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The Play's the Thing

Where Do You Find the Time?

by David Goodner
Jan 21,2003

 

The Play's the Thing

Where Do You Find the Time?

By David Goodner

Hi everybody. Welcome back. We're still discussing character goals. We've already talked about what they are, why you should have them, and what they should be, but all that still leaves a question.
When do you pursue them?

In a MET style LARP, it's pretty easy. Almost all your goals tend to be personal, and you pursue them whenever you get the chance. In a PBP or PBeM, there may be more direction, but it's still not hard to go off by yourself and do whatever you want as long as the GM has time to deal with you. Splitting the party may not be advisable, but it's not a serious logistical problem like it might be in a tabletop game.

But my column is primarily aimed at tabletop gaming, and at the tabletop (or sprawled around the living room, in my games) having one or more characters wander off by themselves can cause some problems. Some day, if you ask nicely, I'll tell the story of the Shadow Run session that ended up having three groups and two GMs... The basic problem is that there is only one GM, who plays all the NPCs and describes the entire environment. While the PCs are all in one place, this isn't much of a problem. If the party splits up, the GM's attention is split, too. Sometimes that's unavoidable. Sometimes the GM arranges it on purpose. But other times, it can be a real pain - particularly if it's just one PC who is trying to use some downtime in the main plot to go pursue one of his sub-plots. That leaves the other characters to either just sit, or to go find things of their own to do.

Thus, either several people are bored, or the GM suddenly has multiple games to run.

So what can you do about it?

Here are several strategies that I have employed. All of them require the GM's cooperation, and that's an important issue. Everything I'm going to suggest creates some degree of extra work for the GM. As a player, you need to decide how much your character's goals are worth to you and to the rest of the group. If you start disrupting the game or burning out the GM, then it doesn't really matter if your character won the hand of the Princess, defeated the Dark Overlord, and recovered the McGuffin of Ultimate Power. You are failing.

Yes, I said you are failing. If you wreck the game, then you lose everything. I once nearly wrecked a game by focusing too much on just what I wanted. It's an easy trap to fall into - at least for a spotlight hog like me. Now you've been warned.

Ok, now that that bit of unpleasantness is out of the way, let's move on. There are several ways to carve out time for your character's goals.

In Game, With the Party

Unless your GM blows chunks, there will be situations in the main plot that relate to your character's goals from time to time. Keep an eye out for them. When you find yourself in one, play in character. Don't make the decision you think is "best." Make the decision that your character really would if he was in that situation. If you're playing Inigo Montoya, and you spot the Six-Fingered man, you're not likely to consider the fact that you're carrying an urgent message that absolutely, positively has to get there overnight. There's the guy who slaughtered your father over a sword. Go kill him. Now. And that group of twenty guards he's got with him.

Well, actually, Inigo might be smarter than that, but he'd at least consider it.

In Game, Alone

Sometimes, the group splits up. I've run sessions that never had more than two PCs in the same place at the same time. I've played in them, too. If everybody's OK with it, that's fine.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Be considerate: Well duh. If your character goes off by himself, the GM "owes" you as much time as he's spending with any one other player. In a group of six players, that's 1/6th of the GM's time. The group gets an hour, you get ten minutes. More is nice, but all you really "deserve" is 1/6th.
  • Keep track of your POV: Don't react to OOC information in your IC dealings. If the group gets in trouble because you wandered off on your own, then the survivors will be really angry with you when you get back. If you get in trouble when you wander off on your own, don't expect them to come save you if you can't call them.
  • While you're out anyway...: While you run off to visit your old, ailing aunt, maybe you could also check in with one of your contacts who might have some useful information for the group. Huh?
  • Be considerate: I know I already said "be considerate," but it bears repeating. Keep this behavior in check. If you only go off on you own every once in a while, it's no problem. If you're doing it for a long time, frequently, you should probably look into one of the other methods I'll discuss in a minute.

Journals and Bluebooks

"Bluebooking" emerged some time in the 90s. I'm not exactly sure where. Mentions of it cropped up in some of my game books about that time. If anybody who knows more cares to post comments, I'd love to read them. I've never Bluebooked formally, but I think I've more or less adopted the "guts" of the practice. The basic idea is that you keep a binder or something in which you write character actions. The GM reads what you wrote and writes in responses. You can presumably also do this with other PCs, too. It's a pretty good way to handle "sideline" events, though I think it would work best between sessions, since the GM probably can't stop and read your latest entry and write another one while he's doing anything else.

A somewhat related method could be carried out in a character journal. I am a huge fan of character journals (and I really, really need to update the one in my D&D game). Mostly, journals just record actions that have already happened, but in my Now is the Winter game one player particularly used his to flesh out relationships and add a lot of content to the game that I never put there.

To be honest, I was a little shocked at first. I read one of his journal entries, which had a long conversation between him and an NPC - only that conversation had never occurred in game.

Once I figured out what he was doing, though, I was all for it. In fact, I do it a little myself.

Here's what he'd do:

  • In Game, he'd tell me he wanted to go to such-and-such a place to talk to some NPC contact.
  • I'd say "fine. You go there. What do you want to know?"
  • He'd tell me.
  • I'd make up an answer. For instance, if he was looking for where to find a Brujah safe house, I might say one of his Anarch contacts gave him an address warfside.
  • In his journal, there would be a lengthy description of his trip to the Anarch's hangout, and a detailed conversation that covered other topics as well. For example, if the PC was shaking down an Anarch, he might mention some (made up on the spot) dirt he had on said Anarch.
  • Rarely, he'd write something that, while he was unaware of it, was "wrong" for some reason, and I'd tell him what he needed to change.

None of the player's new details involved OOC information unless he'd also gained that information IC later in the game. None of the details he added were consequential to the plot. But they turned a 30 second exchange between him and me into a real, fleshed out scene.

There are some things to keep in mind with this. Obviously, you're still asking the GM for more of his time. You're also asking him to hand over the reigns of the game, at least a little bit. I like it. Some GMs won't. You pretty much have to respect your GM's wishes. You should also be sure your performance In Game is as good as your performance in your journals, or at least as good as it can be. The other players deserve to be wowed by your awesome character portrayal. The group's goals probably deserve as much attention as your private ones.

E-Mail, Chat, and IM

A step up from physical journals, which have to be passed around, is electronic messaging. To be truthful, the journal in the example above was a Word file we passed back and forth as an e-mail attachment. I don't usually keep hand-written journals. Typing is so much faster, and I'm part of the Sesame Street generation, with the attendant low attention span and desire for instant gratification.

In my last handful of games, quite a bit was done as e-mails between the players and the GM or each other. This works very similarly to journals and bluebooks, but there's some difference. Scenes are "real-time." In other words, it's less likely that a scene you do through Instant Messaging with the GM will be edited after the fact. You will also be generating new material, instead of just fleshing out old stuff. Since the GM is involved, you can cover new ground.

There are also some new things to worry about.

  • Be considerate: Yeah, you knew I was going to say that. Even more than with journals, you're taking the GM's time up, because if you're using IM or chat, you're taking up specific blocks of time.
  • Keep track of continuity: Scenes played this way will occasionally be set between scenes that already happened In Game. If your character didn't know the location of the McGuffin of Power during the game, he has to wait until after the game time that the last session covered before he can find out. If he only spent an hour by himself, he probably doesn't have time to drive all over town and talk to half a dozen different NPCs.
  • Don't get too far ahead: If you're doing things between sessions, keep in mind that the rest of the group isn't going to want to skip two days of game time because you ran off to Reno with your mistress - even if you came back with an important clue. If you don't want to spend two days of game time playing PS2 and reading comic books, then you'd better not spend them IM-ing the GM. In a similar vein, if one player does this kind of thing, all the players should have equal opportunity. This is particularly true if two PCs have conflicting goals. That brings us back to the GM Attention ratio I mentioned earlier. If the GM has to shuffle e-mails and Instant Messages from six players, you only get 1/6th of the total volume.

As always, the key thing to keep in mind is that you're trying to make the game better. I started with a discussion of all the competing goals, and that's where I'm going to end. I've provided tools to help you pursue your character's goals, and presumably your goals. You should do that with an eye toward the goals of the rest of the group.

So that's about it. I think I'm through with goals for now. In fact, I'm not sure what next month's column will hold. I'm up for suggestions.

Till then, good gaming.

TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg