Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Bring the Thunder

A recent session at my table made me realize that a lot of players need to up their game, myself included. 

We talk a lot in roleplaying circles about having "proactive" players who drive play, helping to move us away from a more traditional model where the players were reacting to stimuli introduced by the GM, or worse, where the players were looking to the GM to provide the evening's entertainment while they passively follow along. 

At our table, play is focused on the player characters and what they decide to do, and often, what their interactions with each other look like. This is a fine model for dramatic play, and I often think of myself as GM as providing more of a "moving scrim" for those elements -- a colourful backdrop, but ultimately just set dressing for the really important moments. Sometimes I apply a little pressure here and there, creating situations where player character conflicts can be brought into sharp focus. Since players at our table often call for their own scenes, this is a responsibility that is shared by everyone who plays in our games. 

If I have a recurring complaint about dramatic play, it's that often players will get into scenes together without a real dramatic drive to them, even if there are well-defined conflicts between the characters. The players will enter the scene casting about for a moment of conflict, and often they won't find it. They will talk about something else for ten minutes or so, and what we're left with is a kind of "slice of life" scene where nothing much happens. This is okay sometimes, but when it's a regular occurrence it really starts to suck the energy out of a game.

"Life ain't art," as a wiser person than me once said. Although people complain sometimes about television shows or movies where the dialogue is stylized rather than realistic, or mutter about formulaic storytelling, most of us would rather eat our own armpit hair than watch a really realistic depiction of life as we know it. Life is made out of a million dull moments, trite, repetitive dialogue, and characters that often don't move beyond interactions that are surface at best. Good stories (and good games) cut out the dull bits and focus on moments of conflict, scenes where the characters are under the most pressure and have to make choices and deal with the consequences, NOW. This is the reason why we have the storytelling maxim Start your story as late as possible. In other words, when the story is just coming to a boil. 

Drama doesn't happen by accident, if you want it to happen on a regular basis and go to some really interesting, deep places. It happens because players have the intent to make it happen, they prepare to make it happen, and they commit to a scene when they get the opportunity. 

Intention is the foundation of playing in a dramatic style. You come to the table with dramatic scenes as your objective, the thing you and your fellow players want to get out of the experience. I suspect that you have at least a passing interest in this sort of thing, or you wouldn't be reading my blog.

Preparation is often something that happens in the early days of a game, when you sit down with your fellow players and create characters, discussing what kind of story you want to tell together. You share what your character concept is, draw connections with the other player characters, and develop conflicts that you want to explore in play. Sometimes games will have mechanical features that drive these, sometimes it's just an informal game plan you draw up before play begins. Often, the actual experience of play (or the fallout from character decisions) will take things in a different direction than you expected - this is a fine thing, to be expected and even cherished. You want to discover things you hadn't expected in play, or else what would be the point?

Preparation doesn't stop when play begins, though. This is something a lot of people don't do well at the table, even high-functioning groups like the one I've been playing with for the last several years. I'll come back to this in a moment.

Commitment is where a lot of players fail to make a scene come together, and it goes hand in hand with ongoing preparation. What I'm talking about is the moment that a scene between two characters begins, the moment where the players choose what is going to happen. If your intention and your preparation say you're going to clash about a particular conflict, why do so many players tend to side-step around the conflict -- the elephant in the room that they put there specifically so they could talk about it? Commitment is the choice to say "Hey, Dave, what the hell's the deal with that elephant?"

I think one of the reasons is prosaic: people sometimes aren't ready to go for the meat of a conflict right away, or they're not in an emotional/mental space where they're capable of "going deep" on that particular night. They start out with good intentions, then back away because once they're in the room, HOLY FUCK THAT ELEPHANT IS BIG.

Another, more complicated reason is that a lot of people carry with them the baggage of a lifetime of consuming media. They've seen far too many hours of television and movies to shake off easily the sense that the stories we tell have a structure to them, a rhythm, and often they will come to the conclusion that this moment is happening too early in the overall arc of the story. Later, they say, settling comfortably on the couch, we'll talk about the elephant after we've built up to it. 

Hopefully this image is sufficiently absurd to convince you that NOW is always the proper time to commit to a scene and dive right into a conflict. The rhythms of gameplay are not the same as those of any other medium, and convincing ourselves otherwise is just an excuse for cold feet. Committing to a conflict directly means that you can develop it more fully, past the surface emotions to the deep, strong stuff, and most of all the delicious fallout that develops after a big, powerful scene. Drama means leaving the game plan behind at some point and rolling with it, going out into unexplored territory. Dramatic play that commits is emergent play by definition.

Let's return to preparation, to bring this one home.

My starting point for this blog was a crackling session of my current game a few weeks. I wrote about it here, so you may remember how charged up I was about it. It was the spotlight episode for one of my players, where we were deliberately focusing on his character for the session, and every scene he was in was powerful, putting everything important about that character on the table. Every time he was in a scene, he committed to it without reservation. This was his moment.

I haven't had an in-depth conversation with the player about it, but my sense is that he came to the table having thought a great deal about what he wanted out of the session, and he came to the table with specific goals. That may not have been as specific as I want this to happen, but it was probably as specific as I'm going to push for this. I think it's probable he even thought about a couple of killer lines he delivered during the session, which were devastating when they landed (as GM I do the same thing, writing little snatches of dialogue that might play out in a scene). 

My point is, that player did his homework. He came to his spotlight episode with a game plan, an agenda, an intention to get into scenes and mix it up, knock over some fruit carts and see what happened. This is so important for dramatic players to use as a strategy to drive play forward, because this is the stuff you want to get to. Those moments when you lay it all on the line and see what happens next. This is your objective. If you don't come to the table with a plan, well, you might still have a great session where lots of dramatic events happen organically, but I wouldn't count on it. 

You need to make it happen. There is no other way. 

You know your intention. You've done your preparation to start, so the work of play -- and it is work, sometimes, getting to the really good stuff -- is preparation on an ongoing basis. I did this as a player in our APOCALYPSE WORLD game last year; I knew that I was only going to get a couple of short scenes every session, so I came to the table prepared to hit those scenes HARD. 

And once you're prepared, you have to commit. 

"So, Dave, what the hell's the deal with that elephant...?"


  1. I agree with most of this, which is not surprising, given that we talk through many of these ideas together.

    One thing I thought was missing, though, is the notion that you can and should have a clear intention of what you want in the scene - but that is not the same thing as digging in your heels and damning the torpedoes if you get any resistance.

    Intention is great, but should be accompanied by generosity and flexibility. You may want something, and not get it, and that's interesting. As are partially successes.

  2. Yes, that's exactly right. I'm mainly talking here about the generalized intention to bring a conflict to the fore, not about "I want THIS SPECIFIC THING and I will SCREAM AND HOLD MY BREATH UNTIL I GET IT". You can push hard, but ultimately you have to surrender control of outcomes to the way the scene plays, and if you're not willing to loosen your grip you're doing it wrong.

    The other thing Megan pointed out is the importance of ongoing collaboration in the game. Of course, that's on the level of playing scenes with your fellow players and being present and generous when it's their turn in the spotlight, but it's also important to collaborate as part of preparation. This should take the form of setting goals / challenges in a scene, not planning them out in detail (which is a mistake). It is very helpful to have another player to bounce ideas off and say "Wouldn't it be cool if we tried THIS next session?" You bet it would!

    My intention with this article was to talk about individual responsibility, but of course the ongoing collaborative aspect of roleplaying is crucial. It doesn't matter what any one player does in terms of prep, you can't have a great night of gameplay without everybody doing their part. And they absolutely did, during that session I mention above.

    Awesome sessions are all about teamwork.