(This is the forty-first installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
I wasn’t kidding last week about the title. 🙂
If you get caught up in a really awesome, engaging, flavorful campaign . . . it is so not enough to play once a month. Or once every two weeks. Or even once a week. I have a vague recollection of feeling this way about TV shows back when I watched them while they were airing; in these days of Netflix and Hulu and so forth, I generally binge-watch shows, in part because if the story is on fire, I don’t have remotely enough self-restraint to make myself wait for the next installment. Goodbye cliffhangers; hello, zip line.
You can’t binge-play a game, though — not on that scale. Like it or not, there will constantly be delays in between the chapters. How is a poor player to survive?
In my LARPing heyday, the answer was “scenes.” By that I mean any interaction between your PC and another one — or sometimes, very rarely, an NPC, if you could get a GM to reassemble their melted brain long enough to cooperate — whether you ran it in person, or over email, or through a chat program. (ICQ 4 evah!) Sometimes scenes were load-bearing; the Plot Hammer hit you, and now you need some time to react to it. Sometimes they were the kind of necessary but unexciting work you wouldn’t want to spend precious session time on; you promised another character an explanation of that thing you did during the previous session, and might as well just convey it during the downtime. Sometimes they were setup for things you wanted to do in the next session.
Sometimes they were nothing more than a reason to keep the game alive in your head. Five Changeling players go to a movie together; over dinner afterward, a scene breaks out. It happened with embarrassing frequency.
Again, I’ve found this to be especially a LARP thing. Which makes sense: a LARP is driven more by PCs interacting with each other, whereas a tabletop depends more heavily on PCs interacting with NPCs. Add that to the sheer number of people in a big LARP, and your opportunities for out-of-game IC interaction are numerous. Any conversation about the game can very easily turn into descriptions of things characters have done or might do, which morphs almost seamlessly into straight-up RP. Downtime scenes are where the knitting goes on, taking all the threads that got waved about last round and tying them off or joining them together or adding in a new one for later use. (Pretend that metaphor makes any sense with actual knitting.) I sometimes suspect that the actual game sessions were like the part of an iceberg you can see; the bulk of the chronicle happened below the waterline, hidden from the view of everybody but the specific players involved.
Where LARP and tabletop are more likely to resemble each other is in game fic. This can be anything from a scene where your PC interacts with a personal NPC — by which I mean somebody in your backstory that the GM doesn’t really control, because they’ve rarely or never appeared onstage and have no bearing on the plot beyond your own PC, like a parent or a boss — to excerpts from your character’s private diary. Some campaigns and GMs actively encourage this kind of thing, awarding bonus XP or other benefits to players who write some kind of story in between sessions. Or it can be a jointly-written scene between players, assuming they can collaborate on something that’s more like fiction than the back-and-forth of RP. (This usually requires them to write each other’s characters, which not everybody is willing or able to do.) It’s basically fanfiction for the game — except that it’s canonical, of course, but I feel like game fic often arises from impulses that look a lot like the ones behind certain types of fanfiction. “What was this character thinking when the assassination attempt happened?” “How does so-and-so react when they hear the house burned down?” Etc. Missing scenes, introspection, all that kind of thing.
I suspect — given my line of work — that it will come as a surprise to absolutely no one when I say I very much enjoy writing game fic. It’s a major part of how I get to know my PC; it gives me a chance to work through their thoughts and behaviors in detail, without time pressure. As much as I enjoy the spontaneity of roleplaying, I do it better when I have that solid, fiction-like grounding in the character. But it takes a while for me to get to the point at which I can write those stories, because I need grist for the mill — and that’s why it feels like fanfic to me, because it very much arises out of the edges of the “canon,” i.e. the game sessions, and doesn’t happen until canon has provided me with suitable handholds. That requires time and the right kind of plot or character interactions. (And the leisure to spend my time writing such a thing, of course, which is in short supply these days.)
But even when stuff doesn’t get written down, it’s often there in your brain anyway. Those of us inclined to this type of thing think about it in the shower, in the car, while lying in bed trying to get to sleep. We fill in the gaps. We imagine hypothetical situations, and then sometimes we go a step further and make them thetical. (Which turns out to be a real word. Who knew?) And then we inflict it on our poor, long-suffering GMs, who just want to rest their brains and not think about the game for a few days. 🙂 But it’s an encouraging sign for the GM, too — a signal that the fictional world you’re all creating together is rich enough that it’s taken on a life of its own.