(This is the thirty-fifth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
As we leave behind the macro levels of game planning and zoom in on the smaller-scale preparation, the ratio of effort to elapsed gameplay gets higher and higher.
In my own personal hierarchy of game-planning, the level below the chapter is the session. Some sessions are very easy to plan for, because in a sense, I’m not really planning much at all; instead I’m leaving it in the hands of the players. They’ve got things they want to do, conversations they want to have, and all I need to do is make sure I’m ready to run those. (I find it helps a great deal to have some kind of actual record of player to-do lists, so items don’t fall through the cracks.) It isn’t always the case that player-driven sessions don’t require much prep from me; sometimes what they want to do is launch or resolve a complicated thing. Or sometimes they think “I’m going to go talk to this NPC” is a perfectly innocuous bit of business . . . but they don’t realize they’ll be stumbling into a much bigger wasp’s nest than it looks like from where they’re standing. On the whole, though, player-driven sessions are more about just living in the moment, following the flow of the RP as they deal with NPCs, or listening quietly as the PCs have big scenes between themselves.
And then there’s the other kind of session. The one that takes as much time to plan as it does to play — if not more.
These are often the conclusions of chapters or acts, though sometimes they happen to fall in the middle instead. They’re the big set-pieces, the grand Events of the story. In my game, battles are almost always this kind of thing, because I don’t like running combat enough to bother doing it for random encounters. If the players roll initiative, it’s usually because something important to the story is happening. (And then, of course, because I don’t run combats very often, I’m not very quick at planning them out.)
But the set piece doesn’t have to be a fight. It can also be a major conversation, like when my Scion PCs were foolish enough to sit down and have a chat with Dixie, or when they came face-to-face at last with the ex-companion who betrayed them earlier in the campaign. Other set-pieces are built around in-character events of one sort or another, which can be anything from a poetry party to a religious festival.
For this type of thing, I often wind up with a couple of typed pages outlining the key elements of the set piece. These can include things NPCs will do, descriptive notes for what the PCs see (so I don’t leave out anything vital, or give away something by accident), difficulties for certain rolls, and more. You might think that having extensive notes encourages me to railroad the players, and that’s definitely a danger; that’s why my notes will also include things like contingency plans for different PC actions, depending on whether they talk or attack, reveal certain pieces of information or keep them secret, take a diplomatic tack or a hostile one, etc.
Basically, I want to make sure I don’t drop any balls, and leave as many brain cells as possible free to deal with the unexpected — which will inevitably come up. I’m going to be improvising one way or another, but if I’ve listed the things an NPC is angry about, I’m better positioned to make up suitable dialogue if he’s provoked into listing his grievances. And since these kinds of sessions are intended to be memorable turning points in the story, I want to make sure they come off as smoothly as possible. Planning helps with that.
The most fine-grained level of prep I do is for individual scenes. This can overlap with the session plans; sometimes those typed pages include a scene plan, especially if that one scene is likely to eat a lot of session time. But I also create scene plans sometimes for sessions where the rest of my notes consist of a few jotted lines. They’re almost always conversations: hugely important moments of confrontation or revelation, where I need to choose my words very carefully.
You might expect me to type these up, too. In fact, they’re far more likely to be entirely in my head. There’s a reason for this; it traces back to my folklore education, and a scene I was once a part of as a player. My PC and another one in a LARP had, between game sessions, been hanging out at a bar drinking and trading stories, which we ran via an email scene. That exchange wound up veering in an unexpected direction, though, persuading my PC to tell a story of her own past — one she never really shared with anyone. This was a big enough deal that we decided to run the scene in person at the upcoming between-game “interlude” a few days later.
That PC was supposed to be a good storyteller (by nature; this was a Changeling: The Dreaming game, and she was an eshu). Okay, no problem; I’m a fiction writer. So I sat down to write up the story — and stopped.
Because this story wasn’t going to be read. It was going to be heard. I was a folklorist; I knew that the way people tell stories orally is not the way they tell them on paper. If I wanted this story to sound right, it had to be oral from start to finish . . . meaning I had to compose and practice it entirely by voice.
I spent the next two or three days telling it to myself over and over again, figuring out the best order in which to supply details, good phrases for important bits, where to speed up, where to pause. It worked exactly like I hoped it would, and remains one of my proudest RP memories. And it wound up influencing my later gaming behavior — because whether I’m doing it as a player or a GM, I prepare for important IC conversations by practicing them instead of writing them down. Sometimes in my head, sometimes out loud (if I’m alone in the house or driving somewhere or whatever), but never on the page.
When the actual conversation comes, it won’t go like I practiced. Most scenes aren’t like the storytelling incident, where I knew I could deliver the whole thing without interruption; I’ll have to drop points that don’t fit in or say things I didn’t prepare for. But bits and pieces of the lines I practiced will slot into place as they’re needed, or reconfigure themselves to a shape that suits the context they wind up in, with me less likely to trip over my tongue than I otherwise would have been. I’ll sometimes note down a few key phrases just as a mnemonic aid, but most of it lives in my head, because that way it will come out more naturally.
It’s a lot of work. But for those climactic moments, the confessions and confrontations, it helps make the scene one the players will remember for months or even years to come.