Delay Note: Days 5+ were delayed to match September because I got completely owned by some kind of infectious disease for about a week. Verdict is still out on what it was, but as one of the possible scenarios was dengue, no chances were taken. After that was over, I then played catch-up with my life for the rest of August, which brings us to now. (And then disaster strikes again and I lose my laptop, but I’m back on the train now.)
Some of my friends would say this is “Trust,” while others would say “Communication.” My first instinct is to throw out my usual buzzword, “Dynamic,” as in table dynamic. I’m going to try something here, though, and try turn around a word which may at first elicit a negative reaction; the ideal session requires Submission.
Hear me out. Every year in this city, local traffic gets worse. My friend in Australia reports the same, and we often discuss the matter, by which I mean we complain a lot. Two years ago, however, he throws this whammy at me while I’m talking about horrible drivers: “the traffic system only operates if absolutely everyone submits to it. Traffic is a system of submission, not dominance, and that’s why we keep failing at it.” It took a few minutes to process, but I saw the truth in it — pretty much every time I’m in inexplicably terrible traffic, it isn’t for any other reason than that there are jerks up ahead who are weaving through the cars and forcing everyone to slow down so they can cut ahead and “win” the traffic game. In fact, there was one time I got caught in what looked like a hellish gridlock from afar because of roadworks, but since the construction crews had placed barriers forcing every car to stay strictly in their lanes without switching, it also doubled as the fastest and most painless trip I’ve ever taken down that highway. That night worked because we were all forced into submission because even big driver egos can’t crash through concrete barriers.
Combine that traffic anecdote with roleplaying, and you’ll have my complete statement: roleplaying is a system of submission, not dominance, that only operates if absolutely everyone submits to it. (… Are you still following me?)
By this I don’t mean we arbitrarily prop up a single player to rule over all of us since that flies against the statement that absolutely everyone must submit. This includes the GM, who I know is often the most excited to share carefully crafted stories and to see players take on their roles in that story. However, submitting to both one person and embracing only one person’s narrative will, just like traffic, cause frustration. Narratives –our thoroughfares through the story– in a system of mutual submission must be shared; in an ideal game, the GM also submits to the player’s desires and attempts to respectfully weave in their narratives into a shared collaborative fiction no one person has ownership of. Players aren’t excluded in this responsibility. Players, on their end, watch or listen for cues about the table –like being mindful of approaching cars– taking care to create or attach to story elements, respectfully weave in the narratives forwarded, and encourage players who seem to be shrinking. Most importantly, everyone takes care to not be fooled by any idea that any one person is more important than the others at the table. None of us is an ambulance or a self-important politician. Much like how driver egos ruin the roads, an overweening ego at the table will eventually, in the long run, seek to control the narrative and kill the fun.
So that’s my answer: Submission makes for the ideal session. Without it, even trust and communication won’t work. Ever tried to communicate when one person’s mind is already set on ideas of who is correct and who is in the right and what makes the best story? You won’t get far unless everyone submits, trust me.