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Close, but not quite

Sometimes, one can learn the most interesting things when something doesn’t quite work.  Last weekend, during a D&D session, I was reminded of this.

First, a little background: Approximately a million years ago, I was an undergrad taking theatre courses.  I didn’t know whether I wanted to be an actor or a techie, but I knew I wanted to be involved; theatre was a kind of magic thing, and it had immense appeal for me.  I eventually came down on the techie side of the line: in the end the appeal of making things with my hands won out, and anyway my acting style was ill-suited for the stage.  I was neither big enough nor loud enough nor bold enough for The Industry, and that’s just fine.

I’m a pretty good acting match for the tabletop, if I do say so myself, with its mixture of collaborative storytelling and intimate scale.  A bit ironic, considering that the improv exercises were the ones I hated most in my formal acting classes.  In the D&D games I play in, there is a fair bit of improvisational acting, and while I adore it and am generally having a grand time, I sometimes find that the spectres of acting-class problems tend to come back to haunt me.

Here’s my little case study for the day: Every session of “Chosen” that we play opens with a flashback sequence, or a cutaway scene, which serves as a warm-up for everybody and typically stars one particular player character.   Last week, I was tapped to help out with making one of these work, and had some pre-session chat with our DM.

What I knew going into the session was:

  • I was going to be playing opposite the scene’s star
  • My character was to be under the influence of a supernatural entity.

The intended function of the scene: The starring PC gets to use the skills at which he is strongest (arcana, insight, and history) to resolve the problem, also showing our imaginary TV audience what he will do when confronted with a problem whose nature is mysterious to him and to which no obvious resolution was presented.

Sounds pretty cool, right?

This is the part where you’re expecting me to say “Well, it wasn’t; we totally failed.”  But while the scene didn’t work as planned, I don’t think it’s true that it was a failure, either.

What actually happened was that the DM gave us the expected setup – here is what our featured PC has been doing all day, here is what my character would normally be doing now – then turned to me and said “But today’s a little different.  What’s she doing when he gets home?”

Whoa.  Okay.  I had expected a tiny bit more direction than that – I didn’t even know what kind of thing I was supposed to be being influenced by! – but I made something up that seemed just a little bit weird, while not immediately suggesting any one particular kind of Ominous Nasty.  The featured PC bit.  So far, so good.

However, here is where things got interesting.  Once it became apparent that the character I was playing was quite literally not herself, the featured PC’s first response was to immediately go and find someone else rather than engage the problem himself at all.  (Something that had not been reckoned with in the original prospectus for the scene.)

This is where I point out that Jonathan is a very good DM, capable at most things and outstanding in several (his encounter designs and NPC portrayals in particular are excellent and everyone enjoys them.)  However, life does have a habit of getting hairy on occasion, and on this particular week there had been less time to prepare than usual…and on this occasion, it was plain he hadn’t had time to prepare and was suffering a bit of a deer-in-headlights moment.  Happens to everybody.

This is a particularly interesting improvisational challenge in an RPG setting.  In D&D one of the many functions served by the DM is the directing of scenes – he or she will try to pick things up when they’re dragging, or gently make suggestions as to things that might occur to the characters that the players might not be picking up on.   They are the players’ eyes and ears in the world, as well, and have the final say on what is and isn’t so in the world you’re playing in.  What this means is that unlike a traditional improv setting, where pretty much anyone can add anything to the mix…if you’re improving in a D&D scene, you’re working with at least a semi-structured universe in which one person knows What’s Really Going On at any given time and the things you try to introduce may or may not be viable components for that narrative.

However, at this moment, nobody was at the wheel, and the sensors had, so to speak, shut down.  I wasn’t precisely sure who or what I was supposed to be, or where the scene was ultimately supposed to go, and the other player wasn’t sure what to do, and the person who usually serves as arbiter of these things was looking at me and asking “Okay, what happens now?”

It was exactly that moment from acting class where you are playing a two-person scene and your partner is not giving you anything to play off of, and you have the feeling that someone really must do something, right now.  And you realize suddenly that it is probably going to have to be you.

Well, all right then.  There wasn’t enough urgency in the scene, so I tried to make some by inventing some additional strange actions for my character to take, and other players jumped in to suggest courses of action to the featured PC’s player.  I continued frantically making things up until suddenly enough of a narrative coalesced for me that I was able to give the entity’s behavior some internal consistency (for myself, anyway) and kind of nudge the scene to a natural conclusion on my own.

Here is the funny thing.  The scene was not precisely a success, in that it didn’t really achieve the goal of providing a setpiece for the featured PC.  I suspect this may have been in part because of a mismatch between the design of it and the preferences of the featured PC’s player – I don’t know that he is especially fond of operating alone in scenarios where the “rules” of what is going on (so to speak) are not quickly apparent.  And of course it could have been much improved by additional input from the DM as we went, but that is, as I have said, not really his fault.

On the other hand…it wasn’t a failure, either.  We still ran a scene that had a beginning, a middle, an end, and an internally consistent narrative, and I got through the whole thing without having any real idea of who I was supposed to be or how all this would fit into the plot at large.  That has to constitute an achievement of some kind.  There is even a teasing little nugget of mystery in it that we can pick up and improve on later: what really DID happen there?

I think what was most interesting about this for me, though, is that for a minute there I was doing a number of things that DMs usually do.  And no, I wasn’t expecting to have to do it when I got to the session that day.  And yes, it was kind of scary trying to do it myself.  But you know, it wasn’t as bad as all that.

It’s certainly gotten me thinking.  Perhaps it really isn’t as bad as you think, not knowing what you’re supposed to do.

Lesson learned: Be ready to back up the other players, even and especially the GM, by giving them something – anything – to pick up and run with.  If they don’t pick it up, try again – but be thinking of a graceful exit strategy, just in case.

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