Friday, January 11, 2008

Removing the Table

Here's a simple GM trick that will radically transform any RPG campaign (though it works better for games with lesser amounts of paperwork and chart-referencing). It works as follows:

Before the players show up, get rid of the table. Arrange your seating to what seems like a less than ideal positioning, scattered about the edges of the room.

Then make a point of saying everything you can in-character for a session. Don't tell the players that you're doing this on purpose. In fact, I've found it works better if you give no warning or explanation.

That's it, that's the trick. Everything that follows is just advice on the specifics of implementation...

Lightly plan a couple conversations to throw into the session, and do your best to not drop character at any point in the midst of them. I aim for at least two conversations, with completely different goals. The first is with an oddball NPC - someone memorable mostly for his persona, mannerisms, or strange point of view. The second is with an NPC who has information the players need, but which they'll have to coax out of him in-character.

Then just watch what happens. I've done this in several campaigns. Entirely different groups each time. Invariably, it's resulted in the roleplaying performances turning up a notch. Players step outside their normal comfort zones, and try things they've never done before. Once initiated, the effect lasts until you bring a table back into the room.

I'll warn you, there's a subset of players who get weirded out by this - so you might not want to do it at the first session with a new group. However, if done when you already have a bond of friendship, your game will blossom for it.

My theory: When we have a table in front of us, it's acts as a barrier. The default frame of mind for sitting at a table is to be introspective and quiet, and not rock the boat. We're socially conditioned to not act out at restaurants - the table invokes this mentality. Also, the fact that we can't step away for a moment tends to make us hesitant to do anything foolish. When we do something bordering on embarrassment, we look down, see our character sheets and dice, and get distracted. While this distraction dissipates the emotion, it does so in a way that makes us miss the larger truth - that no one's opinion of us was actually marred by the thing we did.

Once the table is gone, you're freed from these social imperatives. If the room is large enough, you can make an as much of an ass of yourself as you like - eyes will move off of you the moment someone else speaks. You'll be able to breathe, take the reality check to know no one has judged you for it, and then return to the conversation. This coaxes people out of their social shells.

It takes about an hour of this before players loosen up and start subconsciously picking up on the freedom they've been granted. As the GM, you'll notice someone try to take the spotlight - they'll make a joke or just be very boisterous to get that eye contact they're missing. The second a particular person does this is when you should dive into the first of your prepared in-character conversations. Engage them with the oddball NPC while they're still in their spotlight moment, and they'll almost always rise to the challenge. Do this for 10 minutes minimum, or a bit longer if the reaction is resoundingly positive and everyone gets drawn in. Your goal is to just entertain. End the scene before it gets old. You want the players thinking "I can't wait till that happens again."

At the end of the scene, back off for a while - drop character, switch gears, and let the players process what just happened. At least half an hour should go by before you launch the second prepared conversation - this NPC should hint (by means of your performance - don't summarize or tell them out of character) that they know something the PCs want to learn. The important GM goal here is to encourage the players to respond in-character. Whether and when they get the information will have little to do with their Charisma score or the questions they ask. What matters is that they ask questions in-character. Dole out your info piecemeal, as each person steps up to the plate. You want them to subconsciously learn they get better results when talking in the first-person.

You only have to do the stilted/formulaic/manipulative bit like this for one or two sessions. After that, the players performances transform as a matter of habit, and don't generally revert till you bring the table back in to the room.

It's far easier to accomplish with a mechanics-light game system, but can be done with even something as crunchy and rules-dense as 7th Sea (which means it should even work for D&D or Scion).

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