Dice Tales: What happens in a game?

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the fifth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


So you’re playing an RPG.

What exactly are you doing?

Let’s start with broad structure. A session is one instance of people getting together to play a given RPG. If the story is meant to consist of just that one session, then it’s referred to as a one-shot; a slightly longer story might be a three-shot or whatever. But the assumption for many RPGs is that what you’ll actually be playing is a campaign: an ongoing story consisting of an unspecified number of sessions, which may have a defined end-goal in sight or may, soap opera style, just roll continuously onward until people get bored and quit.

Any given session is usually at least a couple of hours long (and may, depending on circumstances, go for six or more). It takes people a while to get into character, to immerse themselves once more in the ongoing plot and make substantial forward progress in it. But stop and think about that for a second. A movie is usually 2-3 hours long; the audiobook for A Natural History of Dragons is just over ten. The L5R campaign I’m currently running has been going for a year, with a 3-4 hour session almost every Tuesday night. That’s at least one hundred and fifty hours of story — and we’re not done yet.

Sounds huge, doesn’t it? Except that I’m really comparing apples to oranges to cucumbers. All of these things are edible; only two of them are fruit. What takes place in an RPG session is not directly comparable to a movie or a novel, for a host of reasons (not the least of which is the tendency of players to get distracted).

During a given session of a tabletop game, you can roughly divide the conversation up into four categories of speech:

1) Dialogue
2) Narration
3) Out-of-character discussion of the story and mechanics
4) Out-of-character chatter, unrelated to the game

We’ll ignore that last category for the time being, since things like “hey, while you’re in the kitchen, could you get me a glass of water?” are not generally pertinent to how the story proceeds. The other three layers, however, need some unpacking.

Dialogue is relatively straightforward, since it operates mostly like it does in movie and books. (Mostly. Characters in an RPG have a tendency to speak with ponderous slowness, not because we’re all trying to speak Ye Olde Tolkien Epick, but because the necessity of processing “what would my character say in this situation, which is different from what I would say” bogs the brain down.) As in a novel, this can be direct speech (”Please help us, I beg you”) or reported speech (”I ask him to help us”) — the latter blurring the distinction between dialogue and narration. Reported speech often gets used when one character needs to explain to someone else a thing that all the players already know, since nobody wants to hear that all over again unless the act of reporting is going to be entertaining in its own right, but direct speech usually is the default. In fact, I didn’t realize how much it was the default, at least in my own experience, until I played in a campaign run by someone who almost always handled character conversation through reported speech. The difference was surprisingly jarring, and made it difficult for me to get into character — I felt like I was always being held at arm’s length away from the story.

Narration, on the other hand, is rarely comparable to its print-fiction cousin, because it isn’t usually polished for aesthetic effect. It’s the workhorse, the means by which the story proceeds through action and description. If you’re playing a LARP (a live-action role-playing game), then you perform your character’s actions, as if you’re acting on stage, but if you’re in a tabletop game, your character only does things when you say she does. Some GMs are sticklers for this: if you don’t say you’re bringing a particular piece of equipment before you go off to break into a house, then they assume you do not have that equipment with you. Others are more flexible, letting players backfill actions their characters would plausibly have taken — sometimes with a dice roll to measure whether they really thought of it in time or not. (”My PC has a really high Hunting skill. I think she would have remembered to pack flint and tinder before going out into the wilderness for a month.” “Okay, roll Hunting.”) If you want your character to do something, then sooner or later you have to say it out loud.

This gets really blurry with the third category, though — the OOC (out-of-character) discussion of the story and mechanics. Take the following hypothetical exchange.

Player: “Okay, this guy’s obviously got hypothermia. I start a fire and bundle him into a blanket near it.”
GM: “The wood around here is all really wet. Roll Hunting / Perception to see if you can find any that’s dry.”
Player: “I really don’t want this guy to die, so I’m going to spend a Void Point.” <rolls> “Twenty-seven.”
GM: “You find some wood and manage to get it going.”

Notice anything? There are a few things to notice there, actually. One is the use of pronouns, which I’ll come back to later — the way that “I” refers to two different people, the player and the player’s character. Another is the way that narration of the character’s actions is jointly shared by the player and the GM, with the latter taking over when it comes time to describe the success or failure of the roll. Those are both things I’ll come back to in a later post; right now what I’m interested in is lines like “I’m going to spend a Void Point.” That’s a mechanical feature from Legend of the Five Rings, not a thing the character would ever say or even comprehend. It represents the way a person can focus and put a really substantial effort into doing something well . . . which means it sort of straddles the divide between narrating the character’s actions and speaking purely on an OOC level.

This slippage between levels of speech is one of the things newcomers to the genre have to get used to via practice. You can try to explain it, but in the end, one of the skills that goes into playing an RPG is the ability to shift between these registers and follow other participants through their own shifts. And the necessity of this kind of back-and-forth — stating intent, laying out mechanical requirement, discussing rules, rolling, describing the results of the roll, and of course all the digression and debate that can happen along the way — is one of the key reasons why an RPG story moves with comparative slowness. Listening to a game as an outsider is often quite boring, because so much of what gets said is scaffolding around the story itself. The interest of it comes from participation — from being one of the people making the whole thing go.


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: What happens in a game? — 10 Comments

    • Dear god — my knee-jerk reaction is that combat scenes are the LEAST spectator-friendly part of the game. There are probably systems where they could be fun to watch, but most of the time? That’s when the IC-time-to-OOC-time ratio goes the most pear-shaped. This DM of the Rings comic really sums it up. 😛

      You’re right that they’re a bad spectator sport, but outsiders don’t always know that. I’ve also encountered people who want to “watch” a LARP — not realizing that there’s no place for an audience; they think they can just sit quietly in one place and get the experience. They don’t understand that the game will be going on in sixteen places at once with people wandering back and forth and if they try to follow a particular character around it’ll be disruptive to everyone else.

      • For sure, I would say that fight scenes are the least spectator-friendly, at least in tabletop games (and to be honest, I tend to get bored with them even as a participant unless they’re well-managed).

        Dialogue-heavy sessions, or sometimes non-fighting action-heavy sequences, can be fun to watch, though even then it’s more of a ‘I hang out with my friends while they game’ than ‘I watch this game for its story value.’

        • Yeah, it’s rare for me to stay engaged with a fight, whether as a player or as a GM. I’ll be talking about those more later; one of the big issues, I think, is the way time telescopes during a combat, so that it takes forever to resolve a few seconds of action, and all the momentum is lost.

          A good RP scene, though, can be great to watch. At their best, it’s like watching a play or a movie.

    • There are a few gaming podcasts that appear to consist entirely of recordings of game sessions (possibly lightly edited). While I can imagine that someday I might download and listen to a few just to satisfy a certain curiosity about how other gaming groups do it, I can’t imagine that they’d actually be a satisfying narrative experience.

      But really if you insist on experiencing a tabletop RPG vicariously, the way to do it is to get one of the players to narrate the session to you after the fact.

      • Yeah, when I was studying RPGs, my plan for “recording” a LARP was to get each player to write what happened from their own perspective. Even if I could have afforded to mount cameras on every single participant, that wouldn’t really “record” the game — because so much of what’s going on is an internal experience, not an external one.

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  2. direct speech usually is the default. In fact, I didn’t realize how much it was the default, at least in my own experience, until I played in a campaign run by someone who almost always handled character conversation through reported speech. The difference was surprisingly jarring, and made it difficult for me to get into character — I felt like I was always being held at arm’s length away from the story.

    I had a similar experience when my usual gaming group was teaching a new player who near-consistently narrated conversation rather than speaking it. I frequently had trouble responding at all — I did not know how my character replied unless I knew the words and tone (and preferably body language) of the statement or question I was replying to.

    • Yeah, I suspect I did a lot more OOC questioning when everything was handled through reported speech — “do I think he’s hoping for X,” etc, rather than trying to read it out of the actual RP. Without those cues, it’s hard to respond.