Immersive Roleplay 101: the essential guide

Updated
A headshot of Andruid, shaded blue.
By Andruid

Writer, roleplayer, storyteller, and nerd who tries to live by Bill and Ted wisdom, i.e. "Be excellent to each other." 

Table of Contents

    Someone recently asked me to write a guide to immersive roleplay, and I thought that was a pretty good idea. Then, I remembered that I’d already written one several years ago for a roleplay-intensive (RPI) game. Today, I present to you my updated version of the guide, modified for a broader audience.

    In this guide, I provide a definition of immersive roleplay suitable for text-based gamers.

    I explain when and why you might want to work on immersion, as well as common behaviors that can detract from it. I also suggest 10 do’s and don’ts to keep in mind during your next roleplay scene.

    If you’ve never roleplayed before, I recommend starting with my Beginner’s guide, first.

    What is immersive roleplay?

    Immersive roleplay is any roleplay (RP) that allows players to focus fully on their character, the setting, and the story.

    Contrary to what some might think, immersive roleplay doesn’t require paragraphs of prose. Immersive RP can be quick and snappy, too, if that’s what a game’s roleplay culture supports.

    The key is that players are able to immerse themselves in the game’s setting as if they are really there. To that end, immersive RP minimizes out-of-character (OOC) references, chatter, and other distractions that would remind players that they’re merely playing a game.

    At the same time, immersive RP brings the game’s setting to life through plausible characters, engaging stories, and collaborative worldbuilding.

    A floating city with futuristic buildings.
    Immersive roleplay allows players to immerse themselves in a game’s unique world.

    When and why you should work on RP immersion

    Let’s be honest: not everyone cares about immersion, and not all of the tips in this guide are going to be applicable to every roleplaying game. Some folks may even disagree with me on some points, and that’s fine. Apply what makes sense for your situation and ignore the rest – my feelings won’t be hurt!

    Generally speaking, however, you should consider improving immersion if you’re playing or managing a roleplay-encouraged, roleplay-expected, or roleplay-enforced (RPE) game.

    People often play RPE games because they want to escape real life and immerse themselves in an exciting setting with opportunities for character development.

    Keep in mind that your interactions with others, especially new players, will set an example for them to follow. For this reason, immersive RP is a great way to introduce newbies to a game’s setting and roleplay culture.

    Common ways immersion is broken

    First, let’s talk about events that can detract from players’ ability to immerse themselves in the game world. Once you know how/why immersion is broken, it’s much easier to focus on providing a more immersive roleplay experience.

    Players commonly, and often unintentionally, break immersion by:

    1. undermining the realism of a scene, such as by doing something that doesn’t seem plausible for the game’s setting,
    2. reminding other players that they’re playing a game, such as by making references to things that are out of character,
    3. and pressuring other players to respond out of character to something that happens in character.

    Sometimes, breaking immersion is avoidable. At other times, it’s not. Let’s look at some example behaviors that I would consider avoidable.

    Examples of things that break roleplay immersion

    Below are some examples of immersion-breaking behavior that I have seen many times in text-based RPGs, even in roleplay-enforced games:

    • when a character walks into a crowded room and immediately addresses someone who may be standing on the opposite side of it, without approaching or raising their voice
    • when a character notices and addresses every interesting detail in a busy location (e.g. marketplace, spaceport), including things that happen or are said across the room
    • when a character uses words or phrases that don’t belong in the game’s setting or are obviously references to OOC
    • when a character ignores the presence or existence of non-player characters (NPCs)
    • when a character appears to have no flaws or seems to be good at everything
    • when a player uses OOC communication (e.g. osays, tells) to demand an explanation of another character’s actions when IC inquiry or RP would be appropriate
    • when a player uses OOC communication to argue, explain, or defend their own character’s actions

    Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but I’ll explain below why the above behaviors should generally be avoided. I’ll also suggest ways to improve your roleplay so that it’s more immersive and less disruptive to your fellow players.

    10 Immersive roleplay do’s and don’ts

    Below are some of my personal recommendations for immersive RP, which should work for a variety of writing games, especially multi-user dungeons (MUDs).

    If you’re fairly new to text-based gaming, the glossary is a handy resource and makes a good companion to this guide. Let’s jump in!

    1. DO acknowledge your character’s physical surroundings in your RP

    Imagine going to a busy nightclub in real life and using your normal indoor voice to strike up a conversation with a friend on the other side of the room. It’d be pretty futile, wouldn’t it?

    In text-based games, everything happens in one window, and in the case of multi-user dungeons, one “room,” so it’s easy to forget that the place your character is standing in can be as small as a closet or as expansive as a football field.

    Whenever you join a scene, consider what obstacles your own character might face in order to engage others who are present. Is the room dark, noisy, crowded, or cluttered? Will your character need to weave around packed tables or push their way through a standing crowd?

    A crowded floor in a dimly-lit dance club.
    In addition to a thick crowd, dim lighting and shadows can also present obstacles to overcome in roleplay.

    Attending to your character’s physical surroundings will help add realism to your writing and make interacting with your character more interesting to those around you. A character who narrowly avoids getting run over by a speeding carriage is far more interesting and engaging than one who merely stands there and says, “Hey, what’s up,” for example.

    2. DO be mindful of NPCs and VNPCs

    This tip is a natural follow-up to #1. When roleplaying a scene in a town or city, don’t forget to acknowledge the presence of NPCs and VNPCs.

    VNPC stands for “virtual non-player character” and refers to NPCs that exist in the game world but aren’t represented by a programmed mobile (mob) or bot. Often, it’s just not feasible for games to include every single resident of a city as a coded NPC, but that doesn’t mean the game designers want you to act like they’re not there.

    Builders often include references to the local population in room descriptions. By including these NPCs in your writing, you’ll help bring the setting to life, which in turn will create a more immersive roleplay experience.

    Let’s look at the examples from #1 again. Note how the speeding carriage includes NPCs, some of which may be reckless or in a hurry. The busy nightclub is full of NPCs, too. By acknowledging their presence, you can add realism and depth to your roleplay.

    A note of caution: many RP games consider it bad form to use NPCs or vNPCs in a way that would give your character an unfair advantage over others. Use NPCs to bring the setting to lifenot as a way to fabricate an excuse to ruin someone’s reputation or give them grief.

    3. DON’T forget about the weather

    In the same vein as #1 above, if the game includes automated weather, try to include it in your RP. This will make your roleplay more believable and immersive.

    Imagine coming across a group of people in the middle of a blizzard, and they’re all standing outside without coats, not one of them shivering or trying to warm their hands. Or imagine holding a conversation in the pouring rain and no one complaining or remarking on it.

    These things would just be outlandish in real life, and they can seem that way in RP, too!

    Photo of a country road during a whiteout (blizzard).
    Consider how the weather and temperature might affect your character’s behavior.

    Even if your game doesn’t include automated weather, temperature, or seasons, you can still include these features in your RP. Doing so will make your roleplay more exciting and can provide additional hooks to draw in other players.

    For example, imagine a character who narrowly avoids getting run over by a carriage but still gets splattered by dirty water from recent rain. They’re now also cold, dirty, and wet. In addition to making sure they’re all right, other characters have reason to offer their handkerchiefs or jackets, further sympathize, or recommend a good cleaning service.

    4. DO play a character with believable flaws and limitations

    An immersive and engaging story has characters with believable flaws and limitations – people who make mistakes. In the last example, the character made the mistake of stepping into the street at a bad time.

    Similarly, in real life, shit happens.

    Most people aren’t good at everything, and they don’t know everything. That’s why it’s so easy to relate to characters with flaws, characters who make mistakes, and characters who experience bad luck. We’ve all been there.

    Players are happy to suspend their disbelief for flying cars, magic, or even talking animals. But it can be really hard for players to accept a character who appears to excel at and have time for everything. In real life, most people have to make sacrifices.

    Screenshot of Tip #47 from LOTJ.
    My favorite tip in Legends of the Jedi. This tip does a wonderful job of demonstrating why plausibility matters in roleplay (screen reader-friendly version below).
    Tip #47: Kill the wise one!
    -------------------------
    Whilst a little experience of the Galaxy is probably not uncommon for your character to possess, it's worth considering just how you're going to come across to others if you insist that you know everything as a new character that's suddenly appeared. Sometimes, a little roleplayed ignorance of in-game locations or items can come across much better than: [=The Galactic Empire-]{Administration}<New Recruit>[Noobalot]: Yes Sir. Sometime in my past I scoured the galaxy and know that the best components to build a lightsaber are located at X, Y, Z. Although I am a 14 year old combatant I know that you won't ever be able to achieve an Omega-12 datapad encryption without the following sciences perfected. Force lightning shoots out an average of 5 bolts from each fingertip of a Sith, and has a voltage of about three million volts. ...Yes, that is what you can really sound like.'

    Let me be clear: I’m not saying don’t play an exceptional character.

    The reason many people roleplay is the chance to become someone exceptional for a while. But think about the obstacles your character might have to overcome to achieve their goals. Do they have to give up on love and romance? Do they need to make a moral compromise? Do they have to overcome mental or physical trauma while mastering swordsmanship?

    By giving some thought to your character’s flaws, and blending those flaws into your roleplay, you’ll create a character that is far more complex and interesting.

    5. DO avoid the newbie veteran trap

    If you’re new to a game, one way to break immersion is to play a character who knows a lot about skills or lore that you, the player, haven’t had time to learn yet.

    Think about it: if you start out playing a badass, what happens when your character is corrected because of something you, the player, didn’t know? Your character is going to look ignorant, and you’re going to feel frustrated, because they’re not supposed to be ignorant, they’re supposed to be an experienced badass.

    The easiest way to keep yourself from falling into this trap is to start by playing a character who knows and has achieved less.

    Instead of starting with an experienced backstory, make learning and gaining experience part of the journey that shapes your first character into that badass. You’ll find it to be a much less stressful way to learn the game, as there will be less pressure on both you and your character.

    Plus, when you embrace tip #4 (playing a character with believable flaws), your character’s mistakes become part of their development rather than a cause for OOC embarrassment.

    6. DO minimize the use of OOC communication during RP

    One quick way to break immersion is to use OOC communication, such as osays, during an active scene. Osays break immersion by instantly reminding everyone present that they’re playing a game.

    If you want to support an immersive RP environment, you should consider whether what you have to say is worth breaking the immersion for everyone else.

    The occasional compliment, thank you, or sign-off is usually fine in RP games, but try not to spam your fellow players mid-scene with trivial commentary, especially if those present are putting an obvious effort into telling an interesting story.

    For example, OOCly saying ‘lol’ or ‘haha’ every time a character does something funny can become distracting, especially if the chatter occurs over a channel that your fellow players can’t disable.

    7. DON’T use words or phrases that don’t belong in the game’s setting

    If you play a serious medieval game, words and phrases like “awesome,” “cool,” and “hey guys” will break immersion for your fellow roleplayers. Try to avoid these terms and instead find acceptable thematic alternatives.

    (Also note that RPEs may enforce this as a rule if your RP is too blatantly unthematic.)

    If you’re unsure what a thematic alternative would be, try observing more experienced characters. You’ll be able to pick out certain words and phrases and adopt them in your own RP. Immersive games often have their own thematic slang, too!

    A stone archway and path leading into mist-covered mountains.
    Avoid using modern speech (e.g. “Hey guys, this view is totally rad.”) in games with historical and medieval fantasy settings.

    Spelling and grammar

    It should go without saying, but you should try to make sure you’re using proper spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, as well. Occasional typos won’t ruin things for other players. Everyone makes mistakes, after all, so players tend to be pretty forgiving. But repeated errors are more difficult to ignore.

    The same is true for using texting shorthand in spoken dialogue situations. If you type out “hey how r u” as a spoken IC question, your fellow roleplayers will have a hard time taking you seriously. And in an RPE game, you may even get a warning from the game admins.

    However, don’t assume that just because someone makes typos they must be uneducated, lazy, or dumb. Keep in mind that non-sighted players can’t always hear the difference in the way words are spelled, and players who learned English as a second language might occasionally get tripped up over idioms or grammatical nuances. Whether you choose to correct them or not, remember to be kind. Treat others as you would want to be treated.

    8. DON’T use OOC phrases when there are IC alternatives

    This tip is similar to #7 but deserves its own bullet point. In some games, phrases like “I need to daze” and “in my thoughts for a bit” are used by players to “ICly” communicate that they need to go AFK.

    I use quotation marks around “ICly” because they’re thinly-veiled OOC phrases and, in my opinion, instantly break immersion anytime they’re used. They’re also terribly uncreative and convey nothing interesting about the character who uses them.

    There are a hundred other ways you can communicate that you (and your character) will be unavailable for a while without having to use these crutches.

    A dog in a backyard, peeing on a fence.
    “I gotta go take a leak,” and “I gotta go let the dog out, I’ll check in with you later,” are two perfectly valid IC excuses for leaving a scene so that you can go AFK. Assuming your character has a dog, of course.

    List of example alternatives

    Here are some excuses I have used across various games and settings, for example:

    • hitting the toilet
    • taking a shower
    • making a phone call or taking an important call
    • changing a diaper
    • taking a nap
    • forgetting the phone’s on silent
    • traveling into a dead zone
    • handling a family emergency
    • caring for a sick family member
    • in a business meeting
    • performing uninterrupted work on a time-sensitive project
    • stepping aside for a private conversation (e.g. with an NPC)
    • making dinner
    • heading to class
    • taking the dog for a walk
    • doing yoga, etc.

    What do these activities all have in common? They’re plausible and genuinely IC. They reflect things someone would actually be busy doing in their day-to-day life, and they even tell you a little bit about the character.

    In contrast, nothing breaks immersion quite like telling everyone that your character needs to stare blankly into space for a while for no good reason.

    So the next time you need to AFK, think about something your character would actually be doing in the background and use that excuse instead. You might find that it even leads to interesting IC conversations later when others ask about your character’s family, work, and hobbies!

    9. DO be considerate when using OOC communication

    In tip #6, I suggested minimizing trivial OOC commentary. But what about when you have a legitimate question or concern?

    When you have a question, first consider whether it’s something you can ask in character. If you’ve taken tip #5 to heart, then it won’t be as awkward asking a lot of questions in character, because you won’t have to live up to some experienced badass image.

    Instead of using osays or tells to force an OOC explanation and reveal IC motivations (such as ‘osay Why did you just do that? My character is only trying to do X, not Y!’), try using emotes and roleplay to find out in a manner that doesn’t interrupt the scene or pressure your fellow players into OOCly defending their IC actions.

    If you do need to halt a scene to ask for clarification, then it’s a good idea to be polite and to the point. For example, ‘osay I don’t understand. Why can’t my character do X?’

    If you’re new, other players will usually be understanding, forgiving, and happy to assist.

    10. DO hang around for a minute and give RP a try

    My final tip is to give roleplay a chance, especially when it involves a character who provides essential goods and services. If your character needs a new set of custom armor, treat the armorer like a person and not an NPC, for example. Don’t just show up, grab your stuff, and leave without taking a moment to engage them.

    Why? Because transactional meetings can feel really cheap to players whose primary aim is to roleplay. They’re not playing the game so they can feel like their IC crafting job is their second OOC job.

    Even so, it’s not uncommon, even in RPE games, for players to treat each other like a means to an end. Note: it’s fine if characters do it; some characters aren’t the type to mince words and socialize, and that’s okay.

    But when players don’t make an effort to emote or acknowledge the RP efforts of others, they can end up conveying “you’re just a means to an end” on an OOC level, which can be discouraging, especially to newbies looking for roleplay.

    Even just a couple of emotes can help make it clear that you don’t devalue the other player’s time and effort. Rather, your character is the one who is dismissive, busy, or reserved, as portrayed through your RP.

    Ways to improve immersion

    To sum things up, here are some ways to improve roleplay immersion for yourself and others:

    • acknowledge physical obstacles, weather, and NPCs in your roleplay
    • start with a character who has achieved less and therefore has more room to grow
    • play a plausible character, i.e. someone with believable flaws and limitations
    • when you have to ask questions OOC, be polite, non-accusatory, and to-the-point
    • try not to distract players with trivial OOC commentary during an active roleplay scene
    • teach others what’s thematic through engaging RP (teach and learn by example)
    • respect crafters’ time and effort and engage them with roleplay

    Again, immersive roleplay doesn’t require long emotes or poses. But it does require giving a little bit of thought to the setting and weaving that into your writing. By including aspects of the physical environment and NPC population in your emotes, you’ll bring the setting to life and create a more immersive roleplay experience for yourself and your fellow players.

    And the most important rule of all: have fun. 🙂