Friday, January 13, 2017

My Life as a Gamer: Action on the Tabletop

It's not just playing the Ace Pilot that runs into the action-adventure gaming problem. Anytime you get into some form of action scenario in the course of an adventure when playing a tabletop RPG, you run the risk of undermining the experience of being in that situation through excess levels of detachment from what your man's got going on right then and there in the moment.

What I said about dithering and not shoving this on the rules applies here. That means the heavy lifting is on the Game Master to keep a clear vision of what's going on moment-to-moment, big-picture omniscient style (as if looking upon a Realtime Strategy game in progress, e.g. Starcraft 2 or Shadow Tactics).

This awareness is routinely handled through the use of an actual map with miniatures or tokens, but to this day the options for this either involve opportunity costs that run contrary to the strength of the tabletop RPG as a medium.

  • Option One: Using physical maps and miniatures involves significant set-up, take-down, and increases costs for the Game Master both in terms of monetary outflow and in terms of ongoing storage costs that undermines portability. It's why the Game Master's home is often where the game goes down, and acts as a barrier for other players taking up the Game Master's chair; stores get around this to a degree, making them the popular alternative, but they have their own costs (not all of which are monetary) to consider- including others being present that you may not want.
  • Option Two: Using digital maps and tokens involves significant set-ups, and trades some of the other costs for reliance upon computer and Internet infrastructures. While your potential pool of players goes worldwide, your vulnerabilities multiply due to the reliance on things beyond your control just to play at all- undermining ease of use, portability, and being cheap or free to participate properly.

While I have done the map-and-minis thing (and there are occasions where that is your best option), for most of my 30+ years I've mostly stuck with the fundamental Theater of the Mind aspect of this medium. This focus on the fundamentals means focusing on the core of tabletop RPG gaming: the feedback loop. Briefly:

  • GM describes situation to Players, giving them all relevant information to decide upon for that moment.
  • Players use the information provided to inform their deliberations, and then decide on a course of action.
  • GM decides what interactions occur, and then adjudicates their resolutions.
  • GM updates the situation, and we loop back to the top.

I won't bullshit you: doing this swiftly and to intended effect is not easy. Tabletop RPGs do have their rules for a good reason, and that good reason is to provide a reliable framework for Players and Game Masters to refer to when taking action and resolving the consequences thereof, so I won't sit here and tell you to throw them out. No, you need to know when to use them and when not to- and to realize that you need to do this by degrees, because some rules (and their mechanics) are more important than others.

So, when running the action, what matters is you maintaining your objective vision in your mind of what's going on and--no less important--is having the right words on your tongue to accurately and succinctly communicating what your mind sees, hears, tastes, smells, etc. to your players so that they have (and continue to have) the most accurate information that their characters ought to possess in that moment.

Now, as a player, you need to get on and stay on the same page as the Game Master. If you're not getting information that your man ought to have in that moment, then you need to speak up and get it from the Game Master. You need to eliminate all distractions from the game when you play and focus on what's going on, so that when your turn comes up you know what you're going to do right then and there; not only are you not wasting the others' valuable time (which, as adults, you ought to treat as the irreplaceable commodity that it is) but you contribute to the illusion of urgency that approximates the very real urgency that your character experiences in that situation. Dithering should not be tolerated.

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