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Author Topic: Protagonist: player vs character  (Read 7562 times)
Valamir
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« on: September 24, 2001, 12:02:00 PM »

There's been quite a few threads recently on the idea of the PC as protagonist.  However, some of the discussions seemed to focus less on the idea of the "C" as protagonist and more on the "P".

So,to what extent is it necessary for the PLAYERS to be the actual protagonist in the story vs. the CHARACTER.  By traditional measures a Character could be be a protagonist even if his every action is the result of GM railroading.  Obviously the definition of what constitutes a "protagonist" in an RPG, especially it would seem in "narrativist" RPGs is more than simply an evaluation of  the character's role.

How does one mesh the idea of metagame vs in character protagonism?  Is it simply enough to grant the player advanced directorial and authorial control and say "case closed".  What additional considerations are there to ensure the player's choices leads to a suitable protagonist emerging.  

How about in games where such control is not granted.  What then determines a functioning level of protagonism?

Just some talking points as I've seen this term thrown around rather frequently recently without an indication of exactly how it is being applied.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: September 25, 2001, 07:03:00 AM »

Hi Ralph,

"However, some of the discussions seemed to focus less on the idea of the "C" as protagonist and more on the "P". "

My take is that only a character can be a protagonist; it's a within-imagination phenomenon. It seems to me that most of the recent discussions are about player power to preserve and develop the protagonist character.

"By traditional measures a Character could be be a protagonist even if his every action is the result of GM definition of what constitutes a "protagonist" in an RPG, especially it would seem in "narrativist" RPGs is more than simply an evaluation of the character's role."

That's an interesting point. I have two responses.
1) In a lot of the dysfunctional play I've seen, the GM is more or less the "reason," or superego if you will, whereas the player is the "urges" or id if you will - the character as hero emerges from an ongoing power struggle between the two real people. (This is common in monster-fighting or mystery-solving play.)
2) In a lot of the OTHER dysfunctional play I've seen, the GM exerts an immense amount of control over what the characters "feel" or "would do," to the extent of routinely over-riding player decisions. (This is common in metaplot-driven play.)

In other words, I think you're right, but that the phenomenon is not fun. I think the kind of protagonist-character that is being discussed on the Forge is about getting all the real humans away from these patterns, yet still able to generate a hero-tale (in the broadest sense).

"How does one mesh the idea of metagame vs in character protagonism? Is it simply enough to grant the player advanced directorial and authorial control and say "case closed". What additional considerations are there to ensure the player's choices leads to a suitable protagonist emerging."

It don't think that the simple power is enough ... this whole discussion is nested in mainly Narrativist play, and that means that "ensuring" protagonism is not really what we're up to. I think of it as a CHALLENGE, much like playing good music. The rules are good instruments, but there, in play, with everyone going, you must put your artistic ability on the line. The rules do not ensure protagonism - they permit it and facilitate it, but ultimately, in play, it's time for the player to stand up and be counted.

What's funny about it is that, for those of us who've been painfully laboring for years to acquire one teeny shred of protagonism for our characters, the sudden "relaxation" of the constraints and direct, overt statement of the task in something like The Pool can be terrifying. It's what we wanted - and now we have to put our money where our mouths are.

"How about in games where such control is not granted. What then determines a functioning level of protagonism?"

Well, by "not granted," that can mean two things. I'll deal with both.

1) If you simply mean that the rules don't provide (say) Director stance privileges, via spending EPs or anything else, then it comes down to informal and interpersonal arrangements among all the real humans (especially the GM). So a lot of Director/Author power may actually be present in such games - but only through these negotiations and agreements. This is why, I think, that traditional RPG-thinking claims that "system doesn't matter," because in their experience system was never involved in establishing metagame rights.

2)  If you mean that the Director/Author power is not available at all, either through the rules OR by agreement, then the player who wants such things is hosed. I think the dysfunctional versions of character-protagonism that I described above are the outcome of this situation.

Best,
Ron
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contracycle
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« Reply #2 on: September 26, 2001, 02:44:00 AM »

is there an essay on what we mean by protagonism in RPG anywhere?
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #3 on: September 26, 2001, 06:37:00 AM »

Quote

On 2001-09-25 11:03, Ron Edwards wrote:
Hi Ralph,
My take is that only a character can be a protagonist; it's a within-imagination phenomenon. It seems to me that most of the recent discussions are about player power to preserve and develop the protagonist character.

I agree that only the character can be the protagonist. But in addition to what you've said above, I'd mention that the motive in empowering players is that one of the biggest sources of game satisfaction available to most players is being able to make protagonists of their characters. This is important below.
Quote

1) In a lot of the dysfunctional play I've seen, the GM is more or less the "reason," or superego if you will, whereas the player is the "urges" or id if you will - the character as hero emerges from an ongoing power struggle between the two real people. (This is common in monster-fighting or mystery-solving play.)
2) In a lot of the OTHER dysfunctional play I've seen, the GM exerts an immense amount of control over what the characters "feel" or "would do," to the extent of routinely over-riding player decisions. (This is common in metaplot-driven play.)

Just a clarification again, here. What you describe above is not necessarily dysfunctional. For players who don't mind this sort of collaboration in creating a protagonist, there is no problem. Dysfunction occrus when the GM takes away the player's authority without consent in the form of social contract, when the player's desire is not being met. This is essentially what you say next, I think.

Quote

In other words, I think you're right, but that the phenomenon is not fun. I think the kind of protagonist-character that is being discussed on the Forge is about getting all the real humans away from these patterns, yet still able to generate a hero-tale (in the broadest sense).

Again, I'd say "not fun for most", or not fun to players who have Narrativist tendencies, which you go on to indicate below. Sorry to nitpick.

But note that cause and effect are reversed, here. A player doesn't want Protagonism to support his Narrativist tendencies, the player employs the Narrativist mode to satisfy his need to create a protagonist. I think that this is at the root of a lot of GNS misconceptions; GNS modes are means, not ends.

Quote

It don't think that the simple power is enough ... this whole discussion is nested in mainly Narrativist play, and that means that "ensuring" protagonism is not really what we're up to. I think of it as a CHALLENGE, much like playing good music. The rules are good instruments, but there, in play, with everyone going, you must put your artistic ability on the line. The rules do not ensure protagonism - they permit it and facilitate it, but ultimately, in play, it's time for the player to stand up and be counted.


As always rules only facilitate or get in the way. Are you telling us that the system matters? :wink:

I think that Ralph understands that.

Quote

What's funny about it is that, for those of us who've been painfully laboring for years to acquire one teeny shred of protagonism for our characters, the sudden "relaxation" of the constraints and direct, overt statement of the task in something like The Pool can be terrifying. It's what we wanted - and now we have to put our money where our mouths are.

Mayhap, Simulationism is "easier" in this respect? Or at least less threatening? One of the things that keeps some players from going over I suspect. If the desire for such things as protagonism aren't great enough then why bother? This relates to that whole "Simulationists are cowards" thing a while back. True Simulationists aren't afraid so much as not motivated in that direction.

Quote

2)  If you mean that the Director/Author power is not available at all, either through the rules OR by agreement, then the player who wants such things is hosed. I think the dysfunctional versions of character-protagonism that I described above are the outcome of this situation.


Again we see a how a GNS mode facilitates a particular player desire. Or rather how the other modes do not, in this case.

Mike
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #4 on: September 26, 2001, 08:49:00 AM »

Hey Mike, everyone,

I am prompted to explain what I mean when I say protagonism. Two quotes from Mike, one from this thread:

But note that cause and effect are reversed, here. A player doesn't want Protagonism to support his Narrativist tendencies, the player employs the Narrativist mode to satisfy his need to create a protagonist. I think that this is at the root of a lot of GNS misconceptions; GNS modes are means, not ends.

And one from the "no islands in the pool" thread:

Anti-Pool just makes for a different cycle, a constant flow back and forth. You win, then you lose. Any level of bet makes sense, because you have incentive to go each way. Go high and burn your protagonism to be sure of something, or go low risking failure but get dice back if you do. I like the control over protagonism that would give the player.

Protagonism is not a resource. If you have Narrativism, then the player characters have protagonism, always. It doesn't fluctuate, or become gone. If it becomes gone, then what you have is failed Narrativism. Protagonism is the power the player has within the game, as part of the ongoing game, to author a thematic statement with a given character. As a player, you don't create it, you handle it.

Let me give an example. In the first session of the scenario I've been running, my friend Tom gambled his character Tatic's whole pool on a combat and didn't roll a single success. That put me, as the GM, in the position of hosing Tatic. Hosing does not mean de-protagonizing. At no point did Tom lose the ability to author a thematic statement with his character. I narrated a grievous stab wound to Tatic, the hasty departure of his opponent, and cut to a scene with another character. When I started the second session, it was with a scene revealing that Tatic had become an undead Kriedetempek soldier whose memories of being human will be quickly fading as he becomes consumed by the rage that characterizes the Kriedetempek.

See how hosing doesn't shut the character down? It's not task failure. Adversity is actually a protagonizing force. Hosing demonstrates the narrative significance of the character at the same time that it mixes things up for the player in a challenging way.

A Narrativist game is where player character protagonism is presumed and insured by shared social contract. One source of not widely recognized frustration for players in Narrativist games can come from efforts they make to create a character and write a background that not only defines the character, but also how the world treats that character. Narrativism isn't about exemplifying such a static character. Narrativism takes the group's shared understanding of the character and says, "Now show me how you're who you are in this context!"

Geez...does that make sense?

Paul
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Epoch
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« Reply #5 on: September 26, 2001, 09:29:00 AM »

I think that y'all are wildly abusing the term "protagonist."

Let's go back to the origin of the term, to literature.  A protagonist is not a character that the author makes a thematic statement about.  Clearly, authors regularly make thematic statements about antagonists and supporting characters.

Obviously, also, protagonists regularly fail, are hosed, get into bad situations.

The protagonist or protagonists are, quite simply, the people that the story follows, the ones that it is about, and the ones of whom the audience is supposed to gain a greater understanding.

In the context of an RPG, then, I propose that PC's have the power of protagonists when the interesting aspects of the game (the "story," such as it is) can not spin away from them and beyond them, and when they are the people who can resolve the conflict that the game is about.  They are de-protagonized when they are sidelined, when the game moves on its course without their actions having much significance.  This may happen temporarily or permenantly (in some games, it may specifically be the point that the PC's are no more protagonists of the game than you or I are protagonists of the real world).

(In a Narrativist game (not the only type of game which has protagonists, I assert), the conflict that only the protagonists can resolve has the nature of a thematic question, and those characters are tied to the question, and it is only truly resolvable by having the characters clarify their relationship to that question, which gets back to your concept of the player wanting to make a thematic point with a character.)

I think that the Good Mr. Holmes is arguing that a character is "de-protagonized" by the Pool after he has failed because he has lost his ability to force the fabric of the conflict to wrap around him.  This is, in my view, only partially true, as systematic means like this are far from the only way of retaining protagonism, but I think that the Good Mr. Holmes does, in fact, have a point.
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #6 on: September 26, 2001, 10:26:00 AM »

Thanks, Mr. Sullivan.

Yes, essentially, I was saying not that the character would cease to be a protagonist, or that there was no other way in which the character's protagonism could be brought out. De-protagonizing was a shortcut term, and used poorly. As I stated in the first quote I was attempting to discuss the player desire to make a protagonist of his character.

I should have stated it as follows in the post about the Anti-Pool. The loss of dice that accompanies failure removes one of the more powerful resources that the game supplies to the player to create a sense of protagonism in the character. Or rather insert "resource that gives power to effect protagonism" wherever "protagonism" is currently there. Certainly the player still has other tools, and certainly the GM can help. Didn't mean to imply otherwise.

On the other hand I do see Protagonism as a sort of sought after commodity. It comes meansured in important moments of play. And it satisfies a desire that many, but not all, players have when playing RPGs.

Is that more clear? Or am I still off base?

Michael "not the archangel" Holmes
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jburneko
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« Reply #7 on: September 26, 2001, 05:09:00 PM »

Hello Paul,

Quote

One source of not widely recognized frustration for players in Narrativist games can come from efforts they make to create a character and write a background that not only defines the character, but also how the world treats that character.


This sentence confuses me.  I wish I could be more specific but I can't.  I just don't understand what it's getting at.  Could you elaborate?

Jesse

[ This Message was edited by: jburneko on 2001-09-26 21:14 ]
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #8 on: September 26, 2001, 08:35:00 PM »

Hey Jesse,

What I was referring to is the practice of a player writing up a character who's essentially already a complete work of art. And then playing in such a way as to protect the character from the game. Once I started paying attention, I realized it was a very common play style. For the player, it's a frustration of preconceived notions. The player wants to play the character he wrote. And the game feels like a messy wrecking of the character. I think actual play, particularly Narrativist play, must be an ordeal for the player, because it expects him to demonstrate the character, not just shelter it.

Paul
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jburneko
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« Reply #9 on: September 26, 2001, 10:25:00 PM »

Quote

For the player, it's a frustration of preconceived notions. The player wants to play the character he wrote. And the game feels like a messy wrecking of the character. I think actual play, particularly Narrativist play, must be an ordeal for the player, because it expects him to demonstrate the character, not just shelter it.


I'm still confused.  Either I've never seen this behavior (failed to recognize it?) or I have a horrible misunderstanding of Narrativism's ideal of the character as protagonist and being allowed to author one's theme.

It seems to me that writing up a character and then being frustrated by an inability to demonstrate what the character is about is the SOURCE of the Narrativists frustration.  Isn't the idea that you create a character and then, through use of authorial and directorial power, including the control of the reactions of others in the  world, demonstrate, build and enhance that character's theme?

I've described my 7th Sea character Alonzo and how I wish I had control over this one minor NPC so that I could use her to really show off Alonzo's theme.  The GM keeps playing her 'incorrectly' in my opinion or perhaps less severely just not to the best effect.  Is my frustration that of not being allowed to author my own theme or am I simply exhibiting the behavior your are describing as 'sheltering' the character?

I'm really curious, now.

Jesse
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #10 on: September 27, 2001, 06:28:00 AM »

Hey Jesse,

In my second post to the "Theatrix in Action" thread in Actual Play, dated 5-22-01, I describe how two scenes played out at the beginning of the second session. And in my third post to that thread, I describe what we've been talking about here. The players play cautious, in a way that deflects the game when it tries to really grip into the character.

Don't second-guess yourself like this. You have it exactly right with this quote:

It seems to me that writing up a character and then being frustrated by an inability to demonstrate what the character is about is the SOURCE of the Narrativists frustration. Isn't the idea that you create a character and then, through use of authorial and directorial power, including the control of the reactions of others in the world, demonstrate, build and enhance that character's theme?

You've describe the frustrations of a Narrativist in a game that, for whatever reason, isn't gripping into the character. You're clearly interested in a game experience where character is an authoring process that keeps pace with game events.

What I said was Narrativist play, must be an ordeal for the player who creates the completed work of art type of character, because it expects him to be part of a character process.

Paul
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #11 on: September 27, 2001, 06:53:00 AM »

Although as far as "control of the reactions of others in the world" is concerned, well, that's something that's not universal to all Narrativist play groups or game systems. You certainly never have control over the actions of the other player characters. Some games, like Theatrix, may give you a means of control over NPC's. But even with a game like Sorcerer, which doesn't, my personal approach would be to heavily weigh the input of the player when the NPC in question is a foil that was invented as part of character creation. If you hooked up with this girlfriend character during play, then you're mostly out of luck. I may occasionally act on suggestions from the play group, but generally I'm going to run her as I see fit.

But if she was created in conjunction with your own character, then I think you're entitled to say things to me during the game like, "she's really incapable of making decisions without consulting her father," or, "she's pretty callous, and probably won't cry when I leave." And generally I'll do my best to depict her as you've got her envisioned. Certainly, if I stray from the guidance you've thought important enough to give, it'll be for a reason. "You've never known her to cry like this. She's sobbing uncontrollably on the dock as the oarsmen carry you out to the ship."

Paul
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Valamir
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« Reply #12 on: September 28, 2001, 02:00:00 PM »

"What I was referring to is the practice of a player writing up a character who's essentially already a complete work of art. And then playing in such a way as to protect the character from the game."

An astute observation, and one that in the past I have been severely guilty of.  Its also a very difficult habit to break.  My first attempt to do so was to create only a partially complete character and then allow the game to fill in the rest.  Unfortunetly even then I had definite ideas on how I wanted this to happen and could get rather resentful when not allowed to proceed in that direction.

One of the things I find myself greatly enjoying about mechanics that regulate directoral power is that they provide game resources to manipulate the story just for such a purpose, alleviateing much of the player creation vs GM creation conflict inherent in PCs.
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