When You Get To Know Someone
There is a saying that states "speak to a man every day for fifty years, and then after the fifty years dangle the man over the mouth of a volcano. It is on that last day, when his life is on the line, that you will truly meet the man." There are numerous variations on the line, and it has come up a lot in recent fiction. Oddly enough though, it is often the exact opposite for characters in RPGs. Why? Well, because mechanics.
See, in an RPG when everything big is going down and the character's life is on the line, the gameplay naturally focuses on the mechanics of the situation. You have attack rolls to make, defense rolls to make, and of course sanity and resistance rolls to make - depending on system of course. The mechanics take so much focus, and they need that focus to be handled right, that there is no time to really RP the character. We don't get to see if the character is thinking about their wife, safe back in the castle, when they're going 1v5 versus the evil king's bodyguards so the rest of the party can stop the ritual to summon ancient evil from happening. Maybe if the player is a really good RPer, or if you really have the character firmly set in your mind, you'll know and can share it, but it doesn't come out in the gameplay. For most people, and most groups, though this simply doesn't happen.
Less Mechanics = More Play
Essentially what I'm saying is that when you're in a situation when mechanics don't come up - say when your char is at the bar - then the focus shifts to the play of the character as opposed to the execution of game mechanics. This frees the player up to actually explore who the character is, how they act, and what it is they do when they're not "on the job" or have their life on the line.
The Volcano Still Matters
Now, obviously the volcano in the quote still matters. Even our fictional characters are different when they're at ease then when their life is on the line. GM long enough and it is only a matter of time before a player who has become attached to their PC does something silly that ends up saving themselves at the cost of someone, or - hopefully more often - something, else.
However, that doesn't as matter as much for most groups. Why? Well, because the usual reaction is that when the mechanics come out the RP goes away. This isn't even an insult to most play groups, it is just how the brain works. We don't want to focus on both parts of the game, and with how much mechanics slow the game down RP is hard. Because of that, you might be surprised how much mileage you can get out of putting downtime into your game.
Why You Want Downtime
This is the essence of my argument for today. If you, as a GM and a playgroup, want to have Role Play and narrative as a strong part of your game then you need to give your players time to RP through downtime. The benefits it gives are simply astounding.
- It gives players a chance to explore who their character is.
- It gives players a chance to relax themselves when the game is less tense
- It is a great time for a GM to see just what the PC values in their life
- It can prevent game fatigue by spacing out the big adventures
- Lots more
Number five probably couldn't be more true if it wanted to be. Almost all the coolest moments that will come out of your game - the moments that stick with people for years - will have their initial birth in moments of down time. Why? Because the RP you get in moments of downtime will add weight to the value of things. That weight makes sacrifices - or the lack thereof - all the better. Many PCs will sacrifice the princess to save the country. Very few will sacrifice their good friend Princess Leilia that has helped them solve many of their personal problems and whom gets them into all the cool social events.
Try it sometime. Give your players the chance to explore your world and your game without the weight of adventure and duty lying on top of them.