the game, giving Players something tangible to relate to. It might not be a tangible element of the adventure, but recognizable features or landmarks adds to the immersion.

  • Character Classes. The character classes available to play are wildly varied. The heavy reliance on technological augmentation (e.g. cybernetics, bionics, energy weapons and robots), is countered by the Psychic classes and Practitioners of Magic that leverage mystical powers and abilities, while Adventurers and Scholars try to make it in this wild world of conflict and adventure by leveraging skills and specific talents. Please visit The Bazaar for the OCC Overview series.

  • Cliffhangers & Foreshadowing. Developing the adventure to get from point ‘A’ to ‘B,’ then to ‘C,’ and suddenly stopping the session with only a hint at whatever ‘D’ is often a great way to capture your Players’ imagination. Leverage those points from Player Character backgrounds to make this more meaningful and impactful.

  • Emergent Gameplay. Essentially, don’t railroad your Players. Allow Players to tell the story through their Player Characters’ (PC) actions, not into a predetermined plot line or outcome. At most, the GM should guide the PCs along by presenting obstacles and challenges to overcome. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ should be left to Players to decide. This allows the PCs to develop organically, and gives the Players the agency they need to remain interested.

ARTWORK AND IMAGERY

Artists Roll Call. Palladium Books has done a brilliant job in curating some fantastic artists. From the very original Rifts RPG, we were spoiled with cover and interior art by Keith Parkinson, as well as some fantastic Kevin Long and Larry McDougall pieces. The Glitter Boy, the original Headhunter, imagery for the Coalition States, the Ley Line Walker and Red Borg, and so much more. Over the years they’ve added a bevy of notable artists: Wayne Breaux, Newton Ewell, Ramon Perez, Chuck Walton, as well as the fantastic series of cover paintings by John Zeleznik. All have maintained a high fidelity to the themes and fell of Rifts. The Artists’ Atelier will combine the Artist Review posts (forthcoming).

  • Art Decisions. This can be one of the most impactful decisions a game develop can make. A system with poor art choices does itself no favors in courting new players. With the unspoken industry standard of colored interior pages and artwork, the decision by Palladium to continue and remain with (mostly) black and white interior art is a bold move. I personally believe it adds to the ‘look and feel’ of the game. There is a full breadth of art to support technology, magic, psionics, the alien and the dimensional beings alike. It supports the themes, narrative, and gameplay designs; it spurs the imagination, evoking that emotional response that a game developer dreams of.

  • Book Format. The decision to print most books in softcover, perfect bound is not the industry standard. This of course cuts down on costs, but the quality of the books remains unchallenged. Aside from the “Palladium Peel” of the covers, the books stand up to amazing amounts of use and abuse. My original Third Printing 1991 version of the Rifts Main Book is still in solid condition.

GAMEPLAY


The game design influences play style. I’ll be doing amore in-depth article on this subject, but in a nutshell: are the game mechanics (from character generation through to roll-playing options and combat situations) enjoyable? Do the Players get a ‘feel’ for the setting based on the game design? Do the mechanics also support the Story & Narrative. Does it help and maintain Players’ interest?

  • Managing Power Levels. For the most part, Rifts can be tailored to really let loose with some heavy levels of gonzo hack-and-slash action that challenges the very gods walking the Earth. Alternatively, with some minor tweaks and restrictions, you can encourage and play out a very compelling low-level campaign, where survival is the utmost mission and very much an uncertainty, and roll-playing is extremely important. See The Bazaar #3: Campaign Levels and Managing Power Levels

  • Pacing. High intensity (e.g. battles, intense roll-playing scenes) needs to be complemented by slower-paced scenes. Giving Players nothing but running battles and the PCs deplete their resources, Players get overloaded with information, and the high of combat becomes a numb and dull constant. Creating a good rhythm is something that Rifts leaves up to the GM, while other systems (e.g. d20 D&D) almost force the heuristic as part of the Players’ decision cycles – how many Short Rests and Long Rests are we going to get before moving to another section of the dungeon? Personally, I find the d20 method too mechanical in nature, and unsupportive for good role-playing. Additionally, don’t give key indicators or clues during a combat scenario that Players absolutely need later; they are likely going to miss it. Alternating between periods of high and low intensity reduces fatigue, maintains interest, and support the Story & Narrative.

  • Realistic Antagonists. There is certainly a time and place for faceless masses of goons for the PCs to overcome, but cleaving through minor menaces only works for so long. Rifts has a plethora of antagonists, many of which are monstrous/demonic and can be easily played as such. Others can be developed with a fair amount of nuance, making them that much more impactful to Players in terms of immersion and engagement.

  • Dealing with Distances. There is much to be said about a world where virtually anyone fully integrated with the rest of the world through satellite communications, modern infrastructure, high speed travel options, and globalized economies. The coming of the Rifts changed that entirely.


BEHAVIOUR


What do you want Players to do in your game? Are they playing the game you had in mind, or on a tangent (e.g. hack-and-slash during an investigative adventure)? Human behaviour requires a few inputs from you as the GM:

Silly Clip Art Graphic to Demonstrate
  • Extrinsic Motivations. Behaviour aimed at achieving external rewards (e.g. experience points, money, fame and praise). Negative rewards/punishments include losing all the above. Loss aversion is a thing, and Players are highly motivated to avoid said losses; typically, more impactful element that rewards.

  • Intrinsic Motivations. Behaviour aimed at achieving internal rewards (e.g. autonomy, competency, relatedness). The Player’s inner drive to find something inherently interesting and enjoyable/satisfying. Self-driven motivations are hard to drive at, so we must leverage the ‘Self-Determination Theory’ to really understand:

    • Autonomy (a.k.a. Agency). A Player’s desire to be causal agents to their future. People don’t like to be told what and how to do a thing/action. They want their actions to have in-game consequences, to be impactful. Even if this is an illusion to the actual overall campaign, let Players’ have the agency of their PC’s choices. This can be leveraged in a number of ways (e.g. role-playing and dialogue with NPCs, providing branching paths and choice for PCs) and can start right from character generation (e.g. tweak Attribute score rolls, O.C.C. choice, spell choice, gear and equipment). Vast options for character customization is a real bonus to the Rifts setting. Players are very invested in their PC’s success during the adventure. Unlike video game RPGs with scripted choices in response to an NPC, the TTRPG is infinite in possibilities. For a new GM, this can be daunting. No worries, we’ll get you there.

    • Competence. A Player’s desire to control the outcome and experience mastery over their PC/the game. Stead improvement over time come as both the PCs gains experience and the Player better understands the PCs capabilities. Players not experiencing improvement may lead to a stale interpretation of the PC’s capabilities. If they show no improvement, they may drop the character, or worse still, the adventure. Progress trackers, gameplay feedback, Experience Levels, all motivate the Player to continue and invest in the PC. Provide your Players with tangible and achievable goals and the challenges to make the achievement worth the effort.

    • Relatedness. A Player’s will to interact and be connected to others within the setting. Players want to interact with PCs and NPCs. Give them a collaborative experience with the NPCs and/or each other to achieve a goal. The ability for Players to define and strive for community/group goals, and discuss the game’s dynamics among themselves, are all key elements to promote immersion and engagement. Often these discussions generate odd-ball strategies that defy and overcome the GM’s obstacles in weird and wildly unpredictable ways.

  • Shaping Player Behaviour. Using rewards to shape Player behaviour. By exploiting the PC’s background, Player motivations, and what explicitly interested them from the Rifts RPG setting are all great ways to promote engagement.

    • GM Field Guide #13: Session Zero. By giving them compelling reasons to have their PCs act the way you may want them to, both the GM and Players come out of the scenario having achieved the Story & Narrative objectives. A lot of this comes down to the Session Zero discussions during character generation.

    • Post-Session Discussions. Something I’ve found that works is to conduct a review of the playing session to cover the highlights of the action and the successful role-playing or combat scenarios. This also allows some friendly rivalry to develop between Players as they compare notes and brag about accomplishments. There is a fine line to tow, but when done collaboratively and positively, this can be a great way to reinforce immersion and promote Players to volunteer their own intrinsic goals (e.g. out-kill the other combat character, like Gimli and Legolas in Lord of the Rings films).

    • Experience Points. Something I’ll dive into more deeply, the idea of session Experience Points or individually achieved Experience Points. I by far prefer the latter and typically provide these in the Post-Session Discussions. Initially this is done privately, but more times than not evolves into open delivery. Once Players identify how any why you are giving XPs out, they typically adjust their play style to maximize their achievements. Forthcoming.

    • Player Contract. The idea of a ‘contract’ seems a little overly formal to most. This is essentially the agreement between GM and Players on acceptable behaviour and expectations. Oft-times considered the ‘social contract,’ it helps avoid conflict for things not explicitly defined. Otherwise, you may have to have that uncomfortable discussion with someone who fails to meet the expectations of the group, particularly if the behaviour is toxic.


COGNITION (ATTENTION SPAN)


Essentially how do Players think of the game, influence by the adventure and choices made, and are they effectively dealing with the obstacles the GM has chosen?

  • Attention. This is a limited resource; people have a limited cognitive load and once they reach it, new distraction essentially displaces previous items they were thinking of. Players pulling out cellphones, grabbing pizza from the side table, additional in-game tasks, real life issues, all diverts others’ attention. Personal interest will more easily grab a Player’s attention, and the PC backstory is an easy snare for the Player’s attention. Finding other elements can increase this immersion. I often found Post-Session discussions provided a wealth of knowledge to leverage and exploit. By dovetailing this information into the game state, the group gets more invested, and attention is easier to both grab and maintain.

  • Usability. Often referred to in the concepts of video game design; it often comes down to how well the Players can interface with the game mechanics and the visuals on screen. This also applies to TTRPGs. Unfortunately, whereas D&D and d20 clones have a multitude of virtual tabletops supporting their rules, mobile apps and any number of third-party content providers, Palladium Books has not been in the position to really develop this aspect. This just means the GM has some front-loaded work to do to alleviate some of the cognitive load of the Players.

  • Learnability. How easy is it to learn playing the game? Well, character generation is generally considered one of the first major hurdles to surpass. After making the PC, most Players are already heavily invested (making D&D characters is equally cumbersome). Streamline where you can, give them a cheat sheet, color code parts of the character sheets, you name it to make it easier on the newer Player, and make it a part of the TTRPG experience. See GM Field Guide #13: Session Zero.

  • Efficiency. How quickly are Players going to get the tasks required of role-playing?

    • Combat & Skill Rolls. The combat and skill check elements are relatively easy enough after the first few iterations. What is key is getting your Players to volunteer things like their intent as they announce an action, or what the PC hopes to accomplish in response to something. This leads a GM into shaping the encounter to better match the Players’ intent, and gives them a read on how Players are receiving the information they provide (e.g. information overload causing their attention to drift, or not enough that they bombard you with follow-up questions).

    • Character Sheets. The use of an easily referred to and cleanly formatted Character Sheet is something that can really help the Players, and in turn the GM. If things are easy to find and clearly marked, it saves the Player having to scan their sheets. Something I like to do is include the reference point to the book in question (e.g. spells, psionic powers, weapons, vehicles). If a Player can find the reference on their sheets faster than I could after asking, I like to throw extra XPs as a reward.

    • Spells, Psionics & Weapons. Try to keep this as simple as possible. Make sure both you and Players have the information on what they are armed with (e.g. gear, weapons, spells) of note. I’ve gone so far as to make spellcasters/psychics create a cheat sheet for their spells/powers to refer to, and Men at Arms must know their weapons’ capabilities. When a Player shows prowess in understanding their powers or weapons’ capabilities, I like to throw extra XPs as a reward.

    • Limit the References. The Rifts library is vast and comprehensive. Both a curse and a blessing, my suggestion is to limit the World Books to a region and be very selective of what books you use from outside the region in your adventure creation, character class selection, or where you send the Player Characters. This helps limit the resources needed. See GM Guide #4 – Baseline Publications for New GMs.

    • NPCs. This is a great method for the GM to ‘guide’ Players that are about to step off the proverbial cliff, or need that special insight the Players missed from a previous scene. I’ve used this to help in my daughter’s games; even adult Players sometimes get caught up in the action and fail to remember something or realize a piece of information crucial to the success of the adventure. They take a back seat to the PCs in terms of action and role-playing; they are a supporting actor at best.

  • GM Screen. There are several GM screens out there, and they act as a sort of cheat sheet and concealing screen for GM notes and dice rolls. In my opinion, none of them really provide what I would consider the baseline reference tables a GM needs. Forthcoming.

  • Grid Squares or Theatre of the Mind. Palladium Books’ games are not designed to leverage grid square terrain or VTTs in the way d20 systems have been. Those systems were specifically designed from the ground up for tactical combat in that dynamic. Personally, I find use of physical terrain and models to be a bit of a give-away of the GM’s intent to Players and doesn’t really support the ‘fog of war’ that combat generates. I also found that Players spent more time counting tiles and referring to intricate Feat combinations that stymied the impetus and flurry that should be part of a combat sequence. Very much a proponent of Theatre of the Mind, I’m developing a post for Theatre of the Mind in Rifts. (Forthcoming)

  • Introductory Adventure. I found running new Players through a very quick scenario allows them the chance to play their PC and learn their abilities. Essentially a mulligan, even if the PC technically dies (e.g. hail of gunfire, an appetizer to a demonic horde), they ‘live’ through it at the end. This allows Players to make errors in game play, which is fine – we want this to be fun! This confirmation dynamic provides Players a chance to better understand both the system and their PC’s strengths and weaknesses. The PCs typically advance to Level 2 before the debut of the first adventure. Once they get a handle on the system, I even allow Players to switch weapons, magic spells or psionics for ones that did not meet their expectations or character concept.


GAME FLOW


The balance between challenges presented by the GM and the Player’s skill level in adapting/overcoming them. When Players are immersed, focusing their energy through the lens of the PC they know and enjoy playing, enjoyment overtakes any sense of time. This most likely occurs while satisfying intrinsic motivations (e.g. autonomy, competence, relatedness). Players know where to go, what their PC can do, and know how well they are doing (e.g. Experience Points, amount of M.D.C. remaining). Find the balance that works for your Players and try to maintain it:

  • Player Questionnaire. Nothing formal, but sometimes asking Players after a session provides a good indicator. Keep it open-ended and let them fill in the blanks. You’re looking for any friction points/barriers to immersion and engagement.

  • Gauge the Combat. If the PCs are mopping things up too easily, or near to always facing a Total Party Kill (TPK), you need to adjust your encounters.

  • Account for Each PC. Make sure you have some nuggets for each PC within the adventure. Combat for gun-junkies/martial classes, skill checks for Scholars and Adventurers, plot points that account for PC backstories.

  • Character Advancement (Levelling-Up). Forthcoming.


CONCLUSION


As the GM, you’re trying to design an adventure for engagement over ‘just for fun.’ By leveraging peaks and valleys of activity, it shouldn’t take a constant vigilance of the session to keep Players interested. Once you’ve piqued their interest, try to maintain their compulsion to continue the adventure. Evoke the desired emotional impact through detailed descriptions (e.g. fear for a horror campaign, tension in combat for a heroic setting, mystery for a vast and unexplored region), as well as tapping the Player’s intrinsic motivations.


Keep in mind the PCs’ backstory and how this can really support a Flow State and develop immersion and engagement. Do everything you can to assist Players understanding of the setting and system; simplify the session by making snap rulings if it’s taking too long (better a quick ruling that is close than losing the rhythm flipping through five books). Ensure the setting and/or obstacles are sufficiently challenging, but not so much that it frustrates your Players. You want Players to become more competent and knowledgeable in using their PCs’ abilities, but not to the point it is a foregone conclusion.


Ultimately, we want Players to establish meaningful, self-driven goals through gameplay, making their PC’s actions folded into the fabric of the adventure. The greater the impact of these choices and how they envision their PC’s part in the overall campaign, the greater their engagement, the more memorable the session.


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