Character Framing: Restrictions, Keys, & the Last Airbender

2006 May 23

One of the Nobilis design “laws” is the [Insert Random Flowery Name Here] Law, which goes something like, “strength is gained through adversity.” This is the model for the Restrictions system, where characters get a restriction like, “I Freak Out Whenever I’m Around Jell-o” (NOTE: not a real example) and then gain extra resource points when their Jell-o Allergy causes them real difficulties. These are more than just markers that indicate issues a character wants to deal with (which I think is what some people call “Flags,” right?), because, in Nobilis, individual players are encouraged to take responsibility for getting their characters into situations where they are trapped in a room with Bill Cosby and a lot of Jell-o Pudding Pops. So Nobilis uses Restrictions as an underhanded way of giving players greater narrative control than they traditionally have, but only to cause a world of hurt for themselves (and gain resource points in the process). Nobilis offers other methods of player empowerment, but that’s the one I’m concerned with right now.

Clinton does something equally cool with Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday, which are sorta like Restrictions in that they give you resources points (XP) in return for narrating certain things, but Keys are character development goals that must be met (“Destroy All the World’s Jell-o”) instead of challanges to give yourself. Still, in both cases, Restrictions and Keys seem to mainly function to 1) provide a unique character identity by giving players goals/problems to invoke regularly, and 2) excuses for players to narrate their characters into a world of trouble. Keys have the bonus feature of facilitating character development as well. If you meet certain conditions, you can complete or invalidate a Key and basically exchange it for a new Key (though the way the rules handle this is a bit more complicated than that).

So I was thinking about Avatar: The Last Airbender this morning, and trying to come up with a way to mix The Shadow of Yesterday, Exalted, Nobilis, and Primetime Adventures to model the show appropriately (which is my next project after the pirate game, I think; before dolphins). I definitely want strong character guidelines (TSOY‘s Keys), kewl kung fu powerz for the kiddies to accumulate (Exalted‘s Charm Trees), a rather-fuzzy-but-with-some-structure method for handling the magical element-bending powers (Nobilis‘s Miracle Charts), and a way of structuring individual sessions so they feel like TV episodes (PTA‘s great framing rules).

Here’s the real revelation, though, after all that build up: character development in TV shows needs to be paced too, just like scenes do. So I’m thinking of creating a kind of “personality chakra” for each major character, which is a string of Restrictions and Keys that are arranged in a certain order and build on each other. So you have to complete one before moving on to the next. There could be chakras of various sizes. The largest one is, of course, the chakra for the whole series, which focuses on one element per Season of the show. All the characters would work together to complete that chakra. On a smaller level, take the character Sokka. His core personal chakra for the first 6 episodes (the ones I’ve seen so far) might look like this:

    Do Stupid/Stubborn Shit –> Be Humbled –> Stupidly Seek Revenge –> Be Humbled Again –> Swallow Your Pride and Learn a Key Lesson –> Demonstrate Your New Knowledge

Now there would be no fixed pace for you to work through such a chakra but the key characters would each work through at least a few stages of their core chakra per episode. The character that the episode focuses on would probably work through their entire personal chakra. And maybe the more chakra stages you worked through, the more the group as a whole would work through the larger game chakra. And there could be secondary chakras as well, for building up your martial arts or magical bending abilities or completing other side quests (“Discover what really happened to all the Airbenders”).

One of the neat things here, as with Keys, would be allowing for the development of personal and power/ability chakras. By which I mean not “progressing along the chakra” but “changing the way you move along the chakra,” swapping out one stage for another or rearranging the stages, for example. I’m hoping that, by the Second Season, Sokka will have ditched his need to be humbled twice before he learns anything, but who knows. He may keep the required humblings and change something else. And when it becomes possible for characters to learn new martial art or bending powers, those obviously get added to their respective chakras, so they can get invoked in subsequent play.

Anyways, yeah, welcome to a emerging area of design that’s beginning to gain real attention (heck, it even sorta snuck into Exalted: Second Edition) and the tools to match: character framing.

3 Responses to “Character Framing: Restrictions, Keys, & the Last Airbender”

  1. xenopulse Says:

    What if, instead of having the chakra predetermined, you have a huge variety of possible chakra-chains, and during play, as you gain chakra, you can figure out which chain you want to ultimately complete?

    Like, you earn the “Do Stupid Things” chakra, then the “Be Humbled” chakra. Now you look at the list of chakra chains, and you see that there are several ways you could go from here: short ways (go right to “swallow pride” and “demonstrate knowledge”), longer ways (do the “revenge” then “humbled” routine before the others), or even different paths (switch instead to “lost faith in your abilities” and then to “regain faith and try again”).

    That way, as the story happens, you can choose your own plotline with chakra chain guidance, less predetermination, and even some strategizing (short chakra chain=small payoff soon, long chakra chain=big payoff later).

  2. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Well, the reason it’s a chakra is that you do it over and over again, once each episode. It’s not just some long chain that stretches out over the whole story.

    But I do see the benefit of having characters accumulate a bunch of chain links and then assemble them in a different order each session, with some basic requirements about what links have to come before/after other links.

    Still, part of the point is that the chakra cycles are pretty predictable. I mean you know, in any given episode, that Sokka is gonna do something stupid, be embarrassed, lash out, fail, and then learn something. But you don’t know how those circumstances are going to play out. The fun comes in those instances where you alter the predictable chain to give it a new shape.

    Still, I’m much more excited about tightly scripted games than many people. Personally, I find the “Infinite Possibilities!” of open-ended play less enticing than variations on a scripted theme.

  3. Albert Says:

    This put a really cool image in my mind, of character and meta-character paths for the show as nested systems of planetary gears. The very outer ring is the season-long uber-plot chakra. Individual character intra-episode chakras are smaller gears in the middle, with maybe 3- or 4-episode length plot arc chakras in between.

    As a player rotates/progresses his own gear/chakra, that also progresses the plot arc chakra according to some ratio, which in turn rotates the uber-plot chakra to a lesser degree.

    Actually trying to implement this particular image might be overly mechanistic, but planetary gears are cool! Also, it’s a wonderfully concrete metaphor for the concept of the players literally driving the story forward by rotating their own gear.

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