Earlier this week I attempted a post on Gming. The post grew with many and varied mutations until it became like most of my things: Horrible to look at, but good to make fun of. I’ve since banished it to the small dark basement equivalent of my hard drive where it will know no other company save for the half completed and wretched works that were aborted when I realized that I’d lost the plot.
This is why children are out of the question.
Approximately three thousand words went into this post and I was still nowhere near finishing what I had to say. I’m still trying to decide whether there is something profound awaiting me or whether I’m dancing around something awkward that I don’t wish to confront. All I know is that this piece of writing has been festering in my brain long enough and its interfering with other works that I’d like to see started so I shall attempt to condense what I’ve written into something cohesive and readable. The fat I’ve trimmed will be put to use at a later post (because despite what anyone else says, the fat is the best part of the steak).
I tell stories through gaming. The results of this have been varied. Unlike many other methods of storytelling, there are substantial limitations on what one can do when you’ve asked for the time and attention of friends. Of course there are benefits as well and I’ll get around to them later. Something that has been problematic with games of any RPG type is the notion of timing and pacing.
Timing is difficult to achieve in roleplaying. The area where timing usually comes in is at the end of the game where I’ve fallen into the habit of leaving it at a cliffhanger. I unabashedly admit that I stole this idea from another GM of acquaintance who had used it to great success and found that it worked for several games. The cliffhanger ending leaves players wanting more and let me tell you something right now about Storytellers:
That is the greatest reward, benchmark or payoff that you could hope for and its what you should strive to accomplish.
I believe that I have milked this technique to exhaustion, because the cliffhanger ending is also becoming the tool of the cheap hack for my games. I realize that I’m at the point where the story I want to be telling is not the one I’ve told, but the one I’ve just hinted at and I suspect that’s what the players want as well.
We need to address the elephant in the room now. And that is: How timing and pacing can be applied to roleplaying.
The easy answer is, DON’T! As a GM, you’re running a game, telling a story, interweaving unexpected developments from usually about three other people and doing this with nothing more than tape, baling wire and the last shred of sanity in order to tell a complete and entertaining tale. Four different perspectives, ideas and expectations into one story that entertains everyone means timing is the first casualty. Pacing is usually the lonely friend crying over Timing’s corpse as the jackbooted soldiers’ footsteps can be heard getting nearer, guns cocked and ready to wipe away the tears with searing lead.
It’s easier to ignore these tools of storytelling because everybody works at their own pace. Its not like you can have a metronome set up between the dice or a stopwatch running down each decision, description and discussion within the game.
But you know what, fuck easy, because these are tools of storytelling that can make things BETTER for your players. And when you request the time of friends to hear your story, you want it to be the best. So lets examine what we do have to work with.
Grown from the seed planted by my roommate and also a player in my games was this statement: “Its not possible to do a flashback sequence in a game”. Roleplaying does not lend itself to non-linear storytelling. And the reason for this is simple. Roleplaying is about cause and effect, each leading to the other, each feeding off one another that tells a story until it usually ends in a big-ass boom!
“So what?” you might say. “Cause and effect are hallmarks of any story in most mediums. What makes your medium of storytelling so special?”
And to them I say: Spontaneity.
Cause and effect are largely planned out or can be edited and rewritten when working with most other stories. Typically because its just you and a keyboard working away. In the case of roleplaying, Spontaneity is the catalyst for starting the chain reaction of cause and effect. Spontaneity typically comes from the player reacting to events engineered by the storyteller and vice-versa. Some could call this simply cause and effect on a large scale and they might be right. But I call it spontaneity because there are altogether too many times in a game where the Storyteller is NOT going to be able to anticipate a player decision or course of action. It’ll come from left field, like its flying up from the sun and to look up for it is to go blind until is strikes you in the forehead.
Spontaneity is the catalyst of linear storytelling and it’s also the reason why non-linear storytelling is difficult to accomplish.
Lets look at the flashback…
The flashback is tool of the trade that is set up for the need to explain an event of the story. To explain it sequentially within the story’s pacing is too clunky and unwieldy so it is cordoned off into its own little world where it can exist independent of the story’s pacing and flow, while contributing to the understanding of the audience. When done right, the flashback can not only explain the development but it can also surprise the audience by defying their expectations. When done poorly its like stepping behind the stage of a magician. You know how the trick works and thus the mystique and enchantment is lost.
Now getting back to spontaneity, the biggest club in the player’s bag, this is why flashbacks are out of the question normally because it means that you’re relying on the player not wanting to screw with time.
You NEVER let players screw around with time unless it has to be done and then you watch it very carefully. Because the effects to the storytelling are no less cataclysmic than what might happen in real life. And flashback sequences are a big gaping door that players can walk through and just start messing about. You can’t do that with flashbacks because flashbacks are explanations, reasons given for an event happening. If the event is not explained because the player decided on a spontaneous course of action in the flashback sequence, then the event is simply left dangling. Then you’re fucked. Game Over – or at least some serious hair pulling and rethinking. Also drinking.
Well that’s hopeless then isn’t it? No chance of non-linear storytelling, no getting around the spontaneity of the player. No timing or pacing for anyone! Might as well pack up and go home huh?
Because we come to the part where I explain that there are two reasons for spontaneity in roleplaying. These are:
1. The player comes up with this unbelievably cool and in-character idea or action that just comes out of nowhere. There’s a pause where all players and GM are struck dumb by its presence and then its GAME ON!
2. Either GM or player doesn’t have a firm grasp of the character. Sometimes both. And a decision or action that goes against what the character would have done and has been doing, is thrown out there blindsiding the GM. The GM couldn’t anticipate the idea because it just wasn’t something that the character wouldn’t do..
Obviously one of these reasons is very good and the other reason is very bad.
Knowing this, we come to the root cause of why spontaneity can command great change. And that is either because the player has come up with a better idea for your story than you, the Storyteller, could think of or something unexpected has arisen and now must be dealt with. Preferably with a bat and a blowtorch.
The moral for all those who read this and roleplay is, know your characters. If there’s a reason for a change in how the character would think and act, let your storyteller know. Storytellers, you have to watch for how your players react and change. Learn to distinguish between the random acts of spontaneity and the ones you wish you’d thought of yourself. Because ultimately despite the two camps differing methods and outlook the end goal is still the same:
For everyone to have fun.
As for pacing, timing and non-linear storytelling, I don’t have the answer for the first two.
But I narrated a flashback sequence with a player last night and while I think that I could have done better in its execution, it worked because both parties knew the character.
So it can be done.
More posts on other things another time.