Gosh, my players love experience. Especially Dee, who is usually the first one to ask “So, how much XP do we get?” at the end of the session. I can’t blame him, though: getting those sweet points to turn into new, even sweeter points on your character sheet is one of the essential parts of our hobby, so it’s alright.
However, I don’t want to talk about experience points today, but about the other kind of experience. I’m talking about how the players actually experience a game, and remember some parts of a session even years later. This little essay will be about my experience with experience, inspired by this post over at The Pathfinder Chronicles.
If you’ve ever ran any tabletop RPG, you know that it’s hard to actually make the game come to life at the table. Sure, it seems easy to tell a tale, but given the small number of actual great storytellers in the world, it isn’t something everyone is good at. I mean, if it was really that easy to tell an epic, thrilling tale, then I guess everyone would earn money like Spielberg or Shyamalan. Fortunately, we don’t have to compete with those masters during our sessions. Our adventures are never broadcasted, except into the theatre of our mind. Still, we have an audience, which includes our players and ourselves. Rules might give us the framework to set the stage, but they won’t bring the actors, props and scenes to life. That’s up to the audience, who are also the actors. Yeah, sometimes, role-playing games can be weird.
No matter the strange double role everyone at the table has, the true memorable experiences do not come from an excellent recital of the rules or a totally pimped character. As much as no audience remembers the wooden beams that hold up the curtains and the stage decor, you will probably never hear any of your players say “remember that time the encumberance rules really made that scen come to life?”. If you do, you have really strange players, but I digress.
What does make a session or entire campaign become memorable are those short yet strong vignettes. In a previous post, I mentioned the heart-breaking scene in which one PC discovered her dead parents, but I’m happy that such moments have been a part of many of the campaigns I had a part in. The only way those scenes could be born was through a cooperative effort, the willingness to immerse and by ignoring the rules.
Working together is an absolute must to make a memorable experience. You can be a hell of a GM, but when your players are just there “for teh lootz”, you won’t be creating any emotional, drama-laden scenes. Sometimes, that’s okay: if your group flows that way, who am I to tell you otherwise? But if you want to create scenes worthy of a Hollywood script, make sure everyone at the table is on board.
This leads us to the second point: the willingness to immerse oneself in the world. It is in the nature of our hobby that we use it to satisfy an inherent need for escape from reality. For a few hours, we allow ourselves to shed our mortal coil, and become a hero in a world really different from us. However, some players do that more than others. Some are fine to just play like they would play a board game, rolling dice and having a laugh. Other players go totally Shakespeare on you, including in-character diaries and well-prepared monologues. If you want to create moments that will be re-told for years, make sure to level these different degrees of immersion, but to have everyone at least go hip-deep into the waters of their character. Have their character sheets become more than their HUD they use to interact with the world: have it become a real, living thing.
Finally, this brings us to the last step, being able to let go of the rules. Some groups are really, really rules-centric, and some groups just have “that one guy” who is like a lawyer when it comes to squeezing in bonuses and abusing loopholes in the core book. To continue the theatre metaphor, being to rules-focused is like having actors who care too much about the architecture of the building they’re playing in. If an actor thinks too much about how much weight the beams can carry, he can’t really focus on getting into his role. This might sound harsh, but it is my firm belief that stressing the rules too much is in the way of creating an immersive, memorable scene. You can’t quantify emotional input like a character stat, so don’t let the numbers and dice be in your way. If a scene feels right, if it feels like it’s going somewhere beautiful, tragic or fascinating, drop the damn rules. Let it flow, tell a story like you would sit around a campfire, and you will tell that story around an actual campfire in a few years.
So, here’s a little favour I ask of all of you who read this: share with me your most fascinating, memorable or emotional in-character experience. Tell me about how you think your group achieved something like that, and tell me how you think one can make an experience out of rolling dice. Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!