Why I don’t want you to tell me about your character

So have I told you about my favorite Champions character? Well, third favorite actually, after The Human Cheese Grater and Bituminous Man, but he’s really my favorite in some ways because of the awesome time I, um, the time where it, where he, because there was a time that he was so awesome — oh, wait, I forgot to tell you his name. But first I should tell you about his costume, which is totally the most awesome thing you will hear about today because…

Have you ever been subjected to someone else telling you about their RPG character? I have, and it can be a pretty unpleasant experience. In fact, I’ve found it to sometimes be a downright awful experience, and this feeling seems to be widespread among gamers. However, I find it totally fascinating to look at the reasons why we don’t want to hear about other people’s characters.

A couple years ago at Minicon 47, I was on a panel with Sherry Merriam and some other folks where we talked about just this topic. I feel like I learned a lot from the panel; having Sherry, a trained counselor who’s also a gamer, helped a lot! What follows is a mix of ideas from that panel and more recent insights I’ve had.

Why is it so annoying to be subjected to stories of someone else’s characters? The foremost cause for me is the way that RPGs work. When we game, we’re creating a story while we’re in the moment. The story is all about what’s going on as we’re playing. In the moment, it’s hugely entertaining; later on, memory may fade, and intensity may wane. And, importantly, the audience for the game is the people playing. It’s a story expressly designed to entertain one group of people. And even within a group, people are going to be interested in different aspects of play at different times, so it’s not even accurate to say that everyone within your group will share your interest in your character’s exploits.

No wonder, then, that people outside that group — without all the context and personal involvement — would be far less entertained that those who were in it. RPGs are, right off the bat, almost designed to be hard to recount to others later on; what’s happening in the moment is for the enjoyment of the people who are there, in the moment. Later recounting is going to lose a lot, and reading someone’s post-facto account of a harrowing adventure is rarely as enthralling as firsthand experience. It’s like watching a TV show about restaurant food: no matter how carefully the presenter chooses their adjectives, it’s not going to convey the actual sensation of eating.

This makes an interesting contrast with electronic gaming, which suffers from (what seems to me) almost the opposite problem: with games like Skyrim or GTA, other people share almost too much context. Yes, you retrieved Dawnbreaker after an epic fight. So did I. So, for that matter, did nearly everyone who’s played the game. This illustrates an important thing about stories: they need to be familiar enough to relate to, but not so familiar that the listener already knows the story before you open your mouth. Stories have to be understandable without already being a known quantity; there’s a particular range of familiarity within which a story will be interesting to a bystander.

So I was telling you about his costume colors, which I’ve been trying to rework lately. Here, let me see if I’ve got my latest sketch. This’ll just take a minute, because my tablet has been taking a while to boot up lately. You probably noticed that my tablet is blue, which is my favorite color, but his costume only has a little bit of blue, because — ah, okay, it’s booted up now, so where was that sketch…

All this is compounded by some geeky tendencies. One useful definition of ‘geek’ is “someone who is willing to indulge and talk about their interests even when doing so is against social protocol”. To the extent that this definition is true, it’s only natural that a geeky person would want to talk about their character even when doing so generates some awkwardness.

Another common side of geekiness, one explained in the Geek Social Fallacies, is the misconception that others will necessarily share all your interests if they share any of your interests. So if someone else likes RPGs at all, of course they want to hear about the early career of your 16th level Elven hamdinger, right?

As we put it on that panel a couple years ago, telling someone about your character is a lot like oversharing about your baby. You might be highly proud of your baby’s new teeth, or ability to walk, or whatever, and you might want to gush about their accomplishments, even to people who are completely uninterested. You’re proud, and you can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t immediately care how astounding, clever, entertaining and downright important your PC’s accomplishments are. Yes, some people will be interested, but hardly all. “Sorry, all PCs look like Winston Churchill to me.”

The tricky thing to understand is that your baby is important, but that doesn’t mean they’re unique. It also doesn’t mean that what’s important to you will be important to everyone else; not everyone will be interested in hearing your baby’s exploits, even if that includes besting Snarg the Indomitable with nothing but a sippy cup.

His costume is totally awesome. I asked all my friends and they agreed. Totally. Awesome. You agree, right? Because I actually spent 27 — no, sorry, I forgot, 29 — points on buying the costume. It was a perk for his Caped Avenger tree, which I know you said you don’t understand because you’ve never played this system, but I’ll come back to that. Hey, have I told you his name yet? Anyway, I forgot two of the points because our GM never lets us…

There’s a third factor that makes “let me tell you about my character” so bad, I think. That is simply that a lot of gamers — just like a lot of humans — aren’t especially good at telling stories. My pullquotes in this article aren’t direct quotes, but they’re heavily inspired by an actual experience I had. Hearing that I’m into RPGs, someone at a con once started subjecting me to uncomfortably bad stories about his superhero characters. It almost could’ve been interesting, but he did it in a horribly bland, mechanical, rambling way. He didn’t really think about what he was going to say; it felt more like someone reading the phone book — and doing a bad job of it — than of someone recounting heroic legends. I think some of what he was saying almost had some intrinsic merit as an interesting story, but he killed it through a host of storytelling errors: focusing on mechanics, even though I’d said I wasn’t familiar with the system; destroying dramatic tension when he should be building it up; generally rambling; repeating himself; not listening to or caring about what his audience was interested in; and other problems. (That last I think blurs back into geek social fallacy problems. He assumed I would be interested, regardless of how horrible his storytelling was; he also treated me as an object to talk at, rather than a person to talk with.) That is not to say that all gamers need to be good storytellers, but if you’re going to subject me to stories about your character, doing it in a clumsy way isn’t going to help.

Is it possible for someone telling me about their character to be a good experience, if they’re a better raconteur? Yes, but they’ll have to be very good. I think the aspect of RPGs that they’re for the people playing, while they’re playing, means that RPG tales start off at a disadvantage compared to, say, prose fiction. Prose fiction is designed for the reader to digest at their own pace, usually far removed from the author. Yet the author has all the advantages that prose fiction brings: the ability to put a story aside for a day or an hour and come back to it, with narrative continued from just where it left off; the ability to use long, complex sentences that sound awkward in colloquial speech; and the ability to rework and edit the language until it conveys a narrative smoothly and effectively. Oral storytelling, too, is a skill that people can learn, but not many practice it. And being able to create a story with a group of fellow gamers does not automatically confer the ability to relate that story to someone else.

A lot of SF&F authors seem to have gotten their start writing up their RPG campaigns. And there are some great raconteurs in the RPG community. It’s definitely possible to make your character’s tales interesting and worthwhile to others. That just takes good storytelling skills, which include sympathy with your audience, deftness with language, and an understanding that neither of the previous skills comes automatically with being a gamer.

So you know what? It’s entirely possible that I do want to hear about your character, so long as it’s a story worth listening to, and one well told.

Hm, what? Yes, I was going to get to his — why the cape is only a little blue. Yes, I need to go, too. Actually, I think I left my mayonnaise out. But I’ll explain about the cape first, because trust me this is the best part yet…

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