thread: 2006-01-24 : Still More Character Ownership

On 2006-01-25, Lisa Padol wrote:

Hm. Okay, the me that is interested in how RPGs really work.

This is going to ramble, and spend some time on side issues that that me thinks need to be gotten out of the way so I can see the ground we’re studying.

Well, RPGs work because people play them. That is, no players, no game, or at least, we’re not currently interested in discussion games without players.

To that extent, the me that has definite tastes needs to be taken into account. It’s all very well to say, “Tell me how to make it work for the people who don’t like it; don’t tell me how much they think it sucks,” but one first needs to identify why people go “Ack!”

So, the me with definite tastes is still obsessed with securing her PCs’ relevance, yes. When I play and run stuff at home, for long term, I still prefer GM-fiat, players have a large amount of control over “their” PCs, and these PCs are the most important people in the world. This doesn’t mean I won’t play differently, but this is my default, what I come back to. This is the me that needs to be taken into account if the actual question isn’t “Are you still so obsessessed with your character’s importance?” but “What kind of games can we get where the game’s fiction chooses whether your character is a protagonist or a supporting character, and how can we get you to play and enjoy these games?”

So, to a degree, I want to take Vincent to task for telling people who go “Ack!” that they’re not giving him useful information when they are answering the question he actually asked.

Now, the question as asked is relevant. But, the next step Vincent sees—if I have this right—is not, “Why do you feel this way?” but “What kind of games would support the kind of structure that is making you go “Ack!” in such a way that, rather than go “Ack!”, you would play and enjoy these games?” And, I think it quite understandable that readers make the mistake of assuming the next step is to answer the first question in this paragraph, not the second.

Also, when Ben listed a bunch of games that do, or at least begin to do, what Vincent is examining, Vincent wondered why, given the existence of these games, people have a knee jerk reaction of “Ack!” It’s like Joanna Russ once said, in The Female Man: If you listen closely, you’ll hear these two sentences over and over again:

Oh, I couldn’t!
Well, but that’s different.

I see a structure like this:

Vincent: Bombshell!
Subgroup: Ack!
Vincent: Why Ack!? Look at X. You’re already doing this.
Subgroup: That’s different. Hm, okay, maybe it’s not so bad.

Note that first line, though. The me that is conservative by indie standards isn’t getting context at first. It’s not, “Bombshell! Now, notice that we’re already doing this—see X. How can we explore this?”

The structure is pushing the Ack! button, and leads to the “That’s different” reaction.

So, the me that is interested in how rpgs really work thinks that clear writing is essential and rare.

This me also notes that I have had experiences where it was only clear at the end whether my character was more of a protagonist or more of a supporting character. Hm. I notice two things right off the bat.

1. “More of”. This is an important modifier.
2. Both examples I’m thinking of right now happened in Everway games run by Kat Miller.

Corollary Hypothesis: The reason so much of this boils down to personal experience is we have yet to codify the rules for guaranteeing or increasing the probability of having X type of experience.

Okay, example 1: Kat ran City of a Thousand Moons for me and Brian Miller. He played a young werewolf named Cub. I played an old wizard from a shamanic type culture.

Brian: Don’t tell me I have to teach you how to read!

Too true. Now, the adventure involved much creation on the part of the players. Kat took a card from each of our histories to use in the creation of the city and the scenario, and each of us had to describe part of what our characters saw at their first glimpse of the city, since the city is what the seekers expect it to be. The adventure reached its action climax, involving defeating an evil wizard, and then reached its emotional climax, involving Cub deciding whether to remain a werewolf or not.

It was at this point that both I and my character realized that the character was a sidekick. Well, more of a helper than a sidekick, but basically, a supporting character in Cub’s story. This was cool, since My Guy was the protagonist of his own story, and since he had lots to do in ways that gave me lots to do. It’s just that his story involved realizing that he didn’t know everything and that Cub was the hero of this tale.

It’s sort of like Big Trouble in Little China, where Jack is not the hero. He thinks he is, but he’s the sidekick. His friend is the hero. This is cool. Nevertheless, in terms of air time and what the juicy role is, Jack is the protagonist.

I had played in many of Kat’s games at that point. Neither of us had ever played with Brian, I think, but I’d talked with him for years in Alarums & Excursions, and we were all on the same page about the type of game we wanted to play and the type of story we wanted to tell.

Example 2: Kat ran Blood of Queens for me, Josh, and Patrick Smith, a friend of ours. The idea was that all of our PCs, regardless of gender, were trying to become the queen of a sphere. About 3/4 of the way through, it was looking really likely that it would be my PC, so I thought about a) what to say if that did prove to be the case and b) who she’d actually favor as queen—Kat’s NPC Ember, who was the closest blood relative to the last queen. The reason my character became queen was because, at character gen, I gave her the zero point power Purity of Heart. It was intended as a character note. It just happened to become extremely relevant.

So, was my character the protagonist, and the other PCs merely supporting characters? I’m not sure. But any one of our PCs had the potential to become the next queen, and what I’d decided I would say was basically a speech explaining how Ember and the other two PCs all possessed some necessary quality to help My Gal be a good queen. It was true, too—we all fell into archetype roles. Everway encourages that. Kat loved my speech.

In a previous run, she said that the PCs agreed that they’d all do the ruling ceremony thing, and they all became queen in a weird way.

Other examples:

Example 3: Overtime, the PTA game from last year’s Dexcon. I was playing a supporting character, I knew it, and I was good with that. I think I would have been dissatisfied if I had had to figure it out in play. Note that this does not necessarily mean that it is essential to know in play whether one is playing a protagonist or a supporter. This is making a point about a particular session, how I play, and how PTA is designed, not how a hypothetical future game might be designed.

Knowing I was playing a supporting character meant I could be appropriately supportive. So, there was one scene where My Gal got a peek at a file that an NPC had taken from her boss’s files. The boss was a PC, and he confronted the NPC a couple of scenes later. Ben, who was gming, asked if I wanted a scene to show My Gal telling the other PC what was going on. Since I knew that I was playing a supporting character, I knew that the story would flow better if we just cut over that. The audience knew what they needed to know to figure out that such a scene happened. If I thought I was playing a protagonist, I might have wanted such a scene, possibly insisting on it. If I wasn’t sure, I might still have pressed for such a scene, wanting to show more about the relationship between My Gal and the other PC. As it was, I knew right off the bat what instrument I was playing in this PTA jam. I knew how the flow should go.

Somewhere in here is implied a question about whether I should have known how the flow should go and let that determine whether my PC was a protagonist or not. That is, I think, an improper question in full context, because that isn’t how PTA is played. But, it is a proper question in context of the issue we’re exploring, and the answer, as always, is: “It depends. Give me more context.”

Example 4: Blood Opera, the Conspiracy of Shadows game at Dreamation. I think I was more of a supporting character than a protagonist. I’m not sure. Regardless, I didn’t feel left out. Hm, I think being able to add facts to a story makes me feel more involved than merely giving fan mail would, but this is an untested hypothesis.

I wasn’t thinking about protagonist or ownership questions during the game, but there was one point where I went into support mode. Jared was playing the bitter second son, and he’d just negotiated a couple of facts. He decided that he did not want His Guy to be the leader of the evil cult we’d invented a few facts back, as the latest fact had proclaimed him. Someone else agreed, saying that it sounded just too easy. Instead, Jared decided he was playing more of a witch hunter, I think like Van Helsing, but I’ve not seen the movie.

We’d also decided that what seemed to be the ghost of a dead woman was a nasty spirit working for the actual head of the evil cult, the wicked uncle (which fit much better—as someone said, no one holds a glass like that except for evil masterminds). So, she was trying to convince My Guy that she was an angel and that he should kill everyone in the house except for the uncle. My Guy, while not the brightest thinker, couldn’t help wondering why an angel would look like a cat who turned into a dead woman. Thus, we had a Conflict.

Dice were rolled, and I lost. (If you can call it “lost”, since I was okay with the result. D’ya think we should start finding terms without these connotations? Or is that just silly?) And, I knew that Jared’s Guy was right outside, about to enter and shoot the evil spirit with a crossbow tipped with a point made from the dead woman’s saddle buckles. So, I gave him a line for His Guy to enter and be cool on. My character, who had fallen to his knees at the sight of the dead woman, said, “Then, the Lord’s will be done.” And Jared got this ultra-cool Van Helsing scene, with His Guy killing the evil spirit, making the appropriate witty quip, and having his cape flap in the wind.

And, I set that up. And, I got a kick from doing it. And, I didn’t know until right before I did it that this was the appropriate thing to do, and that My Guy was, for the moment, at least, in a supporting role. Now, in retrospect, I’d say he was basically a supporting character from start to finish, but, had things gone differently, he might have shifted into and out of the protagonist role. So, that’s another thing to bear in mind: Whether a character is a protagonist or a supporting character may change from moment to moment. Also, while probably obvious, it probably bears saying that questions of ownership and questions of protagonism, while they interlock, are not the same questions.

So, Blood Opera seems to have an example that supports Vincent’s thesis. This is probably because people can make up facts about the story. Note that this did lead to a bit of negotiation that is not, I think, supported by the rules—“I don’t like X fact. Can we change that?” Or is it? I’ve got my copy with me, but am only on page 5. The point I’m trying to make is that a clash on the player level was amicably resolved, but we had to go outside the rules to do so (if I’m correct), and the goal here (if I’m correct) is to create a structure where that’s not necessary.

As a GM, yes, I’m mostly playing supporting characters. But even there, have you even noticed that some GMCs are more equal than others? Done right, this doesn’t mean that the GMC steals the PCs’ thunder. It means that folks think of certain GMCs as, well, the GM’s PCs.

This was a concept Naomi Rivkis taught me. She gm’d a game that was basically urban fantasy with a college campus setting. She was cool with the idea of the other players gming, and Josh actually did this, running a specific plotline that we all agreed should happen, but that Naomi didn’t really want to run. Naomi would often refer to specific GMCs as “her” PCs. And, yes, ownership was definitely on the table. This was not a bad thing, and the game flowed more smoothly when we were all clear about who was claiming ownership of what.

This relates to a couple of things I saw happening in Cthulhupunk, the game I’ve been running for years, well before there was a GURPS Cthulhupunk (and GURPS was a system I never considered using). One plot thread involved one of Naomi’s PCs testing one of my GMCs, culminating in a session that was a big game of Capture the Flag. Other plot threads involved her PC and Josh’s PC taking on apprentices. In these cases, the PCs are taking on roles traditionally associated with GMCs and vice versa.

Possibly a side issue, but one I think about a lot: larps. I have run canned larps, in both playtest and finished forms. I have played in larps. I have co-written larps, and I am currently committed to writing 4 new characters for a larp we’ve run before and otherwise helping put that larp and one other in the can and running them at Intercon F. I am working on first drafts of about 60 characters for a larp we’ve been working on for about a decade.

In the usual type of larp I play and write, pretty much one player = one PC and the player owns the PC, more or less. The PC is usually created by the writers. Mad Scientists was an exception, as the players were told to submit their own PCs, and we plotted based on what we got.

For this type of larp, every character must be a protagonist. When I am writing, each character must be my beloved PC-and-protagonist-of-a-story for the duration of the time I spend writing the character. Sure, folks may slip into and out of protagonist rolls in play, and the protagonist of the Trapeze Acrobats Plot may be the supporting character of the Ringmaster’s Plot and largely irrelevant to the Bearded Woman’s Plot (taken from Col. Sebastian T. Rawhide’s Circus of the Spectacular, a larp I played in and then ran). But, the author owes it to the players to see that they have as high a chance as possible of enjoying playing their characters in the larp, and writing each role as if it were the protagonist of a story is a good technique. (Doesn’t have to be the same story for each character in a larp.)

Are there other types of larps? Undoubtedly, but this is getting long, larps are a bit of a tangent to begin with here, and I’m hungry.



This makes sdm go "Nice examples"
Very concrete. I had the same problem with "Ack" as a derailing lead, but it works out over the thread.

This makes JK go "They don't all have to be protags"
Antagonists are Just Fine in a LARP. See Jack Bungling, from Colonel T. Rawhide. Sidekick characters are more problematic, since that can mean a player is relying on another player to provide). But it's actually more important for the GMs to not be sure who the protags, antags, sideckicks and henchmen will actually be in a fully-written LARP than in a F2F game, since they should be treating every character as if they're a 'tag.

This makes LP go "Exactly."
I'm cool with being Jack Bungling, 'cuz I'm Important. I'm cool with being his brother, cuz I'm Complex. As an author, it's why I go "Blind fools muttermuttermutter" when I write a certain character in JV, and why I work on the DotM characters in clusters, as I get excited about them. Ambrose is a much better character since I got into his head. Okay, he's not mine once we hand him to a player, but there's enough there there to make a player happy.

This makes LP go "Different view"
of the CoS game is on the Actual Play forum, in the Forge -- subject is something like Blood Opera, Dreamation Run.

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