Telling Stories

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Part 1 of 1, by Jay Watamaniuk

I’d like to step back a moment and let everyone in on a little secret: playing games is like lying. It’s telling an elaborate yarn that you and your friends will believe just long enough to participate in some group hypnosis voodoo that results in a new work of fiction where you are the hero, villain, victim or observer of events both large and small.

To me that is the essence of gaming.

Everyone agrees on what your reality is for the evening, and over the long months if it’s an ongoing campaign. You each build on what the others are doing with the help of a story guide who has some ideas he wants to throw into the mix. Creating a character is one of the best parts of starting a new game but the playing of that character and interacting with your fellow players is where the immersion and emotion that make a game memorable surface. Having spent some years in the trenches of amateur and professional theatre I know that the actors are all aiming at the same goal of telling a story for the audience. Gaming is different only in that your audience is the other players. You perform for them.

As a player, there are two things that make a game great. The first is acceptance of the basic core setting and the characters that have been created to populate it (we are fighting monsters in Ravenloft, we are Shadowrunners in Victorian England and so on). The second and more subtle is not just accepting the fact, but working toward the idea that you are playing with a group to tell a group story. An example of this thinking is that your scenes of angst, horrific revelation, romantic drama, ridiculous comedy and all the rest are ideally performed for the other players, not in some secret back room or away from the gaming table. This may seem unnatural, as we all have the drive to conduct private moments in private, but some of the most fascinating parts of the game are seeing what your fellow players are doing. I am fortunate to play games with people who understand this second distinction to varying degrees.

Of course, there are exceptions to this and it isn’t a rule but more of a piece of advice from an experienced gamer. If you are there to tell a story, let everybody read as many chapters as is possible. You will need to trust that your gaming friends can separate what their character knows vs. what you know as a player. That can be very difficult even for the best players.

Another example of keeping the idea of a group story in mind is knowing when you are the star of the scene and when you are the supporting chorus. We have all played with people who don’t seem to get that there are other characters in the room, and other stories that can and should be told. That does not make for a great game, and the GM is placed is a tough spot when trying to give each player their time in the sun. Enjoy your moments of attention, but also pay attention to other characters as they have their dramatic epiphanies. It takes a gamer of skill and experience to hand over the spotlight.

I am very fortunate to play with some very experienced gamers. Some of them, like me, have played countless games for decades and have matured as gamers. To maintain a hobby for most of your adult life, it must evolve and change as you change. But that, I think, is a tale for another time.

Jay Watamaniuk has lived in such faraway and make-believe places like Thailand, Greece and Japan but has always returned back to Edmonton, Canada to put down some roots and to avoid the fricken’ huge insects that lived in those places. He has been BioWare’s Community Manager for over 7 years and has never once- not once- dressed up like a pirate at work. Shameful.