(This is the fourteenth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
When you stop to think about it, the narrative of a game amounts to a shared delusion: an imaginary construct held simultaneously in the heads of multiple people, which they interact with as if it were real. This is especially true in LARPs, where you can have a room full of people staring in terror or wonder at an empty corner, or investing an ordinary object with meaning far beyond what its humble appearance would suggest. At one point when I was playing a faerie in a Changeling game, one of the GMs took me aside before game to describe how my character woke up to find a cold iron nail hammered into the headboard of her bed. He had me tilt my head back as he described this, and put his finger just an inch from my forehead to represent the nail; I have never seen a finger look so scary in my life.
How do we make this work? When I’m writing a novel, I hold in my head the image of what’s going on: where everyone is standing, what their surroundings are like, how they’re behaving, and so forth. My task is to figure out what words will convey that adequately to the reader. I say “adequately” rather than “accurately” because of course the reader will build their own mental image, which may not quite match my own — but they don’t have to match perfectly. So long as the discrepancies don’t become so jarring as to create confusion, it doesn’t matter that we aren’t imagining precisely the same thing.
But with a novel or other text narrative, the reader isn’t actively engaged in creating the story. Plus, the writer has many opportunities to consider which details need to be mentioned, and which can be left out. In a game, neither of those things is true. Yet somehow, we still manage to create (mostly) coherent frameworks (most of the time).
Making this work is a complex process. The first step, I think, is that you let a lot of things go. I rarely describe anything in a game in as detailed a manner as I would use in a book; on the rare occasions when I do, it’s generally because I wrote out the description beforehand, and I’m reading it out at the appropriate moment. I’m not going to say what every NPC is wearing, or what’s on the walls of the room, unless it’s plot-relevant. But some things don’t have to be described: whereas in a book I would have to tell the reader about tone of voice or pacing or body language, in a game I can just perform those things, taking advantage of the ability to communicate through multiple channels at once.
Other tools can help. For example, combat is one instance where the precise location of everything in the scene may become very relevant; if you’re using a system of rules that defines things like how far you can throw a fireball and what its blast radius is when it lands, it’s important to know whether those enemy archers are fifty or sixty feet away, and how close together they’re standing. Games that have those kinds of rules generally expect you’ll be using a battle map and minis, so that distances can be measured precisely and nobody loses track of any combatants or obstacles. Even when the fight is run in a looser manner, GMs will sometimes provide some kind of visual aid to avoid confusion.
But sometimes it isn’t so much about conveying factual information as putting the participants in the right frame of mind. Several GMs of my acquaintance use music as one of their storytelling tools, either playing it in the background to set a mood (e.g. a playlist of exciting tracks for fight scenes, or more peaceful music for domestic interludes), or choosing specific tracks to match pre-planned moments in the session. I did the latter in the very first session of my very first campaign, launching a dark and creepy track for the moment when one of the PCs came home to find the mentally broken shell of an old rival in his apartment. It was playing for a couple of seconds before I looked up from my notes, whereupon I found all four of my players staring at me with expressions of apprehensive horror. Mission accomplished!
Depending on the game in question, there are a lot of things you can use for this kind of enriching effect. For the Legend of the Five Rings campaign I’m running, set in a land based on a fantasy version of Japan, I put a slideshow of photos from Japan on my TV, castles and temples and people in kimono, to remind us all what the world of our characters looks like. When the GM of a game I played in put our characters through a Call of Cthulhu-esque session, we turned out all the lights and read our character sheets by flashlight. Occasionally I’ll have a prop to represent an important object in the game; this is really common in LARPs, where people expect to be physically interacting with their surroundings, but it can add something in tabletop games, too. Ditto set dressing: in a sense, that’s what the photos are for, since I can’t turn my living room into a tatami-floored, paper-walled traditional Japanese house.
Some of the people I’ve played with borrow the language of television and movies for gaming purposes. One GM used to introduce action sequences by saying things like “we’re going into Jerry Bruckheimer mode,” which immediately evoked a certain type of big, explosive film. We’ll have “opening credits” for each session, with shots of the PCs doing characteristic things, and “zoom shots” of the camera descending on the current location of the party, etc. We may leave out a lot of descriptive details, but every so often we’ll take a moment to mention things like how a shadow falls across a character’s face, or the swirl of their long sleeves as they turn quickly around. It’s all about leaning on a shared visual and emotional matrix to efficiently cue the rest of the group.
Of course, sometimes the tools fail and the shared delusion falls apart. But that’s a matter for a later post . . . .