Monday, December 7, 2009

Time and Character (Part Three)

Time and Character Part Three
Part One here; Part Two here

In thinking about this idea of character change, I've realized I should probably clarify my thoughts on a couple of issues. I keep referring to standard narratives, but generally I'm focused on pretty conventional and straight-forward dramatic forms. I think those translate best over into the rpg format, with more complex structures (ala Momento, anti-hero forms, and any kind of meta-story structure) being limited to shorter term or one shot games. So generally I'm talking about stories with a kind of linear progression-- in that there are lines and progression-- but not necessarily that those lines are straight. RPG stories present lots of branching options, and how firm those branches are depends on the kind of story.

A Spectrum of Change Types
The kind of story affects in a couple of other respects. Consider the issue of change in the game. I'd say there's a spectrum of change which starts with External Environment runs through External Character and ends with Internal Character. An External Environment game has characters relatively unaffected by the situation. They're cogs or elements in playing out a particular story. So these characters are strictly iconic and static, generally with a strong archetypal role. The dungeon crawl or railroad scenario takes this form. The story is above the characters with them playing out under it. Generally the only kind of change characters at this end have to worry about are the Living/Dead and Uninjured/Disabled dichotomies. Other than that, the characters could be easily switched out for others who could carry out the same steps and tasks. Most classic video games which have you create a party follow this path-- there's little to anchor your characters drive and motivation besides the racking up of points and solving of tasks for progression. The Black Company/Planescape game tilted this way.

Towards the middle falls External Character based stories. In these, most of the changes which happen are superficial, they don't serve to shift the essential dynamic of the character. Changes mostly seem to be in status, in goals, in possessions, wealth, and in formal/informal relationships. While characters may develop things like romances, these tend to be light events or else dramatically charged doomed ones. When games take on the genre aspects of anime (which I'll come back to) they often work in this area of the story change spectrum. As an example of a campaign I ran that tended to fall here, I'll cite the Scion campaign I ran. For the extensive post-mortem of that campaign, see here. The characters began fairly fully formed and while they had personality quirks, goals and drives, they were more about fulfilling their role than about changing themselves. They wanted to beat the bad guys and save the day in a way which matched their own sense of the world. In some sense the game was about the players getting into the skin of their characters and figuring out how they would react-- rather than coming in with a sense of themselves and the arcs they wanted to play out for their own development. Supers games also tend to aim for this mark, with only minor or predictable changes internally to the character. The Wushu campaign I'm running leans this way.

Internal Changes usually require the player to begin with a sense of the shortcomings of their own character-- to have a good idea of what will be a struggle for them and how they can change. The game itself has a plot and a story, but in some ways that takes a back seat to the stories of the characters. School games lend themselves to this-- so Libri Vidicos falls this direction. Changeling absolutely falls here-- that's the story of characters and their development.

Of course these are rough gauges-- stories will move between points on this spectrum from scene to scene, session to session. But often you can look and see where a game falls more often-- helping to inform the player and the GM about how much energy should be invested. One of the worst moment I had as a player was misreading what kind of game we were playing in. When I tried to rp my character in a scene, since I had a pretty strong sense of my motivation and backstory-- important to Internal Character Change-- the GM slapped me down, asked me what I was doing and literally told me to stop. The game itself can shift quite a bit-- I'd say the Exalted game I ran moved between External and Internal Character change quite a bit, depending on the tone and pace of the sessions. The focus didn't rest clearly on one over the other. It can also be that different players have different sense of character change within a group. For example, in the Sunday Third Continent game, some players are interacting with their own struggles, while for others the motivations remain a little more mechanical and distant. In the Vampire campaign I ran, I'd say the group was split evenly between players who saw the game as Internally Character driven, and those who saw it as Externally Character driven, or even Externally Environment driven.

Anime Drama
I mentioned anime tropes above and I think they're interesting to consider in the context of this. Anime (and to an extent manga) has significantly influenced the stories for games I run and enjoy over the last decade+. I'd argue that I've seen that impact in other people's play as well. Romantic plots are no longer taboo, descriptions of actions tend to echo the over the top cinematic nature of these stories, and a good number of the other surface elements have carried over, particularly in referential humor. But anime's an interesting serial form for examining change, because real change is rare until the very end. But the stories have an Internal Character Change central focus. But like the TV shows they often most closely model, you can't have real resolution until the end. There are some exceptions to this- His and Her Circumstances, for example, manages to pull off an escalating series of character shifts and does it well. But something like Fruits Basket has to save things up-- and even the main female character doesn't really change all that much, instead she's a device for changing others.

Another interesting drama arc trope from anime that I haven't really seen done at the table is what I'll call the mid-season switch and acceleration. A greta number of series begin with a fairly repetitive structure toward the beginning: monster of the week, introduction of new characters, stories around related issues. This goes for about half of the arc. Then when we hit the midpoint of the series and the status quo has been established, suddenly everything changes. Revelations pop out, characters die, the real bad guys are revealed, the direction and plot of the series take a drastic change. While there's usually been some set up and hint about that through the course of the first part, what comes after the break feels like a completely different show. Blue Seed, Witch Hunter Robin, Shikibane Hime, Read or Die, Revolutionary Girl Utena (to an extent), Neo Genesis Evangelion, the first season of Bleach and others share this pattern. I wonder how well that would play out at a game table-- with the drastic level of switch that happens. It would have to be a closed game, in the sense that the players would have to know the expected length of the game and be able to see the logic of the mid-switch.

This does come back to the conception of dramatic time I mentioned in the last post. If players were to know they would be playing in a campaign consciously emulating that structure, they'd have a decent sign-post for choices. Generally games which adopt anime conventions for drama have a fairly compressed sense of dramatic time. By that I mean characters can change or make significant shifts in a short amount of time, divorced from the actual logical passage of time for the narrative. So they can fall in love, they can overcome some internal problems, they can change their focus pretty quickly without it feeling out of place. However, their core issue won't get resolved until the end.

Change Choices
To go back to the Three Up/Three Down system I talked about before-- how does one actually apply that to playing your character. The method asks players to identify three internal characteristics crucial to the character's definition and approach which will remain static through the campaign. Those are essentially the core definitions of themselves. If those were to change, the character wouldn't be the same. It then also asks players to define the three most important character struggles, flaws, hang ups or arcs which the player imagines the character will face and deal with through the course of the campaign. The character may succeed at addressing and changing those issues or they may fail. That's another level of victory and success to be considered in the game. A how the character actually does change may not exactly be how the player envisioned it at the start.

So as a concrete example, the Three Up/Three Down for Sherri's character Sarah No-Tears from the Changeling game:

Sarah No-Tears
These are core concepts to the character of Sarah No-Tears. The first three are 'iconic'--unlikely to change no matter what the world throws in her face. The second group of three are just as core and just as important to her self-definition; however, her reactions and methods of incorporating these issues into her life are likely to change over the course of the game. She may come to loathe her Changeling self less or re-define her relationship with Noisy multiple times.

3 Up (iconic):
1. Physiker role--healer, capable of medical miracles, dedicated, will make SOMETHING good out of those years
2. Struggling with her Wizened nature--the fury and the ego and the desire to bury herself in work
3. Cooperation and shared goals are the only way to proceed; communication and community are of the utmost importance to her

3 Down (mutable):
1. Her relationship with Noisy--important, but confusing. Who is she to him and he to her and who ought they be to each other?
2. Regaining her humanity--her drive to understand other aspects of healing (emotional, mental) are part of this as she recognizes that she is damaged. So too is a reckless sort of 'virtue' that she associates with that humanity.
3. Loathing of her Changeling self. All of her Contracts have been made almost involuntarily and she loathes them as much as she does her Changeling self: Omens, Dreams, Hours, Spring (desire), Uniform and Urn--they are the mysteries of her new persona. She is perpetually hesitant to use them as they tie her back to Sarah No-Tears, to whom the Contracts have been made.

I think those are great definitions of the character and provide a hopeful arc for the character over the course of the game...if she's able to handle them in a positive way. She may not be able to...she may fail. That's the challenge of the play.

But when should change happen? Obviously if the players know how long a campaign will last it becomes easier to plot for themselves when they ought to be willing to make those shifts or at least push themselves into situations where those shifts can occur.

Time vs. Incident
One half of the equation is time-- but it has to be based on dramatic time, not logical time. Dramatic time is variable, but generally compressed. In a story people change faster than you'd realistically expect if you thought about it. As I mentioned above, anime genre forms can really compress this to the point of silliness. But the other half of the equation is incident: situations which the GM provides or the player moves into that provide opportunities for players to work through those struggles. That requires the GM and the player to be on the same page about what constitutes a) something in the character that might evolve internally and b) what constitutes an appropriate (or inappropriate incident). So in that sense I think having players in a game focused on Internal Change do this kind of exercise can be useful.

I think another thing which players ought to do, if possible, is consider the hierarchy of those changes. Does one have to come before the other, as a stepping stone? Is one broader than another? Or even which would I feel most comfortable dealing with first. From the example above, regarding Sarah, it seems to me that her first mutable point probably needs to be handled first. By establishing that change she may be able to handle the other changes. With that in mind, players should approach dramatic time breaks and junctures with an eye to dealing with at least one of those changes. Of course, what actually happens will depend on the play of the game.

Signposts of Dramatic Time
So logical time can get in the way, but how do you communicate dramatic time? I mentioned breaks and junctures, which can serve as signposts. Again, knowing how long a campaign will last can be of enormous benefit in this. But also having a specific time period in-game has work as support as well. For example, in Libri Vidicos the players have the structure of the school year, ala Harry Potter. They know things will be introduced in the first semester, grow more complicated by the Winter Break and then accelerate downhill in the second semester. But as well they also know that the campaign itself will cover exactly five years of their lives. So each chapter of the campaign has its own dramatic time (horizontally, if you will) but the campaign itself will have a slowly rising set of stakes throughout over those five years (vertically, if you will). The players also know that Year Five will likely change up some of the structure they've had during the previous four years.

Time lapses can be another clear signpost of a change, giving players permission for development. GMs have to be careful with lapses to make sure not too many outstanding threads get left behind. If things haven't been dealt with yet, the GM should be careful not to unduly penalize the players since they have no control over the lapse. Immediately after a lapse, opportunities should be given for players to do flashbacks if they want-- especially to tailor scenes which can let them go through changes. We did this last session in the Changeling game, a campaign which has a real break between logical time and dramatic time. But more importantly to signal a shift in dramatic time I put together a series of TV credits (using Powerpoint), cued to music which presented the campaign as if it were a show and we were just beginning season two of the series (complete with some people in the credits they hadn't yet met in the game). That device essentially said to the players, OK, we're moving forward, you have some license to make changes to your characters and move in new directions, despite how much logical time may have passed. I think it worked pretty well as a device, and we'll see how well it does as a dramatic time marker.


  1. The season break concept is brilliant. And the credit sequence is hilarious. Similar to Laws' "Scene" card to indicate he's moving on, but way more over the top.

    A big issue in Laws and others when dealing with drama is the Pass/Fail cycle, or as Laws renames it, the Hope/Fear cycle. To force and justify a dramatic character change drama requires the old methods to fail completely. Complete Failure. Complete loss of Hope and faith.

    But in real life and in gaming, complete failure can lead to folks just quitting. It's tricky knowing how far you can push a real person. Curious how that works both in your campaigns and your theories.

  2. See I don't think it is as straight-froward pass/fail as all of that. I think it can be that way in a shorter form narrative: novel, film, short story, etc. But I think in an rpg campaign, you have to consider the degrees and kinds of change for longer serial forms like TV, comics, and book series. Which is a little unfortunate in that most francise stuff builds on characters having distinct personas and changing those risks alienating the audience (hence Laws' discussion of the false premise).

    I think the changes can be partial, which I why coming up with three elements of change (three down) helps break the larger character identity into parts. But I also want to stress that the shifts in an rpg character may be suprising- a player shouldn't have a straight line visualization of where their character will end up, otherwise the character- like an iconic one- remains unchanged and unaffected by circumstances. A character may win in some parts and fail in others, they may become someone unexpected in the end. And I hope that journey's a satisfying one-- when I can pull it off for the players.

  3. Gene, on what you said about complete failure, I think it depends on having the players and the GM communicate the goals, or at least having the trust to go that far. I think it would be interesting to play that scenario out, but you have to trust the GM and the other players to let you work in that space. If you know that redemption/rebuilding/etc were possible (and encouraged), it could work.

    I think that might be a problem for the gamers who have been burned by the "killer GM" who would peek over the screen just long enough to give you a blank sheet for your new character and say "You failed, too bad."

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