Monday, June 1, 2020

Walking and Talking At The Same Time

My first post for this June is one that covers something I've been noticing a lot lately in the various groups I game with.

It feels as if the balance within a game between the Action elements and the Role Playing elements are really peculiar compared to my past experiences. Since I know my experiences in the hobby are a bit atypical, maybe someone out there can give me some insight into what it going on.

We'll see. 

A lot of modern games seem to split the moments in a game session into 'scenes'; basically separating the events into distinct sequences such as Action Scenes, Story Scenes, and sometimes a Rest or Recuperation Scene wherein you regain Hit Points or rejuvenate powers or something similar. 

These partitioned sections of a single game session were instituted into game design over the last decade or so mainly to delineate the difference between being in and out of combat or to help reinforce a given genre's way of depicting how said genre was staged (such as panels in a comic book or the climax of a movie).

Even my own game, 'The Googly Eyed Primetime Puppet Show' RPG, designates different kinds of moments within the game - Scenes, Sketches, and Skits - to help the Director/GM stage a genre appropriate session more easily. 

Older games didn't explicitly have these distinctions of sequence and didn't really separate your RPG moments from your non-RPG moments. 

Or did they?

Surely you rolled for Initiative and once that happened you were in Combat. Combat had rounds and turns and often a very specific way for determining what amount of time those terms constituted and what could be accomplished within them.

What I don't recall was time specifically allocated to Role Playing. There weren't designated or dedicated parts of the game where you were meant to have conversations or where you weren't allowed to interact with NPCs in a non-combat way. How many rounds does it take explain your point of view to a local nobleman? Does trying to get information from the barkeep last a full turn? 

This brings me back to the beginning and the odd issue I've observed of late - Players having their PCs RP or do something such as Investigate a Mystery or Fight. They can't seem to do any of these at the same time

It creates a very slow and occasionally stilted feel in game sessions, with players either asking the GM questions or rolling dice to use their skills, or having conversations in character with each other or NPCs. 

Why is this? What created this dynamic? Why am I just encountering this now? 

On that last question, is this a thing that has always been a factor in other peoples games? Is this the way most people play? 

My confusion stems from the fact that we (my older groups and I) always combined these activities. We definitely didn't have separate times or exclusive moments where we did one or the other. We bantered and even discussed personal [PC] relationships while we fought enemies. We had in depth conversations about what the villain's motives might be as we searched for clues.Two PCs would be talking about what was going on in the story at the same time as another scanned the opposing forces for a weakness and yet another tried to modify the ship to do something unusual. 

I was recently in a session of our Hogwarts/Wizarding World game in which all of the PCs were sitting around a table eating. We started to discuss the mystery at hand. One Player/PC in particular went on and on about the particulars of the mystery, clearly stating the situation and all it's relevant elements. It served to clarify things and bring us up to speed, but it didn't add anything in the way of an answer or conclusion because at that point we didn't have enough information to make one. 

That was all fine and good but why not do that in a scene where we are looking for more clues? Why not do it while going somewhere or taking some other action that moved things forward?

I told the GM that my PC was going to leave the table. In character I said, "See you guys later", and then I walked over to my PC's NPC girlfriend and asked if she could help me do something that my character knew he's not good at. We proceeded to walk down a few levels to a place where we could mix potions, all the while having my PC tell the NPC about a crazy idea he had to reveal some information he needed about an injured friend. He had picked up something related to the injury (leaves with the injured parties blood on it) and needed to know if there was a potion that could see the past of an object dropped into it. I said I'd heard more experienced wizards mention such a thing.

The GM looked through his notes and asked, "Is this a potion we've discussed before?"

"Nope", I said, "I just imagine such a thing might exist. I have a cool idea if it does [or if it can]." Luckily the GM is a good one and says sure, why not. My NPC companion is good at potions and tends to read ahead of what most people (the PCs included) tend to know (two of the reasons I asked her specifically to accompany me). She tells me this is an extremely difficult potion and we need to work as a team to make it happen. Again, that was my hope so I am good with this. 

Around this time the others players decide to stop their discussion of what is going on and two of them go to do research on one of the potential bad guys involved. The last PC (there are four of us in the game) goes off to have a one-on-one Role Play encounter with the PC's boyfriend. Cool. 

Follow me now...

My PC gets into a slightly heated personal discussion with his NPC girlfriend about something she did that she thinks I should be angry at her for. My PC, well, he isn't angry because he is a very even keeled fellow and knows she did it with the best of intentions.

All the while we are cutting ingredients, brewing the potion, and rolling dice to see how it turns out. Yes, we are Role Playing a scene between two romantically involved characters and at the same time we are making a potion that will help reveal information about the game's plot. At the same time! Hide your old folks! Cover your eyes! Think of the children! The Children!

I will also remind you that this potion, this action we're taking, didn't exist until I invented it, suggested it, and now we have a new means of revealing what is going on. (See all my posts on being a Pro-Active Player).

In the end my scheme worked, though the potion was imperfect and its use injured both characters who used it. A Professor came in and saw what we'd done and we both received detention. Hurray! The story moved forward. Something happened! A new element was added to the world (world building!), and there is a new status/condition to take with us into the new session. 

Meanwhile the other PC who spoke to their boyfriend did manage to move that relationship forward and the two guys who went to do research found a name in a book and learned a bit of who the person was and maybe why they were at our school.

Yay? I mean, yes it was good to get that information and it will help in the long run but the specifics of their scene have largely faded from my memory already and it just happened three days ago. It was useful, helpful, but not interesting or exciting. 

It was talking. Following by looking in books. Followed by a little talking. 

It wasn't talking while also hurriedly discussing cutting the right ingredients in a rapid manner, then juggling an emotional moment with mixing a boiling pot at the right speed; followed close by putting our faces into a really hot and stinging smoke and viewing someone being chased down by enemies who are amazingly revealed as three more things happen. Hah..hah...hah...whoo. Give me a sec. Hah...Got to catch my breath. Dang. 

While I really wanted to focus on the idea of Role Playing while doing other things, and doing other things while Role Playing, it seems I've also touched upon a number of other pet peeves here, like trying to move things forward, taking decisive and creative action, and being a bit more pro-active. That last one is hard I know but it is so worth it. 

What do you guys think? Should scenes be separated into the fighting scenes, the plot scenes, and the trivial banter scenes? Why do players like to discuss things but not actually do them? Can we not walk and talk at the same time?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Barking Alien

PS: I was ready for the GM to tell me, "There is no such potion" or "There's no potion like that but there is a spell and it's years ahead of you." I was prepared with a second crazy idea using the same blood caked leaves and a trick the injured person had taught me a year or so before. 

I never have only one idea, only one plan. Neither should you!


  1. I think the delineation between types of scenes has several factors in its creation. First, the influence of video games. I think specifically about Final Fantasy games or its like where you were either moving around, have a roleplaying cutscene, or dropping into combat, complete with music change. RPG's, in their hopes of bringing in players from that part of the Venn diagram, consciously or unconsciously adopted the mechanic.

    The second is the way in which RPG's began to create mechanics to navigate non-combat situations. Rolling to investigate is the most obvious example of something that used to be handled through GM/player interaction (e.g. "I look in the fireplace") to a die roll ("I rolled a 14 on my Search skill"). Searching, intimidating, bluffing--these all became mechanical elements of the same rules dynamic as combat, and in doing so, less freeform.

  2. WQR is right about the cutscene thing - but that's been a joke in my group for 20 years or so now? "Wait - it's a cutscene" or something similar.

    I don't know where the mental separation comes from for some people. Look at the Star Wars movies - there is dialog, banter, and even exposition all happening during most combat scenes. Think of the detention block sequence in New Hope as one example. This also happens in most action movies of the last 40 years. It's pretty common in most of my games so I haven't really run into what you're describing though I know it exists.

    The first game I can remember seeing "scene" used as a structural element is the 80's Marvel Super Heroes game so around 1984. I tend to think of it the way most superhero games present it: A scene is a location and a situation. I don't really see it as having a distinct mechanical meaning unless you get into Fate or Marvel Heroic or a similar game where you might have "scene elements" that have some special effect but even then I wouldn't want my players to think of things as being so ... limited.