Saturday, December 5, 2009

Time and Character (Part Two)

Time and Character Part Two
Part One here.

Kinds of Change
Character change in the course of an rpg campaign can be difficult to measure. Some games make this easy-- a player simply buys off the relevant disadvantage. There's a clear signal and device and the player simply needs to get GM approval.

But most flaws, character arcs and so on aren't quite so easy to manage-- they represent a fundamental change in the character's outlook, their play, their approach. It a drama, like a movie or a single book, we can see the change (or failure to change) at key predictable moments in the narrative. The situation becomes more difficult in a serial-- like a book or televisual series. Here there are a number of options. First, there's the false change. Robin Laws talks about this a little in a recent post. For example, you know they're not getting free in Gilligan's Island. Of course that's a comedy-- ironically the dramatic narrative most given to a static approach. But the other example he gives is off the season opener for House-- where he's checked into an asylum and learns something about humanity along the way. There's an expectation of change, but when we get the rest of the season, he's back to being the same old curmudgeonly doctor he was. Perhaps there will be some references to it and maybe he's overcome a few minor character obstacles, but the change suggested by that first part never actually happens. Imagine A Christmas Carol Part Two, where Scrooge falls back to his old ways and then has to go through another transformational experience, again and again.

Another approach is the more explicit relapse-- where the transformational experience and change is explicitly acknowledged, but some circumstance pulls the character back to old bad behaviors and now he has to go through another rebirth or change. As opposed to the one above, that falling back is an important dramatic moment and provides a spine for the narrative as a whole. So we see Bruce Banner in the second Hulk movie in a good place, but circumstances intervene and force him to once again acknowledge and struggle with that part of himself. This cycle can continue on ad nauseum.

Rather than sticking with a kind of a false choice, the character may change and evolve over sub-aspects. I'd say Buffy the Vampire Slayer does this quite a bit. The central premise issues: about the difficulty of being alone as a Vampire Slayer and reconciling that with ordinary life don't really get resolved in a big way until the final season. But versions of that and other problems get brought up and dealt with in each season. One could argue there's a sense of false change, but I don't really see that. The characters do change, take on new roles and evolve-- those changes aren't complete transformations (with the exception perhaps of Willow) but they advance the character's plot over time.

Defining Time
The problem when we come to the game table is defining change, space and time. Time especially is tricky-- in the sense that we have several kinds of time operating there. We have in-game time, we have out-of-game time, we have logical time, and we have dramatic time. In-game time is obviously the time which passes for the characters-- depending on the game this may be more or less solid. Some games simply move time forward, with each moment only being relatively related to the previous one and the next. We jump to two days later or a few hours pass. On the other hand, we may have the other end of the spectrum, where the date and time is specific and detailed. We know the season, the month, the date, the day of the week and the time. In either case we do have movement at an irregular pace determined by the needs of the story. Out-of-game time is the real world time-- which usually we don't reference except to be shocked about how many months it took us to get through two days worth of game play. But out-of-game time is worth considering for a couple of reasons. First it does have an effect on the mental perception of investment in a game. If you've been playing for half a year, even if you've only covered a week in the lives of your character, you're more likely to feel attachment than if you've played two sessions and covered a year in the lives of your characters. There's a strong correlation between contact hours and investment.

On another level altogether, we have logical time. Logical time is a kind of mental assessment of how long something will take within the game. Unlike the previous two forms of time, logical time is a private and individual reading on the game world. For example, if a player says they're going to do some research on a person or a topic in the game, the player may have one sense of how long that takes, while the GM may have another—one may be imagining a quick Google hunt, while the other is thinking about tracking every lead down or following things up with other sources. I'd say 90% of the time, these kinds of discrepancies don't matter. The remaining 10% constitutes those moments when the GM tries to impose some order on time-- to say that X character will be occupied with something for X amount of time. Players always underestimate how long some task will take and GMs always overestimate. There's a battle there over a limited resource-- that of time and possible actions.

But in some ways that's more a formal fact of the game play. The other aspect of logical time comes from a player's internal perspective about who their character is-- and where that collides with the most important form of time in the game, dramatic time.

Dramatic Time

He's the basic struggle. A player has created a conception of their character and while that player has envisioned some character arc changes-- the three down from that exercise I mentioned before-- those changes are fairly significant. They change the character itself-- it that respect I'm talking about internal changes to a character, rather than external. Therefore in a game, players tend to cling to a perception of logical time closely associated with in-game time. In other words, most players back away from changes to their character by thinking that “not enough time has passed for this change to occur.” This is especially true for games with more detailed chronologies: my Vampire game, Changeling, and even Crux to an extent.

Those reactions, however are governed by a certain perception of time as defined by the narrative length-- or in the case of the rpg narrative, the campaign length. Character changes shift to occupy the space allotted to them. So in the case of a film, we know the main character who has an established difficulty or trait will face a challenge based on the trait in the latter half of the film-- generally. They might succeed or fail in that challenge, but it will be the crucial one deciding the dramatic arc for that character. They might have already faced some challenges on it, but this last one will tell us really what kind of story we're seeing. A movie or a novel length structure is probably equivalent to a short-run campaign, say five or six sessions. If the game has those elements of change inherent to them, the characters probably will have some shift by the end. Take for example my Bloodlines supers game. Even though it was a short-term game in a genre given over more to action than character development, we had significant change moments. Kenny's character Grey came around enough to reveal some awful details about her background and overcome some trust/fear issues, Will's character Cruel Butterfly dealt with some family issues, as did Steve's character. There was some dramatic development-- in part because the players knew how long the game would last and had a sense that if they wanted to get their arc together, they had a limited space. I, as GM, knew this as well.

The situation becomes more difficult where the length of the text is indeterminate. If it isn't certain how long the game is going to last-- when do you make moves to deal with some of those conflicts and changes. Go too early and you can find yourself unsatisfied and feeling like you just kind of flipped your character from A to B. Go too late and you don't have a chance to actually play out your arc. I think that communication of game span is vital to a campaign. Other examples-- my Exalted Campaign, Sherri's Rolemaster Campaign and Rob's original HCI campaign created a sense of frustration for the players when they stopped. Not just because the actual play was strong, but because movement forward had been done by the players towards changes, but they never got resolved. Story lines about the development of those PCs died. So the memory of the characters one had in those games is stuck in a sense of what would have been great.

Next time options for establishing dramatic signals, multiple changes, and other examples.