Tuesday, 8 April 2014

It Ain't All Gold

High Trust, High Drama play has rich rewards, it's true, but there are also sometimes problems. The one I'm thinking about today is the disconnect that sometimes exists between the players involved in a scene and the other players who are the audience.

For a player that's deeply into character, a scene can feel "true" and worthy even when it doesn't "play" to the rest of the room. That is, at the end of the scene no particular progress has been made -- no character has asked anything of the other, no particular conflict has been stoked or even acknowledged.

In the abstract, this is fine. Sometimes, it feels necessary to play out little pieces of connective tissue in a story even when they're not in the business of resolving a conflict or forwarding the overall plot. Except that these little pieces can end up eating up a substantial amount of "screen time" in a session. When a scene that's not about anything other than the immersion of the players in their characters eats up ten or twenty minutes (or more) of time, that's not only not moving the game forward, it's actively taking time away from more productive scenes.

It's an explicit part of the social contract for a HTHD game that other players serve as audience for the scenes that they're not in. In a situation where players are actively trying to escalate the drama, this is fine -- scenes crackling with conflict are fun to watch. But if that's not happening, the other players are twiddling their thumbs. Long scenes where nothing happens is asking a lot of your fellow players. Chances are, they've got something more pressing they would like to be pursuing for themselves if they got a chance.

Try to imagine a television show or a film that contained a twenty minute scene where nothing at all happened. Unless the dialogue was particularly crackling, you'd probably turn the channel.

It is also true of the theatre that sometimes a scene that feels "true" to one of the actors involved in it doesn't play at all below the footlights. In that case, it's the director's job to coax a performance to life. In a tabletop game, that's a more tricky situation -- a GM that tries to cut a scene short risks upsetting his players, or worse, cutting off a player who's getting to a petition or some kind of reveal, but taking a while to find the right words or moment.

Finding the "second pause" in a scene can be an instructive way of looking for a place to stop (I think that was a piece of advice from SMALLVILLE) -- literally listening for the second time that the characters have a break in their conversation often means the players are searching for things to say. If that's true, it's probably okay to cut away to something else or at least suggest doing that.

I guess what I'm arguing for here is sensitivity -- both on the part of the "audience" and the "actors" in a scene. The actors need to try to keep scenes where there isn't anything pressing happening between two characters short. If it's running longer than five minutes, you may be indulging yourself in something that's not that interesting to everyone else at the table. And, to be fair, often players know going in when there's an active conflict and when there isn't -- you likely know that when someone calls for the scene.

The audience needs to try to gently nudge things when a dead scene is dragging on and on. Remember, the cardinal rule is that everyone at the table is entitled to participate and enjoy themselves (adjusted for meanings of "enjoy yourself" which include tortured character drama, naturally). If two players are eating up screen time, it's fair to expect them to do something with it. And it's also good policy to try to nudge a scene to a conclusion or toward a conflict rather than just cutting it off abruptly. Sometimes good things happen late in a scene, if you're patient.

And, above all, don't try to launch into an at-table discussion of what should be happening in the scene. This is the worst possible resolution, cutting the acting players out of their immersion in the roughest possible way and imposing the group's ideas on people who may not want them at all.

Encouraging other players to come to a point or cut it short is one thing. Armchair quarterbacking a scene you're not in is just plain not cool.

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