(This is the sixteenth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
We’ve been talking about some of the tools used in RPGs to help ensure that everybody’s interacting with roughly the same mental construct. Like anything else in this hobby, though, sometimes it falls apart.
I have one particular anecdote that always comes to mind when this topic arises. A female-bodied friend of mine had decided to play a male character named Thraxx in a LARP, and for the most part this went fine. But at one point a whole roomful of us got caught up in a mass combat — that is, a fight involving a large number of characters — which a) moves slowly and b) requires everybody nearby to stop what they’re doing, even if they aren’t in the fight, because they can’t keep on at a normal pace while everybody else is spending five minutes resolving six seconds of action. (I’ll talk more about how combat works in games pretty soon.) The GM running the fight had to ask each person in the room what their character was going to do in that round of the fight.
The player in question said, “Thraxx is going out the window.”
This isn’t an action that required the GM to do anything with the rules, so he just said, “Okay, she goes out the window.”
In unison, everybody else said “HE.”
So for starters, you can see that the player was already partway out of game headspace, because she didn’t say “I’m going out the window.” Especially in a LARP, when a player shifts from first person to third, it’s often a sign that they’ve lost some of the flow of their performance. But the GM had lost it even more: his mind was entirely on wrangling twenty people in a fight, all the rules that come into play for that sort of thing, and he’d lost his grip on the mental construct that told him Thraxx was male, even though the player wasn’t.
And here’s the thing: once the GM had gotten it wrong, so did everybody else. I forget how long it took us to get back into the swing of saying “he” when we looked at that player, but it definitely took a while. Once immersion breaks, you have to work to rebuild it.
This can be a real problem in tabletop games, which are often less immersive than LARPs. If a scene involves only two people, the uninvolved players may fall to chatting amongst themselves, which can seriously disrupt the experience for the active pair. They need to either stay quiet, or take their conversation elsewhere. It’s also why the rules can sometimes be a problem: stopping to roll dice breaks up the flow of the scene, reminding people that they’re playing a game rather than losing themselves in the story.
There are ways to mitigate that issue. On one occasion, the PCs in a game I was running made the (extremely ill-advised) decision to all go talk to Dixie, the demigoddess of the American South: she’d been imprisoned after the end of the Civil War, but they were willing to free her and Johnny Reb if the two of them turned over a new leaf. Dixie was supernaturally persuasive . . . and totally committed to making sure the South would rise again. She was willing to say exactly what they wanted to hear, so long as it got her out of jail, and she stood a good mechanical chance of getting them to swallow it, hook, line, and sinker. But how could I bring the mechanics to bear without disrupting the conversation every other minute?
I wound up having everybody make some rolls ahead of time, to provide a yardstick for whether Dixie managed to sway each PC without them noticing her manipulation. I didn’t tell the players Dixie was going to lie to them, of course. I just told them that their characters would find what she said really persuasive, and left the actual content for the scene itself. We started talking, I role-played Dixie spinning her lies, and the players each decided for themselves which part of it they latched onto, shaping their RP around what the dice had said would happen.
I used a similar technique for an incredibly tense confrontation in my Legend of the Five Rings campaign, when the PCs finally came face-to-face with the man who had betrayed them a year before. He was a liar; he was also, for his own twisted reasons, trying to manipulate them into being angry enough to kill him. The players needed a chance to spot the lies and manipulation, and to keep their cool despite his best efforts, but actually handling that during the scene? We would have been stopping every three lines of dialogue to roll dice. Not good for creating tension and emotional impact. So again, I had them all make rolls ahead of time — Investigation / Perception to notice what he was doing, Etiquette / Willpower to resist it, Courtier / Awareness in case they wanted to manipulate him back, etc — and then, because that was a more complex set of results, this time I scribbled quick notes and passed them to the players to let them know what they picked up during the course of the scene. It remains one of the most memorable events we’ve had in game, which I consider a victory.
Heck, you can even use it to cheese out on running a fight! In the very first campaign I ran, the characters scaled up quite a lot over the sessions (because we were actually going through successive flashbacks of their previous lives to a time when they were vastly more powerful), and one of them had an ability that would give her visions of the future. On one occasion near the end (or beginning) of that flashback series, they were preparing to join their allies in fighting a major battle against an enemy army, and the player rolled unbelievably well. I sat there for a moment thinking, “okay, what do I give her that will suit the scale of that roll” —
— and then I said “screw it. Narrate to me how you guys win this battle.”
I knew the players I had weren’t the type to really look forward to a giant combat, so they wouldn’t complain if we skipped the dice-rolling and went straight to them being awesome. Plus I didn’t really want to wrangle the armies of NPCs on either side of the battle. Plus this wasn’t the climactic moment of that part of the campaign; it was just a thing they had to deal with on their way to the real challenge (which had nothing to do with fighting). So on the whole, that fantastic augury roll was a godsend: it gave us a good reason to simplify things and keep the story moving.
Because in the end, that’s what I really care about. To me, the dice are a tool for creating story, not an end in their own right. I want to avoid situations like the one that made everybody screw up Thraxx’s gender, and set up memorable scenes instead of interminable slogs. If that means futzing with what gets rolled and when . . . I’m fine with that.