See P. XX: From Inside Your Head to Inside the Scene

See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Roleplaying offers a pleasure we don’t much mention or, for that matter, particularly think about. When you play with a group, you get to see how each of its members thinks. Here I’m speaking not so much of the content of their thought—about resource management or politics or last week’s Doctor Who episode—as of the way each player puts ideas together and comes to decisions. Our brains process choices differently, and you get to see that in action, each play group providing its own unique mix of contrasts.

One common way to think through a roleplaying dilemma is the internal monologue, in which the player verbally reviews the situation from the character’s point of view. This may happen in the first person, the third, or a fluid mix of the two:

“Okay, Michaela’s thinking the chupacabra sighting has really pushed the whole deal into an entirely new territory. She’s not worried any more about disbelieving any of the crazy stuff they’ve seen since the truck went off the road. So what she’s going to do is approach Raj about it and take him aside and see if he’s willing to accept the mantle of leadership, and if he agrees, I [meaning Michaela] will have to eat some crow.”

The thinker-in-monologues breaks down a problem into steps and works his way through them in a sort of verbal previsualization sequence. The upsides of this technique include its methodical process, its clarity, and its promise of forward movement. Unlike a ditherer, who goes in circles, the monologist does get somewhere. The presentation of the PC’s thought process can often be extremely entertaining. However, it does present the GM with a couple of challenges. First, as a solo process, it shuts out the participation of others. Second, it moves too far into the future tense, revealing stuff that should happen instead of letting events play out. By tipping so much in advance, the player who thinks too much through out loud ensures that what does finally occur is either repetitive, or must be a reversal of expectations.

The DramaSystem dynamic invites monologing, particularly during scene calling. It asks each player in turn to create or invoke a situation, and to name a scene partner or partners to interact with. Events in a DramaSystem session can move so quickly that even a player who has been thinking ahead can find all of his prepared ideas have lost their relevance when his turn to call comes up. When stumped, thinking your way through the available options becomes not just understandable but actively useful.

The GM must then lean a bit on the monologist to make sure that the list of possible scenes doesn’t turn into a rehearsal for the scene itself. It must be a gentle lean, though: you don’t want to cut off the player’s thought before the framing coalesces. Some bits of character thought process are too much fun to cut off. If everyone at the table is clearly rapt, don’t step on the monologist out of general principle. You don’t want to lapse into hyper-vigilance, rattling your players by barking at them the second they start to venture down Future Tense Lane.

This then requires an instinct and sensitivity, to spot the right moment to jump in and say, “Great! Now play the scene!”

As a player, you should be as attentive to the other players at the table as the GM is. In reality, though, we of the nerd tribe aren’t always attuned to the demands we’re making on others’ attention. When you’re groping toward a scene call, remember that each other person at the table has been put on tenterhooks, wondering if they’re the ones who are going to be called on to take part in the scene. The tipping point between fun suspense and frustrated waiting can be a matter of a sentence over the line. Frustration goes up by another notch when you know you’re the scene partner, but the caller is still struggling to refine what’s going on, or is essentially playing the scene without you in it.

“I suppose Raj might be reluctant but never mind, yes I’ll go to Raj because I’m thinking he’s my guy, despite our past disagreements.”

As a soliloquizing player, or as the GM listening to this waiting to nudge matters along, this is the edit point, when the character is saying stuff in his own head (or the player is explaining to the other players) that the character could be saying to the other character. Roleplaying is drama, not prose. What registers is not what a protagonist thinks might happen, but what we “see” happen.

If that’s what’s going on, the GM should then definitely step in to say, “Okay, play the scene!”

As the player on tenterhooks waiting for the caller to shift from framing to playing the scene, you can also move things along. Break in with a line of dialogue that kicks off the scene proper:

“Hey Michaela, you look freaked! What’s on your mind?”

Even if the scene hasn’t been fully framed yet, the GM can later sidle in to fill in needed details. Maybe the caller hasn’t specified where it’s taking place. This often occurs, with or without extended internal monologue introductions. The astute GM lets the scene gather momentum and then asks for setting details. Sometimes precise location never matters, and each person at the table can imagine the scene taking place in a slightly different place, with no harm done to the dynamic.

Players can instinctively over-explain their characters’ thinking because they’re used to games that don’t promote dramatic interaction with other PCs. In DramaSystem the GM can help them jump from thinking about the scene to being in it:

“Excellent—now say that to Raj!”

If you recognize yourself as a pre-thinker, don’t beat yourself up. This is a matter of fine-tuning, not a grievous sin against game style. Train yourself to make the shift from framing to playing before anyone has to nudge you. Give yourself permission to discover what the scene is about by jumping into it. As soon as you know who you want something from, and have an opening idea of how you might try to approach them, get it rolling. Often the scene takes a surprise turn, as your petitioning character learns that the granter’s attitude is not what you expected. DramaSystem is meant to do that. So take a deep breath and let it happen.


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