I’ve always been a little skeptical of this indie truism of roleplaying. You know, “roleplaying is a conversation.”
It shows up in PbtA rulesets and their adjuncts, and I think it’s taken on an aura of unquestionable truth. Dogma. I’ve also seen the word “conversation” used so broadly that literally any linguistic transaction between two humans falls into it. I think it’s when I see that trick pulled that I’m the most skeptical. It feels as useful as “roleplaying is sending air vibrations at each other.”
Okay so we’re running Sagas of the Icelanders, right? We’re doing our uh … fifth session, I think, tomorrow. I had a lot of reasons to run it. One was that I wanted to see how Sagas held up as a campaign game; the answer will be a future essay. Another reason is that I’ve got one or two players in my group that have never really keyed into PbtA style games. The main doubter constantly chafed against the constraints and the focus, felt directionless, never really felt confident invoking moves. Me being me, I’m usually more than ready to take the blame for disconnects like that. But I’ve run PbtA games with him and other players, and the other players enjoyed it just fine. So my agenda was to run my favorite iteration of PbtA for him to see if the (IMO) best version of that rule style worked.
And it is. I’ve had a chance to debrief with him a couple times, but I want to swing around to the strategy I took regarding the notion of “The Conversation.”
I’ve tried pitching that term before, but both because I hadn’t really internalized it nor really saw much difference in play style, “The Conversation” didn’t really get discussed or referenced much. It was, at best, aspirational: “Games like this should feel like a conversation,” or something along those lines. But as a practical matter? I’d run them like anything else, pretty much.
I’m going to unpack my feelings about “conversational” versus “traditional” here, and I’m going to use normal English. If you feel a powerful urge to send me off to some forum somewhere to memorize an indiegame Talmud, please fight that urge.
So, “The Conversation.” Something I noticed this player bringing up over and over is how chafed he felt at “not being able to do anything” because of the Moves structure. He was always a minority voice so I didn’t give this concern the attention it deserved. He’d sit through sessions and maybe not do much, or want to do a thing, run into the tight constraints of most moves’ fictional positioning requirements, and then shut down. He wanted moves he could use as tools. (I’d argue that that’s what sends us down the Dungeon World branch of PbtA, but I can get into that another time).
I tried a different approach this time. The problem he was having was that he felt creatively constrained to the moves at hand, and I think he arrived at that conclusion because in many, maybe most, other games, rolling or otherwise engaging with mechanical procedures is the unspoken-but-understood flag that now we’re doing something that affects the fiction. In traditional play, if we’re just talking it’s just talk. It only “matters” when you roll dice.
This time I emphasized early that the inverse of this is true: you can say and accomplish literally anything that we all agree is reasonable and true to the fiction. In other words, let’s start with the premise that this is a diceless talky-talky freeform. He’s done some freeforms with us, and enjoyed them, so he understood this right away.
The next step was to treat the SotI Common Moves as exceptions to this rule.
We’re just going to talk. We’re going to talk and talk and talk and my job will be to listen for when moves get triggered. Don’t worry about aiming for moves and don’t feel constrained by your moves list. If it’s reasonable and it’s not a trigger, no worries, we’ll just keep talking.
GM-discretionary moves like Sagas’ Tempt Fate are ideal tools for this. I think Apocalypse World’s Act Under Fire, which I used to despise, falls under this as well. That right there is the trigger I’m listening for. The existence of that rule is what lets us just talk and talk.
Now, there is certainly a level of system mastery that you can achieve. Smart and experienced players regularly direct their input toward the things their characters are good at, right? The player-facing moves are most definitely their tools that they have to grab hold of. I think it’s a pretty heavy cognitive load for the GM to have to listen for everyone’s moves to get triggered. Hence the value of Common Moves that everyone can stare at, including the GM. But in our game, our unhappy/not-connecting player doesn’t have that mastery. So it’s healthy and good for him to just talk and talk and let me tell him when to go to the dice.
So, yes, “let’s just talk and I’ll let you know if you’re triggering a move” is virtually identical to the normal paragraph you see in PbtA games about “The Conversation.” But it was framed a little different for him, mostly to highlight that niggling sense we all have that not every RPG is “a conversation.” And not every PbtA game is built such that everything except move triggers are just talked through.
I don’t know that anything like “just talk until I feel like a move is being triggered” exists in the trad (trad-writ-large, not just D&D) universe. The formulation is different: the players grab their dice because they want to make their mark on the fiction, and the only way that happens is when you roll dice. I don’t think I really ever paid that much attention to non-mechanical fictional positioning outside of translation into mechanical terms: cover bonuses in a firefight, difficulty modifiers for a Persuade roll, whatever.
Anyway, probably many/most old-timer PbtA players are perfectly comfortable with “The Conversation.” This is just one way I was able to (re)frame it to highlight the necessary differences. And it relied on being able to talk about freeform games we’d played like Durance and Seco Creek Vigilance Committee. Honestly if we hadn’t had that, I’m not sure how I’d bridge folks over to the new dogma.