Monday, May 23, 2011

When to Tell

Communication at the game table isn’t easy. Not in the sense of talking over people, or getting your turn- but in the sense of a GM creating a scene and a moment, filled with detail and the players responding to that moment, with their characters, trying to describe their characters actions- at least what they’re doing, maybe what they’re saying and more rarely what their motivation is. Everything at the table comes in pieces- some direct and indirect and each person there forms a very different sense of what’s going on. Games with heavier mechanic negotiate that space in a certain way, concentrating on shared and adjudicated details. But the bottom line is that the nature of the tabletop game does make telling a detailed and coherent story difficult. We manage it, but can we do a better job or it, as players and GMs.


I’m going to quote at length here for something John Wick says in Blood and Honor:

As gamers, we have a (…)problem. We come up with elaborate and detailed backgrounds. Rich internal landscapes. And then, when we start playing, whole sessions go by without the other players having a single clue.

Characters have secrets. Sure they do. That’s fi ne. But authors use devices to give the audience clues as to why a character responds a certain way. We get to see that rich internal landscape. Even if a reaction is a mystery, we trust that somewhere down the line, the author will let us in on the secret. We’ll eventually understand all those cryptic sighs, mysterious glances and enigmatic gestures.


But in roleplaying games, we keep secrets. We write the Narrator private notes. We take him aside for a whispered meeting. We keep that 24 page background to ourselves. Nobody else gets to see it. It’s ours and ours alone.

The method. Secrecy. Otherwise known as mental masturbation.

You are, quite literally, playing with yourself.

Nobody else is invited. Nobody else gets to know about your character’s past. That lost lover. That blood feud with your father. That secret conversation you had with your mother. Your childhood rivalry with your sister. Your hidden marriage. That secret you’ve kept for twenty years and never told a soul.

All that rich background you’re selfishly keeping to yourself that no other player will ever know. It’s yours and yours alone. And you’re the only one who will ever enjoy it.

So- yes. All that cool stuff you’re keeping secret or hidden about your character. The other players won’t really care, won’t really be able to pay off of unless you give some of that away. You can afford to be meta- and out of character- perhaps ask the GM to play out a brief scene at the table to reveal that to the other players. But it might even be better if you told the other PCs. Players (and GMs at the table can only really play to what they know). That’s one of my favorite bits in the rules for Microscope. At the Scene level, you go down to the smallest details and play out characters briefly. When you take up a character and do something, you have to make your purposes and motivations explicit- you must give the other players something to play off of. Graham Walmsley talks about this even more in Play Unsafe.

But it isn’t just about secrets, plots and vulnerabilities. I think players should take a moment every few sessions to make an explicit statement their character’s motivations and ideas. Not necessarily as a direct statement, but as a meta-statement or an internal dialogue. The other players need to know where you’re coming from. Why is your character playing so shy when dealing with these NPCs or why does she seem so angry when talking to this particular NPC? Unless you as a player make those things clear, explicate motivation, they the players only have the action to work with- and may assume it is a player-based reaction, rather than character. And the GM may not know either, and has a legitimate right to provide you options and choices based on that. I’ve had a number of times where I’ve had PC that I thought “Wow…that’s an interesting choice, having a character who could easily go over to evil,” when in fact that’s not how the player thought they were presenting themselves.

At risk of repeating an example I’ve used with this several times before- I played the least powered character in a Buffy-esque game. We had a Vampire, a Voodoo Priestess, and a pseudo-Slayer. I could essentially pick locks. I really enjoyed being able to play that Xander role- of feeling like the weak link in the group. I loved the idea of him struggling, but keeping up the fight. However, to other players, when my character complained, or bitched about this, they thought that I, the player, was upset about the power imbalance. I hadn’t made that clear. When I realized that they’d read my play for months and months as being really dickish- as a player, I was incredibly embarrassed. I left the game- it had been my fault and I managed to shoot and enjoyable character in the foot because I hadn’t been clearer with the other players about where I was coming from.

CAVEAT: On the other hand, that kind of explanation does not serve as an excuse. Some people who seem to think that having a reason for doing something is the same that that reason being valid- it isn’t. There’ a certain tension between “I was just playing my character” and getting along with the rest of the table. And I’m not talking about the most dickish end of the spectrum on that- but day to day play. Even if you make it clear your character’s a mopey, Emo wretch, you still have to consider how that plays with the group.


When I plot, I tend to plot in arcs. I imagine what the goal is and how it will play out if left to its own devices. In other words, if the players do nothing then this plot will succeed with a 100% rating. Everything the baddie intended will occurred. I begin from that perfect state- then when players do things, they chip away at that. They reduce its efficacy, they force resources to go other places, they make the bad guy react to them. I don’t usually think too hard about the process of how the players are going to win: they’re smart enough to figure that out. Thinking too much about solutions ahead of time can make me decide on “right” choices. In other words “they have to do it X way.” That’s for big arcs. For little things- I usually throw things out there- situations and look forward to seeing how the players change or affect them. I try not to have too much in my head about that.

But one problem can be that I have too many plots, people and threads out there at the table. Especially in campaigns which have lasted for years, the players may feel overwhelmed. Some stuff will obviously get dropped- forgotten. Recently I’ve been trying a kind of Getting Things Done approach to game brainstorming (since I plot loosely). In a couple of games, I’ve made lists of outstanding plots. Then, if I’m going to introduce something at the table, it has to relate directly or tangentially to one of those plots.

I sometimes put plots out there, usually in the background, but then I slow players down when they work on them. This is a bad practice- my bad practice. In my head I imagine that the plot needs time to brew, to build up dramatic tension. Or perhaps other pieces haven’t fallen into place. Or perhaps in my head I haven’t quite assembled exactly how I want it to look. I don’t want to get to that yet because it will be better if I have some more time- to develop tension, to keep the players from getting too far ahead, to figure out what would be perfect…


Make the jump. Yes you can put things off a little to build some tension. But events, details, and threads which the GM doesn’t actually bring to the table: they’re worthless. They don’t do anything sitting in the your head as GM. Put them out there. Worse, they can build up frustration- especially if when you finally do get around to putting them out there, the players feel like the effort they made earlier trying to pull on those threads isn’t validated. I have an NPC who has been missing in the Changeling campaign for some time. I’ve distracted the players from it a couple of times, but I suddenly realized that it isn’t nearly as interesting or cool for them as the story I’ve been self-spinning.

CAVEAT: Players can reasonably get frustrated when they’ve investigated, been shut down and then the thing they’ve investigated pops up as a threat, as if they hadn’t taken steps. However, I’ve had a cases where a plot thread has been hanging out there, like the Sword of Damocles, with an obvious clock ticking on it. And the players have avoided it- some because they felt it wasn’t their place, and others just really goofily. They’d approach working on the idea and then not. Those latter players lose their right to complain when that plot comes to fruition if they haven’t taken any steps to deal with it.


  1. Fantastic post. I'm going to file this one away for future reference.

  2. I agree with Risus, well written, sir. I'm permalinking this post on my blog for future reference.

    "[...]if the players do nothing then this plot will succeed with a 100% rating. Everything the baddie intended will occurred. I begin from that perfect state- then when players do things, they chip away at that. [...] I sometimes put plots out there, usually in the background, but then I slow players down when they work on them."

    This sounds very much like myself. The problem is that even if I am aware that this is what I'm doing, I find it hard to change it. Old habits and all that, I suppose.

    As it is, in my current game I have now decided to not hatch new plots, instead I have vowed to let the ones in play run their course. I now try to keep my players informed of what's happening. I have to admit though, this is not so much a clever technique as a neccessity at this point. I am moving in a few months, and I have to end my game somehow. I realised that there was no way I could bring the story to anything near a satisfying climax unless I started wrapping up plot-lines, as opposed to spinning new ones at a stady pace.

  3. I think the Microscope rule of clearly stating your character motivation helps defuse bad behavior of the “I was just playing my character” sort.

    This is for the same reason that actors actors will hold onto a real traumatic memory to get into character, but never tell anyone what it is, even the director. Or why repeatedly talking about trauma in therapy weakens trauma's hold on us. It moves the story away from the animal lower brain and into the verbal upper brain sections. And frankly, the upper brain is lousy at passion.

    In play, I LOVE playing an asshole, but I always try to keep it in a story context. I play it for laughs or as a foil for other PCs, but I'd be horrified if my asshole was allowed to take over the table.

  4. There is that pressure at the end of a campaign- and the desire to make sure things get wrapped up. In a novel or script, you could go back and see how to edit or fold things into one another, so they feed the main plots. When you're doing that on the fly, it is a little more difficult.

    Gene- I'd say playing an asshole or the like can work, but it is important that the other players are on board- both that that particular kind of play doesn't detract from their experience and that they recognize the distinction between the character and self. Abrasive characters I think work better in short term campaigns. In long term campaigns, they can create problems- unless the player is open and receptive to play with other players. So you have two variables: asshole/non-asshole and open/closed. I'd say of those AH/CL would be the worst.

  5. Worst ending to one of my games ever. We all completely misread you and how you were handling your character.

    I'm going through some of this now with the group I run for. There isn't enough good/constructive discussion at the table. It builds up and then one of us brings it up...and it comes out more harsh/combative than it needs to. I have a very divers group in age, experience, and style of games played. And I think until I, as GM, get more comfortable with everything, it's going to be rocky.

    One thing I have done is force myself to use plothooks from players backgrounds with the other players. Sometimes, they hand them to you on a silver platter (character 1: afraid of carnies. character 2: background with circuses). Other times, not so much, but you can find a way.

    I've also had players think that I just lost interest in an NPC, because the NPC disappeared from the game. They were confused when another NPC asked if the players had seen the missing NPC.

    Good thoughts all around.

  6. I'm not sure if it's part of the Scene level in Microscope, but elsewhere Ben Robbins talks about doing character monologues to get across any of the hidden/secret details or PC motivations.

    I think part of the issue might be a discomfort (fear?) of going meta while in-game. Dialogue or direct actions are the only true way to interact with the game world, according to this viewpoint.

    Re: GM plots, I have that issue sometimes where I want to wait until the scene comes together _perfectly_, but I have to remember that it's better being done rather than perfect.

  7. I think it's a great idea to be communicative with the other players in your group but I wonder if most groups need to be so meta- in considering motivation/characterization. Let's face it, in real life we don't often explain our baggage to everyone. If I see a friend totally snub someone at a party and I'm not used to that behavior from them -- well, I'll probably ask.

    And I think that's the flip-side to this idea, at least on the player side. Why don't we ask each other more questions in character? I mean, yeah, I know the people sitting at the table with me -- but my character may (or may not) be supposed to know their characters... So what stops me from seeing another PC snub a particular guy at a party -- when I've normally seen that PC act another way -- and then just asking, in character, "Hey, what's going on with that?"

    It can accomplish the same end, tie the PCs together more intimately, and lend the play experience some verisimilitude. And it's less meta-.

    Simultaneously, in your "Xander-type" example, when you were complaining in character -- didn't you ever talk about the game out-of-character with the others involved? Couldn't you have solved that problem simply by expressing to the GM each session -- "hey man, great game. I love this character." (and if one of your fellow gamers asks, "then why do you just complain all session?" you can reply -- "what, oh, no... My guy complains, but I'm lovin' it!") Which actually dovetails nicely with my point about how we don't really know that kind of stuff about people in real life... so we need to ask.

    I take a little affront to the assumption that if I want to have a great background for my character and a lot of excitement at having some secrets that I'm just masturbating. Assuming my initial suggestion has any validity at all -- then I'd assume that my background will start to appear through characterization at the table. That's not wasted and it's not necessarily solitary.

    The caveat to this -- in a group where the players (and their PCs) are too worried about prying or seeming improper to actually ask each other questions (or they just don't care that much) then everything preceding probably doesn't matter anyway -- because none of that will be important to that group's play experience anyway.

  8. Re secrets: I'll admit, I'm one of those secretive sorts of players, but usually for a reason, and generally it comes out in play pretty quickly. For me, it's mostly a way of hooking interactions, since the games I participate in are often as much talk as action, and it just doesn't seem right telling the other players because then nobody bothers asking and it doesn't make any sense for the group to know. I do, however, make a point of having the secrets influence what the character does, and sometimes even deliberately slip so they'll catch me if it isn't plot-important. For instance, one of my latest projects is a character where family is particularly important who refuses to divulge his family name--in character, because he doesn't want to trade too hard on his family's power, and out of character, because I thought it might be fun to see how hard the other characters push him. He's already been through at least one plot situation where his knowledge of what was going on was highly dependent on his antecedents, and I'm mildly surprised nobody's come up to me telling me they've guessed yet.

    I'm with Morrison. OOC discussion if it messes with the group dynamic. IC discussion if people are actively curious. Between those, they should get around most of the problems.

  9. Nice bloggy you got here, Lowell!

    Very helpful post for me as I consider sticking my toe in the GM pool.

    As far the whole players not divulging their backgrounds to each other: this has bothered me for a long time, too. The moments in a movie or book where the characters have these important, revelatory discussions don't generally happen in games. Once we decide to break camp it's just "set up watch order. You survive the night without incidents."

    I'm in a long distance game right now where we've set up an online forum. A surprising amount of IC banter has developed on it, in the very campfire moment I was thinking of, and people are clearly developing their player personalities through this thread. I'm curious to see if we're going to get past developing personalities to more serious discussions of player backstory/current unresolved story arcs.

  10. There's a side effect to I don't think I dealt with too much in the original article. In telling, the players take ownership of their character's reaction- they become less nebulous. I've seen players avoid telling or change things up on the fly in reaction to events rather than trying to play a character. I'm not saying players have to have something set in stone or they absolutely have to be in character but I've seen some weird opportunism when players avoid giving the other players a sense of their character (backstory or motive). They spin something new to rationalize their choices to use it to get irritated with the GM because the GM hasn't read their mind.

    I hadn't considered how this might actually be easier/better in a long-distance campaign. Having things in black and white with the opportunity to spin out more permanent stories seems like a benefit of that medium.