Some years ago, Warren Ellis said something about Keanu Reeves that always stuck with me.
“I’ve always said that Reeves is a better actor than anyone gives him credit for – watch him carefully, and you’ll see him deliberately creating a space for other actors to work in.”
It’s a nice compliment, and an important one. There’s a reason Keanu – he of the laconic line delivery and expressionless face – has strung together 30+ years of engaging, memorable cinema both big and small, and that people love working with the guy. As someone who’s recently discovered the joy of directing actors, I can tell you, it’s an incredible gift to have someone on set as concerned with elevating their peers as they are with themselves.
It’s an incredible gift at the gaming table as well.1 After all, there’s nothing I like less than having a poignant moment trampled upon by another player trying to squeeze in a little extra face time for their character. And it’s not even so much the anti-climatic deflation of the moment as it is the total lack of appreciation for what I’m doing with my play at that moment. Frustrating, not only because I’m more than willing to leave that space for others, but because I’m always looking for ways to create more space for my fellow players to showcase their own specialness.
This is an old topic for some of us. It goes to issues of protagonism, character niches, story protection, and so on. Some games undermine the possibility right from the outset. Take my monthly game of The Laundry; The Laundry uses the Call of Cthulhu rule-set, itself mostly unchanged since its original publication in the early Mesozoic.2 As such, you’re lucky to have a couple skills in the upper ranges of a percentile, and most are dwelling somewhere in the 30-40% vicinity (after about ten sessions). The game expects, and survival depends upon, multiple players repeating certain key skills at about the same level of proficiency…this is, for all intents and purposes, your re-roll mechanic. Functional enough – someone in the group is most likely going to make that much-needed Spot check, so long as you don’t split up the party – but also pretty boring.
A lot of game designers take it upon themselves to fix these problems, and that’s awesome. Game design is often about fixing things you perceive to be broken. Improving character potency, is one way. Introducing gradients of success above and beyond “pass” and “fail” is another. Explicit turn-taking mechanics mean each character will get their face time, and fan-mail type reward mechanics ensure a rapt audience. These are all good things.
Of course, there’s an elephant in the room here, and we might as well address it: Space, both physical and social, is inherently gendered. Now, to be sure, there is a lot of overlap, especially at the gaming table. I know lots of guys who are patient and generous with the space we share, and I know lots of women who have no sense of this at all (I do well at the game table most of the time, but in other social situations, my boisterousness gets the better of me and I can easily come to dominate a conversation). So, exceptions noted, we would be doing ourselves a disservice by ignoring the fact that women are socialized to take up less space than men, both physically and socially. Women are encouraged to make themselves compact;3 to pull their legs up close to them and keep their arms near their body, rather than sprawling out on the couch and kicking their feet up on the coffee table. And we’re expected to wait patiently for our turn to talk, keep our volume in check, and listen (or at least pretend to) with interest while others are talking. Men, on the other hand, get the opposite kind of messaging; men can sprawl, men can be loud, and men get listened to. And no matter how we approach these rules in our own lives – and we all have a personal relationship to them, whether we realize it or not – we’re never quite done navigating them. And that’s because none of us live in a vacuum where only our thoughts matter…certainly not when we’re playing roleplaying games.
So what about the artistry of playing with other people? What can we do to help others get what they want and have fun?
The most fundamental step is understanding what our fellow players actually, you know, want. Our usual intermediary for this, at least among traditional rpgs, is the character sheet; character roles, skill selections, backstory…all of these things can give us hints about what the player finds interesting and where their expectations are. Still, it doesn’t tell us everything; I can make a fighter who is primarily interested in fighting, but still want big emotional scenes with other characters. It never hurts to ask other players what they want. And it really helps to pay attention to what each player is doing at any given moment.
Next, and perhaps the only other fundamental that occurs to me…if someone seems to be having fun and is “in the moment”, and the only thing you can think to do is to draw attention to your character, then take a deep breath, bite your tongue, and be patient. Your time will come.
But leaving space isn’t exactly the same as creating space. What about the player who’s sitting there quietly but hasn’t had a moment to shine all night long…is there a way you can get their character involved in the action? Can you suggest a scene or activity or some course of action that plays to another character’s strengths? What about playing the foil to another character…are you willing to set yourself up as a challenger and lose to help cast the spotlight on someone else? Are there game mechanics you can exploit, even if it means passing on doing something you really want to do, to help another player succeed? How about just engaging them in dialogue about their stuff, with no ulterior motive beyond giving them a chance to talk? Also, what about the game master? They’re a player too, last time I checked, and their expectation of fun is just as important as anyone else’s…so how do we go about helping the GM? I’m sure there are many other tips and techniques and tools we use; this is a conversation, not a classroom, so tell me what you do to create space for other players.
Be Keanu. Play generously.
- I’m going to state right up front, I’m mostly talking about play of character here…protagonism, character awesomeness, or however you define a satisfactory experience with your in-game avatar. This essay presumes a more or less functional social contract and players who, if not sharing in all priorities of play, will not actively undermine other players’ priorities by pursuing their own. These are valid concerns, but a different conversation. ↩
- In all fairness, I should note that it was I who insisted upon using the CoC ruleset; the other option, as presented to the group, was to go with a “GM fiat decides everything” non-system system, the mere suggested of which prompted 1d10 SAN loss in yours truly. ↩
- The diet industry being perhaps the most literal realization of this. ↩