Archive for July 23rd, 2006

Character at All Costs

2006 Jul 23

Finally getting around to reading Jess’ recent post on 20×20 has gotten me thinking about the fetishization of character in roleplaying, something nearly as pervasive as the fetishization of story. It’s really strange how much these two common tendencies are operating from opposite assumptions. The following is a generalization that is not applicable to individuals but may still help explain these often-competing ideologies.

The fetishization of story arrived, as far as I can tell, as a reaction against the fetishization of rules. Following the rules to a T sometimes leads to unfun things happening. The key, story proponents declared, is ignoring the rules or anything else when it doesn’t serve the best interests of the overall story. The story approach tries to always look at the big picture, not worried necessarily about how the rules should play out or what certain characters should or shouldn’t do, but how these forces serve the larger narrative. It’s about looking at a roleplaying session as if you are a stage or film director, trying to pace things and plot the action in a way that creates an entertaining play experience for everyone. This is a very GM-centric approach to viewing roleplaying.

The fetishization of character is a player-centric approach. Yes, it’s partially mixed up in all that messy talk about immersion, but really it’s about pursuing the rewards of character consistency and the pleasure of playing a role often at the expense of rules and sometimes at the expense of the larger narrative. Character proponents are often annoyed by rules that affect their ability to decide what their character does or feel or forces them to think out-of-character (i.e. they enjoy more “low-impact” mechanics), but, also, they are not as concerned with what’s happening in the overall story, at least during play. After play is over, they may be more than welcome to reflect on how the story is building, but during play they are often more concerned with the situation of their own character. Some may have enough sense of how the narrative is developing that they can have their character act in ways that support the larger story, especially if such things have been discussed beforehand, but often they are more interested in watching the narrative emerge, seeminging unplanned and hap-hazard, from decisions made by individual characters.

Recent tendencies in design have, I think, made things more difficult for those who tend to fetishize character, since most indie games (and most roleplaying games in general, honestly) are written by folks approaching play and design from the GM’s chair. I don’t think it’s especially surprising, then, that we’ve seen a steadily increasing breakdown of the traditional GM/player divide (described, in great detail, by Emily Care Boss in Push vol 1!) and an increased push by designers to take advantage of the brilliance of their players to drive and sustain interesting play. Players, new design trends have suggested, should have a good feel for where the game is going and have plenty of good ideas about what should happen next. Putting these ideas into practice, and not simply relying on the GM to create structure and plot, is a key goal of most contemporary designers than I know of, even ones who still preserve the GM role to one extent or another.

Part of what led me to look at “low impact” mechanics in the first place was reading a bunch of blog posts where people were saying “I don’t want to deal with X, Y, or Z during play. It interferes with my ability to really enjoy myself.” Some designers seemed to take this as a rejection of the cool new stuff they just finished designing, which is understandable. We made all these cool new tools for encouraging new types of play and now some people are saying, seemingly for ideological reasons, that they won’t use them. That sucks. Maybe they’re just being stubborn and resistant to the future of roleplaying. More likely, though, there’s something else going on. And I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what they something else is for a while. I keep circling it, but I still can’t quite put my finger on it.

Interestingly, John Kim’s Push article describes a style of play tailor-made for people who are all about character, which makes it an ideological opposite of the Emily Care article that comes right before it. Interesting how I’m just noticing this now or I would have mentioned it in Push. John’s piece is about creating a play experience in which each major character is seemingly the protagonist of their own story (one of the chief goals, arguably, of the character-centric approach and immersion).

One of the things I’m trying to do in my current Avatar design project is harnessing player’s decisions about their character, which are gathered and collected to create “character development arcs,” in the service of building a larger narrative about what these characters are doing and why it matters. We’ll see if this does anything to address the different ideological assumptions of the character-centric and story-centric approaches.