Dice Tales: No Takebacks

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


If you’re the sort of person who likes to outline your novels to a fare-thee-well before writing them, playing an RPG may drive you mad because you can’t plan. Or rather, you can . . . but you have to be prepared for the possibility — nay, the likelihood — that you’ll wind up throwing out your entire plan and drafting a new one, not just once, but repeatedly. Because you aren’t the only person involved in telling this story, and those other players? Have ideas that may not mesh with yours. Even if the lot of you get together and agree on a course of action, it will not survive contact with the enemy . . . because the GM’s job is to keep you on your toes.

(Sort of, anyway. A GM who ruins a really good plan not because it makes sense or good story, but just because they can, is a jerk and a bad GM. The relationship there should not be adversarial. Think of the GM more like the army officer who keeps challenging his recruits so they’ll reach their best potential.)

But really, the main thing that can drive a writer mad is the way an RPG narrative pretty much only moves in one direction: forward.

In my first post I compared live-action games to improv theatre, because of the way players perform their characters’ actions rather than describing them. But I also used the word “improvisational” in defining RPGs as a whole, whether tabletop or LARP, because they all share this trait of forward motion. If you realize that, aw man, this story would have been so much better if you’d told the other characters you were heading off to break into someone’s house? Too bad. You didn’t tell them, and you can’t change that now.

I don’t want to overstate this. RPGs aren’t like those computer programs writers sometimes use to shut down their inner editor, where the backspace key doesn’t work at all. There’s a fair amount of time slippage in any game, ranging from the micro scale to the macro. In combat, for example, it’s very common for a player to decide on their character’s action for this turn, then realize it would be more useful if they did something else — but wait, crap, the range on that spell is too short to reach its intended target; hang on, they can hit that guy over there instead . . . For something like that, it’s subject to revision right up until the point when the dice get rolled. After that, unless you have a very lenient GM, you’re stuck with whatever decision you made (which prevents people from having buyer’s remorse if they rolled badly).

On a larger scale, the story may backtrack to fill in context the players and the GM forgot to lay out previously. In my experience, this doesn’t usually extend to entire scenes, complete with dialogue and all: a player may ask whether they can have delivered a gift to a certain NPC before meeting up with the other characters, so they’ll know whether they can mention having done so in the conversation they’re currently having, but we won’t stop the current scene to run the presentation of the gift. As a GM, I’ll generally allow this if it fits one of two conditions: 1) if it isn’t load-bearing — just a minor action expected to proceed without complication — or 2) if it would substantially add to the dramatic or comedic value of the scene. “Can we say” is a common phrase in my campaigns, as someone floats a hypothetical addition to the narrative, looking for consensus.

There’s a ticking clock on those kinds of adjustments, though, and the farther you get away from the moment being altered, the smaller the allowable changes get. There’s a very pragmatic reason for this, which is that any time you change a past detail, you’re asking everybody involved to revise the story they’re holding in their heads. “Can I have thought to bring a rope with me?” Sure . . . so long as there wasn’t a moment along the way when your previous lack of a rope had an effect on the plot. “Can I have thought to bring this NPC along with me?” Nope. Because that NPC would have said things, done things, left a mark on the story. That kind of thing can be allowed, maybe, if the characters have just opened the door to the dungeon, but not yet gone inside. Once the door shuts behind them: nope. You dance with what you brung. Big changes are generally reserved for the moments where you say “oh shit, that should not have happened that way.” Something happened that was against the rules but didn’t get noticed in time, or contradicted previous story so badly it’s doing damage to the coherence of the whole. In those cases, asking everyone to alter their mental record is preferable to letting the error stand.

This is vastly different from a novel, where the author can go back and add or remove characters as needed, turn allies into enemies and vice versa, provide the heroine with information or take it away. Very few of us write a first draft and never touch it again; revision is for making the story stronger. Because RPGs are collaborative and improvisational, their narratives are honestly pretty messy — the kind of stuff a writer would totally clean up in the second draft. Things happen too slowly, because of all the back-and-forth as the PCs figure out what they’re doing, or too quickly, because nobody realized until it was too late that the plot would have been so much cooler if that added wrinkle had been tossed in. Characters know things, forget about them, remember them later, and look far less intelligent than they’re supposed to be because weeks went by out of character and the players lost track of what they were doing. Dramatic opportunities get missed. Esprit de escalier is very much a thing in RPGs, where you think up that perfect stinging comeback or clever solution to a problem when you’re in the car on your way home.

But here’s the thing.

When it all comes together as beautifully as a novel, it’s amazing. Because it wasn’t planned: it just happened.

Well, it mostly wasn’t planned. If you’re playing with people who want to make a good story, they’ll look for ways to make it happen. But most of the time, you’re each controlling a few legs of the centipede, trying to coordinate with each other well enough to at least move forward. So those moments where you all get in synch and just move?

They are AWESOME.


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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: No Takebacks — 9 Comments

  1. Since there have been few, if any, comments on each Dice Tales post, I’d just like to say that I’m enjoying them.

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    • Though actually, speaking of esprit de escalier, I do have a real comment:
      This is an important point, because it’s really difficult when players have a different sense of the degree of take-backs that are acceptable. I once played a game where one player had a much more flexible view of the timeline than everyone else, and we heard a lot of “Can I say that I . . . ?”

      I didn’t realize the extent to which “How much ‘ret-conning’ is acceptable?” is a communally agreed-upon decision until I was a GM finding myself trying to draw lines that x was acceptable but y wasn’t. I had not had to make those choices before; they had always been clear to the group as a whole, but suddenly we were in a situation where we had to try to spell out those unwritten rules for someone who didn’t realize she was breaking them. Made more complicated because of ruffled feathers from GM and other players, who felt like she was disrupting the fabric of the story but weren’t used to having to articulate such feelings.

      I think we wound up going too far in the direction of “No, you’re not allowed to change things retroactively!” which then made everyone else self-conscious about any time they might want to do so (and there were points when the story suffered for want of a previously delivered letter, or what-have-you).

      • That’s a very good point. There are countless things like that in a game — practices that have been defined through action, to the point where you don’t even realize they *are* a practice until you play with someone who does things differently. And I very much hear you about how awkward it is to have to explicitly rule on such things, when before you always did it by instinct.

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