While it’s almost certain that your GM wants to provide your group with as much action and adventure as he can cram into a game session, there are times when that action and/or adventure may not include every character. Whether it’s a private dealing with an arcane sponsor, or a side quest to buy a bigger gun, or a scene that’s seen the party split up to accomplish multiple goals, there will be times when the session isn’t about you- individually or collectively, depending on the day.
Just because the action has paused for part of your party doesn’t mean the game has to stop. In fact, if your group is anything like ours, you want to maximize what you can accomplish during any gaming session. As such, today we’ll explore some ideas on how to keep gaming even when you’re not rolling dice.
WHY? For a few reasons; first and foremost, to keep the energy of the session moving, even when the action is not. Like a runner who jogs in place while waiting for a light at the crosswalk, continuing to roleplay in character, even while the spotlight isn’t on you, makes it easier to resume play once the session picks up again. If you stop to talk about ‘real world’ interests, there’s a natural transition that’s required to get back in game mode before things can continue.
In-character conversations also allow you opportunities to explore facets of your PC, and other PCs as well, that may not have time to manifest during the regular session. At the risk of sounding a bit too much like Dr. Phil here, these sidebars can take on a more intimate (i.e. not strictly governed by the rules) tone that helps to grow and define characters. The best campaigns I’ve played in have felt as if the characters were bonded, and not just the players. Those bonds don’t just happen because your backstory dictates it. Instead, they grow from these in-game interactions.
Lastly, a reason that isn’t as quantifiable as the first two: the element of surprise. It was an interesting phenomenon in our last session of the Dresden Files RPG, and a wholly unintended one, that led to three characters having a chat as their (stolen) wagon rumbled toward London. Meanwhile, in the back of the rig, the fourth member of the party meditated in complete silence, and had dealings with a supernatural agent or two, all the while masked behind a magical soundproof barrier.
These dealings were carried out between the individual player and GM, and the rest of the party, engrossed as we were in characterful discussion of the day’s events, had no idea what was transpiring just behind us, either as players or as characters. This element of surprise, which completely prevented us from meta-gaming the rest of the session, made the game that much more exciting. ‘Exciting’ can be a relative term, considering the events that followed, but it made for some very intriguing game moments that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
WHY NOT? Typed in bold in the “Why Not?” column should be excessive noise. If these in-character conversations are taking place at the table (which would be my recommendation), it’s pretty easy for the volume on these chats to interfere with the actions the GM is trying to execute with another player. Not that I would know this from personal experience or anything… Sorry Matt.
Additionally, while the element of surprise, as described above, can add a bit of intrigue or excitement to your game, it may just as easily add confusion. Frequently, these actions that may take place in private, or at least separate from the main group, may get ‘hand waved’ into play once they work themselves out. In those cases, the rest of the group should be as well informed as they can be about what transpires, even if the actions don’t directly involve them.
WHY? Let’s be honest: All of us could use a bit more clarity when it comes to the rules of our chosen system.
More specifically, this downtime is the perfect opportunity to look up, clarify, or otherwise figure out the answers to specific rules issues. These may be things that are challenging the group as a whole, or items that the GM has requested more information on, or one’s personal understanding of a mechanic or action. No matter the origin of the question, finding the right answer is certainly a valuable use of this break in the action.
Additionally, staying focused on the rules and the game makes that transition into group actions much easier, thus saving precious gaming time.
WHY NOT? While I can’t think of any automatic arguments against rules research, there are a few peripheral ones. For instance, in the event that the answers one finds run counter to what they or the group believed, there may be some resulting arguments over how to proceed. Likewise, one may be tempted to tweak or augment their character on the spot due to some in-game enlightenment. Either of these occurrences would certainly take away from actual game time, as these corrective measures are undertaken.
That said, I’m pretty sure these potential pitfalls are easily managed by your campaign’s GM.
WHY? This is somewhat akin to the in-character conversations, in that party planning maintains a strong focus on game events and character interactions. The major difference is that party planning takes place out of character. Taking time as players to huddle up and discuss future strategy keeps the session moving forward, especially because it can delineate a clear path for the party to follow and increase group cohesion. Hopefully, at the conclusion of your party planning, everyone has a clear understanding of where the group would like to go next.
It also affords the group a chance to avoid some in-game conflicts that might develop from opposing, or at least differing, character goals. This is not to say that everyone in the party has to seek the same ends through identical means; rather, it allows the party to prioritize the characters’ goals in a more objective way. Players can talk through what they’d like to achieve, and how they’d like to achieve it, which enables the group to give each PC’s plans more thoughtful consideration than they could in the heat of the moment. This will hopefully aid in creating a more satisfying campaign for all involved.
WHY NOT? Discussing strategy and storyline out of character while the session is still technically running can lead us into the temptation of metagaming. Amending the party’s goals based on in-game events isn’t wrong; quite the contrary in fact. It may sound something like this: “Wow, we almost got wiped out by that demon; maybe we’re not as ready as we thought to confront the necromancer. How would you guys feel about heading back to the church we slept in last night to find some more potent holy items?”.
However, taking the break to look up the stat block on the demon you just fought to figure out what you need to roll to hit it or to bypass its diabolical resistance seems a trifle out of character. It’s highly unlikely that your PCs would instantly decipher an enemy’s specific weakness without some sort of in-game research or study. As such, this isn’t exactly the type of ‘planning’ I’m encouraging here.
Likewise, the presumption is that downtime is occurring because one or more players is taking care of a side quest or other personal business with the GM. That would mean said player is absent from the group planning process, and may end up suffering for it. I doubt this would happen intentionally, but that wouldn’t make most players feel any better about it. In this instance, party planning may have to wait until all players can contribute.
Excessive noise can be an issue here as well; I doubt that players in your campaign are any less verbose than their corresponding characters (see above). In fact, I’ll pretty much guarantee it. Sorry Matt!
WHY? It’s very quiet. I’m only half joking here.
Perhaps just as important, writing in narrative form about the characters and events of your game will sharpen your immersion in their world. You’ll find it easier to roleplay your PC, and to roleplay with other PCs. It may also help to clarify some previously undefined facet of your character, or provide plot hooks and story ideas for future sessions.
Also, these stories are fun to read, both for the other players and the GM. Having fun with your game is kind of the point of playing in it.
WHY NOT? While penning a tale about the recent exploits of one’s character is certainly a useful exercise, it loses considerable value if it’s taking one’s attention away from any of the above activities. Writing is a pretty individual process in this instance, and will likely prove to be mutually exclusive to group improvement. Don’t let the writing be a distraction from more pressing in-game needs. There will be time enough for writing when the gaming’s done. (Sorry Kenny!)
Has your group found other ways to pass the time between encounters that I forgot to mention? Or are these pauses in play the only chance you have to talk to your friends out of character for the evening? Maybe such breaks prove the perfect opportunity to make a sandwich; in which case, I’d like one too. Feel free to describe it to me in the comments!