On Wednesday night, we played a long-delayed session of a new game I'm running: SHADOWRUN: THE FORKS. It's a once-a-month game with a group that isn't our usual players, a conscious attempt on my part to change up the dynamics and play games a little differently. It's a small group, which tends to lend itself well toward intimate play, and the players (GM excepted, of course) are all women. Women I know pretty well, but still. Different from the usual dynamics, which have tended toward gender parity for at least half the games I've played for the past few years.
I'm not sure I've seen, or expected, huge differences in play because the players are all women. You could maybe argue that it's been easier for them to get to a High Trust place with each other because they're all women, but that could also be because they're all friends. They know they can depend on each other for support if they take a risk in a scene. I hope they feel that way about me too.
We had a short, low pressure, but very good session on Wednesday night that reminded me what really good roleplaying looks like, however. We ate a nice meal together - I cooked a big pot of stew, Megan made biscuits, and my players brought a bottle of wine and cake for dessert - and settled in for an evening of what turned out to be great play. I'm not sure if that had to do with people just being in the right frame of mind, with some conversations we had last month about making the conflicts between the characters more pointed, or what it was particularly. I wish I could bottle whatever it was that was happening between us that night.
A lot of things went right, but mostly what that evening reminded me of was a very simple, foundational idea of dramatic play. Be present in a scene.
Being present means being aware of your partner, listening carefully to what they're saying, and reacting dynamically as the scene unfolds. When a player takes a risk, shows us a vulnerable or emotional moment, or steps a conflict up in some way, you need to be paying attention to that and give them something back.
Actors talk about being "in the moment". What they mean is getting to a place where all the hours of rehearsal and craft that go into a good dramatic scene seems to fall away, and they can just react to their scene partner with something very close to real emotions. If their partner changes things up a little, they're there, not wedded to whatever was said in rehearsals or scribbled in the margins of a script. They react to the scene as it happens, not as it was planned. This makes a scene feel spontaneous, real, dynamic - because on at least one level, it is.
Nothing feels more fake than a scene where one player is in the moment and the other is sticking to what they had planned. You sense the discord, like musicians who aren't playing quite the same tune.
This can be a real problem for dramatic play at the tabletop, because roleplayers don't generally do as much work preparing for a scene as actors do. They're still in the process of figuring out what their character feels, precisely, and they're juggling their character's motivations and the player's sense of what they want to happen in the game in the short and long terms. At our table, at least, there is seldom any kind of formal discussion about what a scene is about, although someone may say ahead of time "I want to do a scene about (x)". Having those things in your mind is fine, and helpful, but unless you're paying attention to the scene that is happening now, it's discordant music. You have to let go of preparation and intention and just be present.
This may seem like a strange observation, because to some extent all roleplaying is improvised, even if you play games using a highly developed adventure or structured rules (such as MONSTERHEARTS, which triggers a particular endgame when your characters advance to a particular point). But it's always been my experience that a lot of players fall short on matters of spontaneity and simple listening to their fellow players.
This is about trust. When a player makes a spontaneous leap, saying or doing something that changes the tenor of a scene, they need to know that you're going to meet them half-way. It's like going in for a hug and having someone react strangely - you might not do that again. If you show them that you're with them, in the moment, paying attention, reacting sincerely, they know they can step out on that limb in the wind. You're not going to saw it off under their feet.
GMs have to be especially mindful of this. When a GM is playing a scene with a player, they are often pushing buttons and trying to make something happen. They often have a rough game plan, an objective they want for a scene, or a session. But they have to let go of the game plan when they play a dramatic scene. If the GM doesn't give the player feedback that shows them they're present, it makes the player less likely to move forward, or uncertain about what they should be doing to get a reaction.
Here's the thing about being present. Acting is a very deliberate process. You read and read, practice and practice. At times, every little movement you make is circumscribed. People tell you what to wear, and if you're very unlucky, how to say things a particular way to suit the director's vision of a scene. Those little moments of spontaneity in a scene where both actors are present, and their exchanges are real and dynamic (and, if you're in the theatre, possibly building off of emotional response from the audience) are what makes acting a pleasure and not a horrible chore. A small moment of transcendence, where everything just drops away and you can be genuinely surprised by what is happening. You're playing a song together, improvising on a theme. Listening. Discovering small delights you hadn't even known were there.