The following article originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in September 2008.
A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws
Pipe and Believability
A while back on the Yog-Sothoth forum dedicated to Trail Of Cthulhu a discussion arose from that game’s suggestion that players be permitted to select their exotic languages during play. As online debates are wont to do, the discussion crossed wires from a couple of separate issues. Fortunately for me, it did so in an illuminating way that serves as a springboard for this month’s column.
As with any discussion of “on the fly” character generation, there were some basics to get out of the way: the character is not learning to speak Chinese or to fly a hang-glider on the spot, but is only now revealing heretofore unseen elements of his backstory. In fiction—well-written fiction, anyway—most important character revelations occur on the fly. You don’t start out a novel with detailed biographies of the characters and then have them start doing things. Instead, character is revealed through action. We learn that the Nightflyer is a mechanical genius because we see him jury-rig an explosive device from spare parts found in the disused factory the bad guys use as their hideout. We see that Professor Argonaut is an expert in Etruscan archaeology in a scene where he addresses a rapt audience of fellow academics at the Royal Society.
Sometimes, in a technique modern screenwriters refer to as “laying pipe”, a character trait is set up with an offhand reference, then brought fully into play later in the story. The unexpected pugilism of weedy romantic poet Osbert Macaulay may be set up with an offhand reference many pages before he fights off the burly cultist at the altar of Ra. The more improbable-seeming the ability, the more likely it is that the author will want to lay pipe beforehand. Osbert’s fisticuffs play against type, and seem too convenient if pulled out of a hat exactly when needed. It must be introduced to us in stages to win our acceptance. On the other hand, given his established class and educational background, Osbert’s intimate knowledge of the streets of Rome requires little in the way of additional credibility support—and thus can be dropped on the reader during the scene at hand.
The forum discussion tackled the question of believability through a familiar roleplaying lens: is it realistic for a given character, say a beat cop, to read an ancient Chinese script? Really it’s no more credible for a beat cop to possess an obscure academic ability if the player says so before the story begins than if the ability pops up in play. But it can feel like a breach of the fictional reality.
For one thing, the player is picking the trait to gain a momentary advantage, no doubt because he’s come up against a situation requiring it. As audience members, the GM and other players can see behind the curtain, making the story contrivance stand out.
The traditional model, in which we pick all of our characters’ abilities before play begins, functions as an equivalent of laying pipe. As weird as it might be that a New York flatfoot can interpret the oracle script of the Shang dynasty, at least we knew about it beforehand.
The difference between preparatory exposition in fiction and the abilities listed on a character sheet is that a roleplaying character is often filled with information that never pays off. You may decide that your character is an expert scuba diver, but if the GM’s adventures never get you underwater, it never actualizes itself in play. An improvisational GM, seeing that entry on your character sheet, will try her best to get you mucking about the coral reefs in search of lost archaeological wonders. However, with six different character sheets, all filled with dangling hints of this nature, she may not be able to work all of them into the series narrative before it wraps. What the “on the fly” method seems to lack in believability, it gains in utility. If there’s no underwater action, your preselected ability sits on your character sheet like a dead pixel. If permitted to opportunistically pick X number of abilities as you go, you can guarantee that each of them will move the story forward at least once.
Whether limited to picking your languages in Trail Of Cthulhu, or as open-ended as the on-the-fly method in HeroQuest, this approach does challenge GMs accustomed to thinking of themselves as gatekeepers of realism. The oral tradition of roleplaying as handed down from the halcyon days of Lake Geneva encourages us to police the entreaties of our players, shutting down anything that seems grabby or unlikely. And sure, you don’t want to give out a +5 vorpal sword just for the asking. Especially in a Cthulhu game. That makes no sense.
But seriously folks, this mindset can backfire against us if we allow the decision tree to start with the realism question. Believability is important—you don’t want to shatter that illusion of reality that allows the group to engage with the story—but can be attended to later in the process. Far better to start the decision tree with a different question: “Is it interesting?”
Here interesting is defined moving the story onwards, to a plot branch where the player(s) get to make a meaningful choice. Let’s say the information written in oracle bone script moves the group toward a scene in which they confront the main bad guy and are forced to choose between self-preservation and saving the world. It’s a shame to keep that off the table (or spend another hour establishing a convoluted workaround to get to the same place) because you’re using realism as your starting point.
Instead, use it as your end point. If you decide that it would be more interesting to allow the beat cop to read Shang dynasty characters, then enter into a brief dialogue with the player to find a believable justification for it.
Be interesting, then make it real.
Sometimes you’ll fail to find an answer that preserves the reality level of your series, and then you’ll be stuck with the less interesting choice. More often, though, when you start out assuming you can find a way, you and the players will do so. We roleplayers are a clever bunch.
This is not to say that it is invariably interesting to say yes to your players. A player suggestion that shuts down interesting scenes or choices—like a super-weapon that allows them to cut through their opposition effortlessly—inverts the decision tree. Instead of finding any believable solution that allows you to say yes to the players, you’re looking for a realistic reason to keep them challenged. But in both cases, the question to allow or disallow starts with story values and only then moves on to issues of verisimilitude.
A realistic story is worth nothing if it consists of one boring choice after another. That’s true whether you’re writing a novel or running a roleplaying session.
Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.