Divide and Conquer
In our introductory methodological post, I talked about the fact that we have players whose characters are not in a scene sit in another room until they’re back “on screen”. This is a pretty controversial play style but don’t let the title fool you (it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek): this is not about getting the players alone so they’re easier to screw over. This is about paying a bit of a price early for a big payout of rockmost later on. In this post, I intend to talk about it more in depth, first why and then how.
How is Kicking Your Players Out of the Room a Good Idea?
A lot of people feel compelled to include everyone at all times. This is a good instinct. You are, after all, basically hosting a dinner party. And if a player leaves the session and didn’t have fun, well, that’s the very definition of failure. A lot of people equate sitting in a separate room, not role playing with boredom and not having fun. These two ideas are highly intuitive and entirely valid criticisms. The trick, here, is realizing that the cost a player is paying by being out of the room should be an investment that gets repaid to them later.
In addition to this investment/payout thinking, we need to discuss in-character versus out-of-character knowledge. In my experience a lot of people talk about how “mature” players can know something that their character doesn’t and still act as if they don’t when deciding their character’s actions. That sounds really nice and I’ve seen it happen. Heck, I’ve done it. It is entirely possible for a player to do. This in/out thing isn’t something designed to combat folks who can’t handle IC/OOC information bleed. The question you have to ask is whether learning something early and pretending you don’t know it until later is as fun as not learning it early and then it being a surprise later on. I feel that the latter clearly rocks most.
The most visceral example of this payoff is with the control of information dissemination. If one character goes off and learns something on his own and the players of the other characters don’t know about it, then that first player can decide if and how much information to share with them. Maybe he changes the truth to keep a secret of his hidden. Maybe for another reason. Maybe he tells the whole story, but the other players suspect he isn’t. These are all interesting interactions between characters.
However, the bigger payoff comes when they’ve individually learned things that are related and important but, when seen only alone don’t look like pertinent clues. Eventually, all the characters will be in the same room together again and comparing notes. When one of them mentions, perhaps off hand, their clue, the others will feel something click in place and share their own clues. By adding their information (which seemed unrelated to their concerns) together, it suddenly makes sense in the context of the story. This is a much bigger payoff of rockmost than if they were all there from the get go. It’s cooler to see something unveiled suddenly from under a colorful handkerchief than erected as you watch (generally) and the players feel more like they figured it out than you showed it to them.
You can guess that this technique would work better with some reveals than others, but this is just one example, which I feel is particularly illustrative. If you’re trying to tell a story about characters who don’t trust each other or one with a lot of complex threads that are slowly woven into a cohesive plot, this kind of thing can take you miles.
So What Does It Actually Look Like?
Now that you agree perfectly with everything I asserted above (ha!), let’s talk about how this works more practically. Simply stated, a player is in until either their story hits some kind of logical stopping point or they’ve taken up too much time at which point you send them out and another player comes in. It’s identifying what those two things are that takes practice and skill.
Logical stopping points are the easiest to identify, in my opinion. Generally, as the architect of the campaign, you’re going to have an idea of what’s next and each scene will have a little story arc to its self. If you regularly consume almost any kind of fiction, this should be easy to identify. I like to use location changes as stopping points (“Okay, now I want to go to the manor house.”), which is also really common in television and film. Another good one is just after some major task has been completed (The safe is now cracked and about to be opened).
The too much time thing is really hard to explain to someone else because it varies on several things. Chief among them are how long your play sessions last, how many players you have, how much time they’re spending together vs. alone and the personalities of you and your players. A good starting point is to take your session length and divide it by the number of players to figure out how long, give or take, a player’s sittings should total. Then you can go about mapping that onto how long you think things they’re likely to do will take.
What you don’t want to do is realize suddenly that you’ve gone on way longer than you meant to and just stop in the middle of something. Identifying several logical stopping places throughout the action can allow you to change players more readily if your estimates about how long the player would spend doing things were wrong. In the safe-cracking example above, you might have expected them to open it quickly, grab the device inside and then scram, at which point you’d send them out. If it they’re taking a long time getting the safe open (or doing other things before opening it), you can plan to break right before they open the safe. If they decide to play with the device before leaving, then you could break before their daring escape. Planning this ahead of time is helpful and cultivating the ability to see these places as they come up in play is extremely valuable in maintaining smooth scene transitions.
There are some pitfalls to this technique that I think bear pointing out. If you plan for them and keep them in mind, they’re all entirely manageable.
Players Being Out Too Long
If you’re doing your job right, your players should all prefer to be in than out. We’ll write another post, later, about how to entertain your players who are out, so for now, let’s just talk about time spent out. How long “too long” is is mostly a factor of each player’s personality. Certainly, you want to be as equitable as possible, but that’s more about all your players feeling like they’re being dealt with fairly, not about all of them being mathematically equal. My biggest advice, especially when you’re new to this technique, or if a player is new to your table, is to just ask.
Remember you can’t observe them while they’re out, so unless they bring it up, you’re unlikely to know if they’re fine for 20 minutes and fading at 30 minutes and dying of boredom at 40 minutes. Some players will be so passive about it that they’d never bring it up, so you should. Ask not just whether they feel like they’re out too long, but whether they feel like they’re in too briefly, and why. The why is a big deal, here. If it’s “I can’t wait to meet the other PCs,” then you’re not running into this problem, you’ve just got an excited player. If it’s “There’s nothing to do,” then maybe you modify the entertainment out there.
Keeping Time in Synch
Primarily this is an issue only when players are in close physical proximity to each other. I’ve found that, in general, players will take up roughly the same amount of game time as their fellows over the same amount of real time, so making sure that everyone’s at “evening” at the same time isn’t so hard. In the end, you can always fudge it a bit; I rarely give people precise times, instead saying “late afternoon” or “after midnight”.
When players are close to each other, though, you have to be ready that their actions will cause them to bump into each other and, thus, both need to be in at the same time. You’ll have to decide how you want to go with the length of their sittings. I tend to do short sittings and switch between them frequently so that if they’re taking actions that will bring them together, it can happen naturally. This might mean I have player A in for 30ish minutes, then B and C alternating 10 minute sittings until they bump into each other at which point I’d bring A back in for a sitting and then continue on with B and C together. Stewart has a rule of thumb that if two PCs go to the same general location (The Market or The Manor House or The Fighter Repair Facility, etc.), they should probably run into each other. They are, after all, the main characters of this story. Now, if one of them is trying to hide, that’s another story.
The Passive Player
Sometimes, you have a player who isn’t feeling very active. Maybe it’s just this session, maybe they’re habitually this way. Either way, they’ll say things like, “Well, I’ll wait for X.” If the other PCs are still busy and X isn’t going to happen for a long time, they’re going to be gearing up to spend more time out than the other players and there’s really not a lot you can do about that.
If it becomes a problem (the player brings it up, for instance), you can talk about it together. Maybe figure out why they’re not biting at the other interesting plot points you’re dangling. Maybe figure out some plot points to dangle (if you aren’t dangling any for them). If you’re really desperate, you could throw some combat at them, but I’m not a big fan of that solution. It is entirely reasonable to introduce some meta-game considerations to the player in this case by explaining to them that if they are wanting to wait around a lot, that means their PC is spending time doing nothing while the other PCs are doing things, so they’ll be out.
One trick that I discovered recently was to use the rest of their allotted time in to discuss their plans. This is somewhat analogous to scenes in a book that are largely internal dialog of the main character. This serves a couple of benefits: It can help you keep tabs on this player’s goals and understanding of the world, and it can help them organize their own thoughts and options, which might spur them to take some more active course.
I know it’s controversial and in some circumstances I think the in/out method of player management is not ideal. However, I think it’s successful in a lot more circumstances than people use it in. The reasonings are counter intuitive, but the payoff can be great. It can rock. The most.
I wanted to give an example from a campaign, but I realized that the whole beauty of this device is that the reveals don’t seem that significant in themselves. It would take a lot of text to give enough context for an original example to be useful at all. In order to short-cut that, let’s talk about Star Wars.
You know the first time you heard, “I am your father!”? That was awesome, right? You had no idea it was coming. Neither did Luke’s player. Imagine, if you will, that the campaign was super-long-running and Obi-Wan’s player knew because, of course, he was there rescuing the twins and hiding them, etc. If Luke’s player had been sitting in the room learning who his father was (or, rather, had become, I guess), then the reveal moment in Empire would have been much less cool.
Similarly, consider the scenes where Luke and the audience know that Leia is his sister, but Leia and Han do not. Those scenes aren’t particularly great, but if you were Leia’s player who (because she had been out during the scenes where Luke’s player learned of the relation) didn’t know, the scene on the balcony of the Ewok village would have been awesome and tense for you. That’s the kind of rockmost we’re talking about creating between the players.