Psst! Come Over Here a Minute: The Value of Sidebars

An interesting conversation came up on the (Twitter) feed yesterday, and I noticed it this morning when I went out on the front porch to get a bit of fresh air and was greeted by a warm, wet blanket of humidity and middling rains. I sat on the swing and saw a few people discussing whether sidebars where a good thing or a bad thing–and I’m not talking about sidebars in books (that’s grist for another mill).

First off, allow me to define sidebar for the purpose of our discussion.

A sidebar is when a GM takes a player (or players) away from the game space in order to convey information other characters should not be privy to. Simple as that. While experienced groups should have the maturity to not have player knowledge = character knowledge, there are people who, by accident or intent, use the (unknown) information to their advantage in a scenario. For example, if one character recognizes the pauper child as Prince Flimflox, heir to the Empire of Hood, and the other characters do not, but the GM announces it at the table, one player may decide to be suddenly polite and deferential to the little beggar thief who just cut his purse. This prompts either policing on the part of the table collective or the GM to cock his head and say “Really? This is how your guy treats a cut-purse? Duly noted.” or worse yet, he is forced to call him out for his metagaminess. (A bad word with a bad smell.) Regardless of how the players compartmentalize this information, it’s bound to impact the roleplaying experience on the molecular level. Maybe you’re okay with this. Maybe you’re not. I’m not your Keeper, but let me tell you how I’d do this if you wound up at my table. (Note the not-so-subtle segue with the big K? Can you guess what’s coming? Sure ya can.)

I’ll be the first to admit Realms of Cthulhu is a different beast. It’s a multi-tentacled monstrosity designed to blow your ever-lovin’ mind and you love it for it. You keep comin’ back to it, like a bad romance. You can’t get it out of your system? Though it treats you bad, when it’s good, it’s really good, and who are you to say no? Right? Right. Perception is key to a horror game and in the Mythos as minds buckle under the weight of an unveiled reality, perceptions can shift, and it’s important for ratcheting up the tension to take the player to the side and inundate them with undulating strangeness and weirdness, covering them with a thick, absinthe veil, before sending them dazed back to the table to interpret what they had seen, and present it to the other players. Certainly, it’s an information transfer to one character and you know they’ll tell the other characters, but it’s interesting to see what they say, what information they keep close to their chest, and what bits of data got shuffled around either by accident or through intent. This adds a degree of tension, a tension lost if you just recite the dream sequence of one character at the table.

Certainly, there is a trade off–you’re trading time away from the table for a more intense experience. Is this necessary for all games? Absolutely not. As much as I’m a fan of using it for games where characters have cross-purposes and mixed agendas, I never advocate the broad use of sidebars in many genres or the settings I’ve designed or worked on. You have to weigh the intent of the game versus the perceived value add. In RoC, the players enjoy the sidebar moments, and there are proper ways to do sidebars which we’ll get to in just a moment. I want to give you a laundry list of where sidebars work and sidebars fail. Note: these, along with anything else I ever write here are what my life experiences have given me to work with. You might find my views contrary to your own. But then again, you might like GM’s who narrate the end of the adventure for you. (Remember, at that point, the game has ceased being a game, and the GM has transformed into a storyteller and you are listening to a tale.)

Sidebars are bad in fantasy, pulp, superhero, and spy stuff as a general rule. Why? In all these games, the characters should be working together as a collective, focusing on getting the mission done, and not working in the shadows against one another. This is the good guys getting stuff done. I remember a lot of note passing around the table back in the day when players were trying to get over on one another, typically the thief picking pockets or snaking some loot or some other such thing. Looking back, I think Diplomacy may have started all that sneakiness…At any rate, when shenanigans are going on around the table, you’re not participating in a game anymore, you’re suddenly watching a train wreck with the burning bodies of the plot points screaming and beating upon the windows to get out. If you contributed to the derailment, shame on you. If you’re an innocent bystander, you have the choice of watching it burn, or helping the half-charred corpses out of the wreckage, but the game is no longer the same game. You’ve gone into alien territory. Respect your game. Your story. Your GM.

Certain settings demand sidebars but not many, and even then should be used sparingly (at most a few times a session, if at all). Settings such as horror, mystery, and some spy (where counterspies are a possibility) and definitely noir fall into this latter camp.

Good sidebar etiquette is as follows:

1. Excuse your self and your select players from the table. (This is common courtesy, but you gotta give respect to get respect.)

2. Have them bring dice and their character sheet. (They may not be needed but better to have them just in case.)

3. Keep things brief. Limit exchanges to the table as much as possible.

That’s it. While I don’t always adhere to point 2, I should. Invariably, you or the player is going to want to source something on the sheet or make a roll, so suck it up and get with the program. As a corollary, I’d recommend your group keeps sidebars GM driven. If players start wanting sidebars, the game can quickly devolve into the most needy/attention-seeking player soaking up a lot of time and interrupting the overall flow of play.

Now go forth and whisper sweet sidebars to one another. Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!

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