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Author Topic: [Capes] Learning about Character Integrity  (Read 14565 times)
TonyLB
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« on: December 11, 2005, 07:57:56 PM »

How to describe this:  Our group of spotlight characters has completed the process of totally fragmenting.  Of six characters who were originally a cohesive team, there are now no clusters any larger than two who can stand to be in the same room with each other.  The mission of Chrysalis, the time-travel station that they are all linked by, is in critical jeopardy.  Most of them don't even care any more.  Our most recent session was the painful, wonderful, inevitable scene in which the only two folks who were unalloyed, unquestionably heroes, to the core, declared "A pox on you all!" and made a hairs-breadth escape to avoid being taken into custody for actions "contrary to the greater good."

My wife, listening in to about twenty seconds while fetching herself a drink felt compelled to comment:  "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold."  We all just nodded.  Yep.  That's where we are.

I do not think I have ever seen any players more excited and happy with where the game is going.

For myself, I am constantly entranced by the process of finding out what we actually meant when we made these characters.  Because I see now, quite clearly, that when we originally said "These people are a team," we were deluding ourselves.  They were never a team.  We have given ourselves many, many opportunities to stand up for the statement "We're a team," and to defend it against our own conflicts.  Each time we've decided "Eh, I'll pass, I'd rather see them fragment a little more."  And I think those moments of decision are the real definition of the characters ... what we do, as players, has priority over what we said.  We discovered that we'd placed people in the wrong place:  they couldn't shine as part of this team ... it's not them.

Every character is now in the perfect place for them.  The game starts anew (as it always does) and everything is different, and it's far better than we could have written before we knew these people.  Zak and Fistfire are off on a quixotic mission to save the universe by sheer force of two-fisted gumption, and that's exactly what they should be doing.  It's so ... them.  Our leader, Ransom is surrounded by those he can't trust, and abandoned by those he trusted, and that is exactly where he should be.  His loyal lieutenant, Kettridge is steamrolling any moral opposition on his way to doing what needs to be done, even if he has to damn the whole universe in the process, and that is exactly where he should be. 

And thinking about this I think I understand better both what I respect and what I despise about the idea of character integrity.

I am sick of the idea that a player can create a character in isolation, sitting in their room, and then "reveal" that character at the gaming table.  That just doesn't jibe with any of my experience, and the whole idea has led to so much dysfunctonal play that I'm beginning to see it as not merely mistaken but actually dishonest.  When somebody says "Oh, my character would need to be bribed to join the group, because of his dark past as a mercenary," you're actually saying "I want to play someone who takes advantage of you guys because he cares about things less than you do, and this is my chance to show that off," and that doesn't have anything to do with what's written on your character sheet.  That's your choice, right there, as a player ... that choice is what's real.  You don't need an excuse for it!  I'll respect the choice, but only if you take responsibility for it.

A character write-up, no matter how detailed, is not a character.  It is, at best, a tool that will help you to create a character in play.  I have no sympathy left for people who use the character write-up as an excuse not to create their character in play:  they'll deny the notion that they're making choices, which means that nobody around the table ever gets any real evidence about what kind of choices that player will make for that character ... which means that the character (no matter how detailed, no matter how lovingly described and played) will never, ever become real. 

And I see this everywhere now in my gaming history.  I remember many, many gamers (even myself back in the day) who would write up characters who were insane.  "Oh, I wouldn't care about that, I'm insane!  I'll go roll in some flowers!"  Of course, these people would be lucid when the player felt like doing something lucid, but when a hard choice came up, "Bam!  I'm insane!  You can't force me to make a meaningful or revealing statement about myself as a player!  See, it says right on my character sheet:  in-SANE!"  We all put this huge amount of effort into defending ourselves from our friends ... into making sure that we would never, ever, reveal anything about ourselves.  Why?

On the other hand, I've got this crazy-wild respect for the type of character integrity I see people bringing to a lot of the games I play now ... which is the polar opposite of the type of "integrity" that people use as a defense mechanism.  I see people saying "Okay, here's this big freakin' choice, and it's going to totally change how we look at this character ... and I'm going to make it, strongly, without hesitation, and then I'm going to stand by it without whining."  And that's hard, though it gets easier with practice, but it's the sine qua non of actually creating a character.  It's making a history of choices that mean something, choices that could have gone the other way and didn't.  Little (or big) incidents where you said "Here's what I want to say with this character, right here, right now, for keeps."


I look at where our characters are now, and I think "We've shucked off the cocoon of what we thought they would be, in order to let them become what they are."  And I think to myself that, having done that, we may do the same for the idea of them as a team.  I'd actually like to see them come back together.  It can't happen suddenly, because their conflicts really are serious and deep ... killing conflicts, dying conflicts.  But they're also more alike than they are different.  They believe in the dream of a better world, each and every one of them (yes, even Minerva, even Vanessa), and I do think that's more important than their differences.  I think the pursuit of that dream, now that they're each free to pursue it their own way, will mark them.

There's no guarantee they'll ever come together as a unified force again.  But they might.  And if they do, it will be a real team in exactly the same way that they are now real characters.  It will be a team that doesn't have to ignore their disagreements, because they've made peace with them, learned how to respect each other through actual choices that we (the players) actually made.

Damn, these people would kick some serious ass.
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Arpie
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Posts: 83


« Reply #1 on: December 11, 2005, 09:06:15 PM »


I am sick of the idea that a player can create a character in isolation, sitting in their room, and then "reveal" that character at the gaming table.  That just doesn't jibe with any of my experience, and the whole idea has led to so much dysfunctonal play that I'm beginning to see it as not merely mistaken but actually dishonest.  When somebody says "Oh, my character would need to be bribed to join the group, because of his dark past as a mercenary," you're actually saying "I want to play someone who takes advantage of you guys because he cares about things less than you do, and this is my chance to show that off," and that doesn't have anything to do with what's written on your character sheet.  That's your choice, right there, as a player ... that choice is what's real.  You don't need an excuse for it!  I'll respect the choice, but only if you take responsibility for it.

A character write-up, no matter how detailed, is not a character.  It is, at best, a tool that will help you to create a character in play.  I have no sympathy left for people who use the character write-up as an excuse not to create their character in play:  they'll deny the notion that they're making choices, which means that nobody around the table ever gets any real evidence about what kind of choices that player will make for that character ... which means that the character (no matter how detailed, no matter how lovingly described and played) will never, ever become real. 

I think this is an important realization. It's why I stopped encouraging players to tell me everything about their characters - or to bother with, say, 2 page write-ups of their favorite characters.

Because it doesn't matter. A good game has a fluid dynamic. It changes. You can't tell where it's going and you're certainly not going to be able to sew together any kind of monster that fits into every situation.

Case in point: Favorite player of mine writes Sci Fi. Published a couple times (article in Crank back in the 90s and a little freelance here and there.) She always puts a ton of info into her characters. And she always gets frustrated. Because she doesn't know what's going to happen when the game gets rolling. She says she likes me because I play to her background and I tell her, no, I run games which allow you to draw out your own background. Plot points (various), passions (Unknown Armies), surprises, XP held in reserve - this techniques all allow a player to manifest whatever they like about their character at the appropriate time.

So my favorite player chugs along screaming about how no one fits her characters into their worlds while yet another player makes skeletal characters and fills them in as he goes along. He's the king of backfill. But he says he isn't satisfied either. He'd like the "authority" that my favorite player gives to her characters. Because he isn't a writer, I suppose.

So what's the middle ground? That's what I'm trying to find out. Just laying it out from bare bones doesn't work for my group and grinding out detailed characters doesn't either.

I think the clue lies in the idea of isolation. As a GM, even for something like Capes (which has a fairly clear set of motifs) I find that I have to make lists of suggestions for players to choose from - elements that they can at least build from -

I have to discourage players who want to haul in a detailed backstory by making them list, say, five elements from that backstory. And how do I do that? I confess that I'm not almighty and that I'll only be able to work in maybe one out of those five items. If they can do anything to help, well, I'll jump at the chance.
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C. Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: December 11, 2005, 10:15:09 PM »

Awesome post, Tony. I couldn't agree with you more. Being emotionally honest and taking responsibility for those emotions can only improve the quality of life, gaming included.

-Chris
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Judd
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« Reply #3 on: December 12, 2005, 12:34:44 AM »

Tony, there is some neat shit in here that really resonated with me.

It is all summed up by this:

A character write-up, no matter how detailed, is not a character.  It is, at best, a tool that will help you to create a character in play.  I have no sympathy left for people who use the character write-up as an excuse not to create their character in play:  they'll deny the notion that they're making choices, which means that nobody around the table ever gets any real evidence about what kind of choices that player will make for that character ... which means that the character (no matter how detailed, no matter how lovingly described and played) will never, ever become real. 

I am going to come back from time to time and read this paragraph over and just let it settle in before making further comment.

That paragraph's important.
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Kintara
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« Reply #4 on: December 12, 2005, 01:20:08 AM »

Hmm, I've never really been someone to write up really detailed character backgrounds for my characters.  It's interesting, though.  Most games don't really codify a process that forces you to (though many encourage it anyway).  But in the case of a game like Capes or Dogs in the Vineyard, it seems antithetical to the very concept of playing the game to me.  My DitV character has just done one town at this point, but can't see how a character background would ever have helped make the game better.  I tossed a few relationships on my sheet to give my GM an interesting hook or two, and they paid off quite well so far, but if I had any preconceived notions about what those relationships were besides what I had on my sheet, I think it would have made the use of them more flat.  It's like robbing the session of the fuel that helps it run by burning it up beforehand.

I mean that character to me is defined by the choices I made in play.  I think of my DitV character as the man who failed to save someone's faith during his initiation, who failed to prevent his faithless cousin from running away with her lover, who was forced to save both a fellow Dog and that Dog's father from death with his medical skills.  This is true with most games that are played for any length of time, but what makes this special is how the choices resonated and how they shaped my idea of what my character is really about.  I don't think I had a very good idea who my DitV character was until I put him to the test.  It just shows you how tight Vincent's system is that my characer came to life for me so vividly in play even though I didn't really have any idea what I was trying to do with him.

The same thing goes for even my thugs in Tony's PbP Capes game.  They started out as nothing but a stat block, but I can't see how making up more about them before the game started would have made the game any better.  In fact, it even sounds a little stifling.  If anything, I'd say that it would be more useful in Capes if you spend time thinking forwardly instead of about stuff that never even really happened.  The strategy section says as much, if I'm not mistaken, giving you advice on how to push plotlines.

I guess I'm rambling a bit, but I definitely think what's being said here is right.
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dunlaing
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My name is Bill


« Reply #5 on: December 12, 2005, 08:27:47 AM »

The same thing goes for even my thugs in Tony's PbP Capes game.  They started out as nothing but a stat block, ...

This, I think, is the thing I love most about Capes. You can just grab two click-n-locks and go. It's not really a character yet, but just a few actions later, it sure as heck is. And it's not always who you thought it would be. It's just so easy to make a character and then explore that character in play.

Tony: you need foils, stat. If your game were a TV show, the next episode would have to be the episode where we see the bad versions of each character. That way, the PCs get a chance to play out exactly what the dividing issues are, and it sets the groundwork for a reintegration being possible in the future.
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #6 on: December 12, 2005, 09:33:30 AM »

Right on, Tony.  Character sheets are authorities; they have no credibility.  The only thing that ever has credibility is a player speaking to the other players.
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Brand_Robins
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« Reply #7 on: December 12, 2005, 10:21:29 AM »

I had a narrative writing professor once who told us that "all writing is, to some degree, about writing." Now I didn't ever fully agree with that, but I have wondered how much of it plays out in gaming. "All RPG stories are, to some degree, about playing RPGs." This goes from the explicit (kill puppies for satan, Mountain Witch, many of Luke's demos for Burning Wheel) to implicit, but I think if you look for it you'll see it here and there.

Which brings me to an actual play on this point. Not long ago I finished an Exalted campaign in which there were some very interesting stories told. The game was 2 years long and had been planned as something of an experiment in narativism. As we went the game became about the Games of Divinity, the games the gods play, and the ways in which we as RPG players use and abuse our characters and worlds for our own purposes.

As part of the game Mo (spaceanddeath around here) made a character that was a story puppeteer – she took the lives and hopes of the people around her and made them dance to her tune in order to "do what must be done." Throughout the first 2/3rds of the game the character would often deliberately take herself out of the mythic story of the world (though not the story of the game, we as players would see her hand, but no one in the world could) in order to not sully the waters of her pure story; but more importantly so that she wouldn't have to suffer the pain of the things she had to chose.

Then, as we came into the final story arc of the game, the character met her goddess and found out that she had been a puppet for the goddess, walked about on strings as she had walked others about. The character didn't mind though, because she loved her goddess and didn't need a sense of self so long as she could fulfill her mistress's will. So, being something of a bitch, her goddess cut her strings and told her that she was now her own creature and had to go and find herself.

So the last arc of the game became about the character who had held herself apart so as not to become entangled in the story, dancing at the distant whims of a cruel goddess, trying to figure out who she was and what she wanted for herself as part of the story. As part of her quest she entered the lost city of Carcosa (part of the Hastur mythos), found two lovers and lost them both, and finally had brunch with Oblivion before rising up to the center of the axis mundi (the Imperial Mountain) to face the dark and wicked figure who had tortured, raped, and enslaved her in her past life (so much so that she was born soul-warped because of what he did to her) and who was currently about to throw down the gods and crush the games. Along the way she found the ten rings that bound her cut strings into herself, making her belong only to herself.

The whole cycle was beautiful and abstract and odd and utterly compelling. Session after session Mo made choices for and about her character without reference to the character sheet or what "she should be." She followed her gut and did things that left everyone at the table slack-jawed. In the end she got so far out of the bounds of her character sheet that we couldn't even use the game system anymore (Note: Exalted not that great for character development based nar play) and had to cobble together a system for determining credibility instead.

Now I think all of that should be obvious enough in its correlation to the sort of thing we're talking about in this thread: moving away from puppetting, making hard choices and claiming the right to take a stand, and doing things as a player that reveal what you believe to your friends. But it was the last scenes with the character that clinched it all.

In Exalted the things that really "make" your character are your Charms and your Artifacts. The magical things you can do and the cool gear you have to do it with define pretty much everything that makes the PCs bigger, badder, and better than the mere mortals of the world around them. An experienced Exalt can have a list of charms and hearthstones and spells and artifacts that goes into multiple typed pages.

So in the final scene, in which the character is going to face her rapist, murderer, and the would be soul-destroyer of the universe, Mo has her character put aside all of those things. She puts her gear in a pile, cuts herself off from essence so that she can use no charm, no spell, no hearthstone. She refuses to use her manipulation skills to dance around the subject, and brings herself vulnerable and alone to face the thing she has feared most for her whole life. Then she knelt down in front of him and bowed her head and said, "You can kill me if you want, I have put aside everything that could stop you. But if you do so you must face the fact, without any chance of hiding, that you have freely chosen to become what you claim to hate the gods for having made you."

Mo then stopped, cocked her head to one side, and says, "I don't need to roll anything. If he kills her or doesn't, it doesn't matter. Her choice is made, and I'm happy with the story either way." Everyone at the table just sat there for a long moment, with me as GM not having a fucking clue what I was going to do, and just stared. It was a deliberate rejection of everything the character had been about for the first 2/3rds of a two year long story, it was a deliberate rejection of the way Exalted handles task resolution, it was a deliberate rejection of the "we must kill everyone and be ultimate badasses to save the universe" ideology that fills the halls of RPG history. It was the player saying, "This is the story I am telling, this is the story I believe in, this is how I want this game to be."

It was brilliant, and beautiful, and brutal.
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- Brand Robins
Josh Roby
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« Reply #8 on: December 12, 2005, 10:33:17 AM »

...and the situation resolved how, punk?
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Brand_Robins
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« Reply #9 on: December 12, 2005, 10:51:45 AM »

He killed her, of course.

Then all he had to do in order to complete the plan he had been working on for 3,000 years was step over her dead body and ascend unto heaven.

But he couldn't do it (her Temperance and Compasion trumped his Conviction and Valor). So he dismembered her, screamed into her severed face, and finally colapsed and killed himself. As he died her soul spoke to his, offering him one last chance at salvation. However he couldn't accept it (his Compasion failed, even when boosted with her Temperance), but as his soul plundged into eternal obilivion he let go of her, which he had never been able to do, and she ascended to moksha.

At the end of the game no one could talk about what happened for like 30 minutes after it finished.
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- Brand Robins
Graham W
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« Reply #10 on: December 12, 2005, 12:04:19 PM »

On the other hand, I've got this crazy-wild respect for the type of character integrity I see people bringing to a lot of the games I play now ... which is the polar opposite of the type of "integrity" that people use as a defense mechanism.  I see people saying "Okay, here's this big freakin' choice, and it's going to totally change how we look at this character ... and I'm going to make it, strongly, without hesitation, and then I'm going to stand by it without whining."  And that's hard, though it gets easier with practice, but it's the sine qua non of actually creating a character.  It's making a history of choices that mean something, choices that could have gone the other way and didn't.  Little (or big) incidents where you said "Here's what I want to say with this character, right here, right now, for keeps."

I think this is a great point.

There's a great temptation, when you're designing a character, to make it "interesting" by adding more and more details. I remember seeing this in White Wolf games. So it's a fighting vampire, and he fights with his kimono cord, but he's tortured by the memory of his father, and he's slightly mad, etc, etc.

And you find again and again that this backstory never makes the character more interesting in play. In fact, it tends to strangle the character's story: because all the choices have been made in advance, there's no exciting character choices in play.

An interesting question is what sort of characters make for interesting play. It often seems to be the dullest ones - the ones that the player created on the spur of the moment, expecting to play for one session - that last the longest.

Graham
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Brand_Robins
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« Reply #11 on: December 12, 2005, 12:32:16 PM »

Graham,

In my experience the characters that make for the most interesting play are those that have conflicts rather than background and issues rather than details. 15 pages about the cool stuff your character did in the past is nothing compared to one paragraph about the irreconcilable difficulties besetting the character right now. 37 point descriptions of the embroidery on your boots are irrelevant compared to the knowledge that you may have to use your father's sword to kill your brother.

I'm reminded of a bit of dialogue from "Dead Like Me":

RUBE: Two guys walk into a bar
DAISY: What type of bar?
RUBE: Does it matter? Two guys walk into a bar
DAISY: Of course it matters, Lee Strasburg preached: teach specifics
RUBE: …so the bartender says
MASON: I'd like to know what kind of bar too
RUBE (irritated): You realize that the bar is not important, right? It's where the joke takes place. What's important is the escalation, building up to a surprising revelation, resulting in some kind of hilarity. Which you are depriving yourselves of with these mindless interruptions
DAISY: Fine be funny
RUBE: Thank you. Two guys walk into a bar
DAISY: (whispers) It's short-sighted
RUBE: What's short-sighted?
DAISY: Nothing.Two guys walk into a bar and...
RUBE (giving up): They get a drink. The end.

Characters that come "blank" to the table have the advantage of being able to pick up conflicts and issues from the play of the game. However, they have the disadvantage of not bringing powerful issues to the game in the first place. If they get enough to grab on in play they can work, but if nothing comes along, or if the GM and other players are depending on them to be interesting right off, they can fizzle.
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- Brand Robins
Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #12 on: December 12, 2005, 12:36:48 PM »

I'm in this campaign with Tony (I play Kettridge and Minerva, along with a host of supporting characters).

A character write-up, no matter how detailed, is not a character.  It is, at best, a tool that will help you to create a character in play.

To quote Vincent Baker on the same subject from his blog anyway (http://www.lumpley.com/comment.php?entry=14):

Quote
Character sheets are useless when it comes to creating, describing, defining, realizing characters. Totally pointless, valueless, toss 'em in the recycling. A notebook is helpful for remembering things, or 3x5 cards or post-it notes, let's use those instead. Or let's use nothing at all, if we can remember what we need to remember! Probably we can.....I can't teach you anything useful about RPG design if you persist in thinking that mechanical character creation or the character sheet have anything to do with the character at all. It's a misleading historical mistake to call the process and the paper "character-" anything. If you want to get anywhere, if you want to understand, if you want to create anything at all, you have to let that old error go.

So we start right here at this point: the character exists only in our minds. If we write something down about the character, it's only to remind us, to help us keep the character in our minds. The character cannot be touched by rules or game mechanics at all, under any circumstances, no exceptions... [although]  sometimes the mechanical cues provoke us to create stuff about the imagined character that we hadn't created beforehand.

And in Capes, that "mechanical provocation to creativity" can be very strong indeed. What's more, those mechanics -- specifically the vast freedom given to whoever wins the power to narrate the outcome of a Conflict -- give other players tremendous power to say things about your character. Scary.

But it works. What I want to add to Tony's description is that, in the last two sessions, I've had both my spotlight characters change at least in part against my will. I'd been steering Minerva for a descent into doomed villainy and self-destruction -- and then Tony threw a time-manipulator character at her who tried to steal that destiny, and won. Conversely, I'd been steering Kettridge towards becoming a solid, good guy, and Tony & Eric basically used the mechanics to say, "Really? 'Cause he still seems like a domineering jerk to us," in particular when (Tony? Eric? I forget) put out a Goal for Kettridge, "Tell his superiors the whole truth" -- which meant, by its very introduction into play, that Kettridge was lying by omission about something important, which hadn't been my intent at all -- followed in this most recent session by a flurry of goals like "Kettridge: convince Zak the destruction of his homeworld was for the greater good," "Zak: Prove Kettridge's actions are all part of a selfish conspiracy against the team," and "Kettridge: Convince himself he's telling the truth."

And in each of these cases, with each of these characters, I had a stomach-flipping moment of, "Wait! That's not what my character's like!" For some of the Kettridge conflicts, I actually went so far as to ask what the rules for vetoing the introduction of a conflict were (we never use them). But, in each case, I came to the point where I decided to trust my fellow players and take their suggestions and run with them -- and the result was much, much richer than anything I'd have imagined by myself.

There were even moments where I poured in enough resources to win a couple of these conflicts -- and then deliberately narrated them to leave open the possibility that Kettridge was a traitor, after all. There were also moments where I fought desperately but just didn't have the resources, so someone else got to narrate a crucial turning point for my character. And it was okay. In fact, it was great.

I feel like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix (the first one, obviously), staring at the little kid warping a spoon without touching it and being told, "The important thing is to remember that there is no spoon."

There is no 'my character'. There is only the character I bring to the table for all of us to play with.
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