May 27, 2015

The Magic Circle

What, you've never heard of the magic circle?  It's such a studied concept there are academic papers and even a pretty detailed wikipedia page.  It's a useful idea that relates directly to the concept of immersion and shared imagined space.  (I wrote about Immersion in a later post.  Read it here!)  LARP theory has spent a lot of time talking about magic circles and bleed and other concepts of immersion and virtual worlds.  So why isn't it a common concept in tabletop RPGs?  Probably because only indie designers ever really talk about these ideas.  But I digress!  Let me tell you about magic circle.  Let me turn it into a simple tool for you to use.

First, a clear definition:

The "Magic Circle" is the boundary between the real world and the shared imagined space of the game.  It's a permeable membrane-

Wait, what?  Things can pass through the magic circle?  Well of course!  Did you have a great day at work where everything went right and you kicked ass?  When you settle in to your Vampire character, you're going to be excited, self-confident, and satisfied.  Did your 8 year old Shadowrun character just get killed by a dragon?  You're going to go home with a bittersweet sadness and maybe you'll be a little on edge in your facebook comments that night.  Did you just learn about the Cathar heresy?  You might be more likely to burn some heretics in tonight's D&D game.

Knowledge, patterns of thought, and emotions bleed through the membrane.  This concept is called "bleed."

So what can you DO with these ideas?  You can adjust the level of bleed by building a harder magic circle.  You can't eliminate or guarantee bleed, but you can make it more or less likely.

The magic circle's barrier can be made more or less permeable.  You, the GM, can do that.  Some GMs might want more bleed than others.  Some games are casual after work affairs for relaxing.  Others are serious immersion-focused emotionally intense affairs.  If you have an established group, they probably have a group consensus of how permeable the magic circle membrane should be in each direction.  The casual after work D&D game might be permeable to bleed-in and relatively impermeable to bleed-out.  The intense short-run Vampire LARP might be designed to be very permeable to bleed-out, but relatively impermeable to bleed-in.

Bleed-in is when the real world intrudes into the magic circle.  You can reduce bleed-in by tightening the membrane between the real world and the fiction.  Here are some tips:

  • Have a ritual that begins the game session.  Rituals are easy to do.  The more formal and structured, the better.  Try getting everyone to go around the table and announce where their character was at the end of last session; having the GM recap the last session; playing opening credits for the game; formally announcing the game is starting and asking people to put away phones and such; or setting up the minis and battlemat.
  • Keep the real life away from the game.  Play in a less frequently used room of the house, if possible (the basement is a cliche, but totally works!).  Ask people not to look at their phones.  Have people talk like their characters, avoiding anachronisms.  
  • When you have food and drink, make an effort to bring items that the characters eat and drink.  Break out the renn fest tankards and fill them with frothy ale for a D&D game, for instance.
  • Do voices.  Stand up and act out the NPCs.  Encourage your players to take on an accent or do a voice themselves.  Adjust the lighting in the room.  Use game music and sound effects.
  • Use props that encourage the players to think of themselves as their characters -- things they can hold like an orb, wand, scroll, note, puzzle, or crystal.  
  • Don't use miniatures.  They tend to literally create distance between the player and their character.  If you play a game that requires them, keep them in a box until combat starts.
  • In tabletop RPG theory we call this "simulationism"; "sim character"; "getting in character" or "immersion."  You can google those terms to find more tips on immersion.  This isn't specifically a post about that, so this list is incomplete.

Here are some techniques to encourage bleed-in.  Why would you want to do that?  Let's say you want to run a lighthearted comedy game, or use your RPG as more of a social activity than an immersive experience.  This is totally OK.  Don't be down on your game because it's too casual.  That's not a problem if it's what the table wants!
  • Use miniatures and keep them out on the table.
  • Use anachronisms in speech, and let your own personality affect how NPCs act.
  • Intentionally refer to people and places familiar to the players:  "This NPC looks like Steve Carell, except with a handlebar mustache," or "The room is about as big as the main area of the dining hall."
  • Digress - talk about real life during the game.  "Hey, did you see Game of Thrones last night?"

Bleed-out is when the game world affects the players.  I've seen players run out of the room in tears, shudder in terror, flip a table in anger, and dance around the room with triumphant joy.  I'm not very comfortable, personally, with very strong bleed-out.  Some players (especially in Nordic LARP) really like strong bleed-out.  I try to achieve a little bleed-out, myself.

Here are some techniques to encourage it.

  • Discourage bleed-in very, very strongly.  Once people start immersing in their character, they'll start having more genuine emotions as their character.
  • Focus the drama of your game on the things that can bleed out of the membrane.  Hit points can't bleed out, but emotions and thoughts can.
  • End your session with unresolved mental challenges:  Use hard moral choices.  Give them mysteries where the players have most of the clues - they just have to think them through.  Provide a puzzle.  Give them new knowledge in a big reveal right at the end, so they go home thinking through all the implications.  Teach them something interesting about the real world that they didn't know before.  They'll go home weighing your ethical decision; turning over the mystery in their heads; puzzling over the puzzle; intrigued about their new knowledge; or reeling through the implications of the big reveal.  That's all bleed-out!
  • End your session with strong emotions (and let the players debrief if they need to).  Dread, anxiety, anger, betrayal, triumph, gratitude, grief, regret, and relief are not too hard to achieve.  Use NPCs to great effect to generate these emotions.  Also put them in hard spots where they have to make choices they don't like.  Collectively, they might choose the most prudent course, but one or two of them might have strong feelings about the group's actions.

You might want to discourage bleed-out.  Again, you might want the game to stay at the table.  If you have immature players, or run an intensely competitive elysium style LARP, it's probably a good idea to tone down the bleed-out before the session is over.  Typically, you want to maintain immersion during your game session, then let it go away after.  Here are some tips for reducing bleed-out without reducing immersion:

  • Have a closing ritual, like ending credits, awarding XP, "what did you learn" recaps, etc.  Most competitive LARPs have a very formal closing ritual for a very good reason:  You don't want the players taking in-character drama out-of-character.  Sometimes they have literally hours of closing ritual (a closing ceremony followed by dining out as a group, for instance).
  • Handle all the bookkeeping at the end of your game session - experience points, identifying magic items, storing character sheets, updating the game wiki, scheduling the next session, paying what you owe for the pizza, talking about the new supplement coming out, etc.  This puts a time buffer between the immersion and the real world.
If you want to reduce bleed-out and don't mind reducing immersion to do it, here are some other tips.  I'm sure you can think of all kinds of ways to reduce immersion without my help.  Usually you don't want to do this.  But here are some responsible ways:
  • During game, break the immersion by taking breaks, talking about the real world, or ordering food.  Even just handing a player a coke can reduce their level of character immersion and make bleed-out less likely.  Long session games (over 4 hours) probably need breaks anyway.
  • Ask the players to change stance to something like author or director stance.  This reduces their immersion a little as well.  A good way to do this without breaking the game flow is to ask players to answer their own questions, like this:  Player: "I scan the titles of the books in the necromancer's library. Is there anything useful there?"  GM: "I'm open to suggestions.  What are you hoping to find?"

So the magic circle describes the barrier between the real world and the game world.  Bleed is how the two affect each other.  The ideal experience is well bounded, with no bleed-in and no bleed-out, but some groups like more permeable membranes on one or the other end.  Serious drama players might want no bleed-in and lots of bleed-out for a cathartic experience.  "Beer and pretzel" games might be comfortable with any amount of bleed-in, but no bleed-out, for a fun diversion.  Neither style is wrong, and you can have all kinds of "in between" styles too.

As a parting note, here's the concept of the magic circle as applied to video games, which I suspect you also like: