Capturing Lighting in a Bottle

Tabletop roleplaying is almost always fun. Looking back on the years I’ve spent at the table, I can only think of a few instances when I would have rather been doing something else. And most of those incidents were in my teens, when I didn’t realize that the rules and the whim of the gamemaster are less important than everyone enjoying themselves.

When I gather with my friends for our regular Friday night game, I know it’ll be relaxing, full of levity, drama and imagination. At the same time, I try not to hold any expectations beyond that. To do so would be unfair, not just to me, but to my compatriots at the table. At the end of a long week of work, family, and whatever else the world has thrown at us, the last thing we need is to feel unworthy if we can’t create an utterly breathtaking game session.

Acquiring this perspective makes our games better, I think. It’s not just that we don’t get freaked out when things go personally; there’s also less pressure on the gamemaster if it’s clear that the fate of the free world isn’t resting on his shoulders. The result is a more fluid, more relaxed game, and by the same token, a better campaign.

But.

When I’m running a game, in the back of my head there’s often a faint voice telling me, “If you set this up properly, if you put that in front of the players, this could be an epic session.” If you’ve been playing tabletop RPGs for any length of time, you know what I mean. There are some sessions that, for whatever reason, stick out in your group’s memory. Maybe it was the time the players pulled off a miraculous defense of a lost colony, or the one when they bluffed their way past the criminal syndicate that was about to destroy them. Perhaps it was the time when that one roll changed everything, or the inconsequential conversation they had with an NPC that brought them further into the setting. Whatever it was, in that session everything came together: the gamemaster presented opportunities and challenges in just the right measure, the players breathed life into their characters, and it all flowed beautifully.

Those lightning in a bottle sessions don’t come along all that often. But when they do, there’s this hum in the room. Maybe jazz musicians feel something similar after they’ve played something astounding, on the fly and off the cuff. Maybe improv actors taste it when they are in a zone and the audience is eating it up. The difference here is that the participants are also the audience. The epic lightning in a bottle session is a shared secret, a little bit of magic than only a very few people can know.

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