Telling Story: I’d like to have an argument

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.I have never talked with anyone about really good in-character arguments that I’ve had in an online game chiefly because I am sure that’s the first step toward sounding like a crazy man.

“Oh, yeah, this argument was great.  I was really worked up and angry by the end of it, I really felt like I was actually arguing… what?  No, no, I wasn’t really arguing with anyone, I was just pretending to be angry at my friends about things that never happened.  And it got me angry in the real world!  It was super.”

All joking aside, if you’re invested in the character you’re playing and what’s going on in the game, yes, you’re going to wind up transferring some emotion from the game into the real world.  As a result, it’s a tricky place to be.  You want arguments in-character to ring true, but you also presumably don’t want to have an actual argument with pretend people in a pretend game that you at least theoretically play to enjoy yourself.  So how can you make sure that your in-game arguments are 100% focused on in-game emotions and not real ones?

Yes, sometimes you wind up arguing about the argument.  Life is hilarious.

“First rule of this argument is that I get to hit you in the face for ten minutes with my sword.”

Lay ground rules

One of the things I frequently say about bigger scenes is that it’s a good idea, going in, to have a loose idea of what’s going to take place.  No, I don’t know exactly what will happen when the scene goes down, but I know that the ultimate goals of the scene are probably to establish that my character and yours are both suspicious of a shared acquaintance, for example.

Arguments that have the advantage of forward planning can benefit a lot from this – you might not know how out-of-control the argument will get, but you do know what’s going to happen by the end of it.  The problem is that a lot of character arguments are extemporaneous, happening in the middle of other scenes unexpectedly.  You see the argument developing and you don’t have time to do a whole lot of brainstorming ahead of time.

If you don’t have time to plan, though, you can still fire off a quick message to say what you think is going to happen and take a second or two to make sure that you’re both on the same page.  It doesn’t have to be much of a discussion, just a few quick words.  If the other person doesn’t want to set any ground rules… well, that alone kind of indicates something, doesn’t it?

Make both characters wrong

The benefit of an argument in which you have no stake is that it’s a lot easier to see where both groups are being dumb as hell.  When your best friend argues with her girlfriend, you can see how both of them are being varying degrees of unreasonable.  Sure, you’d like to apply that same logic to your own arguments, but the difference is that you have nothing invested in the other argument.  Your personal needs and wishes aren’t being served or denied regardless.

In a roleplaying argument, you have the same sort of benefit.  You can see how both characters are making the situation worse amongst themselves.  So use that bit of additional perspective to your advantage.  You don’t have to have the same sort of personal stake in affairs, because you know full well that both of the people arguing are at least partly architects of their own misery.  That adds an extra layer of distance even as you’re passionately arguing for one over the other.

On the other hand, if you and the other player can’t agree that both characters are wrong in some way… well, maybe you don’t want to have an argument with that person, hmm?  Because it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a roleplaying argument.

It would make a pretty sick burn, though.

Please note “hey, here’s a joke, your point of view!” is not what I’m talking about here.

Share some jokes

Whenever an in-character argument starts getting really intense, there’s a video I like to watch.  Go ahead and don’t blame me if you break down crying in laughter at your desk.

There are others that I like to use, too; there’s this somewhat not-safe-for-work one, or this one, or even just watching this freaking cat walk.  The point is that instead of focusing on the argument for a moment, I’m paying attention to something that makes me laugh or smile or otherwise reminds me that this is not real.  It just takes half a moment, and it grounds me back in the idea that this is supposed to be fun but it isn’t worth getting supremely overwrought about.

When I’m roleplaying an argument with a good friend, sometimes we’ll even trade jokes or make fun of the characters for particularly stupid decisions.  It doesn’t need to deflate the drama of what’s going on between the characters, but it does a great job of deflating drama from the other side of the screen.  For that matter, if you can’t reply to a character’s stupidity with this video and giggle about it, you’re getting too invested.

Have an exit hatch

The best inventions in the world can’t necessarily avoid things getting out of hand.  Something might wind up hitting you in a sensitive spot that you weren’t expecting, emotions can rise a bit too high despite your efforts to counter it, you could just find yourself way too involved in winning the (completely fictional) fight.  The details aren’t important.  What is important is that you recognize the issue and stop the whole thing cold.

If something gets out of hand, you should always have the ability to call a stop on it.  I’ve said this in lots of other places, but it’s as true here as it ever was.  Anyone who tries to insist that you can’t leave because a scene is affecting you personally is not worth the time spent roleplaying with them, and anyone unwilling or unable to respect the fact that something might affect you is in the same boat.  You should always, always, always have the option of stepping out and saying no more.

Ideally, the conclusion should come without discussion of whether or not the roleplaying in question actually happened or not.  You can talk about that later.  But you should always have a way out, and the people you roleplay with should be respectful if you need to take that out.

Next time around, I want to tell you why you shouldn’t be quite so hard on your characters (or yourself, for that matter).  After that, I want to talk about making better liars (as in more entertaining, not necessarily more duplicitous).

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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