A column about Roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
I did it again. As heard in a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, I made up a new term. Since it is easier to cite articles than podcast episodes, and because new terms want to be propagated, I’ll revisit it here.
The term: table sense.
It’s what developers look for when you write scenarios or source material for roleplaying games.
It’s what game masters need from you when they read your material.
Table sense is what it sounds like: the ability to forecast what will happen at the gaming table when the scene, magic item, background detail, monster or whatever it is comes into use.
How do you get it? By playing roleplaying games of the sort you’re writing for. And more importantly: by picturing the play experience as you write, away from your table.
Table sense may be a particular challenge for writers steeped in the story game world, which assumes a high degree of cooperation to jointly create the designers’ very specific preferred structure. They create a shaped or tailored version of agency with strong parameters.
If the designers doesn’t expect you to punch the bartender in their game of Bowler-Hat Show Ponies (to name a currently popular example), storygame players do not allow such loucheness to cross their minds. Instead their characters proudly stick to wearing bowler hats to equestrian competitions, because that’s the premise the entire game tailors itself to.
In games with a more traditional wide-open agency, where the freedom to act as chaos agents lies well within the expansive remit of any core activity, you can be that eventually some player is gonna at least contemplate some bartender-punching.
Using your table sense, as you write a scene with an annoying bartender and characters with fists at the end of the arms, you know to explicitly answer the question: what happens when someone takes this implicit option?
Table sense reminds you, when writing a setting’s deep backstory, to answer the question: how do the player characters learn about this? What difference does it make to them when they do?
When reviewing a scenario you’ve rewritten, table sense allows you to zero in on those moments when you assume that players will conveniently take this or that action that makes your sequence of action work. Once you’ve spotted them, you can ask yourself if they will really do that thing. You can move from there to the panoply of crazy powers, spells, or tech they might be able to deploy to blow past all of the obstacles you have carefully placed in their path.
Table sense tells you, when creating a new spell or magic item, to ask “will a player be excited to get this? What story possibilities does it create?” It leads you to imagine yourself as a player character gaining the item. Do you keep it, or sell it as soon as you can? If you keep it, what cool things might happen? Depending on the game system and its core activity, butt-kicking might be a cool thing, or a very cool thing. Or not a thing at all, in which case, your table sense reminds you that you’ve designed an item for a game other than the one you’re currently working on, and need to highlight and hit the delete button.
When you apply table sense to a description of a Game Master Character, you can spot the elements you’ve written that will be hard or impossible for a GM to activate. Does your grimy trader on a decaying space station dream of a new life in the core Combine worlds? If so, and you’ve also described him as taciturn and unwilling to reveal his true self, your table sense alerts you to a problem. You must then show how the players can overcome his reticence to learn of his yearnings. While you’re at it, table sense allows you to envision at least one situation in which that actually matters to the players.
In other words, as you write, always think about how the GM will take your text and put it on the table.
Table sense differs depending on the system you’re writing for.
The basic unit of fun in 13th Age is the fantasy fight. If the element you’ve created can feature into a combat sequence, your job is done. On the other hand, your description of the taciturn bartender who yearns to move to a great metropolis of the Dragon Empire ought somehow to relate to a fight the characters are headed toward or have just completed.
GUMSHOE’s core activity is investigation. When you create a monster, you have to ask how it might appear in a mystery scenario. A good old-fashioned ravening beast that lives only for slaughter might fit into a mystery. For the most part though you’ll be looking for cleverer, tricky creatures: less Conan, more X-Files.
Table sense also inspires you to structure information in a way that works at the table. The information on Government Lethal Chambers in the Aftermath sequence of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game appears in FAQ format. This cues the GM to introduce a few key facts, and then encourage the players to ask questions about the world their characters grew up in. Those answers, laid out for ease of reference, tell them about much more than these devices. They allow them to imaginatively engage with the alternate reality of the post-Castaigne regime world. The GM could extract that info from a conventionally structured chunk of setting exposition. And indeed, other bits of world background are presented in that format. But for this key setting linchpin, I made a point of going beyond the reading experience to envision how information goes verbal as it passes from GM to player.
You get table sense from GMing, and then GMing some more, and also by GMing.
It fades over time and must be renewed. If you haven’t run games for years, your developer can spot that. She might also be able to pinpoint the era you came up in, and when you stopped.
Table sense acts as the fuel for the imaginative exercise of seeing sessions in progress that use your material.
Passages written with table sense not only avoid pitfalls and maximize fun, but also help the reader to imagine play in progress, and how great it will be to get a group together to run your game or scenario, instead of one of the many others their time and affection.