Flight Papers

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Stakes and Subtext


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Is not a D&D mod, though I do like those.

Let’s say we have this bit of narration:

“I’m sitting on the edge of the pier, letting my toes dangle into the water. I watch her from a distance. Her umbrella is dripping, and her eyes reflect the ocean. I pull my hood up, blinking out rainwater, and for a second, I smile. I think she sees me.”

What’s happening in this narration?

Now, suppose I tell you that the stakes are, “Does she fall in love with me?” Does that help?

Suppose I tell you the stakes are, “Do I fall in love with her?”

Suppose the stakes are, “Do I find out if she’s an informant?”

What if they’re, “Do I kill her?”

Subtext matters. Stakes inject subtext.

It’s possible, you might say, to divine subtext entirely from context, but I can think of at least one context (I’m a spy; she might be) where any of the above are good stakes.

You can argue that in a novel or film, you don’t need or really want those stakes to be made totally explicit. Subtext is, after all, subtext, and its disconnection from textually-established facts is valuable. But games aren’t novels, nor are they films. In novels, you can go back and re-read. In films, the sheer wealth of visual information and facial expression and so forth provides a high-bandwidth subtext channel. But game narration is by its nature transient and ephemeral. You can’t go back and re-hear it, and you aren’t watching shots framed by master cinematographers focusing on poignant facial expressions. So I think the ability to inject subtext is super-important, because that ability enables narration like the above. Simple, imagistic, and loaded with emotion and meaning.

What’s the value of the narration, “I touch the patch of skin where her hand meets her arm?” It’s really subtle. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it means a little, but she pulls away and the moment is lost.

Maybe it means a lot.

If we’re playing Dogs, and I Raise 20 on that narration, it means a lot, and everyone knows that. It gains weight in the fiction, because everyone involved in the fiction also saw the raise, and knows that, whoa, this is big stuff.

This is important to me, because in my fictional aesthetic? Tiny things, tiny moments, and subtlety all mean a lot.

3 Responses to “Stakes and Subtext”

  1. Mark Woodhouse Says:

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    That’s really eloquent. I think it sums up “why RPG” as opposed to some other medium, at least for me. It’s rather like the fanfic urge - to take the “toys” of a fictional genre and put MY meaning into them.

    It also points at one of the common failure modes of RPG play.

  2. Dave Hallett Says:

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    That’s a very interesting post. Thank you.

  3. Christoph Says:

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    Beautiful.

    And hello :)

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