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July 28, 2015

RPG Reviews

When I read RPG reviews, I rarely find the answers to the questions I really need.  A good game review anticipates customers' needs and questions, and tells readers what the tool (RPGs are tools) is best for.  As a GM, you've probably been asked questions about game systems you run.  Can you recall ever being asked about the art?  The layout?  The font?  Have you ever been asked the chapter titles?  Most reviews tell you the RPG's core book's size before they tell you what the game does.

A cookbook is also a tool.  It's a tool that describes processes, rules, and techniques to produce a product for a handful of people around a dinner table, just like an RPG book.  Here's Amazon's review of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking:

This is the classic cookbook, in its entirety—all 524 recipes. 

“Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere,” wrote Mesdames Beck, Bertholle, and Child, “with the right instruction.” And here is the book that, for more than forty years, has been teaching Americans how. 

Mastering the Art of French Cooking is for both seasoned cooks and beginners who love good food and long to reproduce at home the savory delights of the classic cuisine, from the historic Gallic masterpieces to the seemingly artless perfection of a dish of spring-green peas. This beautiful book, with more than 100 instructive illustrations, is revolutionary in its approach because: 
  • it leads the cook infallibly from the buying and handling of raw ingredients, through each essential step of a recipe, to the final creation of a delicate confection; 
  • it breaks down the classic cuisine into a logical sequence of themes and variations rather than presenting an endless and diffuse catalogue of recipes; the focus is on key recipes that form the backbone of French cookery and lend themselves to an infinite number of elaborations—bound to increase anyone’s culinary repertoire; 
  • it adapts classical techniques, wherever possible, to modern American conveniences; 
  • it shows Americans how to buy products, from any supermarket in the United States, that reproduce the exact taste and texture of the French ingredients, for example, equivalent meat cuts, the right beans for a cassoulet, or the appropriate fish and seafood for a bouillabaisse; 
  • it offers suggestions for just the right accompaniment to each dish, including proper wines. Since there has never been a book as instructive and as workable as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the techniques learned here can be applied to recipes in all other French cookbooks, making them infinitely more usable. In compiling the secrets of famous cordons bleus, the authors have produced a magnificent volume that is sure to find the place of honor in every kitchen in America. Bon app├ętit! 

Paragraph 1 tells the audience what the book does.  Paragraph 2 tells you who it is for, what it feels like, the range of uses it has, and what results it produces.

Bullet 1 tells us what the book does again, step by step, including the surprising information you wouldn't have guessed about buying ingredients.  Buillet 2 is about how the book is structured, to best teach the reader how to cook French cuisine.  Bullet 3 positions the book in historical and contemporary context.  Bullet 4 tells the reader what the end product the tool produces is like.  Bullet 5 describes the book's utility in the milieu of other books.

Sure, it's a glowing review, intended to sell the book; but it does a better job than most of the reviews on RPGNet.  The reason being, this review was clearly written by someone who has more than a few days' familiarity with it.  The review I would have written about my lawnmower the day I unboxed it and put it together would be far different from the review I would give it today.  

The typical RPG review is the reviewer's initial thoughts on the book - notes taken during their first read-through.  And how could it be different?  There's a race to get the first review out.  I'm guilty of writing rushed reviews, myself (and I won't do that anymore!).  The RPGNet Fate Core review that shows up when you google "review fate core" was written the week the first printing shipped!  Many RPG reviews are written by folks who were sent a review copy or just bought the book; not folks who've been playing the game for six months.  And they read like first read-through notes too.  They go chapter-by-chapter far too often.

Can you imagine a review of Game of Thrones that reads like that?  "Chapter 0, some Night's Watch rangers track down some wildlings, but discover Others instead - some sort of snow zombie monster.  The chapter is well written, with good margins and a readable font.  Chapter 1:  This chapter introduces us to the Starks.  In it, Eddard executes a deserter, and then the Stark children find some direwolf pups.  It's a very well-written chapter that shows George R.R. Martin's storytelling skills."  No!  Going chapter to chapter is not how you review a novel; it's not how you review a cookbook; and it's not how you review an RPG!

In many ways, the game designer's blurb or "back of the book" text is more informative than the reviews out there, because those are a fairly genuine claim about the game from the perspective of someone who knows it; and the blurb almost always tells me what the game is supposed to be about.  I would like it if reviewers would tell me how well the games they review meet the promises implied by the statement on the back.

We need more RPG reviews that tell us:
  • What is the game good at?  What's its sweet spot?
  • Who is this for?  
  • What does it feel like?
  • How well does it do what it says it does?  Is it useful?  Don't just say what the game appears to be like.  Tell me how it works in practice.
  • What is the game capable of, toward the fringes of its utility?  What is outside the game's scope, or where are the boundaries of its capabilities?
  • Some context about the game, and situate it in the milieu of other games.  Compare and contrast it with similar games.  
  • Something about this game that's surprising or not commonly known.  
  • A few honest criticisms of the game.  

July 20, 2015

What to use Gold for in 5e D&D

Buying Plot: What to use Gold for in 5e D&D

Today, I'm going to talk to you GMs about how to turn 5th edition D&D (5e)'s mid- and high-level gold surplus into a plot driving engine that will give you more campaign writing inspiration than you will ever need.  And all this without changing the rules!

5e is unlike 3rd and 4th edition, in that it does not let player characters buy magic items (or craft them with their gold).  Technically, the DMG has prices for magic items, but it strongly discourages the "ye olde magic item shoppe" that ran rampant in those editions.  So 5e asks DMs and players to decide as a group what wealth means in the campaign.  Unfortunately, it doesn't make this an explicit instruction.

In the 5e Dungeon Master's Guide, there are examples of things a player character can buy with large amounts of gold, such as an abbey, a fortress, a farm, etc.  James Introcaso has even expanded on this list, adding magical traps and other cool items.  This isn't unlike first edition AD&D or Basic D&D, where PCs acquired a stronghold at level 9.  In fact, in 5e, 9th level is about the time a PC can afford to start investing excess gold in construction and real estate.

The best use of strongholds is for players to use them as expressions of their interests in where the plot of the campaign should go.  A fighter who acquired a fortress on the border of the orclands expressed an interest in driving the orc hordes back and clearing space for civilization so she could build her own barony.  A fighter who built a hidden fortress for a rebel army near the capital city was expressing an interest in conspiring against the tyrant king and eventually seizing the throne.  The details of the stronghold the players invested their gold in became plot hooks.

With the exception of 3rd and 4th edition D&D, around 9th level and later, gold has always primarily been about investing in plot hooks that tell the Dungeon Master where to take the campaign.

In that way, 5th edition is more loyal to the traditional D&D experience than 3rd and 4th edition. And, frankly, though I still play Pathfinder and 4e, I prefer the 5e approach to using gold.  I find it more fun to have a campaign about player characters fighting for gold to invest in their plot hooks than a campaign about player characters fighting for gold to invest in their personal power (i.e. more magic items).  I've even created a system for Pathfinder to help Pathfinder GMs who agree with that sentiment.

But it Needs More

In 5th edition, like 1e, the relationship between acquiring a stronghold and expressing an interest in the direction of the story in D&D was not clear or explicit.  A 1e or 5e player has the option to build a stronghold (or not), and if they build one, they have the option to flesh it out (or not).  If they decide to flesh it out, there is no guidance for how to flesh it out.  They can draw pictures of it, map out every room and corridor, write a twenty page manuscript about its history, or a hundred other things.  Now, if the players enjoy those things, great.  Let's not discourage that.

Wealth buys more than just a stronghold.  A stronghold owned by an adventurer has to have a trusted castellan to watch over it while the adventurer is off delving dungeons.  A stronghold serves a purpose - fortresses guard territory, towers engage in magical research, wizard colleges found schools of sorcery, thieves' guilds regulate criminal enterprise, underground railroads help free slaves, hidden abbeys study religious mysteries, churches heal the sick and feed the hungry, missions spread the faith, and assassins' guilds topple tyrannies.

5e characters have Ideals, which is fantastic.  Ideals and Bonds help define what a character invests his or her wealth in, and why.  Here's how wealth doubles down on character Ideals.  Imagine Lady Gaga, or Sheldon Adelson.  These are wealthy people who have ideals beyond their own comfort and luxury.  Each has invested a significant portion of their wealth into an organization or mission:

  • Adelson has invested his wealth in protecting and advancing the interests of a small nation beset by enemies.  This un-nuanced portrayal of the nation of Israel fits nicely with an epic fantasy narrative.
  • Gaga created an organization that stands up for people who are bullied and abandoned.  I can imagine her working to protect the kender or half orcs, or an untouchable caste.

Other famous wealthy people have supported all kinds of missions:  Charitable religions (Bono), centers of learning and art (Vanderbilt), criminal networks (Pablo Escobar), exploration (Raleigh) or training young [technical] wizards (Gates).

A stronghold is more than just the a place.  It's the center of a movement that -- with enough money and a visionary leader -- can change the world.

Running an Organization in D&D

100,000gp buys an organization - a small kingdom, large duchy, powerful abbey, religious order, wizard college, order of dragon slayers, gold dragon hatchery, arcane order, spy network, thieves' guild, international circle of druids, international resistance movement, college of bards, missionary organization, holy order of knights, etc.  But 100,000gp is a long way off for most PCs.  Still, you need something for the PCs to spend their money on.  Just one tenth of that wealth, even in platinum pieces, weighs 20lbs -- and you might have twice that by level 10!  You have to do something with that money or you'll develop back problems!

So below you will find a way to gradually invest in an organization.  A character should be able to start investing as early as level 5 or 6 -- around the time they start getting more money than they can spend on armor, ale and rations.

The system that follows is not exactly a house rule.  It's just something you can buy in 5e D&D.

Building an Organization 

When you begin to build an organization, you start investing money into operations.  The first investment costs 1,000gp, but the prices go up from there.

Here's a sheet to track your organization on.

Cumulative Investment
Establish a Mission and Opposition
Recruit loyal agents, invest in some fundraising activities
Set the nascent organization to work on three Goals
Inspire more supporters, get basic equipment, establish a few revenue streams
Recruit the first Personage to help run the organization.  This personage is loyal to the organization unto death.
Provide resources to fund network and the operations your goals require
Construct the Stronghold at your Center of Power.  This stronghold cannot be taken until all other strongholds in the organization have fallen.
Invest in materials, workers, guards, and staff
Gain an additional Personage or Stronghold
Gain an additional Personage or Stronghold
Gain an additional Personage or Stronghold
Gain an additional Personage or Stronghold
Gain an additional Personage or Stronghold
Gain an additional Personage or Stronghold

  • Mission:  The organization has a broad mission statement.  A small kingdom's mission statement might be "Prosperity and peace for the people of Small Kingdom."  An international resistance movement could be founded to "Bring death to tyrants."  The organization's mission never changes unless the world changes around it in major ways.
  • Opposition: The organization has an implacable opponent - some force that represents the opposition to your mission.  This can be a particular villain, a god that represents a concept opposed to the mission (e.g. an organization dedicated to healing the sick could be opposed by the plague god), or a type of monster (e.g. dopplegangers oppose my spy agency, since we root out their agents; demons and demon worshippers oppose my organization because it's an organization of witch hunters).
  • Three Goals: The organization also has three goals, also set by the player character who founded it.  Its goals can change from month to month during the campaign at the player's character's orders.  Each goal is specific and discrete.  Don't say your goal is to "End the influence of evil in Small Kingdom."  Instead say, "Identify and remove the corrupt nobles in Small Kingdom."
  • Personage:  Until you've invested 100,000gp, your organization can have up to four powerful NPCs supporting it.  After reaching 100,000gp, you can have up to five Personages.  The PC in charge is the President, but these NPCs are the executive management team.  In a wizard's college, you might have the Dean, who is in charge of the teachers, the Provost who is in charge of recruiting and disciplining students, and the Librarian who oversees acquiring and curating the magical books for the school.  
    • The first Personage you recruit has the additional benefit of being Totally Loyal.  This NPC will die before betraying you; and it will be very hard to kill this NPC.  The others you recruit are very loyal, but the Opposition might still find a way to corrupt them.  
    • Each Personage has a Name, at least one Personality Trait (like a PC), and something they're good at.  What they're good at should not be written in game terms -- it's just a statement about the character.  For instance, your wizard Provost might be good at "recruiting talented students" or "keeping the students calm and productive."  
  • Stronghold:  Your strongholds literally cement your influence.  Strongholds don't have to be stone fortresses.  They can be secret assassin training camps or floating islands on the plane of air or elemental airships that fly around the world.  
    • The first Stronghold you construct is your Center of Power.  All other Strongholds you build have to be corrupted, undermined, destroyed or captured before your Center of Power can be taken from you.  
    • Name each stronghold, then decide what its Purpose is and where it is Located.  The stronghold's Purpose should be something that contributes to your mission or goals, or serves to support the organization itself.  For instance, the Wizard's College's purpose is "to train new wizards according to the rules and ethics I have set forth."  Castle Small Kingdom's purpose is "to defend the lands around the capital of Small Kingdom."  Later the wizard's college might acquire a Magical Library, the purpose of which is "to collect rare and powerful tomes of arcane knowledge."
    • Until you've invested 100,000gp, you can have up to four Strongholds.  After reaching 100,000gp, you can have up to five Strongholds.  
illustration of a castle from Webster’s Dictionary circa 1900

Additional Investment
After 100,000gp, every 50,000gp of additional investment can buy a new stronghold in a new location or recruit a new NPC.  Recruiting a new guaranteed-loyal NPC requires undertaking a quest to secure their loyalty, though the quest can be done after recruiting them.  Each new NPC comes with a staff of followers and can advance a new organizational goal, letting the PC add a fourth (or more) goal to the list.

Why does it cost 50,000gp instead of 20,000gp?  Even with magic, medieval organizations have limited means of communication and organization.  They don't have email and webinars.  They have horse couriers and sailing ships.  As an organization grows, it becomes more expensive for it to grow. Each new element has to be connected to all the previous elements, and with medieval technology, that grows difficult quickly.

No Upkeep Costs
There's no need to worry about upkeep costs.  The organization takes care of itself.  As you adventure, you invest in the organization gradually.  The cash you invest pays for an expansion of its earned income investments like productive lands, business operations, fees, and fundraising.  Without your investment, your organization wouldn't grow very quickly, if at all, but it could remain stable for generations -- at least until it was overwhelmed by its enemies.  Your investments help the organization grow by leaps and bounds.

Example:  The dwarf fighter invests 20,000gp into his Barony, acquiring a new Stronghold.  He decides that he wants to acquire an iron mine and foundry to supply iron for his army as his second stronghold.  The investment represents mineral exploration and construction of the main mine shaft.  The mine can produce iron, which can be sold to pay miners' salaries, hire carters, maintain the mine road, and reinforce the tunnels.

Multiple Organizations
PCs can run multiple organizations.  However, the DM should limit this a little.  A PC can start a new organization only after all his or her other organizations have both a Personage and a Center of Power (20,000gp investment).  Presumably a 20th level PC with around 800,000gp can afford to have five to ten fully-constructed (100,000gp invested) organizations, or two or three "maxed out" organizations (with the maximum 5 Personages and 5 Strongholds -- 300,000gp invested each).  It's probably a good idea to cap your PCs at two organizations plus their Charisma modifier.

Starting at Higher Levels
5th edition has tiers of play, which guide the DM in giving out starting wealth.  In addition to that starting wealth, the DM might give you a starting organization:
  • Local Heroes (level 1-4):  No starting organization
  • Heroes of the Realm (level 5-10):  No starting organization
  • Masters of the Realm (level 11-16):  4,000gp invested in an organization, at the DM's discretion
  • Masters of the World (level 17-20):  20,000gp invested in an organization, at the DM's discretion

No Liquidation
The PC cannot liquidate the organization for the same reason they don't have to pay upkeep costs: The organization is self-sustaining.  It has incomes and debts, and the Personages that run it are personally invested in its continuation.  If the PC tried to sell off his organization, those NPCs would see it as a betrayal of their mission, and take the resources of the organization (which they already control) into their own hands.  This might result in an (expensive) conflict between the PC and the NPCs in the organization, and be a plot in its own right.  The PC will probably defeat the NPCs -- after all, going into dangerous places, killing things, and taking their stuff is what PCs are good at.  In the end, the PC will not recover more wealth from the organization than he or she might get defeating the same number of monsters in the same number of dungeons.

Working Together
Two or more PCs can invest in a single organization.  Say there's an Oath of Devotion Paladin and a Healing Domain Cleric in the party, and they want to start a missionary order to convert people to the god who they both worship.  That would be fine.  Ask the players how the two of them will settle disagreements, if they arise.  What if the Paladin wants to recruit a knight commander personage to train new paladins and the cleric wants to recruit a religious oracle to study prophecy and omens?  If they don't have a good answer, it's up to you:  Is this the sort of campaign where characters turn on one another in feud?  If so, you might want to push things toward an intra-party conflict.  Typical D&D games are usually not that sort of campaign, though, so think carefully about doing that if it comes up, and try to gauge your players' interest in intra-party conflict.

A common complaint about one-size-fits-all options like this is that every PC will have exactly the same thing.  While technically it's likely that every 11th level PC can afford a 20,000gp investment, and therefore have exactly one Personage and one Stronghold, I doubt that they will look anything alike.  A Chaotic Good Assassin Rogue with the "chains are meant to be broken" ideal will have a vastly different organization than a Lawful Good Oath of Devotion Paladin with the "my honor is my life" bond.  The Neutral Abjurer Wizard and Neutral Good Healing Cleric will have different organizations, too.  And by high levels, PCs can have any number of organizations alone, or shared with other PCs.

You're Buying Plot Hooks

The GM gets to use each PC's organization to draw them into adventures.  This isn't railroading -- the players designed these organizations, so adventures that revolve around threats to or opportunities for these organizations are essentially guided by the players' wishes.  That's the beauty of plot hooks.  By using opportunities and threats involving things the PCs care about, you motivate the players without running a campaign on rails.  The players chose their hooks; the GM is merely activating them.  In this case, organization hooks are literally player agency.

Each organization starts with two plot hooks:  Mission and Opposition.  It quickly develops more --  three Goals and several Personages and Strongholds.  Here are just a few ways the GM can use players' organizations to hook them into an adventure:

  • Opportunity to advance the mission or a goal
  • Threat to the mission or a goal
  • Opportunity to damage the opposition
  • Attack by the opposition
  • Threat to a Personage (or corruption of a Personage, or disappearance/murder of a Personage)
  • Opportunity to improve a Personage
  • Rivalry or disharmony within the organization (between Personages)
  • Opportunity to improve a Stronghold
  • Threat to a Stronghold (or corruption of a Stronghold, or destruction of a Stronghold)

Multiply this times 5 PCs in the party, and you will never want for plot hooks again!

What about MY plot?
Consider this:  By the time the players' characters can afford investing in an organization, they'll already be deep into your campaign plot.  If you've been doing a fair job, it's likely that some of their organizations' Missions and Goals will be related to the goals of your campaign premise.  It's likely that some of their Opposition choices will match the antagonists in your campaign.  This option lets your players literally invest in your plot.

What if the players don't?  What if the players build organizations that have nothing to do with your campaign plot?  There are a few possibilities.  First, they may be building an organization to give them additional personal power they can employ in the campaign plot.  I had a player construct a spy organization in one of my games, unrelated to the main plot; but he used it to gather information on the plot's villains.  Second, they may not actually be that interested in the main plot.  Talk to them about it.

Optional House Rule: 13th Age Style Icons

Up until now, I've only provided something PCs can buy - not a house rule.  Here's a house rule to take Organizations up to a new level.  In 13th Age, the d20-based fantasy RPG by designers from 3rd and 4th edition D&D, there are Icons -- powerful forces in the world -- with whom the PCs have pre-existing relationships.  For instance, they might be enemies with the Elf Queen.

These relationships are a great tool to help GMs improvise when the PCs hare off into unexpected territory. add a lot of depth to dramatic events, and continue to spotlight player character backgrounds every session.

Icon Relationships in 13th Age also help GMs improvise, so if you don't have a lot of time to prep, or have a more improvisational style anyway, this could be helpful for your D&D game.

The organization provides two 13th Age style Icons:  The organization itself and its implacable opponent.  If you want to use this system for high level 5e D&D, you can adapt the 13th Age Icon system as follows...

Roll 2d6 for one of your organizations and 2d6 for its opposition.  Sometimes the player chooses which organization (say, at the start of the session).  Sometimes the GM chooses which (say, in a dramatic moment where it's clear which organization is relevant).

If a die comes up 5 or 6, something will happen that gives you a meaningful advantage in the coming adventure because of your organization or its opposition.  But if it's a 5, a complication also arises.  If you roll two 5s or 6s, the benefit is mutual -- you benefit (and may suffer a complication as well), and so does your organization (or your opposition suffers).

If you're familiar with 13th Age, it's like having a 2-point positive relationship with your own mission and a 2-point negative relationship with your organization's opposition.  See more rules for icon relationships here.

July 15, 2015

LARP Writing Video Series

I came across this video series and wanted to share it with you.  It's a series of videos on LARP writing.  It looked too juicy not to share immediately!

Let me know what you think.  I plan to watch them slowly over the next several weeks.

July 13, 2015

Guest Post

A few weeks ago, I hosted my first guest post.  This week I wrote another guest post on Chaos Engineering, entitled The GM as Craftsman.  It's a short post that should frame every discussion about game system selection.  I believe that the only mature way to discuss RPG systems is in context of what they can be used to accomplish.  I argue that RPG systems are like tools for running a game; and like tools, there are systems that are right for a game, and systems that are wrong.  Choosing the right system is an important GM skill.

Go read it!

July 6, 2015


Character Immersion (typically just called "immersion") in tabletop RPGs occurs when you think, feel, and decide what your character thinks, feels, and decides, based on what your character knows and senses.  Immersion can also be seen as a state where you become immersed in your character's knowledge, thoughts, feelings, and motivations for a significant period of time, often "tuning out" the real world.

That state of immersion is broken whenever a player is taken away from thinking or feeling what their character thinks or feels, or must make a decision that their character could not realistically make.  The real world or the game system might take you out of immersion.  

Role-playing does not require immersion. Acting does not require immersion.  Even Method acting doesn't require total immersion.  Indeed, Method acting calls up the actor's own personal experiences.  Immersion doesn't necessarily improve your RPG experience or skills, either.  It's just one way to approach and enjoy roleplaying.  

A lot of role players are very dedicated to immersion.  To many, immersion is the essence of role-playing.  When you're immersed in a character in a challenging situation, it feels like you are facing danger and taking risks, so it feels like you are the winner in such epic contests.  Immersion is the core of Gary Allen Fine's Escape motivation and MDA's concept of Fantasy.  

Below are some earlier thoughts from writers on the idea of immersion in RPGs.  At the bottom, I'll tell you how to use these ideas as a GM to make your games better.  Even if you don't use these ideas as a GM, adding these ideas to your vocabulary will help you express your interests as an RPG player better.

Others' Ideas

Gary Allen Fine: Frames

Gary Allen Fine applied Goffman's Frame Analysis to tabletop RPGs by way back when we all listened to cassette tapes.  Frames, per Goffman, are shared perspectives we use to make decisions and interact with each other.  Frame analysis is often used in politics, business, and social theory.  Fine describes three nested frames:

  • First is the Social Frame, where you interact as a person hanging out with friends or hobby acquaintances.  In this frame, the ideal is to have a good time with friends.
  • Second is the Game Frame, where you interact as a player of a game.  In this frame, the ideal is to play the game in the way the players decide is best, to achieve game goals, and to follow the rules.  
  • Third is the Game World Frame, where you interact as your character.  In this frame, the ideal is typically defined by your character hooks -- the things that motivate your character.  This frame is also well described as being within the magic circle.
Immersion, then, is spending most of your time in the Game World Frame.  But to understand immersion in the context of all the other activities different modern RPGs ask of us -- to understand what immersion is not -- we need to understand the Game Frame better.

Fine published Shared Fantasy in 1983, and he wrote it in the very early days of tabletop RPGs.  Arguably the roots of the "story game" movement were published in the 1990s with Vampire: the Masquerade, but the ideas that motivated them go back another five or ten years.  Even still, that means Fine missed out on the "Narrativist" movement.  

Today, even Dungeons & Dragons (5th edition) has story game elements and in the Basic Rules for Players and Players Handbook, 5th edition claims to be a game, "...about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery.".  Compare to the same introductory sentence (buried further in after a lot of preface) in the 1st edition AD&D Player's Handbook:

"Swords & sorcery best describes what this game is all about, for those are the two key fantasy ingredients. ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is a fantasy game of role playing which relies upon the imagination of participants, for it is certainly make-believe, yet it is so interesting, so challenging, so mind-unleashing that it comes near reality."

Note the similarities ("swords and sorcery," "game") and differences ("make-believe... comes near reality," vs. "storytelling").  Telling a story is distinct from immersing in a character in a game of make-believe.  The two activities are artistically and experientially distinct.  They indicate different approaches to playing RPGs.  So the Game Frame needs to be modified a bit to take into account storytelling concerns in today's RPG milieu.

A modern understanding of the Game Frame also includes the broader story, themes, mood, and genre of the shared fantasy.  Players making decisions about the fun of the game, the coherence of the story in the game, or the game's theme and mood are acting in the Game Frame.  A player might step back from a Game World Frame discussion of plans to storm the castle and say "guys, burning the castle down is the most expedient way to kill the necromancer, sure; but it's not as fun as sneaking in.  How about we go with that?"  That player is acting in the Game Frame without referencing the rules or stats at all, because the characters -- that is, the players in the Game World Frame -- wouldn't (usually) choose a more dangerous plan just because it's more fun.

Ron Edwards: Stance

Immersion is one of the possible ways to play tabletop RPGs.  These ways are referred to as "stance" in The Big Model.  According to the Big Model, every player at the table, including the GM, shifts among different stances.  Stance refers to the attitude of the player toward the game world.  

  • Actor Stance:  The player portrays the character as an improv actor would, attempting to imagine what the character would think, feel, need, and fear.  This is D&D's "make-believe" and Fine's Game World Frame.  This is where immersion comes in.
  • Author Stance:  The player decides how they want events to unfold for their character, makes decisions that will lead to those results, then fills in characters' motivations to achieve that direction.
  • Pawn Stance:   The player uses the character as an avatar of their will, without regard for the character's unique motivations.
  • Director Stance:  Director stance is like Author Stance, but applied to things outside of a single character's sphere of influence.
Immersion, in this model, is spending your time in Actor Stance.  However, there are RPGs that require players to use other stances.  Many RPGs have mechanics that are triggered by a decision the player makes, not the character.  This necessarily places the player in Author Stance (or Director Stance if they're making decisions that affect other characters or players).

Justin Alexander: Dissociated Mechanics

Justin Alexander defines Associated Mechanics being a game mechanic "which has a connection to the game world."  It's a simple definition, but it's not as clear as Alexander makes it out to be.  The example of a Dissociated mechanic Alexander uses to illustrate this is a reroll mechanic:  

"For example, consider a football game in which a character has the One-Handed Catch ability: Once per game they can make an amazing one-handed catch, granting them a +4 bonus to that catch attempt."

He claims that the player making the decision to use this mechanic is Dissociated because there is no connection to the game world.  I would argue that there is a grey area, and that the "one handed catch" mechanic is pretty well connected:  The example ability can only be used on a game-world event, after all. But one bad example doesn't invalidate Alexander's argument. 
What Alexander is really referring to is whether the mechanic is one that a character's decision triggers.  A Dissociated Mechanic, then, is one that is not necessarily triggered by the decision of a player's character in the Game World Frame or Actor Stance.  A Dissociated Mechanic cannot be used in the Game World Frame or Actor Stance.  If you are a player who enjoys immersion, a Dissociated Mechanic will take you out of your immersion state.  

As I said above, mechanics aren't really either/or - they're Dissociated to greater or lesser degrees.  In fact, unless you're LARPing, or roleplaying a conversation as a bunch of modern-day geeks sitting around a dinner table, most mechanics are at least a little Dissociated.

Consider how well Associated the Fireball spell is in Pathfinder.  Your character reaches into her pouch and hurriedly counts out some arcane components.  You reach into a dice bag and hurriedly count out several six-sided dice.  Your character delves through her memory of a spell she memorized that morning.  You delve through your memory for a spell you memorized a few months ago.  Your character speaks some arcane words and hurls the components before her, mentally computing distance, bearing, and force.  You speak some game jargon (fireball, third level wizard evocation, save DC 19, allows SR!) and hurl the dice upon the table, mentally adding single digit numbers.  And that's it.  Your part is over.  That's about as Associated as it gets, but you still interact with mildly immersion-breaking elements (saving throws, spell resistance, concentration checks, grids and miniatures, etc.).  As I said, it's a continuum.  Fireball is far down the Associated side, though.

At the other extreme, consider in Fiasco, choosing whether to Establish or Resolve at the start of your turn.  Your character cannot have any part in deciding whether he will establish a scene or resolve a scene.  It's a Director Stance decision that takes place squarely in the Game Frame.  It's a very Dissociated mechanic, but it still involves considering what your character knows, wants, and can accomplish.

Alexander's One Handed Catch ability is somewhere between the two, but sounds a lot closer to Fireball than it does to Establish or Resolve.  And it should -- One Handed Catch is something the character is actually doing, even if it is slightly Dissociated by the player making the decision to expend the limited resource, instead of the character.  The main difference is the fact that the Pathfinder player has a Game World Frame explanation for the once-a-day resource of her Fireball, while the One Handed Catch player does not (or needs to invent it).

Sphere of Influence

Now we get to the heart of immersion.  Immersion is all about the Sphere of Influence a player has over the game world.  At a minimum, players can only control what their characters can control, keeping them in Actor Stance in the Game World Frame, using Associated Mechanics.  As the game system broadens the player's Sphere of Influence and allows them to control things that their character cannot, the system forces the player to act in Author and Director Stance or interact with Dissociated Mechanics in the Game or even Social Frame.

A system that gives players a broader sphere of influence empowers them to be greater participants in the narrative; but at the same time, it forces them to break immersion.  

Story games are rarely very immersive.  That might seem shocking, but not if you've been paying attention!  Remember, immersion is "playing make-believe" which is very different from "acting."  Think about the "typical" definitions of those terms.  In Fiasco, I find myself acting, not playing make-believe.  I have a scene I want to portray, and a goal for how I think it should resolve that has more to do with my desires as an Author than it does with what my character wants.  I might act in the Game World Frame, but not with a lot of immersion.  (I rarely play Fiasco characters who I want to feel immersed in, anyway.  They're all screw-ups!)  I act for the audience of other players (who are actually judging me!), who are fully ensconced in Director Stance.  Of course I consider my character's motivations, but I do it the way an author does, retroactively adapting them to fit how I want the scene to go.  

On the other hand, D&D and its constellation of "heartbreakers," retroclones, and heirs strongly limit the players' sphere of influence.  Gygax intended to give DMs random tables and rules for everything so that they could appear as impartial judges of the players' actions, so the players would feel like they were their characters, letting the players immerse more and more.  It's what distinguished D&D from Chainmail and other wargames.  It can feel very powerful immersing in a character and feeling the dangers of an old school dungeon pressing in around you.  

GM Advice

So how does this help GMs?  

When you plan your RPG, choose a system that provides the right amount of player sphere of influence.  Horror RPGs tend to be very immersive, with limited spheres of influence and characters who are often helpless against the monsters they encounter.  It would be hard to run a horror RPG in a game like Fate, where the rulebook specifically advises GMs not to kill the players, and the players have the power to concede conflicts to avoid the worst outcomes, compel NPCs on their Aspects, or invent story details from a Director Stance point of view.  On the other hand, if the players add to the action with improbable conicidences and thematic callbacks like that in a pulp thriller game, it's a win-win!  So choose Fate for pulp thrillers, and Call of Cthulhu for existential horror.  I'm not saying you can't get good immersion in Fate; but Fate's greatest strengths are in its Dissociated Mechanics.

In addition, it's up to you to help the whole group choose the right game system.  If you have four players who love immersive make-believe and don't like the burden of author-style storytelling, play Pathfinder, not Fate.  If they're always chiming in with story ideas or suggestions, play Fate, not Pathfinder.  Again, Pathfinder has some Author Stance options (Hero Points come to mind, and there's the Lorefinder optional ruleset).

Mechanics that are highly simulationist are not always very immersive.  Consider Encumbrance in D&D.  Despite the fact that everything about it is part of your character's lived experience and knowledge, and every decision you make about your weight allowance is made in character, adding up pounds and ounces is not how your character experiences carrying weight.  This is the distinction between simulation and immersion.  It demonstrates why learning different game theories is useful:  Using all of our terms, above, we can see why it's not immersive.  Encumbrance is squarely an Actor Stance Associated Mechanic, sure, but it takes place entirely in the Game Frame, with the player adding numbers up with a calculator and comparing them to a weight allowance table.

If you happen to design a game or game mechanic, consider whether you want to push players out of actor stance before inventing a Dissociated Mechanic or one that pulls the players out of the Game World Frame.  For some RPGs, it might be a great idea to push the players into Author or Director Stance.  If you're designing fear rules for a horror game, though, keep it as closely Associated as possible.

Keep in mind that some players will immerse in Actor Stance no matter what; and others will never immerse in Actor Stance.  It might be fun to split the party occasionally and place the immersive players in an emotional scene, then place the author stance players in a creative, story-driving scene.  Or focus your scary scene elements on the immersed players, and turn to your Director Stance players for more scary ideas!

If you've got a system that limits players' sphere of influence, you can encourage immersion by leading the players through action with questions and scene framing in the second person - prompts that force them to make decisions as a character, not as a player:  "The bayou honkey tonk is damp and quiet at this hour of the morning.  There are three motorcycles sitting out front.  A bearded man in leather with Oakley sunglasses and a baphomet tattoo on his forehead walks out the front door, glances at you, and then crosses his arms.  'I-12 two miles back that way, y'all,' he growls..."  Use loose scene framing, only skipping over boring things like travel time.  The less you as the GM make suggestions or presumptions, the less the players will break out of their immersion to make suggestions or presumptions themselves.