Vibing and the Fine Art of Telling

Subtitle: Roleplaying Is Not Storytelling, part 6,134.

Roleplaying, once again, is not storytelling. Case in point: the adage “show, don’t tell” absolutely fails at the tabletop (or screen, what have you). In fact you need to invert the rule: Tell, don’t show. Or at least don’t rely on the showing.

Here’s an illustrative example. I know a player whose default characterization is “misunderstood outsider.” It’s easy to play, on par with being a fish out of water. I wouldn’t want to speculate as to why it’s a go-to for this player, but in every kind of fiction, it’s an entirely expected and acceptable archetype.

Does. Not. Work. At. A. Table.

Some Communication Basics

The problem with showing-not-telling in roleplaying is that nobody in particular is the author, and nobody in particular is the audience. Everyone is both. So the tools one might use in storytelling to convey “misunderstood” or “loner” fail at the table.

I think a major source of failure is that players have a lifetime of visual media consumption but no eye for critique or deconstruction. We watch a problematic, secretive character on our favorite show and it’s fun and exciting! Oh no, what trouble will Baltar get into this episode? Can Alina survive on her own as a grisha? Will Snape ever be able to share his secret heartbreak? Yeah, cool, I want to play those kinds of characters.

Great. Now let’s look at how misunderstood outsiders get communicated to an audience. For one, there’s an author-audience relationship. The audience can’t ask questions, and the author has absolute control over every character. That’s powerful stuff but they aren’t features of tabletop roleplaying.

On screen, the misunderstood outsider might be expressed as quiet, or secretive, or resentful any number of ways: dialogue, internal monologue, interactions with other characters. An author has control over all of that. But what happens when you’re all authors? Specifically, what happens when you need other characters to react to you in a particular way to buttress your characterization?

At a table, you need to say what’s happening — what’s important, what to pay attention to — and show what your character is doing as an expression of that. Without the telling, though, the showing becomes a high wire act. You can only hope to bring the other players into your thing. But that requires luck, honestly. Just luck. Because everyone else is thinking about their own characterization, and probably not how to support your characterization.

Your Editorial Voice

I’ve got this thing I do, both as GM and player, where I explicitly editorialize about my own play and indicate when I’m moving from editorial voice to acting voice. But I need my editorial voice to stand in for all the tools I don’t get to use because roleplaying is not storytelling.

Here’s an example of what that sounds like.

If I have a clear idea what my character is about — and that may not come to me for awhile, although hopefully I latch onto something before the end of a first session — I will explain that about-ness ahead of, or shortly after, I express that idea through my character. In a game of Soth I played at a con years ago, I was playing this good-for-nothing divorced car mechanic trying to hide the fact that he’s trying to summon an evil god (spoilers I guess) from his ex-wife and kid. My play went something like:

“Okay, so my guy is super resentful at his wife because she has an actual career and their kid seems to like her more. So I’m gonna say something like ‘Hey, don’t disrespect me in front of our son like that, he needs to look up to a real man.’ Real insecure, right?”

Then the GM knows exactly where I’m coming from. He’s not left to figure out where I’m coming from! I’ve given him handles to grab onto, the themes and vibe I’m angling for. But more to the point, I haven’t directed him to say or do anything in particular. (This is something my daughter does during make-believe and it makes me crazy. Maybe she needs to read this blog.)

The GM replied with “Your ex just rolls her eyes at you and sends your kid inside. She says ‘Are we done here or do I need to call my lawyer again?’”

Fantastic! We’ve figured out each other’s thing. I wrap up that whole scene with “Haha, great, he panics when you say this: ‘Baby no, please! Don’t call the lawyer again, you KNOW I can’t afford my own and I don’t even understand half of what she says!”

This is a skill I think GMs are more likely to have developed. I regularly editorialize on the affect and thematic through-lines of NPCs. Usually it’s a little aside, like, “she’s really spacey but also like, extremely chill. Supernaturally chill.” Or “He’s too old for this shit, right?” And then proceed with dialogue or a quick encapsulation, whatever.

At the table, you can just tell. You should just tell. Roleplaying is its own medium with its own rules. This is one of them.

Good/Bad Vibrations

Vibing is the good shit. I love it. I love when you connect with another player at the table, either as another player or as a GM. But it’s not magic, and you can’t achieve it by force of will. You can’t make someone vibe with you.

I think the first and most important thing players must do to really vibe together is enthusiastically embrace each other’s contributions. But I suspect many players spend their energy on selling their own ideas in the hopes of winning over the necessary participants.

I’ve felt these moments since, gosh…forever. There’s this moment in play, either between a couple non-GM players but definitely between myself when facilitating and another player. The moment feels like a lowkey battle of wills, as we each try to impose an accepted final draft of what’s in the game space. What will be canonical. But it’s lowkey! It’s not fraught, it’s not angry. But it’s two brains that want what they want…and they want the other party to want it too.

This loomed large in the instance I needed to use the Let’s Not rule in a recent Fiasco game. Let’s Not is a gentle rewind of the game, X-Card style, for either content objections or creative input. We had chosen the Regina’s Wedding playset. I’m playing a trashy young trophy wife who is the same age as the bride, her stepdaughter. Player to my left is playing the bride’s biological mother. On several occasions we settle on my character being 25ish, and the biological mother character being 50ish. Third player plays another 50-something, the bio mother’s ex-husband (and my trophy wife character’s current husband). So I’m thinking about: generational gaps, awkward love triangles, my own character’s weird jealousy (she showed up at her stepdaughter’s wedding wearing an inappropriate dress to get attention), and the bio mom’s anger and resentment (as established by that player).

The Let’s Not I invoked involved the 50yo mom secretly being the biological mother of the groom as well. This was one of many fucked-up prompts in the Regina’s Wedding playset, I recommend it. We assume the couple getting married is mid-20s, and bio mom had given up the boy for adoption at birth (25 years ago or more). But the player really wanted the moms to have a big explosive jealousy-fueled fight about it. It’s a hot scene idea…but it overlooked the huge age gap between the characters. He’s playing like we’re both the same age and the husband had cheated on my character. But logically it had to have happened decades ago, before she was born or thereabouts? It was a simple factual oversight, the logic didn’t work, but he’d locked in on this idea and really wanted to see it happen. So we sat there a bit and tried to figure out how to get the scene to work. And we couldn’t. It was just the wrong scene. No vibe.

I’ve been thinking about this weird hiccup for awhile. It came down to forgetting established facts of the improv act we’re putting on, and being too in love with your own idea. But I received all this emotionally on my end as “you’re ignoring my contribution.” Which made it more fraught than if I’d had GM-like authority and could just say “oh, naw, look at their ages, this doesn’t work.”

Maybe it’s just me! But thinking through my own (very high) success rate at vibing with other players, it always starts with me taking what they’ve put out there and running with it. To be fair, I have occasionally succeeded at “selling” a scene of my own devising, but they don’t land the same. I’m putting the creative burden on the other player to make their thing fit my thing. Whereas when I start by embracing their thing and take on the burden myself, now it’s … a gift. It’s a reification and validation of what they’ve put out there. What they’ve risked.

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3 thoughts on “Vibing and the Fine Art of Telling”

  1. Hello!
    (French speaker here, sorry for the language).
    I’ve just been reading a french translation of your article “RPG for Beginners: A Manifesto”.
    Thank you for expressing part of what I still think about that same old crucial matter, that almost nobody take in charge over here (in France) either.
    As your manifesto dates from 1999 (is it right?) I would like to quote, with your authorization part of it, in a french version of my own.
    Thanks in advance for your answer.
    Anthony (roliste français).

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