2006-01-24 : Still More Character Ownership

I was searching through the past of the Forge and I came across this that I wrote back in May of last year:

So here are two points for you:

1. Sometimes it's fun and good for your PC to be a supporting character, not a protagonist. Thus, yes, prey to all the crap that befalls supporting characters, including random death.

2. Sometimes, then, it's also fun and good to not know whether your PC is a supporting character until some moment of truth. In fact further: to not get to choose yourself whether your PC is a protagonist or a supporting character, to let the events of the game's fiction choose. Your PC's random death may well be just such a moment.

There's no reason in the world why any gamer would recognize the truth of these two points out of hand. They're hard won. Having a gamer-like relationship with your PC makes them seem impossible, doesn't it?

[from Early death in Nar games.]

Let me say in boldface:

Let the events of the game's fiction choose whether your character is a protagonist or a supporting character.

I know of only one game in development that's taking this on (Ron Edwards' Spione). Are we still obsessed with securing our personal characters' relevance? Is the threat that our personal characters will be somehow made irrelevant still so urgent?

1. On 2006-01-24, ScottM said:

Yes, I think we are (obsessed with our PC's relevence).  I still haven't caught the trick, as a player, of investing in the overall story over my character's story.  As a GM, I'm well trained to pick conflicts that enhance the PC's stories—but as a player, I'm trained to make choices for the PC to make an engaging story.

Are you saying that a supporting character's story looks like the main character's story, just with an untimely end?  I'd think that a supporting character participates with a different goal—much as a Scene Presence of 1 character's role in an episode is different from the spotlight character's role in PTA.


2. On 2006-01-24, Matt Wilson said:

Eh, I'm not so much for that one, D(oggone) Vincent Baker. I'll grant you the past 98 ideas you've had, but this 99th one I don't like.

I'm all for having one character be a star and the others not, but I'd much rather know that right up front so that everyone's on board with the star's story. If you're the supporting guy, what you do is no longer about you; it's about the star. That's much more productive in terms of shared ownership.

If you don't know who the supporting characters are until the fiction tells you, the fiction before that is going to be sub-par.


3. On 2006-01-24, Troy_Costisick said:


I believe that all players want to be significant.  "Random Death" might strike some as de-significant-izing their character.  For a game to accomplish this well, IMO, must make the Random death significant to the player and the story.  IE, the player isn't totally screwed when his character bites it and the group doesn't feel guilt when he does.  I'd say there has to be something more in it for the players than the story moving forward.




4. On 2006-01-24, Jay Loomis said:

Two things:

1.) I totally agree with Matt on this one. Dramatically speaking, the difference between what a protagonist does and what a supporting character does is pronounced. If you don't know up front, you'll likely be pushing your character's agenda—which isn't the right thing to do if you're supporting.

2.) Even in actual, honest-to-gosh, written-down fiction, random death is not particualrly popular. If a character is in a story in a big enough way that I, as an audience member, care about him, his death had damned well better mean something or I'm going to be pissed.

Whether you are playing a supporting character or a protagonist, if you are participating in roleplaying as a single character that character automatically qualifies for being cared about.

[spoiler movie=Serenity]
(It seems unlikely to me that there are people at this blog who want to see Serenity but have not. But, better safe than sorry.)

For example, in Serenity, I can accept the death of Book as an audience member because his death proves a point (this bad guy isn't to be trifled with) and motivates the hero in to dangerously stupid action. I don't like it—because I'm attached to the character—but I accept it. The death of Wash, on the other hand, does nothing for the story and just pisses me off. Oh, and I would argue that both of those characters are supporting characters in the movie, even though they had different roles in the TV show.


Now, if you are playing a game where everyone plays more than one character, I can see potential for not knowing for any given one of them.


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5. On 2006-01-24, Vincent said:

Scott, Matt, Troy, Jay:

Would any or all of you please go back to your comment and read it for assumptions about character ownership? I'd be grateful.

What if we make those assumptions to no longer hold?


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6. On 2006-01-24, SDL said:

I think that if you want to do this, if you want to make the players take a step back from "their characters", you have to give them a clear way to focus on the big picture.

If we start with our characters, and only/primarily touch the big picture through our characters, we are probably going to love them more than the big picture. We'll still kill our characters, but only when we consider it important to them.

So if you want to do this you might have to start from the opposite point of the way we currently play, and build from there.
What would that mean? Something like starting with the situation and pulling the characters out of it?
I have no idea... ;)


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7. On 2006-01-24, Vincent said:

SDL wants us to add this line:

How about thinking of "your" character(s) as resources you expend to change the course of the story?

I think that's a very interesting line to add.


8. On 2006-01-24, Ben Lehman said:

See Capes, Universalis, Burning Wheel, Riddle of Steel, etc.



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9. On 2006-01-24, Vincent said:

This following may look familiar to some of you.

In Band of Brothers, characters die. Named characters, characters we care about, protagonists - they die.

Here's my observation:

When it's your character's episode, I can bet that either your character is going to live through the episode, or his death is going to mean something.

However, when it's not your character's episode, I can't bet that your character is going to live at all, or that if he dies it won't be totally random: maybe an accident, maybe a tragedy, or maybe just part of the carnage that backgrounds the whole show.

Furthermore, for some set of named, faced, known characters, they die - like I say, totally randomly - without ever having an episode of their own.

I think that it can be fun to play all three kinds of characters - the kind whose episode it is right now, so their death is guaranteed meaningful; the kind who've had their episode, so no guarantees; and the kind who we don't know if they're ever going to get an episode, so no guarantees.

Matt: consider just for a minute: the game's Primetime Adventures, except that instead of mapping out your screen presence you roll for whose spotlight it's about to be at the beginning of every episode. One player might wind up with all 2s and 3s; another might wind up with all 1s and maybe a lone 2.

I think that can be a fun game.


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MSW go "that version almost got made"*
TC go "Slashers..."*
VB go "ooh, consider 28 Days Later..."*
AJF go "Timely: I just watched the end of 'Brothers ep2 not 10 mins ago!"
BR go "Interestingly, I liked the alternate ending of 28 days later more"*
SAB go "I liked the alternate ending too..."

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10. On 2006-01-24, Emily said:

I've found when playing PtA that the organic flow of the narrative can tell a lot more about who is the protagonist than our planning.  In a good way.


11. On 2006-01-24, Vincent said:

Emily: YES!

I have more to say about that. Thinking.


12. On 2006-01-24, Vincent said:

Scott, Matt, Troy, Jay:

How do you know whether your character is a protagonist?

At what point do you feel it? Maybe you go into play assuming that your character will be a protagonist - what's the moment where play confirms your assumption? What's it like before play confirms your assumption? Have you ever worried, mid-play, that maybe your character isn't a protagonist after all?


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13. On 2006-01-24, Gregor Hutton said:

My gut feeling is that most players cannot (OK, will not) let go of their piece of "territory" in the game. They should think about it though.

I envisage some sort of game where we all can hop from character to character over the course of the game, sometimes settling into playing one character more than others, and at crucial times playing against our "favoured" character (perhaps who knows best what conflicts with that character than you?).

The end result is hopefully that we still care about the characters, they still mean something for us and yet we can share them amongst ourselves, and _let them go_.

In multi-authored fiction (movies, TV, whatever) I would bet that each author is not assigned to an individual character (or characters). So why are we stuck in the roles of actors in gaming?

Is character King? Or are we co-creating experiences and events?


14. On 2006-01-24, Ron Edwards said:

My response, which is actually a diagnosis of the existing activity:

Yes, "we" are still obsessed, in the manner that you have described. It's a creative and technical illness, much in the sense that early cinema was hampered by the assumption that what they filmed should look like a stage-set, viewed front-on, from the same distance, at all times.

The design decisions I've made with my current project are so not-RPG, but at the same time so dismissive of what's ordinarily called "consensual storytelling," that I cannot even begin to discuss it on-line. I can see the influences of Universalis, The Mountain Witch, and My Life with Master, but I cannot articulate the way that I have abandoned the player-character, yet preserved the moral responsibility of decision-making during play. That's all I'll say here, and I won't answer questions about it.

More specific to your question, Vincent, I'll say this: that protagonism was so badly injured during the history of role-playing (1970-ish through the present, with the height of the effect being the early 1990s), that participants in that hobby are perhaps the very last people on earth who could be expected to produce *all* the components of a functional story. No, the most functional among them can only be counted on to seize protagonism in their stump-fingered hands and scream protectively. You can tag Sorcerer with this diagnosis, instantly.

[The most damaged participants are too horrible even to look upon, much less to describe. This has nothing to do with geekery. When I say "brain damage," I mean it literally. Their minds have been *harmed.*]

Perhaps Primetime Adventures, My Life with Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, Polaris, etc etc, are really the best available prosthetics possible, permitting the damaged populace to do X? If so, what will people with limbs prefer to use, to do X?

I don't know. I can see its parts forming, as with a mid-term embryo, but what it will be and how it will work, and who will use it for what purposes, I don't know. My current project may be right on track with it, or I may be veering off in a hopeless direction.


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This reminds...
of actually a diagnosis
Chris of something for those interested in what Ron's saying here

This makes...
VB go "Ron, grim!"*
jrs go "Like ..."*
BL go "I'm not sure if I buy the premise..."*
RE go "Nope"*
BR go "Oral storytelling isn't dead...."*
TLR go "Comprehension vs. Creation"*
WCH go "whoa"*
RMR go "elitist much?"*
WF go "Not Exactly"*
mjf go "the more things change..."*
VB go "WCH, RMR and MJF, please see my PSA."*
SLB go "Hey, Ron--"*
RE go "Easy option"
RE go "Whoops, hit 'enter' by accident"*
Curly go "Glass Half Full"*
SCH go "Uhh..."*
DH go "Nice."*
SLB go "So what is it..."*
VB go "that's enough marginalia here."*

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15. On 2006-01-24, Sydney Freedberg said:

(Yes, I'm aware I'm not Scott, Matt, Troy, or Jay)

Now that you mention it, Vincent, I realize I've had some of my most satisfying experiences roleplaying characters who turned out to tbe "supporting cast," even though I hadn't consciously created them as such:

-  My first-ever Ars Magica characters, both magus and companion, I played as comic relief/troublemakers, right to the very end when my mage got expelled from the Order and executed.

- My most "immersive" experience ever—going insane in character, which was sort of intense—ended up with my first D&D Ravenloft character snapping, backing out of betraying a young and vulnerable NPC, rushing off to wreak judgment on the Big Bad he'd been coopted by, and promptly getting munched by said Big Bad without even a chance to roll anything. This seems very nicely to fit your model of "your guy's spotlight episode is over, now you have no guarantee against random death," and it was very satisfying.

Both of these are very much "organic flow of the narrative" experiences, as Emily said: I didn't go into the game with any expectations of being supporting cast, someone to do a kinda cool thing on the margin of the story and then burn out, but it evolved very naturally, comfortably and enjoyably. I'm not sure when I "knew" I was playing a supporting character instead of part of the core ensemble. Certainly I never worried about not being a protagonist. I had a thing I wanted to do with these characters, I got to do it—with a bunch of pleasant surprises thrown in by the GMs and other players along the way—and I went boom. In both cases I kept playing in the same group with a new character either immediately or after a short gap.

It's worth noting that in both these cases of being "supporting cast," I was a new player coming into an established group (whose characters were alive when mine arrived and still alive when mine died, in both cases)—friends of mine, but not people I'd gamed with previously. Conversely, the one time my character's ever been the unequivocal "protagonist" of a game was with a new-formed group where I was the oldest member (only grad student among a bunch of mostly college first-years) and happened to hit it off right away with the GM. In the absence of some kind of formal "you are the protagonist, you are supporting cast" mechanics, I suspect this kind of unspoken group dynamics is often the main factor in slotting people into roles.


16. On 2006-01-24, Vaxalon said:

Gregor hutton wrote:

I envisage some sort of game where we all can hop from character to character over the course of the game, sometimes settling into playing one character more than others, and at crucial times playing against our "favoured" character (perhaps who knows best what conflicts with that character than you?).

That's the only way I can see it working.  If you want me to care more about the story than "my" character, then make the story mine and the characters shared, rather than the other way around.

What would a game look like, that was playerless?

That had a bunch of GM's with no players?

Imagine a bunch of participants sitting around a table.  In the center, there are a bunch of 3x5 cards with a few stats written on them, the characters.  All of them are NPC's.  Each participant has his own 3x5 card, which also has a few stats.

One is labeled "Man vs. Himself".

Another is labeled "Justice vs. Mercy."






The characters are the means by which the participants are telling their stories, but instead of living inside the characters, they live outside them, pulling them around with their hooks rather than pushing them with their motivations.

Does this make any sense to anyone?


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17. On 2006-01-24, Vincent said:

Fred, "the only way I can see it working" doesn't move me. It's a failure of your imagination, not a real constraint on what I'm trying to accomplish.

Please, please, please, figure this out, somehow: IT'S FUN TO PLAY SUPPORTING CHARACTERS SOMETIMES.


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TC go "DBZ..."*
SF go "Yes, it's fun!"*
VAX go "Why can't the failure be my preference?"*
VAX go "And furthermore..."*
VB go "if you mean 'the only way I can see it working FOR ME...'"*
VAX go "Yes, precisely, I should have been more clear."
Sben go "Fun to play support"*

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18. On 2006-01-24, Troy_Costisick said:


Vincent Wrote:
Would any or all of you please go back to your comment and read it for assumptions about character ownership? I'd be grateful.

What if we make those assumptions to no longer hold?

-If we are going to throw that stuff out, then we need to change what the players use to manipulate the in-game stuff. Character co-ownership, multi-ownership, whatever is fine, but to include the other elements you talked about, the Product the players make has to change.

-It can't be "an advanced character" any more.  It has to be something else.  So games like you're talking about might include mechanics for Setting Advancement or Situation Advancement rather than Character Advancement.  Thus, when a character randomly dies, or the players are playing a supporting character, the individual outcomes of the PCs are merely components of a much larger goal.

-The point of play stops being "I'll advance my character to do/learn something cool" and becomes "I'll advance other game components to do/see/learn something cool."

-At first I thought I'd suggest "Story" as what we advance, but I don't like that word here.  It's too vague and over used in a RPG sense.  All roleplaying games advance a Story.  What we're talking about (well I'm trying to anyway) is something more discrete and tangible.




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VAX go "Exactly"
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19. On 2006-01-24, Neel said:

Hi Vincent, here's my take:

The games I run and play in aren't stories. When we play, me make this gigantic tangled mass of narrative. There's too much stuff in them to be a story. We make stories out of them, by taking a particular point of view, and highlighting some bits of the mass as important, and sidelining other things.

When you take a point of view to get a slice of the game, you get a story—protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters emerge. However, you can slice a game in multiple ways, and get multiple stories. And in each slice, who the protagonists are is different. All from the same play session.

My sensse is that this is one of the most amazing aesthetic features of rpg play. A movie like Rashomon is cutting-edge stuff because Kurosawa had to invest a huge amount of brilliance to make a movie that could present multiple perspectives on the "same" event—but when we game we do this automatically, with not the slightest hint of effort.

IMO, that's where the real artistic potential of rpgs lies:  in those places where we can do better than other narrative arts.


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20. On 2006-01-24, Matt Wilson said:


Here's the not-short version of my answer to all the stuff you've said. I have to think of it in terms of how it *might* work in play in order to get a handle on it, because there isn't a game yet that will let me do what you're describing.

The problem with protagonists is yeah, sometimes my guy doesn't feel like a protagonist in play, and I feel really let down, because everything says my guy is supposed to be a protagonist (I mean, come on, in PTA that's what they're called, for cryin' out loud). We're all doing something wrong if my guy has a star on his door and he's not getting cool lines and crises. The game made a promise it ain't delivering. In terms of shared ownership, we're all not making it happen, and it was supposed to.

So if we're gonna let the fiction decide, then what we really need to do is actually let the fiction create the characters, not just determine whether they're the stars or not. What if, like fan mail, we award each other development dice in play? I like how clinton's character is progressing, so I give him point thingies with which to actually buy traits, or your character hasn't really taken off yet, so I spend a point thingy to give you a cool shitty situation, which might turn out cool, which might inspire someone to give you point thingies.

The original thread you quoted was about characters leaving the story early. I don't like when that happens because all that stuff on the sheet was a story that needed to be told, so it's like you took the book from me before I could finish reading. If the sheet starts out blank, like in my ideer above, then I don't feel cheated.

I'm after that same solution right now, but I'm coming from the other end, I think. I want us all to invest in the protagonist in play and to get something out of it.

Are we like sorta agreeing and stuff now?


21. On 2006-01-24, Vincent said:

Neel: Hey, cool. I've noticed that in my actual play writeups I always write about a) my guy's story, if it's good, and b) contributions I've made to others' stories, if they're good.

Matt: Yeah, baby. Sorta agreeing and stuff: go!

The sheet starts out blank of character. It might, depending on the game, happen to be all full of player resources, but those don't a character make.


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This reminds...
VB of Fred, a reference.

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MSW go "Agreed!"*
VB go "hell, they could be..."*
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VB go "here's a koan for you, Fred:"*
WMW go "Can I just say ... YUMMY!"

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22. On 2006-01-24, Ben Lehman said:

How about, you know, GMing?

I mean, GMing in a functional situation is both 1) fun and 2) not protagonized.



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BR go "Addenda to the above"*

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23. On 2006-01-24, xenopulse said:

So... I fail to see how this step is so difficult, but maybe I fail to see what exactly the implications are.

We've already realized that we can play games without a GM. However, the GM usually handles lots of minor/supporting characters. So if we have a game without the GM, we can spread the characters around as well. Polaris already does this; I'm sure several people can attest that it's fun to play a supporting character in Polaris when you're one of the Moons. If I remember correctly, characters can move around on the cosmos, thereby they can be played by different players at different times.

I don't think that that means that someone should play only a supporting character and nothing else because, even as that might be fun, it limits that person's input into the fiction. Supporting characters don't drive a plot; protagonists do. In the end, that might be a matter of personal preference.

As to letting the fiction decide who will be a protagonist and who won't, I'm not so sure about that in all circumstances. War movies may be an example where it works, but that's because the premise of war movies often (not always) is situational (as opposed to a causal or opposing forces premise). However, in most media, we want to be introduced to the protagonist soon, because we'll follow their journey and see how their passions drive the plot ahead.

So maybe you could have an initial phase where you figure out who's most likely to do that, or you might have different chapters of your game with changing roles.

- Christian


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24. On 2006-01-24, Lisa Padol said:

So, premise: "Let the events of the game's fiction choose whether your character is a protagonist or a supporting character."

Question Posed: "Are we still obsessed with securing our personal characters' relevance? Is the threat that our personal characters will be somehow made irrelevant still so urgent?"

Non-rhetorical preliminary question: Which me should be answering this? The me that tries stuff out at conventions? The me that has definite tastes in what I usually play? The me just doing theory in a theoretical vaccuum? Some other me?



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25. On 2006-01-24, Julie, aka jrs said:

The sheet starts out blank of character. It might, depending on the game, happen to be all full of player resources, but those don't a character make.

Um. I can't help but notice that this is exactly how npc's are generated in Dogs in the Vineyard.


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VB go "Fred, what?"*
VAX go "Dammit, I should read the rules before I open my big mouth."

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26. On 2006-01-24, Vincent said:

Troy, I suggest to you that in a lot of the current Forge games, what looks like character advancement is, in fact, and in conjunction with resolution, situation advancement exactly.

As far as I'm concerned, the problem's easily solved, in principle: all you have to do is make sure that the players can play even if their characters die. If you have to have a character in order to play, then when your character dies, you have to be able to get a new character - that's how Dogs in the Vineyard works. If you don't have to have a character in order to play, like in Primetime Adventures for instance, then when your character dies, you just keep playing.


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27. On 2006-01-24, Vaxalon said:

All you have to do is make sure that the players can play even if their characters die.

I don't think it's that simple.

What you have to do is make sure that the players can play meaningfully even if their characters die.  That's not nearly as simple a proposition.


28. On 2006-01-24, Vincent said:

Well, but, yeah it's as simple, because it's precisely the proposition I was proposing. I'm not going to accept as a fulfillment of my challenge here a game where after your character dies, you can keep playing, but it sucks, am I?

Yes, exactly: you have to make sure that the players can play meaningfully even if their characters die.

What I'm trying to beat into your head in particular, Fred, is that "play meaningfully" doesn't mean "have sole creative control over one protagonist."

Understand, here, that "meaningfully" has a strict preexisting definition, that is not swayed by your - or my, or anyone's - tastes or agenda. Read "meaningfully" as "meaningfully with regard to addressing premise." Thereby, "meaningfully" implies that there is at least one protagonist in action, but doesn't specify any particular person's creative relationship with that protagonist. The GM can participate meaningfully; the players of supporting characters can participate meaningfully; players who are limited to only awarding and spending fan mail can participate meaningfully.


29. On 2006-01-24, Matt Wilson said:

Begs the question: can you sit in the room while people are playing PTA (or whatever) without any sheet or fan mail in front of you and go "OMG that's cool! How about doing this next?" and feel that it's meaningful participation?

I think I could.


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VB go "Fred: exactly!"
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GcL go "I think that's useful"*

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30. On 2006-01-24, Vincent said:

Again, Matt, "feel" that it's meaningful participation is beside the point. Would it BE meaningful participation? Would you be contributing to the game's addressage of premise?

It depends a lot, I think. What it depends on, I think, turns out to be the unwritten rules, the on-the-fly negotiated part of the system. Some kind of informal and occult fan mail mechanic, the exact stuff that formal fan mail does better.


31. On 2006-01-24, Vincent said:

Although to be fair, I don't know this about Primetime Adventures from experience. When we played and Ben didn't have a character, he got to play supporting characters, he didn't just do fan mail.

Also, it turns out that it's not so easy to get fan mail when you don't have a character, at least at my house. We generally fan mailed whoever made the idea concrete in the fiction, not whoever's idea it was, to Ben's disadvantage.

There are lots of reasons why playing a character is important and cool - that I think so is, perhaps, the reason why I don't see Capes, Universalis, or Fred's 3x5 card game above as what I'm after. It's not that I want to do away with character ownership, not at all; I want to do away with exclusive character ownership.


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VAX go "Why do you want to do away with something that you have argued doesn't exist?"
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32. On 2006-01-24, Vaxalon said:

Would it BE meaningful participation?

Exactly!  It wouldn't be meaningful participation unless it had some authority.

Do you guys play sports?  Team sports, I mean?  Competitively?

I don't.  Can't stand them.  I like a 'friendly' game where noone keeps score, just for the exercise and cameraderie but as soon as there's a winner and loser I lose interest.

You know why?  Because in the drive to 'win' the best players marginalize the worst.

I'm lousy at softball.  I can't hit, I can't catch, I can't run, and I can't throw.  What happens when I join a game that has ANY kind of competition to it?  Right field.  Every time.  Because if I were pitcher, or catcher, or first baseman, I'd be spoiling everyone else's fun with my incompetence.

I *hate* that.

I'm pretty good at volleyball, just because of my height, when in any informal context.  I used to love playing in that context until I realized that the people who faced me across the net, the people who were likely to get a faceful of volleyball next time I spiked it, didn't have a lot of fun when I was opposite them.  Not everyone, certainly, but enough that it spoiled MY fun.  I could see the same jealousy, the same self-loathing that I felt when I was out in right field.

I hate that too, now, and I don't play.

One of the reasons that I think roleplaying games are REALLY COOL, one of the things that makes them IMPORTANT to me, is that in a well run group, noone has to play right field unless they want to.  Noone is ever coerced into taking a lesser role.  Everyone can get their spotlight time.

Now is it fun and to be out of the spotlight sometimes?  Sure!  I TOTALLY AGREE with that statement.

Now is it fun and cool to not know when your spotlight time will come?  Sure!

Is it fun and cool always and in every case, to not know whether you'll ever get that spotlight time?  No.  I'm the counterexample.  If that happened to me I'd feel cheated.  So yes, my personal tastes ARE relevant.

Now is it fun and cool for some people?  Sure.  No argument there.  But as soon as you make that into a universal statement rather than a specific one, I have to object.

Am I asking for a guarantee?  Yes.  I am.  And I don't think it's too much to ask.  I expect the spotlight to be offered to me at least some of the time.


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VB go "expecting me to give you that guarantee is, yes, too much to ask."*
BR go "Vax, man, there will always be games where you get to be the protagonist."*

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33. On 2006-01-24, Jason L Blair said:

Hey Vincent,

First, I want to say that, YES! Playing a supporting castmember can be great fun. (I address character role explicitly in NORMAL, TEXAS.)

I'm not sold on your point (not that you have to sell me, o'course):

Now, to get it out of the way, I'm not talking about character ownership AT ALL. I'm speaking strictly about the fact you have X number of folks around a table and Y characters (Y may equal X, may not) and Z structure to place within a shared imaginative space.

Most games define that X = players + GM, Y = PCs + NPCs, and Z = PCs are focus. Protagonism rises and swells with the challenges placed in front of the group. Certain challenges and/or scenarios allow certain PCs to shine.

Some games hold X and Y as above but value Z on a rotation. PTA, f'r instance, where certain episodes will be focused on a certain character or character dynamic.

What I'm seeing in your assertion is that X = players, Y = pool of characters (partially or wholly owned by an individual or the group), but Z = what? I'm seeing Z = Tell a story until a protagonist arises contextually/consensually. In hard practice, I'm seeing: Dominant player tells story; others twiddle fingers.

Now, I may be misreading your assertion, and how you define "fiction defining role." I dunno, very possible. If so, please correct me.


34. On 2006-01-24, Gordon said:

Sigh.  Lost my post adding marginalia. Let's try again.

Hi all.  Long time since I commented.  Diving right back in . . .

I've looked at this from the other end.  That is, if you are going to have personal, privledged protagonists (PPP's? As opposed to just 'PC's'?), WHY?  If it adds something to the (e.g., and the only angle I've really looked at it from) group address of premise, what is that?  And does your design/play mesh with that?

I think (warning - loose language ahead) that there are some kinds of stories that such a method works quite well for, but I'm not sure it's ever required and I'll readily accept that it is in some cases a BAD idea.  But I'm not even sure how to start sorting through which fit where, and why.


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ecb go "Hi Gordon!"*
GcL go "Apply to SNAP?"*

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35. On 2006-01-24, Gregor Hutton said:

Maybe I just have a personal disconnect—a distance—about owning characters wholly. I mean I like—in fact, I love—creating and playing characters in games. It's just that when they're out there, they're _out_ there for everyone to see and modify. Everyone else I play with influences my character on every level I can comprehend. With their reactions to my character, and their ideas and actions, they incrementally readjust my a priori assumptions of what my character was/is. It happens in games, we should accept it. It's not a heresy. I mean I think we already do it, we just don't like to admit it?

The next bigger point is that for the good of the experience (story/events/whatever) it's important that sometimes the character wins, sometimes loses, sometimes leads, sometimes supports, sometimes does _not_ change at all, and at other times changes in ways that we could never have predicted beforehand.

Often the GM takes on the role of deciding who is the "main character" in a story. Why? And how did they decide that? And who says what direction we are going in? Do we have to compete to be the protagonist? Sometimes the story unfolding just screams out the way it has to go. Go with the flow.


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VB go "I think we already do it too."*
TC go "Well..."*
GH go "Not always a competition, and not always healthy"*

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36. On 2006-01-24, Gordon said:

The fact that we already do this - that is, it is not really true that your character is entirely a personal privledged protagonist, ever - encourgaes me to rephrase the issue to "where does the buck stop?"

If we have the protagonism-buck stop with a particular player for a particular character, we should have a reason for doing so.  There is no reason why we couldn't choose to have the protagonism-buck for a character stop with the dice (cards/straws/whatever), if there's a good use/reason for that.  Often "the dice determine protagonism" has been seen as a bad, upsetting, maybe even damaging (not that I know just what Ron means by that) thing, but there is absolutely no reason why it would have to be so, even within premise-oriented play.

I would like to re-point at an issue that Matt mentioned early on - that not knowing who the protagonist(s) are is problematic to the quality of the story until we decide on/discover them.  I think this is an issue, but not an absolute barrier.  Sometimes it is best to know, but sometimes it isn't.  From an author standpoint, it is (it seems to me) an even bigger issue than it is from a reader/observer standpoint, but since play of the sort we're discussing here is (inexactly) both of those things at once - still not a total block.


37. On 2006-01-25, Troy_Costisick said:


As far as I'm concerned, the problem's easily solved, in principle: all you have to do is make sure that the players can play even if their characters die. If you have to have a character in order to play, then when your character dies, you have to be able to get a new character - that's how Dogs in the Vineyard works. If you don't have to have a character in order to play, like in Primetime Adventures for instance, then when your character dies, you just keep playing.

Part 1:
-This to me says they might gain control over stuff like villains, obstacles, traps, allies, resources, and stuff like that.  Then they use other resources to advance those things...till they die (get used, whatever) then get a new character or create more NPCs/Setting elements and so on.  Is this what you're getting at Vincent?

Part 2:
-Should character death be the price that must be paid to get access to control like that?




38. On 2006-01-25, Emily Care said:

-Should character death be the price that must be paid to get access to control like that?

It certainly needn't be. If everyone has access to contributing via more than character, or more than one character then there's no problem, right? (Role monogamy is so passe)

But take Ars Magica, for example, if you lose your grog character, it may be no sweat. But if you lose your mage, it's a serious blow to your ability to contribute: both via effectiveness and centrality to the premise et al.  That's what makes a protagonist so appealing.

Perhaps what we are talking about is dis-engaging the means of making meaningful contribution from the notion of having a single given character.  PtA does that in great part by giving everyone a major say in outcomes of conflicts: everyone authors the story via their use of fanmail (or lack thereof) as well as by the fact that everyone can shout stuff out and get it adopted into the narrative.  So it's not just the concentration of power put into the character, but also the lack of other means of contributing that reinforces emphasis on character ownership.

Another mark of a protagonist is facing adversity.  Everyone playing Capes is working hard to protagonize the other players. So who the narrative coalesces around may be determined by the efforts of others & a players receptiveness or a characters "fitted-ness" to the abilities of others.  Or there may emerge no single protagonist.  Who's the protagonist of Justice League comics or X-men? (Well, Logan perhaps, for x-men, because he had such a delightful load of issues, or Jean Grey at other times etc).


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BR go "Ironically, that is one of the reasons X-men are better in the comics than the movies"*
LP go "Hmph."*
XP go "Don't get me started"*
SLB go "And Pippin, and Merry...."

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39. On 2006-01-25, Brand Robins said:

Between Christian and Emily I'm left with little to say.

The only point I'll add is that I've a couple of folks I game with who like almost everything about Nar gaming except, ironically, the need to push/pull hard to author your story. They like to be the comic relief, the romantic interlude, and the grist in the mill to move the other characters along.

If they had a way of contributing significantly and continually to the game that didn't center around ownership of a single character, I think they may actually be happier in game.

And in every case I think they'd be very surprised to find it out.


40. On 2006-01-25, Vaxalon said:

I don't think anyone is arguing against the idea that there are people out there, probably lots of them, who would love to play supporting characters exclusively, with no other input to the game.

Perhaps what we are talking about is dis-engaging the means of making meaningful contribution from the notion of having a single given character.

No, that's not what Vincent is saying.

Let the events of the game's fiction choose whether your character is a protagonist or a supporting character.

As I see it, Vincent is very much talking about "role monogamy".  He's saying that we should let the story unfold, and if the story demands it, cede dominance to one or two players for the duration of the story.

I think I may have come across the achilles heel of this idea.  The story does not unfold all by itself; the players who are being asked to cede this dominance are among those who are shaping the story.  So a player who doesn't want to cede that dominance can try to steer the story in his character's direction.  He doesn't "let" the story decide, he tries to make it decide... and in fact, how can he NOT do?  After all, he's at least in part responsible for the story.


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41. On 2006-01-25, ethan_greer said:

Are we still obsessed with securing our personal characters' relevance? Is the threat that our personal characters will be somehow made irrelevant still so urgent?

I'm with you, man. And I also really don't see what the big deal is about all of this. It's a simple idea: make decisions in play with your character that are based on the health of the story rather than some sort of "my character is super-duper important" agenda. Sounds like healthy address of premise to me. What the hell are you people arguing about?

Or am I missing something and playing the asshole again?


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VAX go "The nature of the story isn't a foregone conclusion"*

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42. On 2006-01-25, Tris said:

Let the events of the game's fiction decide if you are protagonist or not?

"...oh man, meaningless character death.  I hate that."
"Deal with it - turns out you weren't the protagonist."

In other words:  Unless someone knows a given character isn't a protagonist, they'll invest in that character as if it were a protagonist.  When you tell them the character isn't, and kill them in a fairly meaningless way, that still sucks.  Whether it's my character, your character, or a joint character.

In other other words:  If I went to watch Spiderman 3, and at the start Spiderman was killed by some mook, and the film was all about the guy who took over from him, that would suck because I already have emotional investment in Spiderman as the protagonist, and suddenly telling me he isn't, and just died isn't fair.

It's the character death I'm struggling with, I think.  I dig players sharing investment in a character, and I dig coming into and out of the limelight, but the random death?  Defining a character as "not main protagonist right now" and then killing them isn't any more satisfactory than just killing them.

I humbly contest.


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JK go "You mean like Mystery Men"*

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43. On 2006-01-25, anon. said:

I don't know... I was watching a program on Korean cinema last night, and this whole thing reminds me of the plot of "Samaritan Girl."

To try to do this without getting spoily... The film pulls the rug from under you a couple of times as to who the protagonist is. Sometimes by killing the person you thought was the protagonist. As far as I can tell, it rocks on toast, so why are we so worried about the same damn thing in RPG's?

Well, the reason is in two words: "MY GUY". And we end up acting like Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man, when he argued that "his guy" would act like more of a tough man than the script and director were demanding.

Sure, you've spent a lot of time and effort creating and establishing your guy, but if we're playing an honest game where the character is a tool for play, and not vice versa, then sometimes they may not be who the game is about.

In fact, the game is never about the characters, it's about the players.


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TB go "hmmm...."*
VAX go ""Honest Game"?"
VAX go "It's both."*

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44. On 2006-01-25, Ian Charvill said:

My observation is that in improvised drama you get two phases.  The first phase is wandery, tentative, experimental.  Material is being generated and we're kind of waiting for something to grab hold.  When it does, we shift to the second phase.  Improv here is tighter and more directed.

The level of audience engagement shifts markedly between the two phases, with an increase in interest in the second phase.

To refer this back to roleplaying explicitly, you don't need to know who the protagonists are in phase one, but if you don't know who they are by phase two then you're in trouble (if you don't know who they are, you're probably not in phase two).

These two points connect.  While in phase two you find you are not the protagonist, the interest available to you as an audience member should have gone up.

Another observation is that those players who are not playing the protagonists in phase two play will benefit from having their primary story-affecting resources being non-character-based.

[There is a player at the table in most rpg play who plays the supporting cast, whose primary story affecting resources are non-character-based and whose engagement with play is fine and dandy: the GM.  I suspect playerless play converges with GM-full play]

Worked example:

Phase 1 - system: Universalis - group sets up protagonists, antagonists and backstory until everyone is happy that the stage is set.  One of the first tenets is alternate universe Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Transition - system: unsupported - group decides who plays the protagonist (the Slayer), the antagonist(s), and the supporting characters.

Phase 2 - system: BTVS RPG - one player plays the Slayer, one player plays the vampires (the GM),  other players play supporting cast and have large numbers of drama points as a metagame resource.  House rules: players get to keep and spend drama points if their character dies, and also get more points for taking over NPCs from the GM.

That's a bodge using current systems. Are there any systems out there which could support play thoughout, including play through the transition?


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VAX go "Buffy is an excellent example"*

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45. On 2006-01-25, Dave said:

I think I see at least 2 ways people are interpreting V's boldfaced assertion "Let the events of the game's fiction choose whether your character is a protagonist or a supporting character." And, I posit, it will matter which way you're taking it. Because Vincent's Band of Brothers example was really helpful to me in examining this idea, I'm going to use WWII examples.

One way is people like Tris, in comment 42. He interprets the phrase to mean that anytime the story is not clearly focused on you (eg spotlight episode), the GM will say "Grenade lands in your trench! Everyone roll a d6 and if you roll 6, you're dead!" Random (and quite possibly meaningless) character death may ensue for all but one or two characters who weren't required to make the roll.

The other way is Vincent's PTA adjustment in comment 9 and Sydney's marginalia in Lisa's comment (24):"if you tell me up front "you're doing the supporting character now, plug into the protagonist's story according to these guidelines," I've got a better guarantee of relevance than traditional "my Guy" ever gave." In this interpretation, the events of the fiction still somehow determine the degree of a character's (note, I did not say _your_ character's) protagonism, but they do it with enough warning that whoever's controlling that character can participate in guiding that character towards their (now determined) role in the fiction. So, as play begins in our imaginary WWII game, everyone rolls a d6, and those who roll a 6 know that the character they're currently controlling won't survive the play session. Notice, same basic mechanic, different timetable. Its now up to the player to help mold the fiction to make sure that character dies this episode, meaningfully or not. Everyone knows this is a WWII game and that at the beginning of every session, they're going to make this roll. The player has some time, and presumably some well-designed in-game method, of making sure it all fits together.

In my [personal] view, the second way does a much better job of supporting co-ownership of the fiction (allowing, for example, a player to say "Ok, this shootout is where my character is going to die, but I want you, Joe, to be the one who says exactly how it happens"), and has a much better chance at being 'satisfying' from a player perspective, _even_ if players who lose the character in the first way can keep playing meaningfully somehow (since we assume the same is true if they die the second way).

Is this distinction important to anyone else? Am I making sense with this?


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TB go "Loads, but..."*
VAX go "Exactly."
DY go "Interesting, TB"*
TB go "Dice => fiction?"*
DY go "Not Always"*

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46. On 2006-01-25, Vincent said:

Lots to cover.

I'm'a start here:

Fred, you are so close you can taste it. SO close.

Here's what I want you to do. Take "I have the spotlight" in you mind's right hand, and "my character has the spotlight" in your mind's left hand. Hold your hands far apart from one another; turn your head to the left to look at "my character has the spotlight," then turn your head to the right to look at "I have the spotlight." Move your hands around, independently, just to make certain that they aren't still touching one another. See? Two things. You can see where they CAN fit together if you choose to fit them together, but you can also see how they're independently whole.

You said: "[Vincent's] saying that we should let the story unfold, and if the story demands it, cede dominance to one or two players for the duration of the story."

I say: We should let the story unfold, and if the story demands it, cede dominance to one or two CHARACTERS CHARACTERS CHARACFUCKINGTERS NOT PLAYERS CHARACTERS for the duration of the story.

Now, this is really serious. Next time you post here, Fred, in comments or in marginalia, I expect you to either a) demonstrate that you've understood this point as an answer to your concerns, or else b) ask me honestly to help you understand it. I'd recommend that you take some time to figure out which is appropriate. You may find it helpful to review some threads here and on the Forge; if you'd like me to recommend some, that's (b), and I'd be glad to.


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VAX go "Digesting. But..."*
VB go "Fred, I was very clear."

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47. On 2006-01-25, Vincent said:

Troy: "Should character death be the price that must be paid to get access to control like that?"

Quite the opposite. Getting access to control like that - and I'd include "bits of the other players' characters" in your list - is something that will take the insano hurt out of character death.


48. On 2006-01-25, Tris said:

Help me out here.

I'm holding "Character" in one hand, and "Player" in the other.

What gets me about random character death, I think, is the disparity between the investment I have in that character (even if I have explicitly NO ownership, beyond the group share) and the fate of that character w.r.t the story.

"It's okay that Dave the super-wombat will be mostly helping to highlight the issues that Sally the sheep of doom is working through this episode" is so totally something I think rocks.

"It's okay that Dave the super-wombat died in that episode, in an arbitrary and pointless way, because he wasn't a protagonist at that time" is so totally something I feel sick about.


49. On 2006-01-25, Vincent said:

Dave: "...anytime the story is not clearly focused on you (eg spotlight episode), the GM will say 'Grenade lands in your trench! Everyone roll a d6 and if you roll 6, you're dead!' Random (and quite possibly meaningless) character death may ensue for all but one or two characters who weren't required to make the roll."

That seems to me to be pretty much how Band of Brothers works.

Now, but there's a major difference between Band of Brothers and my imaginary WWII roleplaying game: Band of Brothers was all written when they started filming. The creators knew during episode two who would live until episode five, or whatever. We don't have (or want) that luxury. Instead, we have to somehow navigate creating fiction collaboratively and on the fly - we're jamming, not performing. So I want to look to the audience experience, where - like in a roleplaying game - I don't know in episode 2 who'll live to episode five.

And this is where I really appreciate Neel's, anon's, and Ian's comments. Phase 1 and phase 2 - there's lots of stuff we can do, lots of stuff to look at and play with.


50. On 2006-01-25, Vincent said:

Tris, have you watched Band of Brothers? Of course you feel sick about it; a character you liked a lot just died for no reason.

But what happens is, this random, pointless death here, in episode 3, contributes - contributes irreplacably - to what the show's about, here at the end of episode 10. Without it, without a whole backdrop of people we like dying for no reason, the show wouldn't get to say what it has to say.

If we demand that every PC's death be about something right now, a statement, and the player's choice on top, then we lose ... well, we lose every kind of fiction but action-adventure fiction, I think.


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DY go "But what do we gain?"*
VB go "well, I for one want to say something about the brutality of war."*
BR go "We could also gain a way out of "this character is broken""*

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51. On 2006-01-25, Vincent said:

I think, by the way, everyone, that it's good that no one's tried to take on Ron. We're mostly just proving him right.

I like this thread. It hurts me. I don't know how much more of it I can stand.


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TB go "I can't decide how to disagree"*
WMW go "I think it's quite possible"*
BR go "Oh yea, we're at a crossroads"*
TC go "It's Coming..."*
VAX go "Liking things the 'old' way..."*
VB go "Fred, I was very clear."

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52. On 2006-01-25, Tris said:

Yep, I've seen Band of brothers.

I CAN see what you are saying.

I'm not all like "It must be choice" or "It must mean something now", but I'm still pretty much "It should mean something" did just write "this random, pointless death...contributes irreplacably" which, to me, so totally means it wasn't random and pointless.


53. On 2006-01-25, Tris said:

Check this out:

Dave was placed in a terrible situation.  He had to look deep within himself to battle many deadly opponents, in a way noone had before.  He had to battle with himself, to remain good when it was so tempting to become evil in fighting these evil opponents.  Parts of Dave died in that struggle, parts became stronger.

Dave is a character right?  Dave is the protagonist?

Dave = Easy Company.


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VB go "binGO."
ecb go "this is a reference to Band of Brothers"*
AJF go "Don't spoiler me. I'm begging you."*
VAX go "And in the RPG, is Easy Company played by one player?"
GcL go "One player?"*
TC go "Could be..."*

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54. On 2006-01-25, Vincent said:

It's the responsibility of the fiction that comes after to make it mean something. We can let it happen for no reason, if we trust the fiction that comes after.

Which, see how that's so totally consistent with my "let the events of the fiction name the protagonist(s)"?


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ecb of Hare & Hound

This makes...
TB go "Goddamn YES!"*
VB go "and what's awesome is..."*
TB go "that is THE awesome..."*
ecb go "awesomeness in action"*
TC go "That's the first step..."*

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55. On 2006-01-25, Dave said:

Preface: I'm not pissing, here. But I am having trouble seeing how (except with GM-illusionism) you can have players who are that tied to the audience perspective, and not to the collaborator/writer perspective. Knowing what I do about you, that can't be what you're saying. So I'm missing something.

What I love about Ian's approach is that the protagonism is set early and collaboratively, in Stage 1, so I know I'm supporting when I'm in control of a supporting player. Same in PTA, even with the variant you propose. But then you say "We don't have (or want) that luxury." and I have trouble trusting the fiction without a little framework to help me know we'll all be jamming in the same key (did I just mangle that metaphor?)

I agree, it's cool when the game changes in an unexpected way, in a moment, when everyone suddenly has to expand their mind and see (or decide together) what's really happening. And I have noticed that in almost all these threads about co-ownership, that's something Vincent consistently brings up. I guess I'm just not really clear anymore on who you want having the power to make that happen. I can see how it's collaboratively possible if done beforehand, even just a little beforehand, but when done randomly in the moment, I don't see that part of the fiction can be collaborative. Help!


56. On 2006-01-25, ethan_greer said:

Dave, that's why there's been talk of creating a system that will enable that. We're not 100% sure how to accomplish it.

It can happen with a good group, where there's open, honest discourse, a universal buy-in to the process, and no "my guy syndrome" gumming up the works. But to make it happen systemically? That's a bit of a stumper.


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57. On 2006-01-25, timfire said:

And I have noticed that in almost all these threads about co-ownership, that's something Vincent consistently brings up. I guess I'm just not really clear anymore on who you want having the power to make that happen. I can see how it's collaboratively possible if done beforehand, even just a little beforehand, but when done randomly in the moment, I don't see that part of the fiction can be collaborative.

If you learn to look out for such moments, you'll find that they "just seem to happen" quite alot.

Here's an example. I'm playing Lacuna, and my character is all brute force and not much less. Long story short, I meet this chick and lie to her, telling her I'll rescue her, just so she'll give me this information I want. After I get the information, I pretty much skip town. Next session, I encounter her again, tied up by a group of people I'm fighting. I'm thinking, "Oh crap, she's going to be pissed."

But she isn't. She grabs me and says, "I knew you would come."

Hmmm... This is interesting, I think. So I say, "my character doesn't resist." The GM then says, "she starts kissing you."

BAM! my character is in love, and everyone at the table knows it. Suddenly, our collective perception of the character went from jerk-off to sympathic. And none of it was planned.

And why? Because the GM threw out a situation ripe with possibility, and I recognized the potential it had for my character. I responded a certain way, and then the GM followed.

I can't really articulate it better, but if you learn to watch out for thematically interesting moments, you can go with it and this just seem to "happen on their own"...

Hope that makes sense.


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58. On 2006-01-25, timfire said:

I'm sorry, my last post was a little incoherent in regard to answering Dave's question. The point I was trying to make was that that situation only happened because the GM and I were working together. I wouldn't have had the woman embrace me, if I were by myself. The GM also didn't know how I would respond. When the GM saw how I did repond, he simply followed my lead and pushed it even further.


59. On 2006-01-25, Tris said:

I play a character.

I participate in the story through the character.

A character dies.

I get a bunch of chips.

I influence the story by spending chips through the conduit of the values and relationships of the character.

If the guy my character loved is about to give up hope against a foe, I spend chips and BAM!  He remembers my dieing words, and fights on.


As he is about to give up, I toss the chips to one side.  "You realise that Joe's death was meaningless, just another part of this stupid war".

I'm driving the story with a dead character.


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TC go "Yes!"*
RE go "The Mountain Witch ..."*
AJN go "CoS - Destiny points..."*
VMR go "I was thinking a new trait"*

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60. On 2006-01-25, Lisa Padol said:

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.



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This makes...
sdm go "Nice examples"*
JK go "They don't all have to be protags"*
LP go "Exactly."*
LP go "Different view"*

*click in for more

61. On 2006-01-25, Emily said:

Tim's example points up a really important aspect of what V.'s talking about: we don't realize how much others are establishing about our characters all the time.  By responding in character, by provoking reaction, etc.  We think we own it alone, but really...

Re: MW players are wimpy.  It's hard to get over the social component of "I'm hosing you if I take down your character".  I'm shy about it. I'm just starting to get the handle of doing it as a player in games like PtA.  The GM has the advantage of everyone expecting that to be the case, but co-players are seen to be in a different social box.  Getting the permission/expectations set up so that what Tris suggests, and the full use of Mountain Witch mechanics is not just okay but applauded is a tricky thing.

Though, it keeps occurring to me lately that people expect each other to be cutthroat in poker and bridge.  Why is it so hard in rpg?


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This makes...
ecb go "What Ron wrote & cross-posted with Lisa."*
VAX go "I think I already answered that question."
KM go "I think its hard because..."*
TB go "Because"*
TLR go "Step on Up"*
TC go "Wow..."*

*click in for more

62. On 2006-01-25, ScottM said:

The thread's been a long and good one (well, for me—Vincent's pain makes it clear that it's not unvarnished good).

A lot of the thread looks like it was about answering: Are we still obsessed with securing our personal



That answer was a resounding yes.  When the word character is reinserted, and tools are assumed that make the player's investment in something else is valued, then players are more willing to see random death.

Part of the problem was that Vincent's questions asked about our personal characters, twice. When he later asked (in comment 5), "Would any or all of you please go back to your comment and read it for assumptions about character ownership? I'd be grateful.  What if we make those assumptions to no longer hold?"

I doubt that alone would be successful.  Even if I'm sharing my character with others (like the previous Anna and Ben examples), I'd still be unhappy at losing my character in any one-player, one-primary character setup.  The successful forms that emerged later in this thread (essentially fusing non-character based resources with enough surviving characters that could be assumed as roles) sound like they would work.

Is my perception right?  Part of the Band of Brothers example's success is that the role you take over is "the same team", the same core story.  You can expand a previously neglected character—and the team as a whole grows more complex.  It seems similar to Inspectres play, where the company itself becomes a character, as players choose how to expend resources and use it.

If the alternative was taking over opposition characters, helping the GM play the monsters (in a more traditional game), or having to leave the room (as Tony's example in the thread Vincent linked to), it'd take a lot more to keep me happy.

(Cross posted with Lisa, who seems to be making a lot of the points I'm fumblingly trying to make.)


63. On 2006-01-25, Vincent said:

I hate this.

Fred, you are to participate here according to the guidelines I set. Do you understand?


64. On 2006-01-25, Vaxalon said:

Okay, going back and responding to #46.

I understand that when a character has spotlight, and when a player has spotlight, can be separate things.  It doesn't happen traditionally, but there are games which are moving in that direction.

For that to happen, as I see it, the spotlit character can't have a primary owner, because the character will very likely draw a primary owner into the spotlight when the character is in it.

In fact, that's a good preliminary definition of primary ownership.  If a player gets drawn into the spotlight when the character is in the spotlight, then that player is a primary owner of that character.  Who does a participant look at when the question is asked, "What does the character do?"  That's the primary owner of the character.  If the question is put to the group in general rather than to a specific player or players, then there is no primary owner.

So in order for the independence you talk about to be real, then there can be no primary ownership of characters, by definition, because as soon as there is primary ownership, the connection between the character spotlight and the player spotlight is made.

So yeah, I really, really see your point, how character (primary) ownership is intimately connected to this player relevance issue.

Now, to go back to your restated thesis, with this in mind:

We should let the story unfold, and if the story demands it, cede dominance to one or two characters for the duration of the story.

If those characters don't have primary owners, then I'm totally cool with it.


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This makes...
VAX go "Yes, I understand."*
DY go "my guy != me"*
VAX go "Yes."*
VAX go "I'm not saying I can't be cool with it otherwise."

*click in for more

65. On 2006-01-25, Vincent said:

Fred, in marginalia: "If the system has ways for you to get into the spotlight in other ways besides through your character, then yes, that can equalize things."

Thank GOD, FINally.

I'd like you to sit out the next couple days of this conversation, Fred. Let your new (and hard-won) insight sink in a little. Go back and reread this thread and its predecessors, understanding that they're predicated on this thing you've just figured out.

But seriously, reread or don't reread, but give it a rest for a couple of days.


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This reminds...
BR of A post I wrote from ideas I got here, posted there to save Vincent more pain.

This makes...
VAX go "See you on the evening of the 27th, then."

66. On 2006-01-25, Vincent said:

In fact...

Why don't we all take some time. There's a LOT in here for me to digest. How about, nobody post here until I've had a chance to catch up and remark?

Thanks, everybody!


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This makes...
Matt S go "Always a bridesmaid ..."*

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67. On 2006-01-25, SDL said:

Brand's analysis of the thread seems to be dead on.

In short: Where you go from here is from having "RPGs" to having either a Role-playing 'jam session', or a Story-Creation 'jam session'.

I think that's pretty cool. (But also hard!)


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This makes...
SDL go "sorry!"
VB go "no prob."*

*click in for more

68. On 2006-01-26, Ben Lehman said:

I posted something about this over on my blog.



69. On 2006-01-27, Vincent said:

Okay, how's everybody?

Lisa: Am I to read your comment as saying anything other than "hey, I do that all the time after all"? That's how I read it, but man it's long, so if I'm missing its nuances please tell me.

As for you taking me to task: I'll try to write clearly, you all try to read past your initial ACK. Deal?

ScottM: "Even if I'm sharing my character with others (like the previous Anna and Ben examples), I'd still be unhappy at losing my character in any one-player, one-primary character setup. The successful forms that emerged later in this thread (essentially fusing non-character based resources with enough surviving characters that could be assumed as roles) sound like they would work.

Is my perception right? Part of the Band of Brothers example's success is that the role you take over is "the same team", the same core story. You can expand a previously neglected character—and the team as a whole grows more complex. It seems similar to Inspectres play, where the company itself becomes a character, as players choose how to expend resources and use it."

Right on.


70. On 2006-01-27, Vincent said:

Charles S. wrote a great piece over at Brand's blog, in the comments to Naturalism, the Story of the Day, and RPGs. Scroll down past Ron. I wish it were here! I think Charles has nailed it.


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This makes...
BR go "Charles is a smarty."*

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71. On 2006-01-27, Vincent said:

If anybody feels that you've made a valuable point and I've missed it, you're right, I have. Flag it to me, in marginalia to this comment.


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This reminds...
BL of Gordon's Blog, linkinated

This makes...
GcL go "If there's value"*

*click in for more

72. On 2006-01-27, anon. said:

I don't think the problem isn't an obsession with the relevance of one character over another.  I don't think it ever was.

The problem with allowing my character to become a supporting character simply because that's where the fiction leads, I think, is I remain convinced, deep down, that I as a player really have ownership of a single character, that my input elsewhere is a sideline, and that the input of others into my character is a sideline.  At the table, I want my play to be relevant.  I want to participate meaningfully.

It's about the relevance of the player.  I can't easily see what really giving ownership of my character would be like.  With effort, I can see meaningful participation, with this character I usually speak for as supporting cast.  I can just see it,  over there, as something that might be truly great and fun.

But my habits stand between me and that kind of play - they're strong habits, and they exist because they have helped me get what I want in some games.  I don't think my habits are so ingrained that they can't be surpassed.  But I don't think I can get past them, with my group, without a tool.

I don't think I need a 'prosthetic' to help me play that way once I've gotten there, to borrow a turn from Ron's post.

But I think that to get there, I do need something firm to step on, some tool, some hand up.

I hope that this is inside your standards.  I'm not sure if it helps; it's just how I see what you're talking about.


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This makes...
LBK go "Agh. That was me."

73. On 2006-01-27, Vaxalon said:

I'd like to offer up what happened to me at the 9w Skype game on wednesday night.

If you're not familiar with 9W, I should point out that it has what I'd call a "strong narration" mechanic... by that I mean that there are few restrictions on what a participant may narrate if he wins a conflict.

The upshot of this is that the game does not have what I call "primary character ownership".  When you want to know what a particular character does, you don't ALWAYS look to one person; if you're in free narration, you go to the person with the character sheet, but if you're in conflict-resolution narration, you go to the winner of the conflict.

When I found out about this, I got a little nervous.  Having played Capes before (which has an even looser narration scheme) I didn't panic, but it worried me a bit.  We talked a bit about just how far the conflict winner could go with his narration, and we eventually discovered that the game (without actually describing it) really depends on the "Don't Be An Ass Rule".

For those of you not familiar with it, the Don't Be An Ass Rule operates on the social contract level.  It means just what it says; don't be an ass.  Don't screw around with other people's characters, or the setting, or what have you, in such a big way that the other people at the table think you're being an ass.  This rule depends on two things; the courtesy of the narrator, and the ability of everyone else to speak up if they think the narrator is being an ass.

What the Don't Be An Ass Rule does, is hand a certain amount of primary ownership back to the guy with the character sheet.

The reason the Don't Be An Ass Rule is a good thing, is twofold.  First of all, it enhances participation.  People are more likely to get involved in the narration that isn't necessarily THEIRS if they feel that their contributions have some authority.  Second, it enhances thematic play, because without it themes are harder to defend from being stomped on.


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VAX go ""9W" = "Nine Worlds""
SF go "Formal "don't be an ass rule"?"*

*click in for more

74. On 2006-01-28, Charles said:


Here is what I wrote over on Brand's blog:

Brand, this may be irrelevant to your central point (and I'd post it over on Anyway instead if that thread weren't on hiatus), but I think you are mistaken on what Vincent was proposing. I think that Vincent is proposing story creation within a fully experiential mode, just working to incorporate better methods of creating story. Note, for instance, that Vincent is talking about shared ownership of each person's character, not equally shared ownership of all of the characters. He envisions something in which you still have an I-guy to experience the game world through, but that that I-guy no longer needs to be the protagonist to be interesting, because the player has methods other than their I-guy of staying fully participatory. This makes a better story, as there are very few good stories that have a half dozen protagonists. Likewise, I don't think that the alternate paths of participating in the story that Vincent envisions are top-down literary techniques (or, no more so than already exist in games like DitV). Vincent advocated the idea of playing where you don't know if your character is the protagonist, the antagonist or supporting cast until it happens in play. That is actually further from current top-down techniques in the direction of experiential mode.

Shared-cast, literary-mode games already exist. It seems to me that Vincent is proposing incorporating the techniques that those games reveal back into experiential mode games (just as DitV incorporates the lessons of GMless/ful games back into a GM'd structure). Anyway, that is how I read him.

This last bit is probably totally irrelevant to your post, but I think that it is actually this hybridization that Vincent proposed that draws the stronger negative response. People who are comfortable with the idea of Capes or Universalis, where fully shared character ownership is a given, may still find it threatening or confusing to hear it suggested that the character they own in an "each player has a character" game is not actually their character, but is everyone's to mess with, and that furthermore, they will have no promise that their character will be important to the story. I think it is easier to step outside the box of character ownership altogether than it is to keep the concept of character ownership, but radically adjust what it means.

Fred, does that sound right to you? You reacted fairly negatively to Vincent's ideas, but have commented here (and elsewhere) that you find Capes cool, so I think your position matches the response I'm describing.


75. On 2006-01-29, Vaxalon said:

Does anyone think it's ironic, that a few years back at the Forge, we were trying to figure out ways to keep GM's from de-protagonizing the PC's, and now we're trying to figure out ways to get the players to do it?


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This makes...
VAX go "...and to each other no less!"
Tim go "Um, what do you mean?"*
SDL go "PCs not Players..."*
TC go "Right on SDL..."*

*click in for more

76. On 2006-01-29, Alexander said:

I think that in this game of Mortal Coil: Old Gods, some of our characters were supporting cast for sure; me, f'rinstance. I don't mean that in terms of player screen time, but in terms of the game itself, Coyote was a protagonist for sure, Sesmu probably, and most of the rest of us were support.

I had an awesome time as the pain-in-the-ass bearer of bad news. None of the action was about Hermes, though. None of his Old God issues really came up, and that was fine.

Interestingly, I could make a case for Easter being a protagonist - since Coyote wanted into her knickers so badly, despite the player taking something of a back seat to the rowdiness of boys at the back of the bus, as it were (me, Thor, Keith and Mayuran).


77. On 2006-01-30, Vincent said:

Fred, no one thinks it's ironic; in fact, no one thinks that I'm talking about deprotgonization at all, who also knows what the word means.

I'm sick of dealing with your posts here; they're garbage. You need to figure out, before you comment here at my blog again, whether you're going to participate constructively or piss off. If you choose the former, I expect you to take the time - without posting - to figure out what that means. You may email me and ask for guidance if you would find that helpful.


78. On 2006-01-30, anon. said:

Okay, Vincent, deal. I'll try to get past the "Ack!"

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it does seem as if part of you wants it both ways—that you do want intelligent feedback that you can use, but that you also want to drop the bombshell and chuckle while we jump. If I'm wrong, well, you've already said you'll try to be clearer, and I have been trying to wait until I'm all Acked Out before posting. How am I doing?

My post isn't "Oh, sure, I do that all the time," more like, "Hm, I do something like that some of the time, and something more or less like that some of the time, and..." I'm in data-gather mode. Serious question: Is this at all useful to you? It seems to have been useful to a couple of people, but is it useful to you?



79. On 2006-01-30, Vincent said:

Lisa, you're fine. Any and all discussion that's motivated by curiosity and the desire to explore is useful to me.

What's useful to me about dropping bombshells is that doing so reveals who hasn't understood the implications of earlier discussions. I don't get much chuckle out of it - a little, I'll cop to - but mostly it shows me where I'm going to have to refresh people on what's come before, who's new and needs to be brought up to speed, that kind of thing.


80. On 2006-02-03, droog said:

I'm hip, Vincent. I think your ideas are exciting. Go, go, Amadeus!


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