I was listening to a movie podcast* where the movie was praised for its efficiency. Every minute (it was said) either was character development or advanced the plot. My RPG brain went “ding!” and I thought: What if this is a useful benchmark for RPG sessions? If what’s happening at the table isn’t developing character(s) or relationships between characters, or isn’t advancing the story in some way, it’s probably time to turn the crank and move things along.
I’m not well-versed in RPG theory, so I thought I’d throw this idea out here and see if it’s considered obvious, or is worth a ponder.
*Dune Pod’s recent episode on The Terminator
It depends on what you like in rpgs. Some people really like tactical planning. It’s done out-of-character, so it isn’t developing characters or relationships or the story. Some players really enjoy shopping and gearing up for the fight to come. The fight itself is the story, but the prep doesn’t really advance the story.
We also have to figure out what we mean by “the story.” A shaggy dog story that goes nowhere and has no point is still a story. A railroaded rpg session during which the players have no agency and the PCs just watch the NPCs do stuff is a story.
I think there’s a distinction to be made between participatory and other forms of fiction. Even in improv drama, which is often considered quite close to RPGing, it’s conventional to have an audience who are supposed to get some pleasure from the performance.
In my opinion, the point of an RPG is not to write a story or amuse an audience (unless you’re Critical Role or similar), but to have a good time. So while it generally is a mistake to let a film or a book bog down in a planning scene, or a shopping scene, and I’ve seen RPG advice that encourages GMs to stop this from happening in games too, I’d say that it’s more important to read the room: if the players are having fun, it is not the GM’s place to tell them that this is bad fun and they ought to be doing something else now.
(But when the fun starts to go out of the group, that’s when I move in and say “OK, so you’ve got a plan, now…”)
I think with RPGs, as well as character development, you’ve also got a kind of character establishment: ‘character settling in’ or ‘character bedding down’. Especially in early sessions, where I haven’t quite figured out yet how I’m going to play this character and what I enjoy about playing this character. The rambly pointless scenes where the characters debate whether mules are better than horses or infodump snippets of backstory at each other are not advancing character development or plot, they are folk getting a handle on their characters and how they interact.
After all, movies and the like have read-throughs, rehearsals and notes from the writer to establish such things, but RPGs don’t.
I think RPGs tend to be longer-form than most things, too. Adaptors have said that a typical feature film is closer to a short story than to a novel in terms of the amount of stuff you can get into it. A short RPG campaign might be more like a TV season, and there’s room for an adventure in which character X gets centre stage and we find out about their history and so on while the others are in the background. (Prime Time Adventures makes this explicit.)
But I come back to “read the room”, and a GM who hasn’t got the hang of that yet may well benefit from some notion of a default pace that things should normally progress at, as long as they don’t get strict about it.
Sometimes you are pressed for time, for example limited to a three-hour or four-hour slot when running a game at a con, or running a one-shot adventure for a scratch session or that was difficult to schedule. Then it really helps if character players have the ability to cut the crap and find another gear. Puddling through side-tracks as though you had all the time in the world has its charms, yes. But going hell for leather in overdrive top gear also has its mysterious appeal — excitement.
Thank you all for such thoughtful replies. I agree with Roger that the core value is enjoyment – anything providing fun at the table is “the right answer”. By that metric, it is possible for there to be bad character development (“My PC’s grimdark backstory, Part XXIX”) and bad story development (railroading, endless GM exposition, etc).
Pacing does have to be measured differently for a 3-hour con slot than a session with regulars. I so rarely run that sort of “one-and-done” gaming session that I think of it as its own beast, with its own rules, but on reflection most of the same considerations still apply (just that every 5 minutes is much more precious than it is with The Regular Tuesday Bunch).
Shopping and out-of-character strategizing are interesting edge cases for whether an activity is “story development” or not. I’m inclined to say Yes, but this categorization needs to be in service of table fun.
It has been harder to “read the room” since in-person play stopped being an option. I suspect this is driving my interest in litmus tests like this one.
Indeed. And further, I think not-in-person play has made it harder for players to find that extra gear together. Character-players can’t read the room either, and the tacit communications that went into agreeing that “okay, that’s the plan and we’re doing it now” must be replaced with explicit discussions that make everything slower and feel less spontaneous.
The group that’s working best for me remotely is one that played remotely before all this started.
I know there are games which specifically aim to provide each player with a Moment of Awesome in each session, rather than equal time over the whole adventure or campaign; to me that feels a bit forced, but it does at least mean everyone can go home thinking “yeah, I did that thing”.