I have a really good friend who I’ve played rpgs with a lot – probably more than any other person, in fact. I think we’re very compatible as co-players, and i also really enjoy playing when my friend runs the game. I think of our play styles and preferences as being very similar. That’s context.
We are both playing in a ten-session saga using an rpg that’s PbtA-based. I’m leaving the name out because that’s not the point. The game group includes my friend, me, two other people who I’ve never played with before but who I’ve come to enjoy and consider friends, and a GM/MC who I must say is one of my favorite game-facilitators ever. Each of our sessions has been predominantly a series of long scenes where everyone talks almost entirely in-character, in full-on dialogue mode, with minimal direct mechanical engagement of the system. (I am not an expert on terms but maybe I’m talking about Freeform. Except we’re not LARPing.)
After the most recent session, we had an after-game discussion where we all pretty much agreed that we are not really playing the game, per se. What we are doing is playing a series of related improv scenes with a regular cast of protagonists that has a narrative through-line and a consistent tone, but we are really only using the game’s premise and setting as a general frame. We’re not playing to find out. We’re mostly acting to find out, and occasionally using moves and dice to decide where certain things go.
Here’s where I finally get to my main idea. During that discussion, my friend said that he prefers NOT to play improv scenes – that he usually prefers to engage the system and roll dice and employ the procedures and feedback loop of the system feeding the fiction and the players feeding back with character choices, etc. In short he wants to play a roleplaying game, not do improv acting.
I’m cool with that and I’ve always loved my friend’s style and for what its worth he’s excellent at playing in-character freeform stuff, even if he doesn’t prefer it. But the fact that he brought it up made something click in my head – I finally, clearly realized something that I’ve suspected about myself but never owned. I DO LIKE THE IMPROV STUFF. I LOVE playing long in-character scenes where there’s no overt system engagement and I love watching other people play those kinds of scenes when my character isn’t in the scene. I didn’t say anything during the discussion because I needed to noodle it but eventually I realized — That’s my favorite way to play.
Except when it isn’t.
See, I’m a snob. I have standards. When the group is clicking and everyone has a sense of their characters and the MC is super-talented and there’s a vibe that keeps the scenes organically flowing and moving toward a thematically resonant point, and we play toward answering questions about our characters and our story and I’m entertained or engaged, and I feel like others are entertained or engaged by my portrayal, then please get the damn move-triggering if-you-do-it-you-do-it dice-rolling crap out of our way because we are organically creating something together we don’t need your stinking procedures.
But if the group isn’t clicking, or if it gets meanderingly off-theme or slow, or if the scene gets to the point and then keeps going past it and becomes aimless, well, then PLEASE somebody trigger a damn move we need a mechanical decision point to kick in here and get us back on fleek.
So, of course I need the game, and the system, and the dice there, just like most of the rest of you do. I also need that stuff there because it’s not all about me, and a lot of people, like my very good friend who I’ve loved playing with for years, actually enjoy engaging with the system. And other people don’t really like diving into in-character improvised scene-work. And other people like to play a thing to the designer’s intent, and do it correctly to get the experience the designer has worked so hard to evoke. And not least important, my kind of improv-heavy narrative-immersion actor-stance play usually requires a MIGHTY GM willing to do lots of improv acting and scene painting and heavy lifting. It’s not fair for me to expect that on a regular basis.
And I want to play with those people, and I want to help give them the experiences they want out of play. And I don’t want to slog through heaps of the un-fun boring kind of improv play in order to eke out a couple gems once in awhile.
So in the end, I don’t want to eschew system and procedures and the thrill of random numbers guiding some of the outcomes. I’m all for using those things to make the experience the best for everyone involved.
But yeah, if you wanna know what I not-so-secretly crave? I love me some in-character improv dialogue scenes. When those are happening and they’re working – then please, at least once in awhile, let’s leave the dice and the aggressive scene-framing and the super-fast pacing out of it.