Hi everybody, at Ron’s suggestion I recorded a video conversation with the players of my recent Champions Now game. This kicked off as a text discussion, with Manu asking me after the close of the game if I had any insights, and me saying this:
Hmm, insight I’m not sure about, but there are definitely ideas for techniques I want to try in future games. A lot of it we’ve talked about over the course of the game — the thing about cutting away to NPC actions, to give the players a bigger picture of the fiction, for example. I’ve also been thinking about being more forthcoming about information in general, as opposed to doling it out in tidbits — for example, while I don’t remember the details of all the detective rolls Lone Star made, there were probably opportunities for him to find out the full scope of Sargon’s plan earlier than he did. If that had been dealt with earlier, perhaps more content would have had a chance to develop. I think I have an ingrained habit, probably in emulation of 21st century genre TV with its mandatory season-long arcs, of trying to spread out information about the backstory so it lasts long enough to fill out — what? It’s not like there’s a network that’s insisting I turn in 21 episodes on the dot, right? So anyway, that’s what I’m on the lookout for in future games.
Alan and Jon followed up to reveal that they’d been thinking about similar issues, and the points they made in text are present in and developed in this video conversation.
7 responses to “RPG Conversation: Information, Pacing, Holding Back or Pushing”
I had a very tentative
I had a very tentative thought about pacing in RPGs vs. other narrative media, as you touched on. I'm wondering if in general a faster pacing of "story" works well in RPGs becasue the feature of being creator and audience simultaneously means we get invested in the characters and conflicts more easily / quickly? This does obviously assume that other media need longer to get audiences involved and not just because of things like 22 episode season lengths which might be arguable.
My thinking (right or wrong)
My thinking (right or wrong) goes the other way: that audience buy-in for other media is extremely fast and receptive given the barest, barest necessary input. A while ago, I would have speculated that it's slower for RPGs because there are two "antennae" at work – author and audience – but today, I suspect it's probably the same thing. Pursuing this line of thought (again, right or wrong), the questions about successful or "good to go" buy-in become procedural rather than cognitive.
I liked this conversation a
I liked this conversation a lot. I was struggling with some of the same issues and listening to this got me to a conclusion. I don’t like having to decide when to give out information and it isn’t interesting to me. So going forward I’m just going to give the players as much information as possible and let them and the dice decide when the characters know it.
Maybe more controversially;
Investigation and strategising are both kind of interesting in story based play. Primarily because they’ll suck up players that aren’t clear on their agenda and send them into ‘figuring stuff out’ mode.
It’s also unclear to me at present how much of this is just previous rpg acculturation vs a potential desire for a different agenda (the challenge based one).
Hi Alex, your controversial
Hi Alex, your controversial point is non-controversial to me, because experientially, I've done it. Any kind of "we have to break into the house/sneak into the castle/etc." situation seems to be a trigger for this kind of fact-finding-mission behavior to come to the forefront.
To the extent that these priority mismatches are something that I, personally, am trying to work on, I think they have to do with acculturation that needs to be modified or corrected. If someone has a genuine, well-understood desire for a different agenda, there's already a clear solution: that person steps away from this game, at least for as long as it's not something they want.
Emergent vs pre-planned discovery
First let me suggest that pacing of the release of information is used in any story medium to provide a framework for the characters to express themselves. Think of a gymnastist's uneven bars — they exist for the gymnast to flip and twist around in ways that show their particular personality and capability. This has two components in relation to each other: 1) the revelation (the "bar") and 2) the character response (the "move").
When an author is composing a novel or a 22 episode TV series, they have the luxury of creating components in any order that serves their purpose. They might concieve of a revelation and then create the character response. Or they might think of a response they want to provoke, so they create the revelation.
An important element here is the amount of preparation an author takes. With a lot of preparation, they can work out a framework in advance and then lead the reader/viewer through a pre-established thrill ride. This ride can be paced to last for 5000 words or 22 episodes, or 5 seasons (like Babylon 5).
Contrast this with the dynamic nature of roleplaying. Both the revelations and the desire to express character are brought "on screen" by the play of the people around the table. They may have ideas about what they want to bring, but the dynamic nature of the medium means that these can never be fully predictable. Part of the thrill of play is a kind of interactive discovery that an author does when they first compose a work. When we try to impose a pre-determined (pre-written) series of "bars" and "moves" on play, the life goes out of it.
I think it's the pre-determination of the sequence that's the energy killer. The appearance of a bar must allow charcter's freedom to express. And the challenge is that the free expression may demand that the next bar be in a different place. Or even be the end of the routine.
That's the extent of my thoughts on this for now. It has left me feeling unsettled, as what I've described suggests to me that a roleplaying game is always a delecate blancing act (ha!).
I might be biased or
I might be biased or ideological about this … my current perception is that the role-playing medium is more robust than the others, in terms of producing content per unit of creative effort or invested time. I think it's easy to under-estimate the stress and failures of other forms of fiction-making, partly because we mainly encounter the finished product alone, and only a minority of those which get finished, and especially because confirmation bias focuses on the "good ones" as far as we as audience are concerned. That latter point strikes me as important because it's reinforced culturally; for some reason, books or movies or plays that simply aren't very good "don't count."
I couldn’t figure out whom this replies to
… I think it's to all the comments so far! I'm also drawing on a lot of different statements during the conversation, spread evenly across everyone in it.
My take-away is that we are seeing two completely contradictory meanings to the very term "pacing."
These seem clear and distinct until I consider preparation as a technique and situational authority as a technique (however it's distributed), especially what Jon talked about concerning Bangs. I think there's a lot of content to discover for this exact issue: when preparing "things" prior to play, and when saying "we are here" or "this is happening" during play, to discover the meaningful distinction between the two bullet points above.