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Author Topic: "In character" - another less-than-useful term?  (Read 7587 times)
Gordon C. Landis
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« on: December 20, 2002, 02:33:50 PM »

I couldn't decide if this belonged in the tar baby immersion thread, or over in player vs. character in GNS, or somewhere else, so  . . . I'm starting a new thread.

I had an insight - not a new one, I'm sure, but it was particularly strong for some reason - at a game session last night.  But first of all, I should say that I knew and had gamed previously with only one person in this group, and last night was only my second session with 'em, so my opinions are still a bit shaky.  But that said - one of the goals openly stated by many members of this group is "in character" play.

And what I really saw last night is how the idea of "in character" is every bit as fuzzy as the notion of immersion, and thus (on its own) it may also be pretty useless.  As I think others at the Forge have said (Ron?), the usual easy clues for "in character" (talking with an accent, holding conversations with other characters, etc.) are not really sufficient.  E.g., within this group, a particular action - say, stating "I cast heal on George" - could be seen as either in character or out of character.  When the statement is made on its own, and/or directly in response to a numeric damage assessment, and/or by a player everyone thinks "doesn't roleplay enough," it's seen as out of character.  When it's said in midst of some inter-character conversation, and/or after a prayer to a named god, and/or by a player who has dramatically engaged the others with descriptive narration, it's in character.  After all, it is the character casting the spell, isn't it?

As far as I can tell, this group has been trying to get the player who "doesn't roleplay enough" to play more in character for a long time now, with little or no success.  As far as I can tell, he's not opposed to the idea (i.e., he's not looking for a wargame experience amidst a more character-focused group), but he's not really understanding what they're saying.

My thought is, that's (partly) because what they're saying actually isn't all that clear.  "In character" is a code, and we'd be better off NOT using it, but rather replacing it with . . . "interact with the other players, not the rules."  And "wait until there's no character-to-character conversation happening before asking a rules question."  And "don't worry about whether or not YOU can generate an internal-to-the-character logic for an action, look to see if the other players are responding to you as your character."  And probably lots more, that I haven't figured out yet.

I'll leave it at that for now - in some ways, this is an obvious insight, though it clearly affected me strongly enough to inspire a post.  We'll see what anyone else makes of it,

Gordon
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jburneko
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« Reply #1 on: December 20, 2002, 02:47:56 PM »

Gordon,

I completely agree.  Another example is the Simulationist[Character]/Narrativist issue.  This also bleeds out into other media such as watching a movie or reading a book.

For example, let's say I create a forensic scientist whom I describe as "detached, methodical and dispassionate."  I play 3 sessions perfectly with all this.  Then all of a sudden I'm assigned to a case where a 10 year old girl was raped and murdered and all of a sudden I start playing my character as an obessessed madman who won't rest until this case is solved.  All of sudden, I'm no longer acting "in character", I've somehow allowed my real world feelings interfere with how my character is "supposed" to be played.  Certain gamers fail to see this as character revelation or evolution.  Obviously, my character is detached, methodical and dispassionate except when it comes to sex crimes against little girls but because that wasn't stated up front durring character creation, I've somehow violated the character concept.

Jesse
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #2 on: December 20, 2002, 06:57:01 PM »

Quote from: Gordon C. Landis
"In character" is a code, and we'd be better off NOT using it, but rather replacing it with . . . "interact with the other players, not the rules."

This much I will agree with. There is a difference between:

GM: "The prince has you under arrest and he is planning to have you all executed for the murder of his father"

Player: "I will use my persuade skill and convince him that we are innocent" (rolls dice)

And the player acting out this persuasion, even if it is silly and the player is not the best improv actor.
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #3 on: December 21, 2002, 01:42:37 AM »

Yeah, this is a can of worms; and as I understand Zymurgy's Law of Evolving Dynamic Systems, if you want to close it, you're going to need a bigger can.

I'm immediately thinking of actors. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Hardy are both brilliant at their craft. They have the ability to disappear into a roll so completely that you are likely to be wondering why the voice sounds familiar--and sometimes even then not. Although Tootsie was something of a gimmick, when Hoffman put that on he became that woman quite convincingly on the screen. Similarly, I saw a PBS piece in which Winston Churchill was brought to life on the screen, and was stunned to discover that Hardy had played the lead roll when the credits ran.

I think that Hoffman is a "method actor"; I think that Hardy is not.

The method actor, as I understand it, tries to feel what the character feels by relating it to moments in his own life and capturing that feeling. Thus if he wants to feel the loss of the character's mother, he remembers the death of a family member or close friend or even a pet, and recalls that feeling in the scene so that he actually does feel as the character feels, and so looks the part. The other sort doesn't do this. He studies the body language of people who have these feelings, including his own, and attempts to faithfully reproduce the appearance of the emotion without actually feeling it.

Now, some would say that the method actor is "in character" and the other is not. But assuming comparable facility, you can't tell the difference from the outside.

You're right; they should tell him what they want. But I think what they want is for him to play the character by the method--they want him to feel what the character feels, portray things from the character perspective, and to some degree forget that he is a player at a table playing a game instead of the character in the story that is unfolding. If, as you suggest, they tell him the details of what he should do, he will probably prove to be the other sort of actor, reproducing the expected conduct with ever more precise accuracy, but not actually "getting into" his character the way they mean.

I don't know if that will matter to play; but it might matter to his level of enjoyment.

--M. J. Young
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Ted E. Childers
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« Reply #4 on: December 21, 2002, 09:01:53 AM »

Quote from: Gordon C. Landis
"In character" is a code, and we'd be better off NOT using it, but rather replacing it with . . . "interact with the other players, not the rules."  And "wait until there's no character-to-character conversation happening before asking a rules question."  And "don't worry about whether or not YOU can generate an internal-to-the-character logic for an action, look to see if the other players are responding to you as your character."  And probably lots more, that I haven't figured out yet.


Hey howdy Gordon,

Not being "in character" can also mean "not properly roleplaying your character".  I'm not implying that there is an exact correct or incorrect way to play a specific character.  What I'm referring to is a problem that I've had in my gaming group for a while now.  

I have a player who, no matter what character he plays (in any genre), his character is going to quote lines from Star Wars, The Tick, and Army of Darkness.  It's almost always inappropriate and is met with either laughs or groans from those at the table.  I personally think it's a defense mechanism because he's uncomfortable with roleplaying with peers.  I want to say that he simply lacks the psudo-improve skills required to roleplay, but once I ask him, "was that in character?" or even crack the whip and tell him, "Stay in character" he usually cuts it out... at least for the moment.

Whenever this becomes a problem, I use the heavy handed "whatever you say is what your character says" rule, and that for the most part works.  I don't like to do it because my problem player actually has less fun this way.  But he realizes that if he wants to play then he has to put forth an effort.  

If you want to avoid using the term "in character," you might wanna borrow an old LARP technique that requires a hand gesture of "holding up two crossed fingers" for out-of-character comments.  It works for tabletop just as easily as LARP.

I hope that helps,

Ted
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: December 23, 2002, 10:38:32 AM »

Hello,

I think all the examples do a good job of showing that "in character" is not a useful term all by itself, or most especially, when it's assumed to mean a specific thing just because it's been used.

PART ONE
I can see a way in which it might be employed more clearly: as an adjective alone. Therefore we might talk about ...

- in-character knowledge, meaning things that the character knows as a sub-set of all of the stuff the player knows

- in-character dialogue, meaning the player employs acting-style speech patterns, gestures, etc

[Note that neither of the above two implies the other.]

- in-character decision-making, meaning that the character's actions are made understandable (to everyone else at the table) as a function of in-character knowledge

[The above may be employed as an optional part of Author stance, or as a necessary part of Actor stance.]

- in-character feeling, meaning that the player experiences a personal "takeover" or no-deliberation knowledge of what the character does or "wants"

[Some people call the above feeling "immersion," which is currently under some analysis in the thoughts on why immersion is a tar baby thread.]

[Counter-intuitively, the "feeling" does not necessarily imply in-character decision-making.]

There're probably some other adjectival uses that I'm not flashing on at the moment.

PART TWO
Aside from the above adjectival use, which itself is apparently so diverse as to be barely useful, I don't see much point to using the term. It seems frequently to be couched as an accusation toward others, and I think it might be in the same undefined-trump-phrase bag as "realistic," "balance," or "role-playing right."

Best,
Ron
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Emily Care
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« Reply #6 on: December 23, 2002, 01:55:50 PM »

Hello,

Good observations, Gordon and everyone.

IC seems to wear several hats, suggested by Ron's 4 uses of it as an adjective:

Quote from: Ron Edwards
- in-character knowledge, meaning things that the character knows as a sub-set of all of the stuff the player knows

IC is a systems boundary.   It circumscribes the resources (knowledge, objects, money etc) that a player may make use of in the game world through the medium of a given character.  
What the boundary consists of and where it falls is going to be different depending on what system is being used, and the social contract of the group using it. The function of character sheets is to make this information explicit. Ted's "problem player" is not using the resources available to his character and crossing these boundaries.  (He may also be violating his character concept too, see below)


Quote from: Ron
- in-character dialogue, meaning the player employs acting-style speech patterns, gestures, etc

IC is also used to describe a certain way of presenting a character's actions.  For example, using the first person point of view, and describing action in terms of in-world elements rather than using mechanics or metagame terms.  This may be the area of greatest conflict: it happens out in the open (unlike character motivations), and in most cases it consists of purely social and aesthetic preferences.  Few systems require you to provide your character information in a given format. But it may matter a great deal to the people you are playing with.  

This is the area in which Gordon's group seems to be experiencing conflict.  The other members of the group are having their enjoyment of the game (and perhaps their ability to become engrossed or immersed in whatever aspects of it they enjoy) disrupted by the way that the odd-man-out is describing his character's actions. Either the player will be brought into line with this aspect of the social contract, or the contract will change to incorporate his style.


Quote from: Ron
- in-character decision-making, meaning that the character's actions are made understandable (to everyone else at the table) as a function of in-character knowledge

In this aspect, it represents fidelity to a character concept. It deals with motivations, and is used as a criteria for choosing words and actions in the game.  Jesse's example of the "bleed" that can happen in games was an interesting one: his doctor breaking out of his detachment when he worked on the child could have been attributed to a) the player's concerns intruding into the character's actions as Jesse describes or b) new knowledge about the character coming to light (perhaps his "out of character" actions were caused by events in his past that had not before been known) or a dynamic change in the character (he breaks out of his normal detachment due to being emotionally affected by his patient's plight).  
 

Quote from: Ron Edwards
- in-character feeling, meaning that the player experiences a personal "takeover" or no-deliberation knowledge of what the character does or "wants"

This describes an internal experience of gaming:--"feeling" the character--which includes the channeling/immersive experience.

***

Changing how a player functions within any of these areas won't necessarily change how that player experiences any of the others.  

And what is required in one group, may be a flagrant violation of the social contract in another.  

Hope that helps the discussion.

--Emily Care
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Emily Care
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« Reply #7 on: December 24, 2002, 08:32:52 AM »

Reading this post by Ron, I realised that three of the four functions of IC I described in my last post aligned, at least somewhat, with GNS:
Quote from: Ron Edwards
Gamism - the player has committed to accomplishing win/loss conditions ("performing") using a specified range of options. Character creation is all about establishing the parameters of the options for a given character, regardless of how they are generated (randomly, point-allocation, etc).

Simulationism - the player has committed to a given set of plausible relationships among the modelled variables within the imagined game-world, expressed as "this character can do this much, this well," as a function of the character's previous history. I think of character creation in this mode of play as actually playing before the group begins, which is not the case in the other two modes, because the points/rolls/etc of Simulationist character creation are considered to be the game world in action.

Narrativism - the player has committed to expressing a specific set of passions regarding a specific set of issues (note: this can develop through play and to a certain extent almost always does, rather than being set in stone from the outset), entirely at the metagame/social level of play. The character, his or her abilities, his or her behaviors, anything about the character, express the range of the issue; that's what the character is for.


The IC division supports these goals in different ways.  People may miscommunicate about what IC means because they are coming from different assumptions about it's purpose.

--EC
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Gordon C. Landis
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« Reply #8 on: December 24, 2002, 12:35:58 PM »

Thanks all.  Great comments!  I think Emily's last bit (as triggered by Ron) is immediately useful for me - I can ask "WHY is in-character play [ignoring for the moment  figuring out exactly what that means] important?"  "Why" questions are always a bit problematic, but I think it'll be a good conversation starter with this group.

So again, thanks.

Gordon
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Walt Freitag
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« Reply #9 on: December 24, 2002, 08:16:58 PM »

I could add one more to Ron's list, but it's a tricky one.

What I'd add is in-character action as distinct from in-character decision-making.

I've used the example of a humorous character slipping on a banana peel before. It's not an in-character decision -- the character has no desire to slip on the banana peel and doesn't make any decision to do so (or else it's not funny) -- but when it happens we say it's "in character" for such a thing to happen. So what I'm really talking about here is "in-character outcome." Another example of the same principle: suppose a James Bond character is played with consistently in-character knowledge, dialoge, decision-making and feeling, but there is no villain with an evil plan to blackmail the world. From an outcome point of view, this character never has a chance to be "in-character" regardless of how played, unless the system allows the player to invent the necessary villain and evil plan. In that case, as in the banana peel example, it would seem to require out-of-character decision making and/or knowledge (and probably OOC feeling and dialog as well) to bring about an in-character outcome.

This sometime association between "in-character" and an abstract quality of outcome might be a large part of the reason for the abstruseness of "in-character" as a term. Outcome qualities in general appear to be indigestible to GNS theory, so terms that can (but don't always) denote an outcome quality (including "story") seem to be the ones that are deemed too slippery to handle. ("Immersion" appears to be an exception, as it appears on its face to be a quality of the instant of play, not of the outcome. But I wonder if it's not really an outcome quality in disguise.)

- Walt
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bluegargantua
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« Reply #10 on: December 24, 2002, 10:03:58 PM »

Quote from: Gordon C. Landis
I can ask "WHY is in-character play [ignoring for the moment  figuring out exactly what that means] important?"  "Why" questions are always a bit problematic, but I think it'll be a good conversation starter with this group.


This is where I was going to jump in.

I was going to ask a big-picture question i.e. Why do you feel the need to find a definition for "in character" and what do you hope to gain by doing so?

I don't want to sound flip here, I seriously wanted to elicit some of the reasons behind starting the thread.  You started the thread asking about "in character", but it seemed like there was a deeper question embedded within it.  That came out when you were discussing your group's dynamics.

Clearly, from what's been going around the thread lately, it's seems likely that "in character" is mostly an empty phrase that only has a given meaning for a given play group.  You didn't mention whether your "problem player" (from the viewpoint of the others) was a new player or a new member of your group.  Some people have very strict "rules" about being in character and out of character (the famous You say it, your character says it rule), others are much more freewheeling.  Their preferences often arise from their first experiences in roleplaying.  They learned what "in character" meant and they don't see any reason to change it.  New members or new players may have trouble understanding their viewpoint.

By way of example, the groups I play in fall squarely in the latter.  We're constantly making wisecracks and saying outrageous things which our characters would never say.  It'd be more accurate to say that our characters are more like action movie heroes than real people.  But that's just kind of the way we do things.

So "in character" goes right back to the whole social contract.  An oft-unspoken agreement that this is how we'll do things.  And that's certainly something that can stand to be dragged out into the light of day and get defined.  You might also try and figure out where these social agreements came from and judge how useful your players find them.

http://www.criticalmiss.com/issue4/jonnyshouserules1.html">Some GMs have come up with very explict guidlines for what they expect at the gaming table.  These include details about what IC/OOC means and how you shift between them, to how the GM will present information to the players.  It's a surprisingly good read and you may find it very helpful.

BTW -- I'd definately suggest a hand-signal system as mentioned earlier if your players decide they want a heavy "in character" experience.  It's not fair to deprive players of the chance to get information about the rules or the real world.  You might even have two signals.  One for Player-to-GM conversations and one for non-verbal efforts by the Character to perceive something obvious.

For example:  The player says "what time is it?"

With no hand signals, the GM can assume that the player is saying it and provide the "in game" answer.

With the Player-to-GM signal, the GM can tell the player what time it is the Real World (or they can find out).

With the Non-verbal signal, the GM can assume the character is thinking that phrase and looking at their watch for the time rather than asking the question out loud.  The GM can tell the player what the "in game" time is.  This is the "soliloquy" signal.

later
Tom
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Gordon C. Landis
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« Reply #11 on: December 26, 2002, 01:41:54 PM »

Quote from: bluegargantua


This is where I was going to jump in.

I was going to ask a big-picture question i.e. Why do you feel the need to find a definition for "in character" and what do you hope to gain by doing so?

I don't want to sound flip here, I seriously wanted to elicit some of the reasons behind starting the thread.  You started the thread asking about "in character", but it seemed like there was a deeper question embedded within it.  That came out when you were discussing your group's dynamics.



Tom,

Yeah, there are actually (to my mind) two "deeper" things behind this thread.  One is understanding the dynamics of this new group I'm playing with, in particular (though by no means only) why this one guy (who's a long time player in the group) is seen as not being "in-character" enough.  The other deeper issue is just the standard deeper issue of RPG Theory, discovering what words/concepts are actually useful in discussing our hobby.  There've been a number of threads lately about how the terminology we're accustomed to isn't always that useful, and it struck me that "in character" might also be in this category.

As a general comment, my reaction to the hand-signal thing mentioned later by you and elsewhere by others is . . . ick.  Now, I probably shouldn't condemn what I haven't really tried, but my guess is that what I want out of play wouldn't be well served by it - and I think that's because I'm not really interested in  (to try out Ron's terms) IC dialouge, knowledge, feeling, or even decision-making as ends in themselves.  To create a new label, maybe what I value is "character driven" play.  So far (two sessions), that has resulted in me fitting in quite well with this new group - better than Mr. Long-time but "not IC enough," in many ways.  

(It occurs to me that it is entirely possible that what the group means by "not IC enough" is really just "doesn't play his character with the style and skill we like," at which point agreement/disagreement over what IC really means is moot - maybe there is agreement, the rest of the group just doesn't think he does a good enough and/or stylisticlly appropriate job.)

But - to slip some GNS jargon into the mix, if my character-driven (in service of  Vanilla Narrativism) approach is going to run smack into (e.g.) a real Sim/Player Exploration of Character in GM-controlled Exploration of Setting and/or Situation . . . I'd like to find out soon, and probably make a graceful exit from the group.

And that's maybe a third "deeper" purpose, that I wasn't fully aware of as I posted: answering the question "is this a good group for me?"

Thanks for the inspiration and input,

Gordon
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