RPGaDay 2021 #24: Translate

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Translate.” The most difficult part of hosting a tabletop RPG game for people is translating the vision in my head to the players, while at the same time trying to pick up on what they’re seeing and running with that. Fub wrote a funny post about that very problem a while back as well.

The way I tend to think about scenes in tabletop RPGs is as though I was directing a movie or a TV show. Funnily enough, I have trouble picturing things in my mind; I can think of concepts, or see conceptual parts of a thing, but I cannot just imagine, for instance, an apple, and see the entire thing in my mind. Scenes, however, are about storytelling, and stories are quite vivid in my mind (in a non-visual sense). So, when I try to translate what I’m thinking about to people around a table, I try to express it like a storyboard or director. I’ll use phrasing like “Our camera pans over a village, muddy, noisy, and busy with activity. At the end of the main street, crowded with oxen pulling carts past loud hawkers selling goods to passers-by, we see our group, happy to finally have reached their destination.”

I tend not to have a fully-formed idea of a world in my mind, nor a scene, nor a character. Far more interesting to me is to translate this vague idea I have in my head via a set of vignettes to the others at the table. I enjoy it when a character does a small thing, and then we cut to the next scene or another character, after which we pick up with the first again. I think this probably is because it matches how I try to visualize things in my head: a larger picture that’s built up out of the small abstract components of it.

The difficulty for me is to translate what the others around the table have in their heads in a way that works for me as well. Some players are very distant from their characters, and prefer to operate only the mechanics of the game, and there’s nothing wrong with that. These types of players will do a minimum of roleplaying. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve played with people who want to talk out every single thing; they’ll verbalize a characters thoughts, want to discuss every detail in-character among the group, and then pursue that full cause-and-effect chain. That’s perfectly fine too.

The challenge is to connect and translate their experiences and preferences in play to your own, and create enough empathy so that they can also understand your own way of working. This is also the thing that ends up being most tiring for me while roleplaying, and it’s why I can only do a few hours at a time. After a good session, I’m pretty spent and need some rest. However, every now and then you end up with a group that really gels together. Time flies by as everybody is engaging with the fiction, because the translation now works and everybody is on the same page. At the end of these sessions, I’m hyped up and excited.

It’s funny how, in early representations of roleplaying, that tabletop RPGs were always represented in media as some manner of failure of character—the sad group of nerds sitting isolated, because they can’t make friends and so instead hang out with each other paying RPGs. I think you can easily imagine that, in my view, roleplaying games are such incredibly social engagements. They train empathy and understanding, and are constant quests to translate thoughts and ideas from one player to the next. There’s few recreational activities I know that are so intensely social as RPGs.

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