A waste of time?

Another of my hateful Dark Heresy-related writings. For the unfamiliar, Dark Heresy (“DH”) is a roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons set in the Warhammer 40,000 dark science fiction canon. GM or ‘game master’ is a term used to describe the person in charge of the gaming session, who typically controls the plot and the non-player characters.

I last wrote about how if you’re a GM you shouldn’t write sessions too much because it results in a lack of player choice. Now, because I’m nothing if not inconsistent, I want to talk about how rules designed to improve the quality of your writing also help equally in making you a good GM and making your sessions enjoyable.

There are a million and one rules for good writers, but here’s two which I find particularly useful to keep in mind whilst I’m writing. They’re from a set of eight principles covering basic writing and they’re the brainchild of Kurt Vonnegut (who, for those not acquainted, is a really very good writer).

The other six principles are good too, but I want to concentrate on just these two. I’ve taken them out of order, but here they are:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

In a roleplaying game like Dark Heresy it’s very tempting as a GM to turn the game into a simulator. It’s simple to see the players’ characters have a particular event or situation befall them, then to begin providing a simulation of that event rather than a game adaption.

When I’m writing and a character wants a glass of water, I can handle it in three essential ways. Firstly, I can describe how they feel the urge, the manner in which they stand up, the size and shape of the glass, the noise the water makes as it falls from the tap, the way the cool water tastes in the character’s mouth and how satisfied they are at having met their desire for refreshment.

Glass of water

Actually this does look pretty enticing.

Secondly I can convey it in a sentence. They stand up and pour themselves a glass of water, then drink it down in a single gulp. Finally, I can not mention it. Seriously, who cares? It’s just water. Where’s the relevance? It’s not building character, it’s not advancing the plot… it’s just wasting the reader’s time.

One should take a similar approach in Dark Heresy. You can’t (and shouldn’t) control the things your players do, but you can ensure that no matter what they do there’s always something interesting in it. Don’t waste anybody’s time, including your own.

Practically speaking, this involves recognising what is and isn’t important in the player’s actions. If what they’re doing isn’t advancing the plot, and if it doesn’t provide you with an opportunity to provide an interesting experience for the player, then you should skip through it as rapidly as possible. By the way, rarely is it impossible for you to throw an interesting experience into the mix, be creative!

Some of the coolest ideas I’ve had when thinking about the most recent campaign I’m acting as GM in I’ve had to throw away because whilst they sounded cool they didn’t really afford my players a chance to do anything cool. This is an important difference; if you’re adding things you think sound cool but which the players’ characters are unimportant in then you’re essentially forcing them to watch you undertaking a bit of what I’d call ‘narrative masturbation’.

Narrative masturbation is where you as a GM are simply doing things because you can. I think the rule is that if the players are observing something cool instead of causing or partaking in it, you’re guilty of narrative masturbation. You’re just showing off by trapping the players in a situation where they need to listen to you imagine something cool. The players don’t even need to be sat there for this to occur, do they?

Those kind of things aren’t interesting, and whenever I’ve encountered long chunks of non-interactive storytelling in DH as a player I’ve found my brain turning off and my eyes drifting inexorably to my watch, wondering what else I could be doing in this time.

Every encounter you design, every bit of exposition you deliver, every place you create for your players to visit, ask yourself one question: am I using the time of a stranger in such a way that they won’t feel it was wasted?

If you’re not, throw away your ideas, pull out your pen and start writing.


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August 2010
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