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Author Topic: Validating Conflicts  (Read 4373 times)
Laurel
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« on: April 29, 2002, 12:27:51 PM »

This is a branch off "Not Functionally Equivalent..." based on Paul's last post.  

I'm beginning to really see and appreciate where Paul is coming from, regarding deprotagonization.  I'm going to make a stab at the topic.

What I see Paul suggesting is that players are connected to their characters through the character's passions towards plot elements including antagonists and love interests.   A character is deprotagonized when the GM guides the story in such a way that the character is unable to deal with conflicts that they "own", emotionally.  When a character is deprotagonized, the player feels defeated.  

In order to keep from deprotagonizing the PCs, the GM needs to recognize what conflicts belong to each individual character's story and require their direct involvement, and what conflicts are general and affect all the characters more or less equally and can directly involve all, any, or none of the PCs.  


Laurel
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: April 29, 2002, 01:18:19 PM »

Hi Laurel,

I buy that. But it all comes down to a Balance of Power issue, which (to review) is basically, what standards are employed to establish who gets to say what.

There's all sorts of things that must be said during role-playing. There's ... where the characters are, what they see and do, why they're there, who gets to "go" when, and on and on. I think we've all pretty much agreed that the traditional assumption (players get PCs, GM gets "world") tends to break down in reality because to handle the world, the GM must nudge into the PCs a bit, and to handle the PCs, the players must nudge into the world a bit.

Who gets to say which ones? Who gets to contribute to which ones, before they are established "for good"? How does trust relate to that? How is trust established prior to practice, and how can practice proceed without the trust?

All of this is Social Contract, but it's also system. Social Contract and Balance of Power are intimately linked, which is of course a System Does Matter tenet.

I agree with Paul's statement in the post you're referencing, and I think it's a little more "giving" than the one with which he opened the thread. I definitely agree with what you've said.

And therein lies a weird thing, or rather, a weird relationship between two things.

(1) The primary phrase I've heard from many people, given that they like and desire this mode of play, is "My God, it's so easy!" once they get going. The whole grind of GM-prep in terms of people and events, the whole struggle and tugging of actually getting ... them ... into ... place during play - it just vanishes and people do things like drive neat endings home, or delay endings in order to twist things to the right fever pitch, or develop adversity for one another's characters, all without direct GM-management (just a little editing and framing).

(2) Yet the resistance, skepticism, and yes, even fear from people who haven't experienced this seems very out of proportion to the evidence. Try it? Even once? Just for one evening? No! Never! They all but seize fireplace pokers to defend themselves against such a thing.

Before I get killed by flamethrowers and rocks, I am not referring to people who aren't interested in Narrativist play. I am referring to those whose rhetoric would indicate that they are interested, but who react very negatively to any attempt actually to do so.

This post has jumped around a little bit, so I'll summarize. Is protagonism identifiable, in terms of the processes/rules/design of role-playing? Or is it some kind of "ineffable thing" that Narrativists can use to irritate others in discussion? That's a serious question.

Best,
Ron
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #2 on: April 29, 2002, 01:39:11 PM »

This has been a long time coming from me; I not so much responding but ranting to question a concept and it's usefulness.  The thing that always keeps me away from ideas like deprotagonization is "what's it for?"

I mean, I always thought 'protagonization' in role-playing games was either a) about getting players to act or b) getting players to care about the actions they take.  Turning a character into a protagonist seems like second nature if you can both activate the player and get their emotional buy-in on the narrative.  I just don't buy the value of discussing deprotagonization.

What does this term mean other than ignoring the input emotionally crucial (well, maybe not that extreme, but you know what I mean) to the player?  It gets even blurrier when we want to talk about avoiding that behavior.  What is that, a triple negative?  Something like "let's avoid ignoring what a player hates."  I mean it's all fine and good to avoid failure, but wouldn't aspiring to quality be better?  (Simply avoiding failure leads to mediocrity.)

Laurel wrote, "In order to keep from deprotagonizing the PCs...."  If we unbend one double negative it comes out like, "In order to keep protagonizing the player characters...."  Are we protagonizing the characters or activating the players to do that themselves?  I can clear all the space in the world, but without motivation, I don't see 'keeping from deprotagonizing a player character' having any effect on the player at all.

It reminds me of something I once read about using an improvisational theatre technique in role-playing gaming.  Here's the thumbnail: in improv you take turns speaking, when it's your turn you have three choices of what you can do with the narrative thread as given to you.  You either a) support or modify it, b) start another thread (that may or may not get added later), or c) close it off, starting anew.  In that light, protagonization just seems like validating the player's effort by doing a or b.

I always tell people that role-playing gaming is essentially sharing a narrative and I underline that no one knows how it'll turn out (oh, you might be able to guess, but that's not knowing).  If your gamemastering consists too frequently of c, you're not sharing.

I like this part:
Quote from: Laurel
In order to keep from deprotagonizing the PCs, the GM needs to recognize what conflicts belong to each individual character's story and require their direct involvement, and what conflicts are general and affect all the characters more or less equally and can directly involve all, any, or none of the PCs.  

That falls into all the work I have been doing regarding a player's propriety over their character, what their character is doing, and where their character is 'going.'  Not the "this is mine, you can't touch" ownership idea, but the "he's the boss, if he doesn't say anything, it must be okay" proprietor way.  It's one thing to recognize that a player has valid issues for their character, but in some instances they might as well be playing by themselves for as much as some gamemasters attend them.

That's why I don't like the double passive (or is it double negative) 'keeping from deprotagonizing' phrase; I'd prefer 'pay attention to what your players want.'  Don't merely validate the individual stories they're giving, engage them.  The ultimate sharing would be making their stories, your stories.

Fang Langford

(Why am I so crabby this week?)
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Lance D. Allen
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« Reply #3 on: April 29, 2002, 03:08:04 PM »

Okay, I post a couple examples of actual play sequences to help my understanding of protagonization/deprotagonization, and then come over here to find no less than 3 slightly variant definitions. It seems that there isn't an agreed up "industry standard" definition of the terms yet.

First off, though I'm going to directly disagree with Ron on a tenet everyone here seems to take for fact... System doesn't matter at least for the purposes of protagonization/deprotagonization. I'll admit that certain systems may or may not make it easier, but it's more a matter of play style for the GM and the group which defines what is and what is not protagonizing. It's more of a Social Contract issue than game issue, I believe. I may not have played the widest variety of systems, but I have played most of those I have on both sides of the player/GM line, and with good and bad play groups. In this, I've seen a game of D&D3E done very well, by the rules with no modifications (that I was aware of), and I've seen it done poorly. I never felt deptroganized playing my orcish monk (admittedly silly when he attacked a hydra with his bare hands..) whereas my experience with my (deceased) Ranger/Paladin has been very deprotagonizing, and I'm shocked that no one else in the group even seems to notice let alone mind.

So I suppose I'm going to have to let it lie with my own slant on deprotagonization until we come to a consensus on what it means (which I'd already thought was clear, but...) I was/am under the impression that protagonization is a matter of the character doing, acting and being what the player designed them to be. Deprotagonization is any action which keeps the character from reaching that potential. The GM (or players, in games which give narrative power to other players) cannot protagonize a character for the player, but we can restrict them from doing so, either by stating what happens to that character without their input, or by putting them into situations where they have no choices, or opportunities to play the character as designed.
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #4 on: April 29, 2002, 06:26:06 PM »

Hey Fang,

The thing that always keeps me away from ideas like deprotagonization is "what's it for?"

I mean, I always thought 'protagonization' in role-playing games was either a) about getting players to act or b) getting players to care about the actions they take. Turning a character into a protagonist seems like second nature if you can both activate the player and get their emotional buy-in on the narrative. I just don't buy the value of discussing deprotagonization.


The problem with this is that protagonism isn't about the player caring about his character. It's about the other players caring about the character. A protagonist is a character whose actions and decisions deliver an answer to a question (the game's Premise) that's meaningful to the audience. And the reason deprotagonization is an important term is because of the ways that protagonism is undermined, by game mechanics, by player behavior, by GM behavior, by splatbook metaplots, etc. If the audience isn't interested in the character, the character isn't a protagonist.

Laurel wrote, "In order to keep from deprotagonizing the PCs...." If we unbend one double negative it comes out like, "In order to keep protagonizing the player characters...." Are we protagonizing the characters or activating the players to do that themselves? I can clear all the space in the world, but without motivation, I don't see 'keeping from deprotagonizing a player character' having any effect on the player at all.

Laurel's right. "Protagonizing" is actually the misleading term. Gameplay isn't a process of instilling a character with relevance. A character is incepted with protagonism  presumed. There's nothing really that protagonizes the character, just that which allows the protagonism to be demonstrated.

And the motivation is inherent. It's a little like learning. All students want to learn, education succeeds when factors that undermine learning are controlled. Protagonism does not emerge from gameplay if factors that undermine it are not controlled. That's why "deprotagonizing" is the more significant term. Until you eliminate deprotagonizing factors, you won't get satisfying results from Kickers, or scene framing techniques, or whatever that could otherwise facilitate the demonstration of protagonism.

Walt's right on target with his characterization of the process of demonstrating protagonism as fragile. No matter how clear a game's Premise, the question it asks for a protagonist's actions and decisions to answer, it seems that noise readily and easily obscures the meaningfulness of the response. "Deprotagonization" as a concept is a recognition of that.

Paul

[On a side note, Ron has allowed his current thinking on Premise, as revealed in his "GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Design" essay, to be influenced by the notions of Scarlet Jester, and others, such that he's extended the definition of it to Gamism and Simulationism. The extension has never sat comfortably in my mind, because I thought Gamist and Simulationist games had Premises that suited the prior definition of the term just fine. Back when Premise meant what it now means only for Narrativist games, I provoked a few "aha!" understandings of Premise in others by explaining that every Simulationist game has the same Premise and produces the same Theme as an answer to it, "Life is meaningless." Some might argue that the answer is instead that "Life's meaning may be found in the detail of a moment, though it can not be anticipated or predicted." I say we agree to disagree.

Similarly, in my mind, every Gamist game has the same Premise, a question asked by the game the answer to which is of meaningful importance to the audience, and it's something along the lines of, "Which one of us rules?"]
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #5 on: April 29, 2002, 07:48:05 PM »

Quote from: Paul Czege
Quote from: Le Joueur
The thing that always keeps me away from ideas like deprotagonization is "what's it for?"

I mean, I always thought 'protagonization' in role-playing games was either a) about getting players to act or b) getting players to care about the actions they take. Turning a character into a protagonist seems like second nature if you can both activate the player and get their emotional buy-in on the narrative. I just don't buy the value of discussing deprotagonization.

The problem with this is that protagonism isn't about the player caring about his character. It's about the other players caring about the character. A protagonist is a character whose actions and decisions deliver an answer to a question (the game's Premise) that's meaningful to the audience. And the reason deprotagonization is an important term is because of the ways that protagonism is undermined, by game mechanics, by player behavior, by GM behavior, by splatbook metaplots, etc. If the audience isn't interested in the character, the character isn't a protagonist.

That might be true if it weren't for the fact that virtually everyone else talks strictly about how deprotagonization affects the player of the character.  I'd be highly interested in a discussion about the presentation aspect of one's character, how it is a protagonist to everybody else, but that isn't how the terminology is getting used here.

If protagonism were strictly about how the audience (read: the other participants) regards a character, now that would be an interesting discussion (a very Auteur oriented play, possibly not even Gamist or Simulationist).  I would quite welcome that.

Unfortunately, so far we've gotten little if any of that.  Laurel starts us off here with the idea that a gamemaster's control of story contradicts a player's passion towards their character (and the conflicts that player 'owns' emotionally), clearly no audience involvement there.  Ron brought us a question whether system could impact the "balance of power"¹ in the "social contract" implying that he sees it the same way (hard to say for sure).

Looking back at the other thread, you open with commentary on players 'owning' their supporting cast and the process of their 'evolution' (I think).  Something that I didn't even catch was the implication of audience (unless we're talking strictly the audience of one, that player).  Everyone seemed to be having a fine time discussing this 'equating disempowerment with deprotagonization,' especially pitting the 'power of story' against the 'power of the player.'  (The loser of that battle is either the fragile story or the disempowered player.)

It wasn't until near the end that you inject the concepts of audience and delivering a theme (and that seems totally ignored at this point).  Even so, you summon up exactly the kind of sharing I speak of when you mention the probably necessary "accord" between players and gamemasters.  (To me that read more of compromise than "balance of power"¹.)

Quote from: Paul Czege
Quote from: Le Joueur
Laurel wrote, "In order to keep from deprotagonizing the PCs...." If we unbend one double negative it comes out like, "In order to keep protagonizing the player characters...." Are we protagonizing the characters or activating the players to do that themselves? I can clear all the space in the world, but without motivation, I don't see 'keeping from deprotagonizing a player character' having any effect on the player at all.

Laurel's right. "Protagonizing" is actually the misleading term. Gameplay isn't a process of instilling a character with relevance. A character is incepted with protagonism  presumed. There's nothing really that protagonizes the character, just that which allows the protagonism to be demonstrated.

And the motivation is inherent. It's a little like learning. All students want to learn, education succeeds when factors that undermine learning are controlled. Protagonism does not emerge from gameplay if factors that undermine it are not controlled. That's why "deprotagonizing" is the more significant term. Until you eliminate deprotagonizing factors, you won't get satisfying results from Kickers, or scene framing techniques, or whatever that could otherwise facilitate the demonstration of protagonism.

I'm inclined to disagree.  I think that a game can have protagonists (in either your usage or the more common 'equates with empowered players') in spite of deprotagonizing factors.  My principle argument is that if all effort is expended on eliminating these factors, only luck will push the game above mediocrity.

And while I'm on the point, I can't disagree more with any idea that protagonization "isn't about the player caring about his character."  No matter how you define it, I can't think of anything more deprotagonizing to a character than having a player that doesn't care.  I have to say that protagonization must start with the player themselves (and as far as I have seen it, none of the other posters in this conversation have gotten far past this part).

Quote from: Paul Czege
Walt's right on target with his characterization of the process of demonstrating protagonism as fragile. No matter how clear a game's Premise, the question it asks for a protagonist's actions and decisions to answer, it seems that noise readily and easily obscures the meaningfulness of the response. "Deprotagonization" as a concept is a recognition of that.

I don't really have much I can say in argument with that.  It seems pretty sound.  It also screams that protagonization does not exist outside of Narrativism.  As you describe protagonization, this idea really appeals to me.  In fact, I might go so far as suggest the reason that all other inferred meanings of deprotagonization equate so well with player disempowerment may have to do with extending protagonization outside of Narrativism (and outside it, that might be all it can be; which makes my point that, as used outside of Narrativism, delivery to the audience, and the "accord," the term 'protagonization' has no real value and could more clearly be replaced with 'empowerment.')

Fang Langford

¹ Personally, I see the whole "balance of power" thing as a terminology that throws barriers into a process that should be about compromise and unity, rather than territory and contract.
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Bankuei
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« Reply #6 on: April 29, 2002, 09:46:42 PM »

Since this is a subject that has been on my mind a lot recently, I thought I'd chip in my two cents of the matter:

If we look at other forms of stories, one thing is clear about protagonism:  Characters and the events characters go through are two sides of the same coin.  Each character highlights certain plots by their action and reaction, and plots serve to reveal aspects of characters.

Protagonism in the gaming sense, is the power of players to play out their character's concept. What we are often saying is deprotagonizing, is really our character concept being trampled by the rules, the other players, or the GM.  The setting serves as the foundation for laying the social contract of color, setting, and style, while the rules serve to reinforce it.  Thus, trying to play a legendary character will be a very deprotagonizing experience in Runequest, but is possible in Hero Wars due to the system itself.

Most games(narrativist included) often use a "plug n' play" mentality that will cause serious friction between the group because each player is coming to the table with a different concept which will require different things to properly "reveal" the character or allow the characters to shine as the protagonists that they are.  You cannot plug just any group of characters into any adventure/scenario and expect good results.  Games that encourage the group as a whole to create characters, even if the characters themselves are not a group, helps alleviate this to some degree.

Each player creates a character with some possible ideas of where they would like to see that character grow into.  The fine art of GM'ing is helping facilitate that into being.  The balance of power to be looked at in design and in play is to facilitate and aid each player in affirming their character concept without trampling the other players.  When you can say, "I didn't expect that to happen, but it fit perfectly[with my character]", those are the moments that highlight protagonism.

Chris
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contracycle
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« Reply #7 on: April 30, 2002, 04:09:57 AM »

Paul said:
Quote

Laurel's right. "Protagonizing" is actually the misleading term. Gameplay isn't a process of instilling a character with relevance. A character is incepted with protagonism presumed. There's nothing really that protagonizes the character, just that which allows the protagonism to be demonstrated.


Therefore I propose that we assume PC'sare inherently protagonists, and that they can EXPRESS their protagonism or have their expression FRUSTRATED.
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #8 on: April 30, 2002, 04:56:46 AM »

Quote from: contracycle
Assume PC'sare inherently protagonists, and that they can EXPRESS their protagonism or have their expression FRUSTRATED.

Very well said.

I just want to add, if memory serves, Egri points¹ out that a protagonist is the character who doesn't change and the story crashes over them like surf on the breakers.

Fang Langford

¹ From The Art of Creative Writing by Lajos Egri, but you pretty much have to read the entire book to get to that part.
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Walt Freitag
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« Reply #9 on: April 30, 2002, 06:28:42 AM »

Paul wrote: Walt's right on target with his characterization of the process of demonstrating protagonism as fragile.

Actually, that was my characterization of Paul's characterization. I agree that assessing the fragility of protagonism is the core issue, but I don't believe it's as fragile as he appears to.

There's a lot of room for honest disagreement here. The Hippocratic Oath says, "First, do no harm." A Narrativist GM might say, "First, do not deprotagonize." But a doctor who avoids doing harm by doing nothing is not doing right, nor is a GM who avoids deprotagonizing by contributing nothing to the Story. Paul and I can disagree on how aggressive and risky an intervention a doctor should attempt, while agreeing that killing a healthy patient, or standing there doing nothing while a preemie infant dies of exposure, are both bad ideas.

Everything in between depends upon, how fragile is Story? That's why I brought up the example of true stories, because it bears on the Fragility of Story.

While I concede Ron's point that real living people are not protagonists, I maintain that when they become characters in their own retrospective life stories they can be. Shackleton (who's on my mind because of PBS's relentless flogging the past few weeks) is the protagonist of the story of the voyage and rescue of the Endurance. I'm not a protagonist sitting here at my keyboard, but I am the protagonist of the romance of my wife and me from 1981 to 1994 (which even has one of those "how far are you willing to betray your own ethics for the sake of love" type Premises).

If Story were extremely fragile, we might expect nonfiction accounts to never be Stories, just as the random sounds of nature are never symphonies. If Story were not fragile at all, we might expect to find everyone's life story is a Story. What we find is somewhere in between. So we have some boundaries to work with.

The Fragility of Story/Protagonism also depends a lot on one's standards. The Lit-101 definition of Story allows tremendous latitude for taste. Paul's expectations for Story are probably more ambitious than some other Narrativist RP gamers', so he will natually find protagonism more fragile.

Chris, by contrast, is comfortable with a high level of active GM participation in "finding" (my word, not Chris's) each character's protagonism which may be unformed or hidden in noise at the outset.  That's more in line with my own assessment of the fragility of Story, which aspires only to the level of Story achieved in bestsellers (okay, really good bestsellers).

As for the terminology, I really don't see any problem. "Deprotagonizing" is clearly different from "not protagonizing" because the latter can mean doing nothing. Similarly "not deprotagonizing" is not the same as "protagonizing" because the former can mean doing nothing. Gareth's assessment is descriptively valid but terminologically equivalent.

Protagonizing = helping PCs to EXPRESS their protagonism.
Deprotagonizing = causing PCs' protagonism to be FRUSTRATED.

Ron's spectrum (described in the parallel thread) clarifies that both these terms have an assumed "actively" in front of them as they're currently used.

What's left ambiguous is whether doing nothing (or doing insufficiently) should be considered "passively" protagonizing or deprotagonizing. This is related to what appears to be disagreement on whether Protagonization can or should occur through game play. Paul and Gareth say no, Chris and (I believe, sorry if I've misinterpreted) Fang say yes. Another aspect, perhaps, of the seemingly ever-widening vanilla vs. chocolate Narrativist divide?

- Walt
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