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Kickers for Dummies Part 2

Started by Eric J-D, October 27, 2005, 07:28:48 PM

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Eric J-D

Here's part 2:

II.   How Kickers relate to Theme, or Why the Kicker is Not the Whole Story Morninglory.

I said earlier that the Kicker is the player's announcement to the GM that play will be about this thing and not some other thing.  As such, it is the center around which play revolves.  Expressed in that stark way, the Kicker sounds like the story that play will bring into reality.  But that is not entirely the case.  Certainly the Kicker presents the GM with the player's initial story interests, but it is only through actual play that this interest will be realized.  Ultimately it is through play that the story potential of the Kicker will be engaged, and through this engagement that initial interest will be sharpened, refined, altered and transformed.  To make this a bit clearer, let's take an actual Kicker as an example.  This comes straight from Bill Cook's thread [Sorcerer] First Campaign (SPOILER) in the Actual Play section of The Forge website.

In that thread, Bill describes a player who has created a character (we'll call him Harry) with the following Kicker: "I've just found out that my wife (Michelle) was raped and murdered."  As a few of the posts in that thread suggest, this Kicker is a bit weak in that it seems to lay down a fairly obvious and clear path for the character (Harry) to follow.  In this case, it seems obvious that Harry will seek out and try to avenge himself against his wife's killer.  That's exactly what happened in this game; but as a number of the responses to Bill's post show, even a weak Kicker like this can be spiked and used to create an interesting player-authored story. 

At this point, however, what is important is to note that this Kicker simply presents the player's initial story interest, in this case a story about revenge.  Play itself, however, will clarify, expand, alter and (hopefully) deepen the story potential presented by this initial interest.  So how does that happen?  First, as Ron's reply to Bill makes abundantly clear, in Sorcerer it is the GMs job to determine who killed the character's wife and why.  The Kicker presents the player's initial interest in a story that involves the sudden murder of the character's wife.  That's all.  "What!?!" I hear you say. "But I thought that Sorcerer supported player authorship of the character's story?  Isn't this just the traditional approach to gaming in which the GM ultimately writes the story dressed up in a new way?"  To which my answer is 1) yes and 2) emphatically no.  The confusion here rests on what is meant by "story."  Sorcerer supports 100% the creation of player-authored stories, but it gives the GM complete power to determine (in this case) the reasons and circumstances for the death of Harry's wife.  How can it do the latter and still claim to support the former?  Because the reason, circumstances, and details surrounding Harry's wife's death are emphatically NOT THE STORY.  That's right, they are not the story.  They are the backstory.  The story that is created through play is thus not the traditional one of "Solving the Mystery"; rather it is the far more interesting character-centered and player-authored story of "What Choices Does My Character Make in Response to This Situation and What Do Those Choices Reveal About His or Her Character?"  So in the case of Bill Cook's player, the story that the player will be creating through play has nothing really to do with unraveling the mystery behind his wife's death.  Sure there might be some mystery that is engaged along the way, but it would be just as possible for the character to uncover the mystery surrounding her death early in play and for play to then proceed and deal with the fallout from this discovery.  The important question that hovers over the character's Kicker (and that play will address) is not "Why did this happen to Michelle (the wife)?" but "How will Harry deal with this event and what will it reveal about his character?"  To a very large extent roleplaying games have consistently confused backstory for story.  Sorcerer puts the Aristotelian concept of story back in the driver's seat with a vengeance.  Stories are not the events that get revealed in play but how the character responds to those events and how they affect that character.

Having gotten that out of the way, let's look at the case of Harry and Michelle a little more deeply to explore how the intitial story interest presented by the Kicker becomes refined, clarified, expanded, altered and deepened through play.  Okay, so Harry's player writes up an admittedly weak Kicker which the GM then takes and spikes a bit by developing some interesting backstory.  Let's say Michelle was involved in some pretty shady stuff.  She had a bad heroin addiction that she hid from Harry, and was involved with a local porn director who produced some of the edgier adult fair.  Unfortunately, she had no idea that this guy was a serious sorcerer whose Demon had a real need for degradation and sadism.  So the porn director casts Michelle (who is unaware of this) in a snuff porno film to satisfy the Demon's raging need.  Now in a traditional game like Call of Cthulhu this backstory would be presented as the story, and play would be all about delaying the player/character's discovery of this horrifying reality.  In Sorcerer, by contrast, this backstory (while cool) is simply there to facilitate the player's (and play's) creation of a more interesting story, the story of how the character responds to all this.  In addition, all this backstory is also in the service of expanding the range of responses presented by the Kicker.  It exists to open up greater possibilities for the actual story to emerge.

Here's how it does that:  First, the GM notices right away that as written the character's Kicker seems to support a fairly simple revenge story.  Now, it is not the GM's job to make any judgments about this.  She is not to say, "But revenge stories are dull and I don't want this to be about revenge so I'm going to be sure that the story moves in this direction by including this element into the backstory."  In Sorcerer the GM is not a censor.  She should not attempt to thwart the player's interests.  But let's face it, this Kicker is a bit weak so what is the GM supposed to do?  Easy.  Rather than putting the kibosh on it, the GM creates some meaty backstory so that other story possibilities come into being.  The key here is to add backstory that does not foreclose the possibility of the revenge story suggested by the initial Kicker.  So, by making Michelle a heroin addict and would-be porn queen, the GM adds several new possible directions the story might take.  Perhaps Harry will decide to revenge himself on Michelle's killer because he sees her as a victim, but perhaps he will come to loathe and despise her for concealing this secret life from him.  Maybe uncovering this secret life will make Harry more distrustful of women in the future, or perhaps it will awaken a quite different form of revenge as Harry let's the pornographer escape but decides to reveal the details of her secret life to her parents (who he never liked).  These are just a few of the directions the story might take.  The important point is they are all paths that are open to the player.  None are laid down by the GM, nor is the possibility of this being a revenge story shut down.  Play will make clear the story directions the player finds most satisfying, but none of them will really be about the mystery of Michelle's death.  Every one of them is about Harry.

The point of all of this is this: the initial Kicker gives us only a dim indication of what the ultimate story will be.  A good Kicker throws the character into an interesting situation or dilemma, but it doesn't tell us how he or she will respond to it and what it will all mean.  That's what Theme is all about.  Theme is the So What of the What.  The Kicker tells the GM, "This is What initially gets my character going and this is What I want play to keep circling back to" but it doesn't say how the character will deal with it or what it will all mean (the So What).  That's what play is for and what play alone can determine.  Here again, the player is in the driver's seat.  He or she gets to determine what it will all mean.  So to go back to Harry for a minute, through play the player will make decisions about what Harry does and will ultimately determine whether the situation presented by the Kicker turns Harry into a bitter, revenge-driven man, a broken mistrusting one, or a wounded but wiser one. (NB—these are only a few of the many possibilities the So What might take).

Imagine the Kicker as some sudden, unexpected irruption into the Present.  This irruption is like a visitation from some Other World.  It is a Significant Event and the person experiencing it can tell that it is pregnant with Meaning.  At that precise moment, however, its Meaning is unclear, but the person can sense that some ghostly Importance hovers over it and will change him significantly.  The Theme is like this ghostly Meaning.  You can tell it is lying there in wait for you but not really what it will mean for you.  And it could mean any of several things or a mixture of all of them.  The goal of the beginning of play is simply to acknowledge the importance of this otherworldly visitation and to show it respect.  Only play itself will permit this Meaning (or meanings) to actively haunt the Present.  When play becomes actively haunted by this Meaning you'll begin to know what your Theme is.

Ron Edwards

Hey ... that's pretty fuckin' good.

Cool, Eric.


John Harper

I was a bit daunted at first by those dense paragraphs... but yeah. That's good stuff. Really makes me want to play some Sorcerer. It also makes it a lot more clear to me how Sorcerer and PTA are very close cousins.
Agon: An ancient Greek RPG. Prove the glory of your name!


It's a nice explanation.  Where I always stumble, though, is trying to explain what makes a kicker "strong" vs. "weak."  I realize it's a somewhat intuitive thing, but it might help to give examples of Strong Kickers.  (With the obvious proviso that you're pretending to be a player, and they're just for the sake of example.)