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Show ‘n’ Tell

As our current RPG campaign approaches a (somewhat premature) close, we must once again enter a round of negotiations over what to play next. This is somewhat difficult for our group, because we split on our preferences for all the major axes distinguishing styles of play: upbeat/downbeat, internal/external conflict, first-person/third-person narration, all those labels that gamers apply to gaming style. Or, to borrow Robin Laws’ definitions, we’ve got one (1) method actor, one storyteller, one tactician, one specialist, one casual player—all we need is for the power gamer to return to our table and we’d have a complete set.

As part of these negotiations, I found myself trying to express frustration with another player’s preferred style—it isn’t wrong, any more than my preferred style is, but the two styles are largely incompatible.

For Jen, the fun of RPGs is the state of being: she likes to imagine herself being a particular archetype and, to a lesser extent, deciding how she feels about events in game. It’s a very passive style, one that does little to move the action forward, or at all, and it’s very popular with tragedians, for whom being trapped in unfortunate circumstances is the whole point. Start doing heroic things, and you’re no longer trapped in a tragic life. Again, it isn’t wrong, but it is a style very much at odds with a style that emphasizes doing: shooting bad guys, deciphering ancient manuscripts, persuading the faerie queen to free a mortal prisoner. Get a table full of tragedians together, and they’ll have a grand old time commiserating. Mix them with players who want external plot instead of internal monologue, and there will be trouble.

Nigel Snivelton-dithers, romantic gentleman: I was born the scion of a noble family, but I’ve been disowned. My father would never countenance merely looking at a servant girl, much less marrying one. Sadly, my Annabelle died of tuberculosis not ten months from our elopement. What little money remained I spent making her comfortable in her last moments. Now I am reduced to whiling away the days by drinking absinthe and playing cards for pocket money, but I have lost all hope.

Rick Caliber, international man of action: Wow. That’s terrible. So what are you going to do about it?

Nigel: Do?

Rick: Yeah, do. Like, do you want to get revenge on your father or something?

Nigel: I am a gentleman, sir! Reprehensible though his attitude may be, he was within his rights to disown me, and I would not stoop to petty revenge.

Rick: Oh. Well, I tell you what. I’ve got a biplane held together with bubblegum and prayer, fueled and on the runway. Let’s head off to the Amazon and find you a native princess to save.

Nigel: Thank you my friend, but my heart belongs forever to my departed Annabelle.

Rick: How about we see about recovering your title? We can get together a mercenary band, carve out a kingdom in the Sudan…

Nigel: Society would never have it. Besides, I quite clearly told you I’d lost all hope.

Rick: So you did.

Nigel: That’s the whole point, isn’t it? I’m a tragic figure. If you go around trying to fix that, you’re denying my concept. I’m shackled to this fate.

Rick: Sucks to be you then.

Nigel: Indeed. [He sighs, and gazes into the middle distance.]

Rick’s player: Okay, that campaign took…six minutes. What’ll we do next week?

Or, more likely, the action moves on and leaves Nigel behind, because Nigel’s internal monologue, as entertaining as it may be to Nigel’s player, isn’t doing anything to entertain the rest of the table. All too often, Nigel begins wondering at this point why he’s wasting time with these rubes. (It’s at this point that Jen begins scheming to replace her character with a new one, no matter how that might disrupt the rest of the game. Perplexingly, the new character is often virtually identical to the old.)

In articulating my desire for a different approach, a pithy characterization struck me: the difference between an external, plot-driven style in gaming and an internal, character-driven one is closely analogous to the old writer’s adage, “Show, don’t tell.”

Show the story through events rather than telling it with narration. Demonstrate Bob’s frustration by having him lash out, rather than writing “Bob was frustrated.” Even the most repressed Victorian tale of a helpless heroine is best told through events that illustrate her helplessness—arranged marriages, weeping fits, arguments that threaten to become duels—and not simply sitting around waiting for something to happen. The events are the story. Similarly, the events at the RPG table are the story. Who the characters are, and how they feel about the events is only important insofar as it causes something to happen.

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