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#RPGTheoryJuly – 29th – Elliptical Play

Elliptical play was something that I had never heard of until today.

So the principle is a bit like Elephant in the room. In role playing there is stuff going on, probably centre stage but the characters are not involved in it. They may know about it, be effected by it but they do not take part in it. In many ways Zweihander is entirely based on elliptical play. Zwei heroes are the people that make a difference to one persons life or maybe a household. You may take on a gang of thugs here or a lurking horror there but saving the world is not what the game is about.

There are plenty of heroes doing that sort of thing in many of the campaign seeds but it isn’t you. The great events are more likely to just provide a backdrop to a game.

Elliptical play is also used to skirt around topics that do not get played out. We do it all the time to skip boring “stuff”. We are going on a quest of a thousand miles but the actual travelling a thousand miles is not so exciting so we skirt around it. In some games the journey is actually the bit that gets role played but the big battles are skipped over. If not in a journey then in political campaigns. One of the most popular board games amongst my circle of role players used to be Diplomacy. It is almost entirely elliptical in that it is technically a wargame but the battles are almost entirely skipped over. All the ‘action’ happens away from the board and in inter-player diplomacy.

In all my solo rules I have a record sheet for ‘loose ends’ or ‘story arcs’. This is a place where you jot down potential adventures that you are not pursuing. I recommend that at the beginning or end of the a solo session you scan down the list and if any seem like they should naturally connect, maybe they have an NPC in common or a theme then you use a coloured highlighter and connect them. That still doesn’t mean you need to actively play them but it helps to know that there is another adventure/plot/scheme happening in your solo world even if you are not a part of it.

Once you have a connected thread of off camera events you can think what it could be. I now like to use PbtA clocks to measure the progression of these off camera events. As you improv plot complications and story twists if these hidden schemes fit the bill then you can connect them and advance the clock.

Image result for blades in the dark progress clocks

In this case the clock is not for an obstacle but other world events.

There is a lot of stuff that you quite simply do not want to play though that you can assumed happened and advance the clock. You then pick up after the event and progress from that point onwards.

I think it is debatable if there is a need for elliptical play in solo games. You are in control of the content. There is no need to skirt around difficult subjects if you don’t want the game to go there. I don’t actually see why RPGs need to go near difficult subjects in the first place, that seems contra to the entire idea of playing a GAME. If you want to use RPGs for therapy then you should know what you are doing before you get into it. This blog is not about therapy.

My favoured profession in group play is that of healer or medic. We play a lot of Rolemaster and the Lay Healer profession is a great all round profession. In a near future game I was in my medic was still special forces trained and I got to carry a .44 magnum (Do you feel luck?) but I was still the medic. As a healer do I want to skip the combat scenes? Hell, no! Amy I central figure in combat? Normally yes but I probably don’t rack up as many kills as the marines and knights.

Why medics?

It all started in a campaign long ago. We had a GM that was so clearly fudging the dice to keep up alive that we would throw ourselves into stupid combats just to prove the point, even just between ourselves as a private joke. The GM would always have an NPC healer and she would (his healers were always female for some reason) always keep us alive and patch us up just enough to complete the quest/whatever.

When I decided to play a healer it caused the GM a minor panic. The group didn’t want to two healers and no one wanted to go out of the way to find an NPC healer anyway if they already had one in the party. But he[the GM] no longer had control over healing and death. For once he had to honestly balance the threats and quests he sent us on. This of course didn’t work, he just fudged their to hit rolls and damage. He may as well of given all his villains over ripe bananas to fight with instead of weapons the way they never did more than minimal damage once people started falling over in big fights.

I will also confess to being a bit of a min/maxer, but I am also a damn good role player (even if I say so myself). Playing a supposedly weaker profession, but one that is min/maxed amongst a group of characters of middling to fair ability sort of balances out. If I was level for level equal then I would be overshadowed in every way except post combat healing. As I am gaining experience faster than my companions, being a level or two higher is actually putting me on a par of sorts. As my character is not an in your face leadership contender, I am peasant-born amongst nobles, it also means I am never going to steal the limelight from the players and characters that need it, and that has nothing to do with numbers on a page, min/maxing or character level.

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