Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen – Part 9: Faster Than The Speed of Plot

Unfortunately the Adventures of the Colt Apollo had to be postponed on account of Rhys getting sick and me not wanting him to miss out on the next installment. But that’s okay because I’ve been thinking more on the notion of time and distance, as per last article.

Let me start by saying that when I said ‘distance’, I think I meant ‘effort’ and my brain, feverish with flu, confused the two. Somewhat less embarrassing than, say, ‘Red wire’ and ‘Blue wire’ but we learn from our mistakes…

Travelling over vast distances translates to a massive amount of effort, same as creating/inventing something or some other activity that taxes a protagonist physically or mentally. In the fictional world, the basic way to convey this effort is through time expended– which is particularly useful in the role-play setting since you want your players to be immersed in your fiction.  But odds are good that they would rather get to the good stuff – using the invention, acting out something at a destination – basically reaping the fruits of their labour.

Simply handing this over though is anathema to a storyteller or, at least, anathema to me. Without that representation of effort expended, the players lose what sense of time has progressed and can get quite nasty when you tell them that their quarry has escaped some three weeks ago while they were busy building a better mousetrap.

Our brains are wired to measure time or to work to some schedule. Not getting an idea as to what time it is – or how much as elapsed – becomes the nagging question in the player’s mind that stops them from being as involved in the game as they could be. There’s a reason why sensory deprivation works as a torture method after all.

Finally, every storyteller will swear that it’s not the destination that’s important in as much as the journey. Now this is not to say that every trek or endeavour should be an arc of personal revelation and evolution of a character but, at the very least, the amount of effort a player expends should be a representation as to how much he/she wants this activity to work.

After writing Behind the Screen Part 8, I gave the effort/distance thing some thought. Those who read it previously may remember a correllation between amount of information impacting amount of time. That the more information on a page or scene, the more the amount of time passes. I was seeking a similar theme in storytelling and wrote down something in faux mathematics:

Effort = Time divided by Communication

Orignally this was divided by Information but to do that ignores the greatest strength of the roleplaying medium and that is nearly instant feedback. The part of the story that is reciprocated by the players. And each time the players reciprocate it’s produces more information, increasing the time expended in the effort.

So, taking the definition of communication to mean; the exchange of information between parties, we can infer that the more communication that occurs, the more information is generated, meaning the longer the amount of time on the scene and the stronger the illusion of effort.*

Well that’s great, but how does that help me?

How about this:

As a storyteller, your descriptions need certain handles or cues that the players can latch onto. This can be an environmental description:

“The sun taxes your endurance with every step. “

Astute players can infer that:
It’s hot
It’s tiring.

And can use that when roleplaying their characters.

For anyone who’s undertaken lessons in journalism, the rule of asking open questions applies here even more. Ask how the players’ characters are feeling at the moment.  What they are thinking about.  Most times players are only to happy to chat about their characters and their deeper feelings and motivations.

The third method is to get the players to recognize their efforts in mathematic terms.

Roll Stamina and Endurance and we’ll divide the amount of time by number of successes.
3
It will take you seven hours to complete this task.

For my storytelling preference, I keep the dice method deep in the toolbox of storytelling as there’s little for the player to act out on a number.

Effort can be used as an opportunity to recap over the story so far. It reinforces to the player just what they’re attempting and why. And it can chew up some half a minute or so.

Are all your players doing the same herculean task or is it just one person. Cutting to another person who’s doing something that won’t take as long can chew up time for the player who is busy taxing him/herself.

Finally, if you have some imaginative players, this could be a time for their characters to interact with each other. If they’re undertaking something together, odds are good that they’re not going to do it quietly. Describing the environment and recapping the story can provide ample cues that players can use to springboard a conversation. And if they are communicating with other players, then it builds on the time even more and gives you, the storyteller, a few moments to prepare the next scene.

Communication is the exchange of information and your job as storyteller is to communicate parts of the story that players can absorb, and then translate through their characters their part of the story to you.

*Remember that you have to sell the idea that characters are enduring something hard WHILE they are sitting comfortably, eating junk food. Very rarely is there such a thing as too much description to a storyteller.

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