On Screen v. Off Screen in Roleplaying Games

Reposted from Gametime

On Saturday we had the first play-test of ‘s Soth, a game about cultists summoning an Elder God and ending the world. It was indeed fun, but what I want to talk about is just one little bit: the character sheet.

Now, we’re all accustomed to Old Skewl gaming where a respectable character sheet is a minimum of 1 whole crabbed and arcane page. What I think we’re less accustomed to are games like Dungeoneer, where your character sheet is quite a modest collection of inventory and special stuff. Well, your character sheet in Soth is just a name, and a number. Couldn’t be simpler. The number represents your “Insanity”: how far you have strayed from the path of ordinary mortals.

By eliminating all the usual plethora of statistics we might associate with a character, Steve clearly signalled what the game would be about: going mad. There were no scenes about stealing documents, or researching rituals: all of that stuff was just abstracted out. People just assumed it was going on, and focused on the scenes that obviously mattered mechanically: going mad.

So, I hope I’ve already made my main point: Roleplaying games are about something, not anything. We play scenes of importance, not the whole life of the character. I think Steve’s single “insanity” stat, and a resistance to developing any other game mechanisms at all is a good distillation of this basic idea.

Of course, most games don’t have the tight focus of Soth. Just what is the “about” of a pseudo-modern game like A|State? The game suggests motifs, themes, colouration… but it in itself is not “about” anything in the kind of specific way that allows a tailored and specific mechanic set, and easy recognition in players. Just what scenes would you play out in that game? What would you leave out? A scene with a guy shaving could poignantly highlight his hopelessness, or it could just bore the tears out of 5 other people at the table.

To me, this is the actual use of tools like kickers and bangs, and also of the three-fold model. Not so much, what happens in the game, but what portion of the game gets on screen. And I think the key skill that good players develop is in reading the tone of the game, and being able to handle some things in a very abstract way, but really pay attention to detail when it matters.

Some specific advice then…

1. Think about this question: What will change in the game world as a result of what I’m doing right now? If the answer is “nothing”, then ask yourself why you’re doing it. Sure, some scenes will need to be about exploring the inner angst/happiness/indecision, but too much of that isn’t roleplaying, it’s masturbation.

2. Have a look at the rest of the table. Is everyone on the edge of their seat? No? Bored, perhaps getting into a fight about whether THAC0 or BAB are better? Move on. Look for ways to curtail the scene, to the point of dropping out of character and saying “oh, and I guess we wrap it up with a long discussion about chess.” If it’s important, the GM will keep you in character. (And hey, if another player’s having an intense moment with the local Mafia Don, shut the hell up with your foolish argument: THAC0 is better, period.)

3. Pay attention to genre. Genre will be your biggest and most obvious guide as to what scenes are important. Yet, it’s a slippery beast; with many things deviously slithering across the grey scale. Do what you can.

4. Scene frame your game wherever you can. Stuff should never happen in an amorphous space of player dialogue. That kind of generalized tactical discussion is almost always really out of character, and the plans made therein rarely actually happen. Now, this is in the “player advice” section for one really good reason: it’s a player framed scene. Seriously. The GM can’t force you to play in character: you’ve got to watch that tendency to drift yourself.

5. Look closely at what you’ve written down on your character sheet. Is there equal space for “social contacts” and “weapons carried”? No? Well, pick one, and abstract the other. This is particularly crucial with those NPCs represented merely by a dot or rating, and games where you, frankly, never use that modified automatic Remington Roomsweeper with Flechette rounds and a smartlink to your pet goat.

The flip side of this advice is that you shouldn’t ever forget about the stuff that happens off stage. That’s probably the majority of your character’s life. Often this stuff can get forgotten. It’s hard to remember that your character spends his spare evenings watching musicals when ever time you inhabit him he’s crawling through sewers hunting mutants. I think a good way of dealing with this is in little montages, where you take a minute (but not 5, ‘k?) to just paint a domestic picture. I’ll sometimes take a second in moments of character-stress to just relate whatever weird experience is going on to their regular life.

Summarizing: I think that you really need to have a character that’s doing something with their life, and you need to really focus your in-game activities towards the attendant goals.

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Have to say, it’s great that Gametime is getting so much love recently. Go on, post a comment on Steve’s playtest for Soth. Ask him the hard questions, he’ll love it.

And otherwise, have you read Luke’s discussion of Spirit of the Century – Chases? Good stuff for thinking about what’s actually important in a game.

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