Not gonna lie, I’m a terrible actor. I’m just a total goofball playing a dorky game about pretend elves with my friends. So when a buddy of mine is leaning across the table all-serious-like to interrogate a murdering swashbuckling Captain Barbossa character that I’m portraying RIGHT AFTER he made a fart joke (JACOB!), I can’t help breaking character and grinning. The brutal Baron of the Cursed Docks in the City of Skorne would not be smiling in a situation like that. But again, my poor acting skills.
So maybe it’s a lack of control on my part in handling tone, but many times I just can’t get into the head and voice of the character fast enough. Either the scene is too short (do I really have to act as the quirky/quirkless shopkeep AGAIN just for you to buy one set of rations?) or it’s too long to leave other players out of the action (you can tell this is the case if people start making “dice towers”). Now sometimes you get good at crafting these long dramatic scenes between PCs and NPCs that just sings and enraptures the attention of every player at the table. And sometimes someone just said ANOTHER Monty Python quote right before tense negotiations with the big bad.
So for me this came up because I’ve been playing Blades in the Dark one-on-one with my brother. It’s a good activity to do while everyone is out with COVID (it’s rough here in Wisconsin, folks) but also the mechanized structure of the game is in itself a ritual (Free play, engagement roll, score, payoff, downtime, repeat).
During play, I couldn’t help but feel exhausted at the prospect of having to invent another NPC with a notable voice or mannerisms or a description that set her apart from other NPCs. I didn’t want to “set the scene” again and draw in all these sensory details and bore myself and my player, both of us waiting until he could make a decision. Besides, the book told me her attitude, wants, assets, and drive. Wasn’t that enough?
Thinking all of this this at once, I just said “Hey, let’s do this one in third person: You’re at the meatshop and she tells you that things have been tough since their leader Tarvul was imprisoned. She wants full control of the gang, and is frustrated that the members still feel loyalty to Tarvul, even though he’s serving a life sentence. His son keeps making half-witted attempts to break him out and has been using gang resources to do so. If you take the son out, preferable unharmed, she can rally the gang to join you in your war against the Crows.”
Skip the boring stuff, especially drawn-out dialogue, with near “The Princess Bride” level of brevity.
I suppose it goes with Blades’ principle of “cut to the action.” But it felt so refreshing to “gloss over” things instead of having to play it all out, step by step, line by line. If you’re like me, it can get real tough to set the scene every go-around when it’s usually more straight forward than that. And I get antsy real quick.
Just turn off “acting mode” and set it to “narration mode.” Don’t feel hamstrung by Matt Mercer to have the perfect NPC voice every time and paint that illustrious word picture. Just give good information and then let the players make a choice.
“And then Dragonslayer sets down his pen, hoping he made his point. He then exits the room with the manuscript lying open on the table. What do you do?”