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.