Ok. So I’ve said this before, but silence in role play is really an overlooked tool. I think there’s kind of a dogme about it (at least in the Fastaval and chamberlarp scene I’m part of). We think that to role play is to talk. Or that if it’s quiet during play, we’re doing it wrong. If we can’t think of anything to say, then we are failing the role play.
And it’s understandable, roleplay is a verbal medium, especially in the tabletop and champerlarp tradition, where there’s no costumes or scenography to show that we are in a special situation. In those cases, we only have our words to show, that we are in fact role playing, and not just randomly standing around in a room. (Side note, is that why nonverbal is so popular in black box games?).
But some of the strongest scenes I’ve experienced have been in complete silence. And I have had strong scenes ruined, because people felt like they had to talk, and that ruined the moment. I think there’s a few reasons for this:
In a movie they can always find the right emotional thing to say in a very strong scene. But role play has no script, (that’s why we love it). But it also means that we often have to rely on what ever comes to mind, and that is often the cliches. And that is okay in most play, but if someone blurts out some overused cliche in a very emotionally strong scene, because they feel like they had to say something, that can really kill the moment. I have tried to have scenes, where most was quiet, but one person just couldn’t shut up, and I in my mind was just going “shut up, shut up, focus on the moment” (but of course you can’t say that ingame).
That is a cliche in itself, but in this case it’s true. It’s kinda linked to the above. In the very strong scenes we are beyond words, so it becomes very hard to think up anything relevant to say. Just like it is in real life. And it turns out, that the scene is just more powerful if everyone shuts up, and focuses on the mood and says nothing, you will be surprised at what that can do.
So why is silence so strong? I see a few reasons:
It reinforces strong scenes
Just think of the first ten minutes of the Pixar movie Up, so few words spoken, especially towards the end of that bit. Would it have been better with words? I don’t think so.
It focuses attention
When you are accepting the silence and not trying to come up with something to say, you become much more focused on those around you, yourself, your body and your emotions.
It encourages other forms of communication
You will be surprised at what you can communicate with, when you no longer have words. There’s body language, eye contact (or lack of), touch and so on. You don’t know what you can do with that until you try.
We very rarely experience silence. The absence of words is powerful. I can’t explain why, but as I said some of my best moments in roleplay have been beyond words.
But how do we do it? Well here’s a few tips:
Make it permissible
Players need permission to do it. As I said before, we think, that we are doing it wrong, if no one is saying anything during roleplay. So if a game or scene can benefit from it, encourage players to speak less or be quite. As a GM that is a permission you can give.
Make it a rule
Try to challenge your players. The instruction: in this scene you can not talk, is scary, but always yields strong results.
It’s not miming
This is an important instruction to give. You should NOT start miming, just because a scenes is without words. We are not playing someone who is mute, we are playing a scene, where the characters choose not to speak for different reasons. Often because they can’t find the words. It a small distinction, but important.
Here’s a few examples, of how I have used silence in games:
Things that happen to other people
When I played “Things that happen to other people” (read my posts about it here: part one and part two), at one point my character had killed an old man, and I (and my character) was beyond words. I couldn’t think of anything to say, and we had to do an inner monologue. I could have said all the cliches: “why did I do that?” “what’s wrong with me?” “I hate myself!” and so on, but they all sounded so hollow to me. So in the end I decided that the stronger thing to do, was to say nothing, to underline the stunned shock my character was in. And it worked beautifully. It showed that the character was in shock, his mind was literally blank.
The Courage of Teddies
This is a game I designed, and in the last scene, a family have to say goodbye to their young son, who is dying, (#nordiclarpforlife). When I wrote that scene, I saw a great potential for cliches and poorly worded lines, so the GM is asked to give the instruction: “No words during this scene.” They have to say goodbye, but without words, (in the second edition it was soften to as few words as possible.) And I still belive it became a much stronger scene for that reason.
Waiting for flight GO901
Another one of my games, a tragedy about people waiting in the airport for people aboard a plane that crashes, (#nordiclarp4ever). Because you are among strangers and waiting a lot of the time, in real life it would be quite most if the time, so when running that game, I always give the instruction: “silence is good, silence is not awkward. The silence might be hard for your character, but for you it’s a strength.” Several players have praised that instruction. It gave them the permission, I talked about, to be quiet and not be ashamed that they were not contributing to the conversation.
Before and after silence
Not my game, but a game played completely in silence, and a very strong game. I can only encourage you to read it and play it. It shows how much you can do without words. And how other people’s silence is something you can gain play from.
So GM: give your players permission or instruction to be silent when it fits, and see what it does. Players: dare to be quiet and let your body, eyes and wordlessness do the work, you will be surprised at the effect.
And to all of you: Shut up and play!
Silence is one of my greatest assets in roleplay. I first encountered the idea somewhere between my social anxiety making me shut up and hanging out in Finland, where silence is a sign of intelligence and sophistication.
It’s one of the things that makes me love full scale larps so much more compared to tabletop and blackbox. When you have several days to play in, you can really draw out the silences. Several people can attest to my glorious ability to communicate simply with looks. It is a most intense way of playing. Some of my best moments have been wordless.
The silences also gives time to let situations sink deeper inside and find out exactly how things make you feel.
I am looking forward to seeing how my first playtest of Happy Memories will pan out tomorrow. Silence is a big part of the design, I have very little idea of how it will work in play.
That’s also one of the best things about silence. It can contain so many more things than you realize. When I played White Death and realized how differently everyone conceptualized situations and interactions inside their own heads, but still provided most excellent roleplay into my own reading. Lovely polycentric experience.
Excellent blog, thanks Simon.
Many of the larps that I’ve played and the two that I’ve successfully run – “Before and After Silence” and “Beginning” – have been wordless (neither were silent). At KP this year I spoke to Fredrik Hossman about Before and After Silence, and I said, “Thanks for a great experience. But … just one thing. The larp isn’t really about silence, is it?” He replied, “Exactly!”
The larp is quite misleading and sly (like its maker, he he!) The workshop invites exploration of our experiences of silence, expectations of it, and so on. But the reason for the silence is in fact that without words we are given much more permission to play in our own world. Each of the players has their own ‘setting’, and I was amazed at how much play was possible between fifteen people with totally different concepts of what was actually happening.
When people don’t speak, we have much more freedom to interpret their silence in our own way.