Here’s the background: Over the weekend, Ryan Macklin (RyanMacklin), Rich Rogers (orklord), and I (jefftidball) went around a little bit, 140 characters at a time, on Ryan’s recent frustration with what he was calling “goal-focused RPG campaigns.”
Ryan collected the tweets in question in a post on his blog and filled out his argument to suggest (paraphrasing) that moments of crisis and conflict are all well, good, and necessary in roleplaying games, but that if that’s the sum total of your game content, you’re missing a second, potent, avenue of character exploration that Ryan calls “downtime.”
What initially comes off as somewhat antagonistic via Twitter belies that Ryan and I fall close to each other, aesthetically, on the broad spectrum of roleplaying philosophy.
Ryan’s sick of every moment of play pushing only and always toward crisis in service of plot advancement, because such play has a tendency to obscure the character at other moments: moments of rest, reflection, and meditation.
I can’t in good conscience back down from my assertion that a character’s meaty decisions as the story advances are the best way to reveal that character’s nature, because I think that a roleplaying game simply performs better as a story than a biography.
But I also wrote a Thing, in Things We Think About Games, describing how I think that moments of preparation and aftermath can intensify the emotional impact of the other moments when the plot does concretely move forward. Ryan talks about those moments as moments of crisis and conflict. I used the clunky “point of determination” (the phrase makes more sense in the context of its Thing) in this passage:
The excitement of a particular point of determination can be heightened by other activity that points forward toward to—and thus intensifies—the eventual resolution, as well as scenes that look backward and recall it. These “scenes of preparation” and “scenes of aftermath” both essentially increase the drama by multiplying its duration.
I don’t like the term “downtime” for these parts of the story because that word suggests, to me, that the moments aren’t relevant. But I’m also not sure that Ryan and I are having a purely semantic disagreement, because it sounds like he sees value in playing/observing a character even when that character is doing things without any particular bearing on the story at hand, or the story that might logically evolve. I’m usually impatient with that, when it happens in play.
But “logically evolve” can also be funny: With many RPG campaigns showing the influence of Dire Bochcoization more than SydMcKeeThink, this session’s downtime digression can easily wind up being some future session’s crucial seed-sowing. (“Dire Bochcoization” is Ken Hite’s handy term for describing the fact that the teevee shows the kids are watching these days don’t resolve their stories inside their God-given one-hour-minus-commercials.)
But reading closer, I also see that Ryan actually used the word aftermath when making his argument: “We would not have truly met the characters [of BSG] if we only saw them in crisis, because we wouldn’t have seen what they do when they can relax and let go, or what they do to process the aftermath of a crisis.” Clearly we have some overlap.
The value and utility assigned to exploring characters in downtime, as opposed to during moments of crisis, is clearly a matter of taste. What’s your taste? Get specific: What’s the idea ratio of crisis to downtime, in time spent playing? Include preparation and aftermath in your downtime calculation, if you like, but let us know how you’re breaking it down.
I say the ideal is 65:30:5 crisis : perparation and aftermath : pure downtime.
What do you say?