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.

8 Responses to “Character at All Costs”

  1. Bradley "Brand" Robins Says:

    “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.”

    Then there are those like Mo, who multitask to do both. She very much plays the character experience as primary, but always has a secondary process going on about the story. Random and unplanned aren’t needed, but “not pre set” is.

    And yea, talking about things and having mechanics that actually support such development (Dogs rules spring to mind) is a vast help.

  2. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Yeah, that’s why I said these were categories that didn’t apply to individuals (rather to behaviors or processes), because people can definitely be interested in both, just not necessarily at the same time or to the same extent.

    Mo calls these “sockets” as far as I can tell, which is probably nicer than “fetishes” :) I don’t know why I bother writing anything. My game blog should just be one big hyperlink to Sin Aesthetics.

  3. Bradley "Brand" Robins Says:

    Actually, I think there is a valid line to de drawn between a socket and a fetish, even if it wasn’t the way you were using the word.

    When you socket into something you like that thing, and probably need some of that thing to make a game fun for you. When you fetishize something, you make that thing the single and sole purpouse of the game and refuse to do anything that doesn’t directly apply to it.

    But that may just be me being judgemental again.

    As for Sin Aesthetics, have you noticed how little I’ve written since Mo started it? She has all my good ideas before I have them.

  4. Jonathan Walton Says:

    No, no, be judgemental.

    Actually, I kinda got inwardly annoyed with one of Mo’s posts recently (something on Sin Aesthetics, her interview with Thomas?) when she said some things that sounded kinda fetishy (instead of just sockety) about character. That and Jess’ posts are what led me to write this actually.

    This is the judgemental thing that I wanted to say, but didn’t:

    “Jesus H. Christ, Mo/Jess! Roleplaying is in its infancy as a medium and you’ve already put all your eggs in one basket! We haven’t even discovered half the things you could potentially socket into for enjoyment. Ron’s 5 elements is a good start, but the Forge boys have been all about Hard Choices as a primary socket (or crazy fetish) for a while. And I feel like Shreyas, Thomas, and I come up with a new source of play enjoyment everytime we sit down and have a serious coversation. I mean, yes, character is really cool and it’s probably what brought us all to roleplaying in the first place (I get to be someone interesting and badass!) but there are SO MANY OTHER PARTS OF ROLEPLAYING THAT ARE ALSO AWESOME, POSSIBILY EQUALLY AWESOME AND POTENTIALLY MORE AWESOME THAN CHARACTER.”

    And I probably don’t really need to say that. But it would have been fun.

  5. Bradley "Brand" Robins Says:


    Funny thing is Mo might even agree with you. A lot of her game designs do things other than character immersion as thier primary goal.

    This is probably because she can already character immerse in games, so she wants to make systems to do other things that she can’t do as easil or well. So, in Crime and Punishment, you get lots of rules for joint story creation and very little that has anything to do with character socket, much less character fetish, at all.

    The caveat to that is that for Mo the different games are different types of fun. Right or wrong when she thinks the word “roleplaying” she thinks about character. When she thinks “other kinds of games that are also fun” she might think of all sorts of other things.

    Which, once again brings me to my contention that a lot of what we are doing aren’t the same things. We’re playing team sports and trying to call them all basketball when some of them are football and tenis and golf and some of them are quilting.

    But, because of the power dynamics of vocabulary, we can’t just say “well this is a game and that is coblarsh and this is roleplaying and that is froinlaven, and they have these features the same and these different…” because as soon as we do that, in our peculiar little society, we instantly start making value judgements, rhetorical power grabs, and cultural appropriations.

    Which is too bad, because if we could remove the crap (“Nascar isn’t a sport!”) we might actually be able to communicate more clearly about what we’re doing than when we use the same word to describe D&D played as boardgame and, say, Midragam played live onstage in front of an audience.

  6. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Actually, while you may find that kinda annoying, the lack of categories for different types of games is what I really enjoy about this moment in the history of roleplaying. We’re walking into a vast field of the unknown, where there are no previous games to really guide us. After another 100 years or so, there will hopefully be all sorts of landmark games setting the boundaries of new play genres, but those really don’t exist right now.

    I recently began suspecting that the reason I love roleplaying as a medium has a lot to do with the infinite canvas. I can tell roleplayers to do anything, absolutely anything, and they will be game for it as long as it’s part of an entertaining “game.” That’s really astounding.

    It’s sorta like scripting a piece of performance art. I could write a game for, say, 1 mature female, 1 boy child, a pianist, and a puppeteer. The woman and boy are Mary and Jesus off buying groceries at a market in Egypt (they’re still hiding from Herod). The pianist and the puppeteer collaboratively create the people and situations they encounter in the market, based on guidelines I lay out. Jesus and Mary react to these situations.

    AND PEOPLE WILL ACTUALLY PLAY THIS! Isn’t that nuts?! And that’s not even half the things I can get people to do, just by writing a “roleplaying game.” And that’s SO INCREDIBLY AWESOME.

  7. Mo Says:

    Jebus, having conversations about me out in the open behind my back!?!

    “Jesus H. Christ, Mo/Jess! Roleplaying is in its infancy as a medium and you’ve already put all your eggs in one basket! We haven’t even discovered half the things you could potentially socket into for enjoyment… POTENTIALLY MORE AWESOME THAN CHARACTER.”

    Nope, you didn’t need to say it. ;) I agree with you on much of that. I even talked about choice sockets on some blog somewhere not to long ago…. there’s lots of room for exploration, and that exploration might, nay will… open up whole new avenues of fun.

    It’s possible that one of those avenues might churn my ovaries in an even greater way than my current character socket play patterns do. A number of years ago, my secondary socket wouldn’t have been story, it’d have been setting or something, and that transition has been brought about as a direct result of a.) influence, which started as the Brand and opened up to the community of crazy thinkers like you, b.) freedom and authority in theconstruct of the game itself, and personal transformation that makes me want different things now in life and in game than I did five or ten years ago. People change, their preferences change, and the environment changes both.

    But right now, that socket has yet to be usurped, and if anything ever does manage to steal the crown? It’ll have to be huge.

    Besides, I don’t think of it as putting all my eggs in one basket in the traditional sense. I kinda see the basket as me, and the only place I have to put them.

  8. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Mo, as usual, you are 100% correct in all things. However, we will continue to talk about you behind your back and so will Jesus.

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