Dice Tales: Breathing Room

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


I have to remember, in all of my planning, to allow for breathing room.

Any story needs a certain amount of downtime. If the plot is nothing but one thing after another, slamming along without pause, the audience starts to go numb; the escalating stakes and even! bigger! explosions! start to loose their impact. Even a thriller benefits from quiet moments, to give the loud ones something to contrast with.

This is especially true of games, I think, because the players want and need some time to digest what’s happened — much as they would in real life. Characters in a plotted and revised story can sort through clues, process their reactions, and get ready for the next thing fairly efficiently, but in reality that kind of thing tends to take longer. They have to try four wrong combinations of clues before they hit the right one on the fifth try; they want to play through the decompression after moments of stress, rather than taking that decompression as a given, the kind of thing a writer would skip over in the scene break.

I’ve said before that pacing is one of the places where game narratives differ hugely from written ones, and this is part of the reason why. Even if the key moments play out at a comparable rate, the stuff between doesn’t. If you’re judging a game by the standards of a novel or a movie, that looks like a bug — but I’m convinced that it is, instead, a feature.

Viewing games through a narrative lens isn’t just about plot twists and foreshadowing; it’s also about characterization, and about experiencing character. Time spent gearing up for a big event or coming down from it afterward is time spent imagining yourself in that situation, thinking through all the shifts and solidifications of personality that go along with it. My L5R character once found herself in a situation where she and her allies, for the good of the Empire, needed to murder somebody in cold blood. Not only that, but they needed to make sure they didn’t get pinned for it afterward — no easy feat when the target is an important person and the society has magic with which to investigate. They cooked up a plan wherein they would ambush the woman, kill her, and then desecrate her corpse to make it look like she belonged to a heretical cult of blood sorcerers. This would have been a horrifying plan in pretty much any society, but in Rokugan? Well, let’s just say that the Honor stat gets measured on a ten-rank scale, and my PC was set to lose three of her six ranks in a single afternoon.

This is the kind of thing that inspires a LOT of internal conflict. And to gloss over it at the speed of even a novel (much less a movie) would have left me with a weaker grip on my character, because I wouldn’t have thought through and internalized everything involved in that decision.

(Oh, as it happened? The woman we’d set out to kill actually was a member of that heretical cult. So we still murdered her, but didn’t have to desecrate her corpse, and after the fact it was considered more of a judicial execution.)

Of course we didn’t spent game time on every bit of that introspection. A lot of it happened between sessions, as I thought about my PC and how this decision would make her feel. But a surprising amount can take place during an actual game session, depending on the group you play with, if you externalize the process rather than keeping it internal — and that happens for many of the same reasons it would in daily life. Talking through decisions, sharing private thoughts, discussing your emotional state . . . these are all things we do to bond with one another, to create and reinforce the connections between people.

Which brings me to the phenomenon known in my gaming group as “shopping.” This doesn’t always have to do with the actual purchasing of objects, but it gets its name from the odd tendency of our Mummy PCs to go on genuine shopping trips (usually for clothes). “Shopping” is the stuff that would, in a more conventional narrative, be considered time-wasting filler. It’s the PCs just hanging out, chatting about things that aren’t the plot, socializing like normal people instead of like characters in a story. The Changeling LARP I played in for years featured epic amounts of shopping in between actual game sessions, which I think was both a sign and a cause of its richness: any time you got a group of Changeling players together, the odds that we would drift into random IC scenes was remarkably high. Sometimes we talked about important things, but other times it was like an episode of reality TV. We could do that because the fabric of the story was strong enough to make random IC hangouts possible, and then the downtime we spent with one another made the load-bearing parts of the narrative stronger, around and around in a positive feedback loop.

An entire session of shopping might be a little much, but as a player, I crave some amount of it to flesh out my understanding of how my PC relates to those around her. As a GM, I have to remember to leave time for it, for the “filler” that’s actually the mortar holding the bricks together. Because then when the moments of crisis arrive — when the PCs have to trust one another, or talk each other out of bad decisions, or otherwise test the strength of the bond between them — everybody knows where they stand.

When I think about the best RP I’ve had, in fact, it falls into two boxes. Some of it comes at those moments of crisis . . . and some of it comes at the opposite end of the spectrum, the moments that have no weight resting on them at all. You need both to make the story come to life.


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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: Breathing Room — 3 Comments

  1. I think that scripted narratives sometimes get the importance of this. I think about the trailer where the Avengers are hanging out at the tower after the party is over, or moments in Firefly where they’re playing games or eating dinner… and I just realized those are both Whedon projects. So maybe I should say that Whedon gets it?

    • And that makes me wonder about the TV vs. movies divide. Whedon really got going in TV, where (especially if you’re in the 22-episode season mode) you have more room than movies can generally afford to spend time on that kind of thing. But Whedon is exceptionally good at executing this kind of thing efficiently: it might just be thirty seconds of the characters hanging out, but those thirty seconds will convey huge amounts of the baseline dynamic between them.

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