by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 01, 2022
In a plot twist of sorts, the #TorontOSR has been playing more narrative games of late. (You can call us #StorYYZ, of course.) We recently wrapped up a 4 session arc of Cartel, which prompted some interesting discussion in our Discord. In a double plot twist, Paul T, who you may recognize from storygames.com, was the person who ran the game. He has somehow been sucked into the #TorontOSR, and joins us often, like some sort of ethnographer. Paul writes way too much and just throws it into the ether. A waste! So I have taken his words and shared them below (with his permission, of course). The conversational tone below is because it was part of a conversation. I thought this was an interesting view into how to think about playing so-called story games. The emphasis below is my own: this was maybe the idea that jumped out at me the most.
Choosing Left or Right
In any game, there are important decisions to be made, which push things forward to move us towards escalation and resolution. Part of player skill in these endeavours is a) being able to identify which decisions are important, which are arbitrary, and which are both, and then b) making them so the game can move forward.
In an OSR game, very often that’s “do we go left or right here?” Good players know when it’s a meaningful decision and when it’s an arbitrary one (so you can just flip a coin or whatever), and play accordingly. Move the game forward—it doesn’t go anywhere unless you choose a corridor, bub.
In a dramatic game, though, those spatial decisions often/generally don’t have any weight or importance. What really matters is morality, theme, and character drive. That’s where the game doesn’t do anything if the players don’t move. Especially if we’re trying to play on a short time frame (as happens if you play a handful of 2 hour sessions online: it’s basically an extended one-shot). So it’s important to identify those crucial points, and make a strong move on them. Strong means dramatic, important, or resonant.
In an OSR game, failing to choose left or right when there’s no real info to go on will just stall the game. In a dramatic game, similarly failure to decide whether you hate your mother or whether you want to poison or sleep with your rival will stall the game. The GM has tools to push things along, but the game doesn’t really “go” until the players take strong positions on those things.
And often, like left or right (especially in a short-form game), they are arbitrary, so you can go with your gut. However, it’s important to pick one, make it strong, and make your choice quickly.
There are two main ways this happens in dramatic games:
- The player thinks about the story as an author, picking something that excites them or the people around them.
- We set up a pregnant situation, usually with the player heavily involved and bought in emotionally, and then in play the player can think as the character and react passionately and instinctively. Follow your gut and react powerfully from the mindset of the character.
You know when you’re playing a character and suddenly you just know that they hate this new person who appeared? You don’t even know why, it’s just clear as day to you? That’s the feeling. The second way is generally more exciting (for me, anyway) because it’s visceral, but it requires some setup. You build a situation with that potential energy in it already, get excited about it, and then dive into character and play from the gut. This means driven, passionate characters, and a situation which puts pressure on them.
This is very exciting in play! A form of unconscious authoring which is both powerful and moving. However, when the conditions for it do not exist (as often happens in more short-term play), you have to make a choice: help the game move ahead by making the first move.
A good player in this style often makes bold moves like this. It can be complex or nuanced, or it can be simple, like announcing that you feel a certain way when an NPC is introduced (“Oh, a noble! I hate all nobles, and, by extension, hate this guy with a totally irrational passion”). It’s like playing White in Chess - there’s no battle yet, but you’ve got to advance a pawn and start one.
Next time you see a movie or TV show, note how the writers do this. Why’s Batman so angry? A criminal killed his parents.
In our Cartel game, I was happy when Sofia and Alvaro took a strong stance and made a move by choosing to kill her husband and his boss in order to take over the family. That’s what allowed us to reach a sense of conclusion and forward motion. Nice!
That’s an angle on it, anyway. Questions, comments, criticism are all welcome if anyone wants to discuss! — Paul T, March 24th, 2022