Telling Stories: Stopping points
If there has been only one theme to the many things that I have written about roleplaying over the years – and there have, in fact, been many themes – I would hope that one of the ones that gets hit on the regular is the idea that no one should make you feel pressured to continue a scene when you aren’t having fun. You should always have the freedom to say that you need to stop and take a break, or that a scene is making you uncomfortable, or the like.
You should also have the freedom to say that you need to take a nap or go have dinner with your family or just that if you stay at the computer any longer you’re going to develop some kind of infection.
Roleplaying is like any other activity insofar as it’s not fun when it becomes a slog. A lot of people prefer to have roleplaying as an open-ended thing, an act I wholeheartedly endorse and agree with. But it’s important despite that to have stopping points and give players the freedom to step away, and knowing that there are hard stopping points can ultimately make for better roleplaying.
Let’s start on that second point first while I ask a rather important question: what makes Les Miserables so difficult to read?
I mean, I love that story. I’ve read it. But there’s a reason books like that and Moby Dick and 80% of what Charles Dickens wrote seem to take forever to go anywhere, the reason being that these books were written and sold by the chapter. There was no incentive to make things happen on anything like a reliable schedule; the story could just be stretched out to go on forever, because why not? There’s no incentive not to just press onward.
The same can happen with roleplaying, just as surely. If you’ve got absolutely no end point, no reason to think that you’ll have to stop, nothing but endless chunks of time… well, it’s not quite as necessary to make things happen on a timely basis, is it? You have forever. Which is a very good reason why having a time limit and having something to push forward winds up helping you out, in the long run. It gives you drive, forward momentum, a reason to keep working against the clock and try to accomplish something rather than just filling up hours with idle conversation.
Plus, it encourages a different mode of thinking. Instead of planning roleplaying as an open-ended activity with no clear goals, you start to think of it in terms of scenes. Scenes have points, they have purpose, they have overall directions. They don’t just sort of sputter and die after enough time has passed; they’re meant to accomplish something specific. You think of roleplaying as a collection of events more than a great number of interactions with no clear goal.
And, lest we forget, it makes sure that you can step away from your computer on occasion. That seems like an obvious benefit, but as someone who spends most of his day hunched over his computer writing furiously, I am probably not the ideal poster child for that.
So how do you make sure that you have stopping points? To start, you go in expecting them.
That seems so obvious as to almost be insulting, but it’s still true. You go in with an expectation that there will be a reasonably hard limit on how long you can be roleplaying, quite possibly with an expectation of what that time limit will actually be. Make plans to have everything finished up in an hour, even less than that. Go in with an expectation of what your broad goals are for the scene, then double down and work on making that take place in the shortest possible amount of time.
You also try to create good points wherein you could, comfortably, assume that nothing else that is going to happen over the next several minutes is going to change anything. Those serve as good points to skip ahead or good points to stop. If your characters are going out to see a play, you can quite easily stop as the play is starting, simply on the basis that the characters won’t be talking much while the play is ongoing. You can skip ahead, you can stop there and fill in the rest of the details – which you do isn’t important, just so long as you have that place to make a break.
I say this over and over, yes, but here as everywhere it’s important to keep open lines of OOC communication, because that’s also a good way to know if a stopping point needs to hurry up and arrive. If the other person is getting bored or tired or only has a little time left before they have to go – or if you do – saying that OOC is a good way to make sure that both players know that it’s time to hurry up and bring things to a comfortable stopping point. Table the discussion for now, log what’s happened so far, but make it stop for the moment.
Last but not least, you also want to make sure that your stopping points leave something to be explored later. I don’t mean that you can never resolve anything, just that it’s important to make sure that each big event has something to make the people involve want to come back and explore a bit further. Sure, the scene doesn’t go on forever, but there’s going to be more roleplaying to come, yes? Set up the cliffhangers for it.
Stopping points can be hard to manage in play. It’s tempting, always, to just keep going if you’re having fun. But by carefully working in some places where it slows and stops, you can make a setting and a story that feels more organic and mobile.
Next time around, I want to look at that all-important buzzword of roleplaying online, immersion, and discuss when it’s time to totally ignore it and just barrel on full steam ahead. The next time, I want to talk about taking inspiration from stories that you like – not in the sense of characters, but in the sense of flavor.
About expostninjaI'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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