On Side Chats

Sometimes a player can’t go the whole time between sessions without a game fix. Other times there are things that one player would find interesting but that would bore the group, possibly because of style and possibly because it’s too single-character-focused. Or maybe it’s part of an attempt to give everyone a piece of the puzzle so they have to work together to find the solution. Regardless, this could be a job for a side chat.

Essentially, a side chat is part of a game, but done with only part of the group, outside standard game hours. Sometimes it directly advances the plot, though that tends to cause problems with the rest of the group; usually, plot advancement is by accident, because of the player’s actions or conclusions.

There are several advantages to a side chat. One is that knowledge is controlled more tightly; while what happens in side chat may not always stay in side chat, it’s less likely that people who weren’t involved aren’t going to know anything about what happened than if it was done as a split-focus session with the rest of the table uninvolved but sitting and watching. And that, in turn, means that any conclusions are filtered through the player involved, further obscuring your real intentions.

Another is decreased risk of stage fright. There are kinds of scenes that can be run in a side chat that feel a lot more awkward in main chats—in-game romances in particular, but also just about anything involving brands of characterization the player hasn’t done very much or ones that he feels the rest of the group would have no interest in. It’s a lot easier to branch out when there isn’t a several people sitting around waiting for your turn to end.

Still another is getting a chance to really get to know the characters. In a standard game format, you might have time to see some of their quirks and sticking points, but there usually isn’t time to get into the details. On the other hand, when it’s just the character and whoever the character chooses to talk to, when you don’t have to worry about an entire group’s enjoyment in a set amount of time, there’s a lot more room to get them just to talk, to learn about them, to poke aspects of the character and see how they respond—and, in turn, to give the character and through him the player a chance to poke the world and see how it responds.

There are, of course, difficulties. One is finding time; when you’re balancing work schedules, other games, other social obligations, and of course the game itself, when are you going to find time to get together for that kind of chat? Another is information imbalance; when one character knows a number of things that others do not, those others might get a little jealous, particularly when the informed one doesn’t share. There’s also the risk that the character who seeks out sidechats will end up having a disproportionate impact on the plot.

The person trying to disseminate useful information through side chats also runs into another problem. Using a side chat, while it does mean that information can be given to only a portion of the group at a time, also introduces the telephone effect—the possibility that the necessary information will be changed through the way those hear it interpret it. (Most of you have probably had times when the entire group collectively misinterpreted something said to all during a full-group session; adding another link to the chain only makes it worse.)

Overall, I find the side chat a useful and in fact desirable element to the overall game. What about you?


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