Friday, July 26, 2013

Some Guys I Know

"We don't explore characters, we explore dungeons"

This Old School mantra is wrong in an interesting way.

I have a bunch of characters in a bunch of games and they're all the same and they're all different and none of that is on purpose.

They are all impatient schemers and sneaks who, nevertheless, try to make sure everybody in the party gets out alive. In the first hour it'd be almost impossible to tell them apart. All of them.

But Baron Blixa Von Apfelsaft (Thief lvl 8) is laid back, wary, and confident, Gorgut the Weasel (Elf lvl 2) is high-strung and boastful and likes to boldly announce "I am GORGUT! The WEAAAASEL!", Floyd Nine (Petty Call of Cthulhu Thief) is a self-pitying drunk, Sir Xyre of the Barrens (Pendragon Knight) is quick-tempered, prone to lawyerly evasion, and, when his fellow knights go courting, a fine wingman.

None of that was by design. Each one got there because they just shook out that way.

It probably goes without saying ('cause this is my blog) that all these characters are from Old School games with no personality mechanics or mechanical rewards for role-playing. This is just how Old School characters work: You get your PC a name, you get a few characteristics, you think of a voice, a few good things happen or bad things, and they suddenly seem competent or incompetent or skulky or brave and, without you doing anything, they begin to have a personality. Yet, because you're playing them, those personalities all have something in common.

Gorgut is Gorgut because (of necessity) he uses Unseen Servant and spare torches to trick gnolls and henchmen into thinking he's a great wizard, largely by shouting*, Floyd is Floyd because he's a Call of Cthulhu character so (of necessity) keeps getting the crap beat out of him, Blixa is Blixa because he's been around a long time--he started as a cynical Archeresque drunk, fought some fights, wised up, lost a beloved pet, got revenge, chilled out a bit, got micro famous for being in a lot of D&D games, etc. Their personality is either formed or revealed by circumstance--and the revelation is slow.

I think games with extensive personality mechanics expect that your character starts one way, undergoes Character Development in play (like they teach you in creative writing courses), and emerges another way.

With most games I like, the character starts no way at all, undergoes experiences which reveal character and then are proved to have been a certain way all along. Then, maybe, if they survive, undergo some character development.

Both of these ways of doing things show up in good movies and good books and real life. The first one you hear about more because it's tied into classic 3 act dramatic structure (a structure that serial fiction doesn't naturally have).

When people talk about remarkable moments in games with personality mechanics I often here them saying "Oh wow, I remember when you took that character there, I didn't see that coming, that was amazing." Moving the character along is a sometimes-conscious act on the continuum between writing and improv.

In the second model, you're not so much writing a character as performing an experiment on it and one of the many byproducts is finding out who the character is.

And that character is usually, unless you make an effort to do otherwise, an extension of a weird alternate you that comes out when you play games. But different parts of you depending on tiny factors  This Alternate You + Elf + Blonde turns out different than This Alternate You + Cleric + Fat + Lost An Eye.

I like the artlessness of it. I'm not choosing a character to play. I am, literally, exploring the character, as one might a dungeon--going into it to see what is there. Not pushing it along, just knowing that I can dip a toe in at any time and see who somebody is.

*Hellwheel the Moonslinker has had 2 adventures, and is so far a lot like Gorgut The Weasel, but when he goes "I am Hellwheel the MOooONslinker!" there's, in the pronunciation of name alone, a level of irony that would go right over Gorgut's head.


  1. Exactly. as always, thank you, Smith.

  2. I don't believe it is possible to play a character who is not an aspect of you. Perhaps a dark "imagine you had no pity" aspect or a lighter "imagine you were truly selfless" aspect or something a bit more shaded, but it's still you and what you find when you play those aspects can be surprising (and/or worrying).

    When you explore the dungeon, you must perforce explore the character too, and the character's reactions to each event and choice illuminate the character's reaction to the next. And in the end that tells you something about yourself because it that character was actually you.

    This is why I don't like playing non-humans. I just don't see where I can really genuinely find something non-human in me to place into the character and without that I'm just a human with pointy ears or a long beard or whatever surface difference there happens to be.

    1. Yeah but you're kind of a knob, so...

    2. Well, I guess that at least means everyone else is in the clear. I'm not really sure why agreeing with you prompted this particular response, though.

    3. I didn't say that because you agreed with me, I said it because you're on my, very short, "Not enough of a troll to be banned, but still kind of a knob" list.

    4. Not *enough* of a troll? Have I ever trolled you at all?

    5. God I don't wanna fight this morning. Just go back and read all the stuff you posted on this blog and ask yourself if any of it might make you seem like kind of a knob.

      If not, ask me next wednesday.

  3. I still have no clue how i ended up playing a dwarven fighter/barbarian/ranger bedecked in jewelry and a leather skirt, speaking with a german accent and a low self-esteem. (He (i) kept shouting 'i vont be ignored' as he felt people did not see him under the tables rim). I surely did not see THAT when i rolled him.

  4. I think we should revise that statement to "We don't explore character sheets." The whole statement was a condemnation of the explosion of feats and skills and bells and whistles. We went from needing a single sheet of paper--hell, just an index card--to keep track of character stats to needing a two-to-three page folio. That's just crazy. That's exploration and tweeking and min/maxing of character.

    For the record, I blame the Armory Character Sheets for starting this trend waaaay back in the 1980s, damn their dot matrixed hearts. See here and here for scans of those sheets. So this isn't really a "new school" issue at all. It's an approach to the game issue. Is this a game of numbers or a game of story? Human tendency is to pick a side and stick with it. We don't like grey areas.

    But to me, it's a numbers game that tells a story. Or a story game that uses numbers. Or both. At the same time.

    But story arcs? Hell yeah there are story arcs. And you can't have a story without characters. So, in essence, the game is all about developing a character--one that, as Nagora notes, we somehow relate to on a base psychological level. Be honest: have you ever played a character for more than a single game that you yourself absolutely despised and could not relate to? Not an NPC, but an actual character? Most likely not. Why is that? Most likely because we like the feeling of being a hero--even in a game.

    Campbell's Hero's Journey is written into the DNA of the game. That's a good thing.

    1. Your last 2 sentences don't really serve as meaningful explanations or summaries of the rest of what you said.

      I think we like liking our characters because we are there to be entertained.

      And Campbell's Journey has fuckall to do with anything but good ancient anthropology and bad screenwriting.

    2. Sorry--it seems the last paragraph of my post was eaten by Blogger.

      Here's what got deleted:

      Campbell's Hero's Journey is written into the DNA of the game. That's a good thing. But it's old DNA, maybe even junk DNA, that's now pulled into the three-act structure that we expect from a story in any other medium (formula fiction, TV, film). But when it comes to interactive fiction--computer games, gamebooks, tabletop RPGS--many folks don't have the patience for the growth of a heroic character. They want to be lethal characters right from the get go. Because it's more fun to be killing machines than n00bs who might die on the path to glory. But I *like* games that let me drag a low level character through the muck and rise above it. I *like* the Hero's Journey (even though it gets reduced to an 8 step cycle versions a 24 step cycle). I want my character to develop through play, not from the numbers. For me, the numbers are a guide to how to play the character.

    3. It is not, you are wrong.
      There is _much_ more to Campbell's vision than "a character grows over time" and a lot of that isn't in D&D.
      Thank god.

  5. Replies
    1. Yeah, no.
      It describes a number of stock activities that happen in a story, but the crucial and _unique_ part of Campbell--the order they come in and the logic linking them--is only there in 30act plotted fiction.

      One might as well list off, generically, the events that occur during any dangerous episode in anyone's life and say they were" "baked into the fiber of D&D".

      No, there are commonalities. But Campbell describes these commonalities being linked by a storytelling logic the game does not have.

    2. Okay, I get what you are saying now. Your last paragraph there cleared it up. There's no set logic to the game story--we are making it as we go--and so the Hero's Journey (or any superimposed structure, for that matter--three act, two act, four act, whatever) are imposed after the fact to account for the story logic, but are not, in fact, part of the intentional creative act as the game is being played. At least, I think this is what I'm understanding you to mean. Am I somewhat on target?

    3. Maybe?
      So far as I can tell, Campbell's _new_ contribution to his field relevant here is twofold:
      -List things that happen in adventure stories.
      (which anybody can do with some work, and about half of which are kind of essential to describe anyone's even nonfictional encounter with danger so hardly count as discoveries)
      -Assert that most of the memorable ones follow a certain structure in time and a certain order of presentation BEYOND what would be necessary to simply go "I am a person. I did dangerous things for a reward. I got it and the reward and was older at the beginning of the story than at the end".

      D&D and ALL tales of danger by logical necessity include many of the first thing. It include little or none of the second thing.