Let Me Tell You About My Character…

I bet half of you just rolled your eyes in recognition, didn’t you?

For the benefit of the other half: as we all know, one of the things nerds do best is attempt to look down on other nerds. Whatever nerdy hobby we’ve got, there’s a group with another hobby who are worse. Or there’s a sub-group within our hobby that give the rest of us a bad name. They’re the ones that when we finally confess to someone that we have this nerdy hobby, we say “But it’s OK, I’m not like the other people with my hobby who do X”.

And for RPG nerds, it’s the people who bang on for hours about their favourite character, and how cool he or she was. And there’s the GM-subtype, who doesn’t want to tell you about their character – they want to tell you about their game. They want to talk about the villain’s terrible schemes, or the ways the players threw them for a loop, and just couldn’t solve the puzzle, or any one of a number of things that are really quite boring to people who weren’t there.

I’m presenting a deliberately negative view here, of course. My point was that among gaming nerds, people who want to talk at length about their game have a bad rep. It’s not totally unreasonable, but actually, there are times and places where it is appropriate to talk about your character, or the events in your game. There’s even a term for it: “froth”. But even the term itself is, of course, drawing paralells with madness, with foaming at the mouth. It’s a way of saying “we know we’re being unnacceptable nerdy, but it’s fun, so we don’t care.” And I’m totally OK with that, but the term itself buys into the idea that talking about these things is somehow a bit socially unacceptable.

Which brings me to my problem – I can’t find any RPG blogs that I want to read.

There are, at least as far as I can see, three broad kinds of RPG blog article.

  1. The “tips for running a game” article. These tend to be geared around prep, ways to accomplish common taks, or organise information, or ways to manage people’s expectations and interactions around the game. Things like “How to spot a problem player.” or “How to come up with a game for a group where half the players enjoy talking, and half enjoying rolling dice.” Honestly, they tend to be focused on gaming styles and systems I don’t really enjoy, like D&D, and the more numbers-based games, and, without wishing to sound self-aggrandising, I’ve been playing these games for 20 years. I’m kind of past the need for these basics.
  2. The “game design” article. These tend to be full of theory about play styles, about how you create game systems and rules that support certain kinds of game play, and so on. They’re often quite technical. I find these more interesting than the first type of article, and I do want to read them from time to time, but they’re not all I want.
  3. What I might call the “culture of gaming” article. Talking about why people game, about their meta-game goals, about ways to, for example, deal with sexism, or explore certain ideas, character types and roles within the context of roleplaying.

What I can’t find, anywhere, is writing exploring the narrative craft of roleplaying. I can find articles on how game systems can be made to support certain kinds of narrative goal, so that, for example instead of a system mechanic around how difficult a task is to accomplish, it is intead based around how important that task is to the story, or around how the character feels about the task, and so on.

What I can’t find are articles about articles about theme, mood, imagery (in more than very, very general terms, and mostly on the level of “playing appropriate music can help set a mood”, which is so superficial it hurts), story beats, the interaction of plot and character, reincorporation, narrative emphasis, how to construct plot twists, and so on. And it’s these articles that I want to read.

I think there are two reasons for the lack of them. The first is that they’re almost impossible to write without getting all “let me tell you about my game” (or “let me tell you about this totally fictitious game”, I guess, but the two are so similar as makes no difference), and the second is that for some reason “story” is often regarded as an emergent property of roleplaying games.

What I mean by that is that there is the vague sense that the way the games work is that the GM concocts what essentially amount to a series of roleplaying challenges (whether they be “roll the dice in order to defeat the obstacle”, “talk to the right NPCs in such a way to get information to solve the puzzle” or “the character must chose between their true love and their only chance to return to their home planet” type stuff) and then the players play through them in-character, in in the combination of the two, Story happens. There’s a sense that the players and the GM are equally responsible for the holy Story, and therefore cannot possibly talk about it individually, as they both control different aspects of it.

If a GM talks about narrative devices they employ, it’s often seen as tantamount to confessing that their game is “on rails” – that is, the players have very little opportunity to affect the outcome of events, and this of course, is seen as a great sin, and the sign of a bad game, because it’s somehow not collaborative enough, and that somehow it’s contrary to the spirit of roleplaying for the Story to me anything other than an emergent property of the game.

Which is all a very long winded way of saying: anyone know of any good blogs discussing narrative devices as part of roleplaying games? I’m looking for a level more complex than simply pointing out that “you can try doing flashback sessions” or “you can use repeating imagery”. I actively want to hear tales of “I tried doing a flashback episode, and it really worked/didn’t work, and here’s why, and what I’d do differently next time” or “I structure my narrative so that there were N possibilities for an outcome, each with a different emotional resonance, and the players tried to go for N+1, and it would have been shit, so here’s what I did” type stuff. Suff about pacing, and building from session to chapter to arc that goes beyond the perfunctory, you know?


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