KungFu Fenris over on the Discord channel has put out a writing prompt for me. ‘How to play through ritual sequences without boring everyone at the table.’
Well, that’s a bit of a downer… Being bored at the table is horrid. I’m sorry, Fenris (or Fenris’s players maybe). It happens to everyone, I’m sure. It’s not you, it’s me… It’s the pressure.
But never fear. I’ve got a few tips, as well as a few assumptions I’m going to lay out.
First off, I think those rituals you’re finding boring might not be interactive. There’s a lot to describe, a hell of a lot that’s going on, and you want to get it all out. Sometimes – often – it’s written down in a book what’s happening, and you get told ‘read or paraphrase the following:’
So there’s my first tip.
Paraphrase, don’t read. If you have a lot of information to get over, then use your voice, not someone else’s. Yours is the one that your players are used to hearing. You can check that each one of them gets a mention or two, even if it’s only a minor one. “Yanioth, the dancer’s feet keeps on throwing up puff of dust as she lands. They’re starting to form tiny squares where they land. She’s really good.”
Everyone who is on the sidelines out of character is also on the sidelines in character; you can let them know what they are seeing, what the sights and sounds of the festival are, as well as the magical reasons for being there. Being an audience takes some skill, so give them Dance or Sing checks to see if they can judge how good people are, or maybe even learn something. Give them Scan checks to spot the pickpockets and Insight (Human) to see if the High Sword of Humakt is enjoying himself1He’s not. or why the Priestess of Ernalda’s smiling so much2She likes annoying the High Sword of Humakt. Any ritual takes a community, so this is a good time to show off that community at its best, or at least its most overtly ritualistic.
And there’s my second tip.
Include people in the action. This might be the hardest part, because in general, combat actions are done in parallel, but social actions are done in series. However, that’s actually just a habit. A lot of the time you can do all of those at once, even if people are not around each other. Ask them to make the rolls, narrate a bit based on those, ask for more rolls. On that level it’s exactly how combat is rolled. Suitable things to ask, depending on the ritual, are Passions, Runes, and Skills. In other words, just about anything. Orate to call on the household guardian to come up from hibernation. Sing and Dance to show joy and gain short-lived fame. Worship to indicate you know exactly what to do.
A fumbled roll can divert a whole plot, and a special or a critical can save the day if someone else messes up. As well, rolling the dice invests people in the result. It gives them something to do physically, and ties their PCs into the scene.
That’s my third tip.
Help the PCs to engage. Uh, maybe that’s too obvious. But boredom comes about when you don’t have anything to engage with. A PC may have important things to do in the game, but if they are not developed, then the player won’t know what they mean. So, when there’s a ritual I try to isolate which part the PCs are involved in. I get them to practice it, IC, and to discuss it. That way, they know what to expect, and they are looking out for it. When it arrives, they’ll know what is expected, so you don’t get them worrying or stopping the flow to ask questions. It’s a bit like having a statement of intent for combat, or a neat reversal of it. For the next thing that’s happening, the player and GM know what’s expected, and have a framework for understanding it. The practice is in-character, unless I’m very pushed for time, when I’ll explain what’s expected. If I’m that rushed, though, I try to make the scenes be over two sessions instead of one.
It can be helpful to have NPCs explain what’ll happen and then ask the PCs if they want to practice. Maybe do build-up for who is the best performer and where the jealousies are; maybe just play it straight.
If I absolutely do have to do a ritual, and the PCs are not involved, here’s my last tip.
Keep it short. The PCs are the stars of the game, even if they are not the stars of the ritual. Perform it rather than just speaking it plainly – really work into the explanations of the important parts, using voice and body language to show how something really matters. Vary your pace, and try to keep it under a couple of minutes. If it’s that long, they’ll have forgotten most of it anyhow, so repeat the important parts if you can without bloating it up. Short and clear, and over. But honestly, if you’re writing a thing where the PCs are not the stars, let them be active audience, as above.
I hope that deals with boredom woes, Fenris!