If you play D&D or Lancer or GURPS or any other tabletop RP format, you’ll probably be interested in VR Roleplay. I play both tabletop and VR roleplay fanatically, and I’m here to explain the key elements that separate VR RP from tabletop. This is the second in a series of articles, you can check the other one out afterwards if you want.
In this article, we’ll be discussing presence and visual representation. First, a short description to set a scene:
You walk into a tavern filled with townsfolk and adventurers all moving about and having boisterous conversations over ale and grub. There’s a hooded figure in the corner, a variety of ongoing conversations and the window behind the barkeep is open near some cooling pies. There are two people sitting at the bar, seven are sitting at a larger table adjacent to the fireplace. At the larger table, one is a dragonborn another is a gnome the gnome is wearing a tophat and the elf beside him is wearing-
Okay, I’ll stop there. That was a lot of information and only scratched the surface of what I wanted to describe. Often I avoid detailed descriptions of an environment because it’s simply overloading. you have a vague idea of the entire scene in your head, but bits and pieces are already getting dropped. In a tabletop scene, a lot of this information is going to be confused and reiterated throughout the encounter anyway. Most of it will be lost in a moment when a goblin tries to steal the pie from the window, and the party rushes off to fight him and his buddies.
In VR Roleplay, you might walk into the same scene get all that information, and be talking to the bartender in seconds. Information that takes a couple of minutes to explain in tabletop can be received at a glance in VR.
This is because VR Roleplay has both presence and visual representation.
Presence is the sense that something exists within a space even if it's not physically there. Through a VR headset, you gain a sense of presence in regard to your surroundings. Characters standing in front of you feel close, like you could reach out and touch them. Characters across the street feel farther away. They also move through the space around you in a natural way and you even have spatial audio allowing you to hear them as beside or behind you.
Visual Representation is the representative details of a scene such as a character's avatar or the walls and chairs of a tavern. When those details are present, you absorb information at a glance that would have taken several minutes to get otherwise: their facial features, their clothing, and often even their occupation and status. Their demeanour also shows through their speech, body language, and gesticulation.
In tabletop roleplay, you have a limited sense of presence. A character may be represented by a player or Game Master who's physically performing but still, they don't move about relative to their characters' actual positions in the room. This is especially clear when the GM portrays multiple NPCs. The hooded figure across the room is sitting in the same place as the bartender standing next to you who’s sitting in the same place as the goblin trying to sneak in through the window. They all feel somewhat present but occupy the same seat as the GM who stays stationary relative to yourself. If you’re playing online, you don’t even get that, instead relying on a webcam or your imagination.
This extends to the environment as well. Walking through the halls of a castle in tabletop can often feel like a stay at Hogwarts. Everything keeps shifting and changing in your imagination as new details are described, and you could swear even the staircases are moving. In VR Roleplay you are in a castle, wandering its hallways, effortlessly absorbing the atmosphere and architecture as you move quickly to your meeting with the Queen.
This can be interpreted as theatre of the mind vs direct representations of an environment, but I’d like to think of it more like a partially completed canvas. You still often use your imagination in VR Roleplay: the GM can describe a painting on the wall that isn't there while allowing the hallways and tapestries to speak for themselves. A player might hand you a book with no title and say "The history of Beachcastle, as you requested" and now you know what the book’s about.
You even perceive the presence of your own character differently in VR: You are inhabiting the body of your character. You see your characters' limbs when you reach your arms forward. You have their sword at your hip and their hat on your head. There's someone completely different in the mirror, be they a stout armoured warrior or a lanky elderly mage. This has real psychological effects that make it easier to slip into a character who is much different from yourself.
All this means it’s easy to slip into a character during a VR RP session. I myself often slip into a character and forget that I’m even playing as one. I’m just acting and reacting as them, thinking their thoughts and adjusting my demeanour to match theirs.