Select Page

I’m going back through old drafts of posts and publishing things that I thought I’d build on later… but haven’t. So pardon my half-formed thoughts in these sorts of posts.

For example, my response to this great post by Ben Robbins:

Lately, I am much more aware of the efforts I go through to help players be aware of what the other players are trying to do. To me, players are collaborating writers on a narrative series, not just cooperative players in a game. Asking them to suss out the player’s hopes and plans for a character (not just the character’s) through roleplaying alone is a little like expecting a TV writers’ room to communicate solely through unfinished drafts of scripts — it’s inefficient.

Personally, I’m eager to maximize the story I get out of each session, even if that story comes across in a mix of sketches, unfinished monologues, and fully rendered dialogue. An RPG is played in jam sessions, not rehearsed performances. The players all benefit from knowing more about each others’ characters, even if that means the player sometimes knows more than the character — it serves the player-as-writer even as it gives a short cut to the player-as-character. That’s fine with me.

RPGs are limited-information games, even when they’re not. Respecting the amount of player information, in both directions, is vital. Too much time and energy can be wasted in even a great RPG session trying to send and decipher coded communications between players and GMs. Some of those codes can be great fun — like having characters speak dramatically about who they are and what they want — but if that code is trying to evoke the fun instead of actually being the fun, then it should be minimized on the route to actual fun.

If the player is trying to say, “I want a fight scene!” Then the GM should either deliver one or have a good, compelling reason for withholding one because withholding one would somehow be more fun.

Alternately, if the player is saying, “I want to roleplay my character’s desire for a fight!” then the scene should be about that. It’s perfectly all right for a player to say, outright, that she is saying one thing but wants another. Actors, you see, communicate between scenes in a way that is useful. Players often try to communicate through scenes directly (which is often bad acting — characters routinely say the opposite of what they need, mean, or want), because a point-blank declaration that “I’m roleplaying here, give me a minute” is often regarded as poor form. But I don’t think it is.

Players are building something together, so tacit communication, while potentially praiseworthy, is often just not enough. Sometimes players (including GMs) need to speak directly to the subtext, because the text is explicitly sending a mixed message.

In other words, the speed and clarity of play is improved when players can be frank but characters can be oblique. It’s part of the suspension of disbelief and the very act of roleplaying when players suspend their knowledge when making character decisions, including knowledge of what was just said. I’m thinking, for example, of when a player or a GM says, “You know what, I think our characters could have a great argument about this. Let’s!” This defines the play space wonderfully, and keeps the argument from becoming strife between players when it’s meant to be between characters.

An in-character monologue can be a wonderfully explicit play space for implicit, even obtuse characterization.

In other words, subtext can be great, but leaving players to suss out subtext is a little like asking actors to play a scene without any discussion beforehand. Roleplaying often involves the willful, knowing separation of subtext from the text, even when both are in full view to the player (or player/actor), even when the players are also the audience. That player/actor/audience tripartite role — in which one person is juggling all three duties at once — is one of the unique features of an RPG.