Thursday, November 5, 2009

Character Ethos and Development

I'm writing posting a day early as I want to clear the decks for working on a revision of something for Gene in the next couple of days. Gene is, btw, embarking on a Pork-based safari in Chicago this weekend. Our thoughts and prayers go with him. Plus, new semester's coming up in LV and I have to put the course listings together.

Three Up, Three Down
Anyway, I mentioned before asking the players to come up with a list of plots/sub-plots revolving around their characters that they were most interested in. I got some really good response on that-- some of it was confirmatory. That's good as it shows that I'm on the same page as the players about what they (and by extension their characters) are interested in. A few things were a surprise to me and that's good-- it helps me catch things which otherwise I might have overlooked. As a tool, asking those kinds of things of the players doesn't meta-determine the game: how those plots will roll out still remains in question. And it doesn't keep the GM from introducing new and novel things. But it does give me a leg up in prep and point me towards ideas which need more table time. Obivously not everything can be covered in the course of a campaign, but I can do my best to do more things in depth.

On a related note, I wanted to mention another tool that I have asked some of the players to try. It began from a post here. I liked it, but went in a just slightly different direction. Here's what I asked the Changeling players:

An interesting article there-- I like the idea of defining three key core concepts for characters, one's which serve as the center for identity and also one's which are likely to be static (or even iconic) in the sense that they're probably not going to change over the course of the narrative arc. And also the sense of three concepts which the character is less attached to, or perhaps that are changeable through the course of the narrative.

If you have a chance I'd like for you guys to think about and define a version of this 3 up, 3 down concept-- in this way. What are three things about your character's core concept-- things that make them themselves which are not going to change based on the story. And what are three current characters you see as potentially evolving.

I've mentioned that iconic ethos before, from Robin Laws' discussion about it here.

So far I've gotten responses back from Shari and Sherri-- and we've been working on refining those. One of the things to work through in Sherri's case was what would change and what wouldn't. In the case of her character for Libri Vidicos, we talked about what made her character fun to play. As a specific example, she talked about the fact that Lucy-- for good or ill-- doesn't really get how other people see her. She has no real sense of the impression she's giving off. Sherri originally talked about that being something Lucy might out grow-- but I pointed out that in fact that was a core concept-- changing that would really change who the character is and make playing Lucy less fun. On the other hand she mentioned being Aoniaen as a crucial core concept-- but I asked exactly what that meant? What defines that for her? If it is about what she thinks about being an Aoniaen, then that might actually be a changeable concept. Shari's done a set for her LV character cerise, and you can see those here.

I think this is a useful exercise-- and one that's had me going back to look at my past characters to analyze what really served as the three core ideas and the three that either did evolve over the course of the game or I wanted to have evolve. I also thought about some games where I'd had those core concepts impinged on-- some my fault and others from the GM & player side, but I'll take a look at that later.

I'd like to point out that while the original post focuses on players not stepping on each other's territory, I think that's really a distant secondary consideration. In long term campaigns your characters are going to change and evolve. As a GM, I want to be able to give the players the chance to do that. But I don't want to mandate character change that violates the player's sense of who their character is. Not that the player's won't be tested-- but I do want to be on the same page on those goals.

Campaign Ethos
Despite being a rampant *sshole, Carl P a number of years ago said something to me about gamemastering that stuck with me. It's taken me a while to really come around to running with it, and I'll admit I don't always do it as well as I'd like. We'd just had a session where Barry's character had been hitting on a female NPC and things had gone very badly for him. Carl and I were talking about it and he questioned why the scene had skewed that way. I had some in-game logic reasons (mostly about the target's orientation) but I also mentioned that his approach just bugged me. Carl pointed out that Barry had been working within his frame of reference and that he was handling things in what seemed to him an appropriate manner-- but which I'd read as kind of douchebaggy and borderline misogynistic. Carl's point was a good one-- that I had to understand and try to match a players expectations about the game, shaping the narrative to them instead of making them hit the brick wall of my expectations. Scott and I have gone around a couple of times about what constitutes a good romantic plot in games and I've been trying harder to provide him the kinds of plots he wants-- even if they're not the kind that I myself would invest in. That's not a knock on him-- actually more on me in that is has taken me a long time to try come to terms with separating my opinions and value judgments from running.

However, I don't separate them entirely. For example, I've mentioned before that I don't run villain campaigns anymore. I have a practical reason for that: those kinds of games will usually explode and create problems in the group. But I have other reasons, not least of which is that villainous games often make light fare of really awful things. Even if that isn't the intent, over time a kind of dark undertone can come about. But I like to run games with heroes-- or at least not villains. Those heroes may be broken, flawed, have other reasons for doing what they're doing, but they are striving for a general positive result. They may lose in that pursuit, they may only gain a fraction of their goal, but there will be a struggle for something positive- even in a game like Vampire, which their original goal was preservation of themselves, it morphed into preservation of others and in the end allowed them to come to redemption. So generally if you're playing in one of my games you know that heroism is rewarded-- that's the ethos behind the story. We take those conventions into consideration in other dramatic narratives- you know a Spielberg or even Lucas film will be based in that. I'm not saying my vision is that strong at all-- but generally players know that there's a value to positive action and that's part of the contract when they sit down to play.

Where might there be exceptions to that? If I were to run a really serious Call of Cthulhu game, embracing the awful nihilism of the setting-- where one can temporarily put a stop to things, but in the long run everyone is screwed. But I doubt I'd do that-- I'm more likely to approach ti from a pulp direction these days. Or at least tone down the awful realizations in the face of the small victories. Mind you again, that's not to say that everything is sunshine and happiness-- I have some pretty dark plots in other campaigns, and NPCs with very mixed motivations and even delusions about what's right. And players have lost before.

The other key ethos that forms a structure when I run is that the game, while made up of individual characters, is not about an individual character. It may happen that some players get juicier plots or more table time, but I'm trying to balance the attention a player gets with what that player wants. My point here is that I'm running a game for a group. In that sense, actions taken by a group or collectively have a greater weight than individual actions. Teamwork, overcoming the obstacles which separate the various PCs, gathering allies and building are all positive actions. That is, I tend to inherently see those as positive steps and as fitting with the path of the drama. Not that everyone has to do everything together, but that at the end of the day the group can join together in purpose despite disagreements, antagonisms, and past history. Those kinds of disagreements and struggles make that coming together even richer. For example, Will's game was about that coming together despite deep mistrust and real awfulness on all of the players' parts (with the exception of Jesse). But that could have gone an entirely different direction that, to my mind at least, would have been less satisfying.

Sherri had an interesting conversation in which she tried to explain how that ethos worked in my games to another player. However, that player dismissed that approach, I think in part assuming that this was simply Sherri's read on how my games operate. She didn't grasp that it formed a kind of a backbone to what I run. In the same way that you might describe something as an exploration game or a dungeon crawl or a sci-fi game, you can call my approach group oriented. What does that mean in practice? It means that in my mental scales of value, group actions rank higher than individual ones. And individual actions directly antagonistic to the group have even lower weight when I'm assessing the dramatic path of the narrative and making judgment calls. That's not to suggest conformity or a lock-step approach, but one which values the shared experience at the table. And that's not to say that individual actions are always bad-- people get their own scenes, interact with their own NPCs, pursue their own agendas, keep some information for themselves. I mean I love to use that against the group- telling someone something that I'm sure they'll either not tell anyone else or forget to tell another player. Individual actions can include one's of sacrifice and martyrdom, great dramatic tropes. But I find real selfishness on a player's part problematic. In the case of Sherri's interaction with that player, I found it odd. But that's also a consequence of putting a lot of power in the hands of the players, it does become hard to point out where the dramatic conventions of the narrative do impose on one's play style. But as I mentioned to some players this weekend, I do think that's my crucial criteria for players: that they're as invested in the other PC's at the table as they are in their own. I've had players in the past who couldn't get past that, the ability to empathize with the experience of another character besides their own.

I think the best example of this was CJ who brought the whole Crux campaign to a halt by being completely self-centered. He didn't start that way, but he certainly took that ball and ran with it. He started with a character who was built not to change and became irritated that there were other people at the table, quite frankly. I can point to other cases, some funny, some not where players either through sociopathy or obliviousness, rode roughshod over other players: Chris, Paul, Ryan, Sabin, etc. On the other hand, I've been guilty of badly setting things up in relation to that. Probably my biggest mistake in that regard was to push Will to do a Scorpion Clan character in the L5R game. He was coming in late to the campaign and at the time, since they would be operating in a Scorpion city, I thought he would gain some advantages from that. However in practice it isolated him from the rest of the group-- creating an imposed narrative wedge. So I bear most of the responsibility for creating a set up that went directly against one of the core directions of my GMing style.

So to bring this section back around to the point I made at the beginning, I've been working towards two goals- not necessarily in alignment, but not necessarily opposed. One is to recognize to reduce how my own value judgments affect the way games play out. I don't think GMs can be totally objective, but they can recognize where they're reacting to something more from an out-of-game considerations. I'm not talking about personal animosities or hang ups- but about what kind of weight we place on certain behaviors and attitudes, such that when we see them played out by PCs we can take them in context. My other goal is to try to make the genre considerations of my games clear in the sense that players know what they getting into and can play with them. But also to be clear about the meta-genre considerations, the nature of comedy, tragedy and so on within the context of the game universe. I'm a little at a loss I'll admit, because I don't have a particularly good vocabulary for this kind of thing. When we watch TV shows, movies, read books, we understand the narrative logic-- the value placed on certain ideals. They don't hyper-determine actions, but do provide a consistent universe. To give another example-- I'm often thrown when new writers come on to comic series and turn things over. Not a change up of plots, characters and settings, but when they really change the basic ethos of the series. Those kinds of things shouldn't provide a net or a straitjacket, but should be more gossamer and flexible.

For Sunday I hope to talk about some of the new ideas I have for Action Cards-- how to make things work even more smoothly there: or at least options to smooth the mechanics further.


  1. Something that just occured to me also that I'd meant to mention. There's a practical dimension to a group ethos in a campaign: you're running for a group. That's not to say people don't get individual time, plots, scenes and so on. But that should work back towards the group-- as much as anything to help move the story forward equally and make the GM's task easier.

  2. My interpretation (as usual) is colored by improv theater. When someone does something wacky in improv, it's the job of the other players to respond with "Yes, and..." actions. To run with it.

    As GM, you're trying to take Scott's manga romance conventions (which don't act like real world romance) and run with it. Much sympathy, as I'm not especially good at RW dating skills or fictional ones.

    If the table isn't to become a combat between every player then everyone needs to accept playful back and forth, like a jazz combo or improv troupe. If someone only forths it'll create a lot of aggravation.

  3. Agreed-- I think I may have mentioned before that I just read Johnstone's book "Impro" (by way of being referred to it from the rpg book "Play Unsafe"). He talks about accepting or blocking responses- accepting takes another person's ideas and works with them, even changing them, bubt generally accepting the moment. Block responses shut things down, don't allow further development, or generally turn their back on what another person, player or NPC has put forward.

    I'll admit that the clash between genre ethos and perceptions was particularly hard in the samurai game-- which has very different romantic conceptions than western or even anime manga ones. We butted heads over that.

  4. Blocking seems to happen among poor players, but it's also behind the "Yes, but..." idea for GMs (also referred to as "Consider 'Yes'").

  5. Well- to be sure- I don't want to suggest that's exclusively a player problem. It is also a GM problem, where the GM shuts down what a player wants to do without options. I've certainly been guilty of that- but I hope I'm more aware of it as a potential problem these days.

  6. I think you're very good at the "Yes, and I'm so glad you did that! Bwa ha ha ha ha HA!" reaction to silly Player choices.

    I build very nice petards, no?

  7. That's the great irony of gameplay-- players who open themselves up and do a few silly things, take chances, and are willing to play with some risk are those who get good scenes-- get more play time and spotlight. Hence great scene for you Gene and a number of other players who put themselves out there on the fly.

    Cautious players, ones unwilling to risk attachment, or to perhaps undercut the dignity of their characters often end up with fewer interesting moments at the table. That's a question of fun.

    OOH going back to what I was mentioning before about the group ethos-- there is a line where some players will risk without thinking about the consequences to the group. Again, I'll point to CJ, to a certain extent Paul, and some of the problems of the RM L5R game. I think that's one of the tougher decisions/evaluations a game-master has to do: how to apply consequences to a player who is deliberately causing problems, such that those consequences don't shaft the entire group. And here I'm talking about extreme cases- and not something I've had as much of a problem with over the last several years. I can look at some player choices and think-- if they were the only player at the table, they wouldn't have done that unless they were playing chicken with me. They're counting on the rest of the group to pick up the pieces. Now if that's done to move the story forward and bring the rest of the group in, that's one thing. But the GM has to make an assessment about how much those choices have been motivated by a self-centeredness, and how much about engaging with the plot in a way that brings the group along.

  8. I'm been thinking about that a lot lately. Sort of a 'no room for good girls' conundrum. If you play your character as forgiving or patient or polite or charitable--the primary thing you end up reacting to is other players cutting off your risk situations. Essentially, the interesting thing is that you will risk to trust and be either betrayed or not...and have to deal with it. But it's nigh impossible to keep around an NPC of any suspect qualities without them being run off by the other players. So you end up boring...and protesting a set of actions that are perfectly within the other others' mindsets.

    That or you have to play the character as complete ditz who gets into heaps of trouble immediately--making the forgiving or patient or polite or charitable character synonymous with a sort of social stupidity.

  9. There is a history of sweet characters getting pushed over the edge and kicking everyone else's ass. Courtesy of Questionable Content, I learned that this is even a stock character type in Japan! Tsundere, Type B.

    So just leave the possibility of crippling damage every now and then and you're all set.

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