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Immersion or Familiarity?

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On August 26, 2011 @ 2:08 am In GMing Advice | 21 Comments

The Forgotten Realms is a very complete and immersive setting, and I played in a great FR campaign under a most excellent GM. But the Forgotten Realms calendar has always frustrated me. If you’re not familiar with it, a week is ten days, the names of the months make no sense, and the holidays are irregularly spaced between some of the months. However, a year is 365.25 days, with another holiday held on the extra day.

I greatly prefer the calendar from Greyhawk. Weeks have seven days that sound remarkably similar to modern days of the week (Sunday, Moonday, etc). Months have  easy-to-use names (when do you think Harvester falls?), and are 28 days long, as is the rotation of one of the moons. Holiday weeks happen every three months, similar to the equinoxes and solstices, making 364 days in a year.

Thinking about these, I realized why I prefer the Greyhawk calendar: It is more intuitive. I can tell someone to meet me three weeks from Waterday, and nobody has to remember that it’s in over a normal month. Every month starts on the same day of the week. Holidays are equally spaced. It’s not perfect, the holiday weeks tend to screw up counting months, but it’s definitely easier to use.

But the FR calendar is immersive. It’s alien. It forces you to remember that things happen differently in the game world.

This is not just about calendars. When I ran Greyhawk, I substituted cultures from Earth’s history for the various human cultures (Suel, Baklunish, etc). Simply put, they were easier for me to portray, easier for my players to understand, and we automatically had a common ground. But they were Earthly, and not Oerthly.

Which brings me to my questions:

  • Do you prefer aspects of your fantasy worlds (whether sci-fi, fantasy, or whatever) to be original and immersive? Or do you prefer them to be mundane and familiar?
  • The above question assumes a trade-off between immersion and familiarity. Is this an accurate assumption?
  • Do you find that your GMing style (light vs. heavy prep, homebrew vs. published, etc) is a factor? Does having a ‘real life’ impact your decision?
  • What does your group prefer? Do they keep referring to “Marpenoth” as “October or whatever”, and griping about the ten-day week? Or do they really get into the minutiae of the setting?

I’d really like to know how fluffy other GMs like their fluff, and if anyone has another approach that is both immersive and easy to handle. Sound off in the comments and let us know!

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Immersion or Familiarity?"

#1 Comment By Erpegis On August 26, 2011 @ 2:33 am

Calendars in RPGs are dumbest things ever. I’m sorry, but yes, even if the setting did not have the god Janus or Julius (July) Ceasar, I’d rather use the normal names of months.
On one Warhammer session the following exchange took place.
GM:”It’s Flugzeug the 15th”
Player: “So what does it mean?”
GM: “Well, the equinox was like twenty days ago, so it’s mid-April”.

See what I mean?

#2 Comment By Quieo On August 26, 2011 @ 2:59 am

I find it easiest to find some very obscure historical people, place or event and nick all their best tricks. For instance very few people know anything about the Sumerians and even fewer would be able to recognise them if you changed the names. This methods provides inspiration and a nice starting point without too much work. The other benefit of this method is that it is utterly plausible because it has happened.

Case in point, the renaissance gang warfare that occurred in the Bolivian city of Potosi. No one would have even heard of this place but some totally crazy shit went down at incredible altitudes. Also being a history Nerd probably helps.

However I would never go as far as to use an a game system’s calender. Too much hassle and confusion for not enough pay off. I am currently running Earthdawn which has it’s own calender which I may have glanced at once and then totally ignored.

P.s. Erpegis, I think your GM was playing you, Flugzeug means plane.

#3 Comment By Erpegis On August 26, 2011 @ 3:03 am

I know, that was the joke.

#4 Comment By MAK On August 26, 2011 @ 3:13 am

1. Original and immersive vs mundane and familiar?
2. Trade-off between immersion and familiarity?

I have found that the more familiar the setting elements are, the easier it is to get immersed. Our gaming group switched our D&D campaigns from generic/Greyhawk to a pseudo-historical Europe several years back and no-one has regretted the decision. You have an immediate mental picture when someone says “Saracen dervish” or “Mongol raider” or “Viking berserker”. Such character concepts do exist in most settings anyway, but are renamed to something unrecognizable, mashed-up into artificially exotic hybrids, or transformed into monocultural fantasy “races”. So why not go for the originals instead?

In addition to characters and cultures, places and organizations are also easier to grasp. Everyone has a basic grasp of real-world history, geography and climate so the surroundings – gamers usually better than most. History is also full of really weird true events, fairly easily accessible via Wikipedia and such.

What you miss out on with going this far into the familiar territory is the kitchen sink style: what I mean is that every different place and culture is crammed next to each other so you can sample “cool stuff” wherever you go (Dune-buried pyramids next to Aztec jungles, medieval kingdoms alongside near-industrial gnomish city states). You get the point… Our group is not much into this Travel Magazine style, so no loss for us.

We have never used a game world calendar, by the way :-)

3 a) GMing style a factor?

Definately. A world-building fanatic probably would have less interest in a real-world setting, although going the “hidden history” route and finding fantasy reasons for historical events will scratch that itch. Also, running mainly commercial modules will easily tie the campaign to the standard environment of those modules unless the GM wants to spend prep. Personally, I like to concentrate on the characters, plot and encounters where having a familiar environmnet does more help than harm.

3 b) Real life a factor?

Definately. As people with families, children and careers, nobody has the time to read up on a made-up fantasy world (any more). So the familiar settings get instant buy-in – there is no learning curve.

4. What does your group prefer?

Familiarity for sure. With the limited time available for character building, it is a bonus to have the breadth of real-world archetypes to draw from. Also, even if character personalities are a bit stereotypical it really does not clash with the setting as badly as playing fantasy races as humans in funny suits for example.

#5 Comment By Riklurt On August 26, 2011 @ 7:10 am

My group usually tries to strike a balance, and use much of the exotic touches while hanging on to basic familiar stuff which allows for useful shorthand. For instance, in the Exalted setting there are fifteen months divided into five seasons. I usually hang on to the fifteen months (their names are very easy to remember and add immersion) but I usually divide them up into roughly four seasons anyway, simply because it’s very convenient to describe weather in terms of familiar seasons. I usually aim more for immersion than familiarity, but obviously immersion can be hampered by too many questions of the type “wait, what did that mean again?” so one has to be careful.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On August 26, 2011 @ 9:22 am

Well, as a once and future Traveller nut, I say that if it is important to the story that the calendar be different, make sure that everyone can see it when you play and use it rather than the Terran calendar (which has only been around in it’s current state for around 350 years anyway and thus can be seen as a fad).

A wall calendar clearly marked with the dates and days in prominent view will help no end in this endeavor. Make it a year-long, dry erase affair and it’s all gravy.

As a world-builder, have your calendars make sense and be not too complicated. The otherwise excellent “Coyote” stories of Allan Steele are marred for me by the (to my way of thinking) awkward naming conventions adopted by the colonists in a desperate attempt to rid themselves of their ties to Earth. All the months end in “iel”, for example (named for angels if I remember rightly). I can never get them straight in my head.

And my advice is to resist the urge to make “clever” jokes or puns when naming months or days because although they never get old to you (riiight), they will eventually do so to at least one player and there goes the immersion (many a model railroad builder has regretted their decision to include a shipyard on Lee Quay after ten years of looking at it).

And remember that a calendar is a tool with a real use – predicting when the seasons will change.

The priesthood in ancient Rome would declare holidays on leap years and would curry favor with the people by holding leap years when the need for good PR arose. This meant that by Augustus’ time people were unable to use the calendar for its proper purpose – the husbandry of crops – because it was so far out of whack with the celestial mechanics of the real solar system. Augustus spent much effort to fix the calendar and make it relevant again, sometimes to great opposition from the non-farmers of Rome. When Augustus died the people of Rome were so distraught the priesthood held a few leap years to raise spirits and thus the calendar was porridge again in no time at all.

#7 Comment By Norcross On August 26, 2011 @ 10:22 am

In this case, I think familiarity helps with the immersion. In real life most people don’t have to fumble around with a dictionary or calendar to remember that Monday comes before Tuesday, or which days of the week they have to go to work, or what month Christmas is in.

It kills immersion if you as a player have to look through a campaign book to find out what it means when an NPC says something that your character would know immediately. “Next Wednesday” sounds less “fantasy” than “Barglegargleday”, but it let’s you think like your character would. After all, do you really think everyone in The Realms is speaking English? Of course not, but it would be ridiculous to force all the players to learn something like Tolkienese Elvish just to speak. I don’t see why it’s any more immersive to use a made-up word for “October” than it is to use a made-up word for “sword” or “rock”.

#8 Comment By Clawfoot On August 26, 2011 @ 11:50 am

As an avid worldbuilder, I tend towards making my own calendars and things, but the implementation of it tends to be more like Erpegis’ experience, so I gave up. I’m still reluctant to use our own calendar, so I apply a dose of “handwavium” to the problem.

We play in a typical pseudo-European/pseudo-medieval fantasy world, and I basically do away with naming calendar months at all. When players ask what date it is I stick to the seasons (mid-spring, late summer, etc.). My reasoning is that keeping track of the exact days is kept mostly to the clergy (and the kind of clergy that sequester themselves in libraries; not the kind that heads off for wild adventures with a varied band of heroes and/or miscreants): regular folk, such as farmers and merchants, only track the seaons, not the days, and communities rely on the local (library-dwelling) clergy to tell them when the holy days approach. I have no idea if that’s historically acurrate or not, but frankly, that’s never been my goal.

Also somewhat related: ages. People in my world have no idea when their birthdays are (they might know that they were born in the summer, or the early winter, if their parents ever told them their birth story), and they tend to lose track of how old they are after the teen years. People typically only know that they’re “adult,” “getting up there,” or “old.” People over twenty generally don’t know exactly how many years they have under their belts.

#9 Comment By epicfreak On August 26, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

Clawfoot makes a lot of sense. Your average person might know it’s the 40th day of summer or 20th day of winter. That’s the way I generally handle things. Day+Season, nice and simple, plus pretty historically accurate.

#10 Comment By evil On August 26, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

I like my roleplaying a bit like military intelligence….most things are on a need to know basis. Does it matter what the month is called? If nothing is happening for game mechanics during the month, no, but if the followers of a certain god get imbued with powers during a certain month, then a little backstory about that month is in order, even if it’s just a quick sentence. I generally find immersive gaming tends to snowball, until you just get into it being a long, drawn out monologue by the GM.

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 26, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

Y’all are awesome. I was so locked into the “immersion vs. familiarity” paradigm (I so hate that word) that I hadn’t considered that familiarity might lead to immersion.

Thanks for the comments; especially to @Norcross – for the rock and sword comparison.

#12 Comment By scruffylad On August 26, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

I think a lot of it comes down to completeness of the fantasy world versus convenience/reality of playing in it.

Why does the week have 7 days? Because God rested on the 7th day. When did Ao or Selune or whoever rest? English names of days come from Norse mythology, but the months are often Roman. The Julian calendar became Gregorian when it needed correction, but half of Europe didn’t accept it due to differences of religious organization. There’s other funky calendars as well. (Look up “Hebrew calendar” on wikipedia, to see what happens when a lunar and solar calendar get smooshed together.)

So, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to have Toril or Oerth or wherever use one of the Earth-based calendars, which seem to be invariably based on a religion not present in the fantasy world. By giving the world a native calendar, you add texture to it, make it seem more genuine, less like Earth playing fantasy dress-up.

But then there’s the practical end of it, which generally wins out for most people (myself included, as a general rule). “I can’t remember which one ‘Blooming Flower Day’ is, so lets just call it ‘Tuesday.'” Just as most of us conduct games in English (or whatever) using our own calendar conveys the necessary information in a way that players instantly understand, without having to flip through a world guide to figure out what their characters know. As a general rule, I think that’s probably where I come down: fantasy calendars are great in theory, but actually implementing them is tough. The only way I can see around it is to have the GM really know the fantasy calendar, and provide the necessary explanations up front: “The man in the cloak asks you to meet him again on 3 Rain, which is four days from now.” Now the characters can count off 4 days on their fingers, and meet the mysterious figure once more.

#13 Comment By Tsenn On August 27, 2011 @ 5:56 am

Scruffylad makes a good point. Dress up your calendar however you like, but the PCs really just need to know how many days between now and then.

#14 Comment By recursive.faults On August 27, 2011 @ 6:38 am

I think I have a similar mindset to most everyone. Calendars are a tool to aid the game, nothing else. If a calendar doesn’t add to the game then I simply don’t use it. Before I went through the effort of making one I would seriously evaluate whether or not it would actually add to the game. Most of the time the answer, to me, is that it doesn’t.

A lot of great movies, shows, and books rarely make any mention of a calendar system. Most every time reference is relative to now.

If I were going to use a calendar or any other flavor element, I would do it in a way that doesn’t cause the game to pause. A very unique calendar would require constant reference by the GM and player, and that stops the game. Same would be for any other flavor element, if the names of places are impossible to remember (Like running a game where everything is Welsh), then your carefully crafted and detailed town will always be regarded as, “That place.”

I would actually claim that world builders who look at Tolkien as an example of world building are making a mistake. The reason is you approach books like this with an intent to commit yourself fully to the words and experience in the book. Thats what books do. The process of reading itself creates and encourages immersion. So that media is perfect for that level of detail. In my opinion, gaming does not create that. At least, it is a lot harder to create that. The example is better explained by comparing movies and books. You can probably read a good book and forget how many days have passed. You probably can’t sit through the extended LOTR set. It’s simply too much. Gaming is similarly different.

#15 Comment By MAK On August 27, 2011 @ 7:05 am

Is it just me, or wasn’t this supposed to be about more than just calendars? Most arguments this far are easy to generalize to any setting aspects, of course, but I was expecting to see more on how different groups handle immersion – what adds to it, what detracts. Does genre affect it? Are my players the only ones who don’t notice nor care about fiddly little world details?

#16 Comment By RenoGM On August 27, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

I take a fairly easy approach to the issue. In my last oouple of fantasy games I would simply refer to the time of year as the season and whether it was early-season, mid-season, or late-season, basing my seasons off of the equinoxes and solstices. I just ignore the concept of weeks.

This allows our group to have funtional familiarity without suspending too much disbelief. Although, when I was asked about a calendar I just mentioned that there was an extremely complicated one based on the sun and moons, but was really only used by sages and scholars. This seemed to be a perfectly good explination to the players.

#17 Comment By Harashaw On August 28, 2011 @ 9:34 am

I prefer near-future or weird present gaming, so it’s usually not an issue for me. When I do run fantasy or far future, however, I tend to favour ease of use. The week will always be 7 days, the months and seasons will always have English or quasi-English names that make their position in the year fairly apparent, etc. The GMs I play with also tend towards this.

Frankly, I don’t feel that it harms immersion at all. If I can match a game concept to a real world one, it makes it that much more believable. For example, if I can think of a ZB-457 Starfighter not as some totally unique off-the-wall thing but as a Space MIG or a Space Harrier, I’ll have a more concrete image of it in my head, even if I only ever refer to it as a ZB-457. I find myself often using phrases like “roughly the equivalent of…” for this reason.

#18 Comment By ggodo On August 29, 2011 @ 8:41 am

I’m running Shadowrun. It uses our calendar, and that still confuses my players.

#19 Comment By Svafa On August 29, 2011 @ 10:46 am

Until reading this article it had never occurred to me that immersion and familiarity might be in opposition. My assumption has always been that familiarity is necessary for immersion. Complicated systems that require constant reminders and referencing detract from immersion, even if they are unique and add flavour. Likewise, simple systems that are familiar (like the gregorian calendar) add to the immersion, rather than taking away from it.

Concerning calendars in particular, I usually stick to seasons and don’t mess with particulars. I’ve never encountered the need to detail the months or dating system within our games, so I haven’t done so. I have, however, named days of the week on occasion, and I tend to prefer simply numbering them or using an element-themed naming convention.

This topic has got me thinking it would be good to have a visual calendar available during play for reference by the players and DM. I’ve usually based dates on intuition and guesstimation, which works fine, but a set calendar would help enforce travel times and distances, as well as provide more regularity to date-specific anomalies (lycanthropy, for instance). If it can double as an abbreviated campaign history and “what did we do last time?”, then the additional hassle of managing the calendar might be offset enough to be worthwhile.

In response to MAK, at the expense of brevity, another issue I’ve run into with “immersion vs familiarity” is race names. I’m all for calling the tree-loving, pointy-eared, cannibalistic hippies “elf”, but I know some who insist they be called by another name and, essentially, that “elf” as a word does not exist within their setting. In my opinion, that’s a little ridiculous; I mean, if it looks like an elf, smells like an elf, and tastes like an elf, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s an elf. Calling it something else I’m not likely to remember wreaks havoc with my suspension of disbelief. That’s not to say they can’t have their own unique name, and I appreciate the added flavour, so long as we all agree it’s an elf.

(Elves are by no means the only instance of this, and were chosen as an example simply because they are easy to pick on.)

#20 Comment By nolandda On August 29, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

In my most recent campaign I wanted things to feel a little bit alien, but as others have mentioned I didn’t want to constantly be looking up days of the month/week and breaking immersion.

Instead I just went with numbered days and months. My players know that there are ten months in the year. And sometimes they have to do something on “The 14th day of the 7th month”. It is simple enough that they all keep their campaign notes with reference to the fictional calendar.

————–

Also many many real cultures independently chose a seven day week, and nobody really knows why.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven-day_week

#21 Comment By Thought On August 31, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

This general topic seems like it could benefit from some creative writing terminology. I’d recommend people look up the Turkey City Lexicon, as it deals with common pitfalls of writers attempting to achieve immersion. For example, Norcross’s rock and sword analogy is an instance of “calling a rabbit a smeerp.” If I have short, stocky, bearded humanoids in my setting who speak with a bad scottish accent, then calling them “Lumptons” might be more exotic sounding than “Dwarves,” but that is a false veneer. Immersion is achieved through a suspension of disbelief, and using cheap tricks to make something seem different backfires when the players realize it. The key, then, is making things exotic by their nature and then having the names reflect that.

More generally, the problem of getting players to buy into a really alien world (calendar and all) is the info-dump. Again the above noted Lexicon is useful for seeing how writer’s perceive this problem. The “Front Loading” approach (telling players up front about all the stuff their characters should be intimately familiar with) leaves people feeling unsatisfied and bewildered. But there are other approaches. Want to have a unique in-game calendar? Heinline it. Give the players a reason to memorize it so that next time you say “the month of WibbleWobbum” they’ll have a frame of reference. To do this, perhaps you’ll want a party to face a strange cult that performs gruesome murders each month that relate to whatever the month was named after (in “december,” the cult kills ten people each day, in “january” they kill people named Janus, etc).


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