On True Grit in Pacing and Story Development

I saw True Grit in the theater the other day. It is an excellent film by excellent filmmakers who love film. The Cohen brothers are in my opinion one of the rapidly dwindling numbers of people who both know how to make films, and still love to do so.  It shows in every frame.

The thing that struck me about it is when Mattie was in town asking about the various badge men to go after the man that killed her father. I thought, any of those could be PC's, which one would it be? (I am regrettable unfamiliar with the source material, so I had no clue it would have been one of them over another). They then began (bit by bit) to introduce the character that the story would eventually be about. The Cohen brothers make very lean films, and every shot builds towards an eventual goal. They don't waste a lot of screen time on someone who's not a main character or one who's arc won't come to fruition.

In role playing we don't have that luxury. Now this is an advantage - it's a game and not knowing who's going to live or die is what provides some of the excitement. However, you do have people playing characters and you do have a certain length of spotlight time during your game that you can set aside for those characters. And because you can't know the future the amount of story threads and screen time may be disproportionate to the eventual fate of a character. This is less of an issue in a one-shot, but comes up again and again in campaign.

If you're playing the same character for six months, ten months, fifteen months, or even years and years, plot thread after plot thread may get tied into his life. And when they randomly die, due to bad decisions, or just rotten luck, how to pick up all those threads and make them meaningful? How to not waste that screen time?

I'm interested in opinions on the subject, but I have my own ideas. My first goal, lately, is to make the story arc of any one individual less important. What's important is the sandbox. The tales of who lives, wins, loses, or dies is where the drama comes from. How many people have actually experienced a total party kill? Is there anyway to turn that focus time lost on death into an advantage of the medium? I'll be thinking on it and will post some thoughts at some point, I'm interested in what you're thinking.


  1. I guess I've never worried about what would happen to the story line if a character died. I don't consider the 'screen time' lost. I know in the past when characters of mine or those I GMed fell we worked their death into the fabric of the campaign. Sometimes the effect was large and sometimes very small. Like on of my guys died in a dungeon, the main boss raised me so I became a servant to him. So the next time I went through the dungeon I had to fight my own old character. It was cool.

    In the large picture, I had one character die in the middle of the story arc. It was a humiliating death, bad choices and bad rolls combined that session. His character became a kingdom wide example of hubris. "Remember the fall of Gordo. His grant fate was cut short by arrogance and ignorance." The player took it in stride and made a cleric who started the cult of Gordo. It was a fun twist.

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