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Author Topic: Early death in Nar games.  (Read 6140 times)
Simon Kamber
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« on: May 31, 2005, 10:22:26 AM »

This thread is started as a follow-up to Life and death conflicts on the Lumpley Games forum. It's started because while I was referring to a specific chapter in the DitV rulebook, it seems it concerns a more general issue.

I'll present my view on the matter and let other people with differing opinions talk about the other side. I believe that even though narrativistic games like DitV are very open and unrestricted in nature, there's still some places where the lives of player characters simply should not be put on the line. Mainly when it happens before there's been a buildup for it.

As an example, take the situation of Dogs arriving in a town where they are unwelcome. They are ambushed on the road, and a conflict is started with the life of one of the dogs in the stakes*. The dog is shot. And even though he does his utter best, escalates as far as it takes and gives before he's forced into lethal fallout, and even though the healer pulls out all the stops and goes all the way, the dice just spell doom. The character dies right there, on the road.

Now, I personally don't think that such conflicts should be started in the first place, because I feel such deaths spoil the game. I'm certainly not against character death in general, but I feel that for the player's sake, it should only be put on topic when it's dramatically appropriate. That is, when the death can somehow be traced back to the character's actions or the player's decisions, even if all that means is that the one ambushing him was the wife of the sinner he judged.

In the above example, the death of a Dog serves as a tremendous kicker for the other characters. This character will most likely be the main focus point of the whole session. But the player of the dead character just lost his character to something random before it even began. This deprotagonizes the player. His character died not because he didn't want to go all the way, not because he declared that his character didn't shoot at the ambusher, not because his character did anything to call down the wrath of this guy, but because the GM said "You are ambushed. Stakes are: Do you survive", and the dice turned him down. Even though the character's memory lives on through the whole session, the player starts over with a new character. The player gains nothing from the spotlight that shines on his dead character

Somewhere on Vincent's blog, he writes:

Quote
Here's a piece of text from Dogs in the Vineyard:

    Also, occasionally, your character will get killed. The conflict resolution rules will keep it from being pointless or arbitrary: it'll happen only when you've chosen to stake your character's life on something. Staking your character's life means risking it, is all.

In fiction, You never die for something you haven't staked your life on.


The above isn't always true. Secondary characters in fiction often die without having staked their lives on anything. And I believe that's what's going on here too. Player character's are not secondary characters. They shouldn't die without their players having staked their lives on something.



* someone in the thread pointed out that you don't have to accept such stakes, but Dogs in general seems to call for turning it to a conflict if the players disagree on the outcome of a situation. Since this particular rules interpretation isn't the point of the thread, let's assume that through rules or social contract, the player is prevented from turning down the stakes.
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Simon Kamber
Alan
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« Reply #1 on: May 31, 2005, 10:45:17 AM »

Hi Simon,

Vincent's quote tacitly assumes that "you" is a main character of the story.  I think you'll agree that main characters are not supporting cast, and their lives do conform to Vincent's observation.

I haven't played DitV, I know many narrativist designs make it difficult to kill a PC arbitrarily.  For example, Sorcerer and Trollbabe both require player permission to kill a PC.  Many games give the players options for disengaging when the stakes get that high.  An apparent counter example is The Riddle of Steel, where combat is very lethal and the best way to survive only when the conflict is important to the PC, and retreat when it isn't.  However, in TROS, the narrativist premise is "what will you fight for?"

I have a question: if a PC died in a way meaningful to the owner -- does it matter when it happened?  Won't the player be happy to create a new character?  

I think the only time PC death is a problem in narrativist play is when it _does_ happen without dramatic tension that appeals to the owner.  Also, I think, the owner wants to have a sense of ownership of decisions, even to the PC's death.
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- Alan

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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #2 on: May 31, 2005, 10:52:35 AM »

Quote from: Simon Kamber

I believe that even though narrativistic games like DitV are very open and unrestricted in nature, there's still some places where the lives of player characters simply should not be put on the line. Mainly when it happens before there's been a buildup for it.


This is the issue here?

I personally think that taking something like character death as a theoretical issue vis a vis a creative agenda is a red herring. The best that can be said is that in some situations it works, in some it doesn't. It all depends on the game situation. I could just as easily claim that, say, stealing equipment is something that never works for a narrativist game. And I'd be wrong. I fail to see how character death is different, expect that the techniques that make it work are much rarer.

The thing is, you'd be right if the player were out of the game when the character is. If this is the case, or the player is somehow otherwise hampered by character death, then of course character death is bad. This is really a simple issue, because it's all about creating harm for players. Actions that cause harm are bad, actions that do not are not bad. As simple as that. If a game has rules or procedures in place that enforce character death as a hamper, then by killing characters you're causing harm for the other player, and thus it's a bad thing.

An example of a nar game where character death wouldn't be bad could be a war game where each player has multiple characters and you're supposed to lose some of them, perhaps early. I'd assume that such a game ensures that the player would still be able to play when the character dies. Do you see how it's all about the player, not the character? Character death is usually bad because it causes harm to the player, but it's an illusion to think that this is the case always. You're just accustomed to thinking that players have to affect the game through characters, so of course character death feels like deprotagonization. But remember and realize: characters are imaginary, players and their feelings are real.

Based on the above, I think that this discussion belongs better on the Lumpley forum, because it's about how DiV handles character death, not about how nar games in general do it (about which nothing can be said). For what it's worth, I can well imagine that a hypothetical malicious person could deprotagonize another player through killing his character in DiV. The harm wouldn't last long, but some inconvenience would be caused. It's just such an unlikely, openly hostile situation, that I can't imagine it happening. If it did, I suspect that the game would have much bigger problems than character death, really.
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TonyLB
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« Reply #3 on: May 31, 2005, 12:17:16 PM »

Eero:  I could totally see a Narrativist game where, the moment your character got killed, you were booted out of the room.  That would be cool.  You could make real statements with that.

Narrativism isn't about being nice or fair or inclusive.  It's about Story Now.

Now if you want to be nice or fair or inclusive as well then just say so.  That sounds like a worthy goal.  But it's got nothing to do with Narrativism.
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lumpley
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« Reply #4 on: May 31, 2005, 12:41:35 PM »

I'm with Tony.

Simon, your concerns make sense to me. We're coming out of a place - I mean gamer culture - where our relationships with our games are brittle and problematic. Our PCs are right there at the brittle, problematic core. Gamer culture makes us anxious about our PCs' lives all out of proportion to their real value.

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?

-Vincent
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #5 on: May 31, 2005, 02:35:59 PM »

Quote from: TonyLB
I could totally see a Narrativist game where, the moment your character got killed, you were booted out of the room.  That would be cool.  You could make real statements with that.


Yes. I know. I wrote it, it's called the Temple, it's about Lovecraftian stories and it's been languishing on my hard-drive for a year now, waiting for me to publish it. When your character dies in that one, you're out. What's worse, some times some other player kills you without your say-so.

However, why character death and even exclusion from the game is acceptable for a nar game is because they're prices you pay voluntarily. Because this thread discusses sudden, involuntary death, I saw no need to elaborate on all the different kinds of things you can do with voluntary death. And I'm pretty sure that you wouldn't consider involuntary death with the boot-out functional narrativism, would you?

Quote

Narrativism isn't about being nice or fair or inclusive.  It's about Story Now.

Now if you want to be nice or fair or inclusive as well then just say so.  That sounds like a worthy goal.  But it's got nothing to do with Narrativism.


You're wrong. All roleplaying is very much about being nice, fair and inclusive towards the other players. You can be as evil as you like towards their characters, and you can even abuse them themselves (S/M roleplaying, anyone?), but only to the extent that you've agreed to. This should be self-evident.

All the seeming non-nicety you can think of is predicated on player agreement. If we play a nar game where death is possible and you're booted out of the game if you die... whether it's functional or not is only a matter of whether the players enjoy that kind of thing. This is the Lumpley principle.

And just to make it clear, I'll repeat it: as I understand it, the topic under discussion here is involuntary death. That's a totally different kettle of fish from killing off your character yourself.
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Simon Kamber
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« Reply #6 on: May 31, 2005, 03:01:35 PM »

Alan, I agree with you fully. If the death is meaningful for the player, by all means let him bite it. If the player chose to engage in the fight, or if he did not choose to back off, let him die. But if he never engaged in a fight, and if his life was the stake in the conflict so that he could not back off, it's a violation of his rights to his character's actions to let him die just like that.





Quote from: Eero Tuovinen
I personally think that taking something like character death as a theoretical issue vis a vis a creative agenda is a red herring. The best that can be said is that in some situations it works, in some it doesn't. It all depends on the game situation. I could just as easily claim that, say, stealing equipment is something that never works for a narrativist game. And I'd be wrong. I fail to see how character death is different, expect that the techniques that make it work are much rarer.


Hey. Heyhey. As far as I can see, you read me as saying that involuntary character death is something that never works in a narrativist game. I never said that.  I'm talking about that premature death, the one that happens before the story gets going and which the player hadn't in any way caused, and had no way of preventing. When the wife of that guy you shot comes running with a shotgun and blasts your brains out, it's involuntary and it's fine with me. Even if killing him seemed like the only choice, you still killed him.

Quote from: Lumpley
So here are two points for you:
(...)

Hmm. I'll need to think about that. I'll be back with a reply later.
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Simon Kamber
Callan S.
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« Reply #7 on: May 31, 2005, 05:40:47 PM »

Quote from: TonyLB
Eero:  I could totally see a Narrativist game where, the moment your character got killed, you were booted out of the room.  That would be cool.  You could make real statements with that.

Eh? The player making a statement about what they'd give up to further their characters goals, is narrativism? "What would Jim the PC do to save his love?" "Well, as a player I'd be prepared to be kicked out of the room!"

Sounds more like gamism and a gamist statement. "Wow, what a gambler!" people might respond. I mean, if Jim the PC needs to save his love and I as his player offer to do 20 push ups for it, what is that?
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Philosopher Gamer
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TonyLB
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« Reply #8 on: May 31, 2005, 07:47:18 PM »

Quote from: Eero Tuovinen
And I'm pretty sure that you wouldn't consider involuntary death with the boot-out functional narrativism, would you?

I don't see why it wouldn't be.  Noon raises a valid point that the player investment probably doesn't increase the functionality of the system vis-a-vis Narrativism.  But I also don't see how it reduces its functionality.  As a technique it's probably Narrativism-neutral.

So if the game was narrativist-encouraging without the "you die, you walk" rule, it will still be narrativist-encouraging with it.  Why wouldn't it?
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #9 on: May 31, 2005, 11:26:56 PM »

Quote from: TonyLB

Quote from: Eero Tuovinen
And I'm pretty sure that you wouldn't consider involuntary death with the boot-out functional narrativism, would you?

I don't see why it wouldn't be.  Noon raises a valid point that the player investment probably doesn't increase the functionality of the system vis-a-vis Narrativism.  But I also don't see how it reduces its functionality.  As a technique it's probably Narrativism-neutral.


Here we go again. Booting a player can hardly be nar-neutral if it hampers the player roleplaying at all. Combine involuntary death and excluding the player afterwards, and you get a direct incentive for turtling and passive play, with system support, even. That's how many traditional games work: characters are difficult and slow to make, and inserting them in the party structure takes a couple of sessions, even. The GM can kill you whenever he wants. Functional? Functional gamism perhaps, because character death works as a powerful disincentive.

Quote

So if the game was narrativist-encouraging without the "you die, you walk" rule, it will still be narrativist-encouraging with it.  Why wouldn't it?


I don't consider something where I walk in at the start of the session and walk out in fifteen minutes because somebody else decided to kick me out functional narrativism. If going home to sit alone is playing narrativism, that's one interesting game.

The other parts of the game may well encourage narrativistic play. There's no nar-encouraging in general, only features that help or hinder certain kinds of play.

Simon: you're holding onto an extremely problematic criterion of acceptable character death by requiring that the death has dramatic meaning. What Vincent's been trying to tell you is that dramatic meaning is such a fluid concept that we really can't say anything useful about it on the general level, especially as dramatic meaning is such a subjective thing. Sometimes it's meaningful for the story for one character to get killed soon, or late, or not at all, or anything. It's pretty common that the greatest drama can be achieved through the turn of events nobody expects. If character death is that turn, well, why not?

Because drama doesn't easily bend to generalizations, it's more fruitful to consider the real-world interactions that result in the drama. That's why voluntary/involuntary difference, for instance, is so useful: all voluntary character death is most likely going to be dramatically good, assuming that the players are all playing functional nar. Involuntary death can also be forced to only happen when it's good, but that requires some more particular rules, like the Sorcerer Humanity rules; it's pretty difficult to get to Humanity 0, especially involuntarily, without generating that dramatic meaning. Polaris is like that too, as characters can only be killed after they become veterans.

But the important point is that although the above examples work by creating that dramatic build-up, there are also situations where no such build-up is necessary. Vincent has addressed this angle well, by comparing the player characters to protagonists of a story; in all truth, there is nothing that says that the character in a functional narrativistic game has to be a protagonist, as long as the player is. I refer you to that imaginary example of a war game where each player has many characters, or new characters are fast and easy to create. That's the kind of genre that revels in lives cut short and meaningless death. No dramatic build-up necessary. Actually, Paranoia, which is frequently an extremely narrativistic game, is predicated in character "death", or at least death-like violence. In that case death doesn't mean anything because you have another clone waiting to jump to action.

"Character death" as an issue is just like "having blue shoes". They're just stuff in the SIS, and can be good or bad depending on what they mean for player agenda. Blue shoes only rarely spell periods of inactivity and plot threads cut short, so that's why you aren't hating them. But basicly there's no difference between shoes and death, when they both happen in an imaginary world negotiated between players.
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Simon Kamber
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« Reply #10 on: June 01, 2005, 01:51:03 AM »

I realize that it's hard to put a general definition on the concept. But I still think that there's some situations where it doesn't work. The examples you list do this by somehow preventing it from happen without either some sort of buildup (humanity dropping to 0) or the player staking the character's life (choosing to fight). As long as either of these take place, or the player chooses that moment to "retire" his character, I'm fine with it. It's the death where none of these things happen that bothers me.

And I'm still thinking about the last part of Vincent's post, I'll get back with an answer when I know what to think.
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Simon Kamber
Sean
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« Reply #11 on: June 01, 2005, 03:13:45 AM »

The disproportionate emphasis on keeping your character alive comes from at least two things:

1) Identification. Gamers often tend to think of their character as 'them' (in fact, this is one of the fun things about gaming for many people - "I'm an assassin", "I'm a dwarf", etc.) and get defensive and proprietary, as we do about ourselves and things that we own.

2) Experience systems that increase character power together with rules that tell you you can only start beginning characters, or penalize you for dying in some way.

Both of these are fairly easily combated.

But what I really wanted to say on this thread is the following. I've been talking to the guy from my old seventies and early eighties group who's by far the most Narrativistic in general temperament about the various Nar-facilitating games at the Forge, and he's bought and read some of them.

He likes a lot of the ideas he's getting here but part of his reaction is a little reminiscent of Max's old "Narrativism: The Munchkin's New Clothes" thread on rpg.net. As he sees it, you have to 'earn' the right to be a protagonist through good roleplaying and keeping your character alive; there's no assumption in his mind that you're anything more than a supporting character when you come to the table. He thinks that some Forge games are 'giving away' something which he thinks ought to be 'earned'.

I think his viewpoint is sort of stupid in an absolute sense, but I know where it comes from. If you play (a) 'party of adventurers' games with traditional rulesets with (b) experience systems that introduce a great disparity in character effectiveness at different points in their careers, and (c) you're interested in Narrativist play (and this guy is, no question), it seems as though treating much of the party as supporting cast is a necessary tool to putting your adventure together properly.
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Simon Kamber
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« Reply #12 on: June 02, 2005, 01:28:54 PM »

Quote from: lumpley
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?

I think I'll have to take your word for it here. What you're saying makes sense, but it just doesn't fit with what I'm used to doing. So, guess you're right, and that it doesn't apply to the game I'm playing in the group I'm playing it with. Now that you mention it that way, I could see it happening in another group, with another social contract, though.


Sean. I can see what you're saying, but it's not quite what I was talking about. I was talking about losing your character before he even gets going.
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Simon Kamber
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