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Foaming at the Mouth: On Roleplaying

It's All In The Details

Erich S. Arendall
August 8, 2000

Things are bound to go wrong for player characters. This is role-playing we're talking about, after all. No player character ever has life simple, and both players and GMs like it that way. There is a difference, however, between things not going well for game-play purposes and things not going well due to lack of communication. The latter is what I want to focus on today (or this month, or whatever - writing columns can get confusing when it comes to time).

One of the reasons that miniatures were an oft-used part of role-playing in the early days was to insure that everyone, players and GM alike, knew the marching order of the characters, where everyone stood, height in relation to other things, etc. Then, because miniatures are expensive, the comparison of RPGs to wargaming, or just plain laziness miniatures became used less and less. That kind of detail is important, in and out of combat settings, and yet now it is little used.

Am I suggesting that we all start looking on the shelves for miniatures that suit our characters again? Not really. I mean, I never could find a 20-ish male wearing a turtle-neck and sunglasses with a goatee, preferably carrying a sketch pad. What games could use a resurgence of is detail. Fully fleshed out scenes by the GM, players who don't just assume the other players know what their characters are doing and where they are, these kind of things are important in avoiding the errors of miscommunication.

Of course, it's not as easy as that. Although it's important not to give so many details that you're boring the audience ("My character's necklace is made up of 33 pearls, the first pearl is slightly larger than the others, while the second pearl has a small - nearly unnoticeable - chip, the third...") the real trick is listening to all the details that are being given and insure that others are listening, too. Those details, no matter how stressed they are, are worthless if ignored.

The players should listen to the GM and any other players in the same 'scene', everyone knows this and it's stressed in many RPG books and magazines. However, it's often taken for granted that the GM should listen to the players with as much or more intensity. And while it is important to have an ear for details, even more important is the ability to ask questions when those details aren't understood.

There are certain details which should be in the mind of all the participants. The positioning of the area and the location of its contents, including the people in the room, are quite possibly the most important details that need to be divulged in most cases. I've watched as characters have jumped out windows, only to discover they were on the 50th floor of a building - all because of a lack of communication and/or listening. Which is kind of ironic considering that the primary requirements of gaming involve communicating and listening (and yes, rolling dice). The time, while usually an arbitrary factor is a detail that provides depth to the game and is very important when playing a game like Vampire, too. One way to examine the communication and listening skills of the group is to pause a scene and have the players and GM alike draw a quick sketch of the scene and all its major participants. After the game go over the pictures and see how divergent they are and if they are all very different try to pinpoint where the problem may be - without pointing fingers.

Good. So the group is back to the details, and everyone knows where everyone is... except for that one player or GM. The solution? No more rewinding because that person didn't listen. That includes the GM. If there's some confusion ("What do you mean everyone else ran and the bomb wasn't disarmed?") why not let it come to a group vote; players and GM alike are included and only if the vote is even or enough people didn't hear does the game get retconned. This has the added bonus of insuring people stay more focused on the game and cuts out some of the sideline chatter (and cell-phone calls).

We're here to game, people. Not to spend the night arguing over disputes as to who was where. Let's cut those down by beefing up on the details.

Erich S. Arendall

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What do you think?

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All Foaming at the Mouth columns by Erich S. Arendall

(plus earlier items from the Sprite archive)
  • Hanging up the Dice Bag February 7, 2001
  • It's All In The Details August 8, 2000
  • Regarding Reviews July 5, 2000
  • Rest, Relaxation, and Role-Playing May 23, 2000
  • Gaming, Yes! Gamers, Argh! April 18, 2000
  • Kudos, Komplaints or Kriticism, I don't Kare! March 28, 2000
  • Three Little Words February 1, 2000
  • Stories, Characters, Supplements, and Modules December 7, 1999
  • Real Roleplayers? Real Snobs. October 12, 1999
  • Socialism and Systems September 14, 1999
  • Same Earth, Different - You Know the Rest... August 17, 1999
  • It's Evolution, Baby! July 20, 1999
  • Buried in Dice June 8, 1999
  • Look Ma! No Dice! No Rules! May 18, 1999
  • Oh, Servant! April 27, 1999
  • Motivational Evil March 30, 1999
  • Love and Sex... In Gaming! February 9, 1999
  • You're Doing What On-Line? January 19, 1999
  • I do it for the Toys December 9, 1998
  • Everybody Else is Doing it... November 24, 1998
  • All the Game's a Stage October 20, 1998
  • Nobody Wants to GM! September 15, 1998
  • Ugly, but not Frightening August 20, 1998
  • ...And I'll Be a Baker! July 21, 1998
  • Cultish Followings and Golden Ages June 16, 1998
  • Hocus Shmocus May 19, 1998
  • Crossbows over Characters? (or, Gaming Mentalities) April 21, 1998
  • Hey! You're Not Smart Enough to Play that Character! (Part 2) March 17, 1998
  • Hey! You're Not Smart Enough to Play that Character! (Part 1) February 17, 1998
  • Computer RPGs and How Most Aren't January 20, 1998
  • Sprite's first guest column, on The Economics of Gaming December 23, 1997 (or, "How to Dissuade Those Pesky Non-Gamers")

    Other columns at RPGnet

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