3…2…1…expectation. 3…2…1…expectation. 3…2…1…and so it goes. Timing is an art form. Properly executed speech brings with it a tranquility and a comfort. Human beings are trained to sway in anticipation of the crescendo, the punch-line, the all too obvious climax; and by the habitual jabber of society find, in a word, rhythm.
It was established well before written language – the art of the Story. I can’t imagine its pattern has changed much since the dawn of humanity. Storytelling has a repetition that makes it feel safe and secure; it feels traditional. However, a byproduct of repetition is often insanity. The absurd becomes rudimentary and gains approval through its proximity to the mundane:
My DM was once frustrated with me for interrupting a villain’s monologue.
That was a non sequitur. I’ve never had a flair for dramatic timing; I never much cared for measured rhythm, and now that I’m a DM myself, I find it taxing to make sure the beat stays consistent. Narrative tradition seems adamant that a plot unfold at the appropriate time, in the appropriate way, so that a campaign can progress in a measured fashion:
1. Gain information on the bad guy.
2. Find the bad guy.
3. Fight the bad guy.
4. Get the treasure.
5. Sell/Use the treasure.
6. Repeat steps 1-5.
I would be flabbergasted if this is an unfamiliar pattern to anyone reading this.
Now, tradition is a dirty word to me. It reeks of the illogical and inconsistent, but foul as it is to say, storytelling is traditional. It has a unique set of tropes and expectations, nuances and formulas that are as specific as they are untethered from reality. What do I mean? Examples you say! Why not:
What is your gut reaction to the above questions? …
…and next example:
One of my favorite movies is The Boondock Saints. I am especially fond of the moment when Special Agent Paul Smecker, played by Willem Dafoe, realizes why the crime scene in front of him is so peculiar:
You see, dramatic timing demands a villain make a proclamation, a boast, a witty pun or succinct (or not so succinct) closing statement. It demands the little assault guys creeping through vents and a Baddy drawing a detailed diagram of their master plan. Reality, it seems, demands only a BANG! That is of course why my DM was angry with me – I broke narrative rhythm. I ignored a tradition of storytelling.
It doesn’t help that RPGs are interactive stories. They are one of the few mediums where the creator of the narrative relinquishes control. Sure, a DM may be the facilitator, the instigator, the controller of this-or-that rock, but the PCs are autonomous agents, and while maximizing player agency is the best of things, it has the consequence of making the PCs actions all the more unpredictable. That is as it should be, but how then does a DM who wants to minimize the absurd continue to weave a narrative without destroying player agency, and above all, make the game fun?
Basically, how does a DM go about making PCs realize that what they think looks like this…
is really this…
While dealing with these…
It’s a difficult task, and one that should be approached cautiously.
On a Possible Argument
Looking at the problem for a few minutes brought to me a simple answer, one I think many will agree with. A DM is at their core a referee and dramatic timing is not in their job description. The dungeon/world is the field, the PCs are the challengers, the NPCs are the DMs team, and everything else is left to serendipity. If an interesting story develops during play, good, but if it doesn’t it’s not the DM’s job to shoehorn in unnecessary twaddle.
While the above is a valid argument and by virtue of its simplicity rather compelling, it is, to me, unsatisfying. This is due in part because I believe a DM is a kind of storyteller. However, I also believe many of the traditions that have served as narrative juggernauts for thousands of years are irrelevant and downright repulsive when you’re dealing with an interactive medium like RPGs. The deus ex machina, the MacGuffin, and, of course, the monologuing villain, all examples of things better left far away from a PC.
Changing the Status Quo
I’m not talking about the removal of magic or the complete disregard of fantasy tropes; no, I’m talking about the removal of the absurd through the development of rational choice. The easiest way to explain this is to bring an example from my own campaign.
I have a NPC I’ve lovingly named The Contractor. This NPC has worked with the players before. The PCs know who he is, around what kind of power he can muster, and, at this point, know his current employer. They also know he’s been hired to kill them. The Contractor is smart, stealthy, and above all, cautious. The players as a group could take this NPC in a head-to-head fight; in fact, they would wipe the floor with him, but as I said, head-on confrontations are not The Contractors bag. Alone with any one of the PCs, The Contractor has the upper hand and would likely kill them in a few rounds. I made it as clear as I could to my players that they were unlikely to face this character as a unified group; in fact, this is about what I said:
“The Contractor will not face you as a group. He is out to kill you, not fight you. He will come at you while you sleep, while you shit, while you shop. He will poison your food, your drink, and your loved ones if you try to hide. He is a professional in the truest sense of the word.”
I think I was pretty clear, but only time will tell. In any case, my point is this: I have presented the PCs with a real challenge – a character who isn’t going to act within the constraints of narrative tradition. To be fair, The Contractor is a tool I’m using in the larger experiment that is my campaign. I’ve done my best to make my game an exercise in world building (currently on the national level) and deliberately made it atypical to the Pathfinder RPG. This has allowed me to bring a sense of the real to the game world. The character of The Contractor is my first attempt at making interactions between PCs and NPCs more plausible.
RPGs are escapism at its finest and I would be doing a disservice to the genre if I said the absurd didn’t play a part in it. Suspension of disbelief is important to having fun, but, and this is the diversion point for me, I have real difficulty with logical inconsistency. I avoid it like the plague. I’ve even developed a little mental exercise I call The Rule of Three Whys as a fun way to make sure my characters are as believable as they can be.
The Rule of Three Whys
Almost every child at some point or another continuously asks “why” when presented an answer. This often results in the person answering coming up with more elaborate discourse until finally they can go no further. I have set a couple of rules for myself in relation to this children’s game: If I ever find myself answering in a circular fashion before three “whys” have been answered, I mark the idea as suspect. If, however, I can answer honestly that it’s what a NPC would do given their personality, I usually keep it as logically consistent for that character.
Question – Why did that villain monologue?
Answer – To present you (the PCs) with information you wouldn’t otherwise have. (Notice I didn’t give the answer, “because it’s what his character would do.” If it was indeed a characteristic of this NPC I would have no problem with this hypothetical villain monologuing; however, just for shits and giggles, let’s assume this particular villain doesn’t want to reveal his master plan.)
Question – Why?
Answer – Because the campaign wouldn’t move forward otherwise. (I’ve already started talking about the campaign and not the character – not a good sign.)
Question – Why?
Answer – Because…you need the information to move the campaign forward. (As you can see the circle has begun.
There are of course ways to phrase the answers so I can continue asking “why,” but the point of this exercise is to be as honest as possible and see if an idea holds water in my campaign world. I find that if I ever answer with, “the campaign wouldn’t move forward,” I’ve failed somewhere along the way.
If you have other ideas on how to keep the absurd out of role-playing, or just better tricks to stay logically consistent, let me know.