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Author Topic: Character first Vs Problem first  (Read 1671 times)
Callan S.
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« on: January 14, 2009, 03:22:43 PM »

I've been working on a computer game and I was groping for this post apocalyptic world, where it's very dangerous and at a base, you live a pretty nasty and brutish life. I'd developed it from a quick little resolution mechanic (and getting ahead of myself, that started working for me once I added stakes...problems, at the start of it). But getting on, I was finding - it's hard to describe - a certain emptyness and lacking the will to continue/a wearyness. I was planning out how the character was going to fight at the next stage of difficult monsters (dinosaurs), and how to layout those monsters and...eh, I can feel that draining feeling now.

So I reflected on what I was trying to get at, for quite a bit. And I realised at an emotional level, the game had had some monsters established (psi mongrels and bandits, to be exact), and I'd coded how the PC deals with them. And I'd playtested it and to a large extent, played out that conflict with the established monsters. The way I kind of realised it is that I was going to have tougher monsters in the next stage and the character was going to go there because...well, because it's the next stage. "And we have to have a next stage, otherwise the game ends", to complete the circular logic. The real, emotional feel I was trying to get at was a life tormented by various threats - but you could clear the first stage of its bandits and psi mongrels, and all the threats are gone - peace is achieved! Just stay there, FFS!

But intellectually, I'd intended the dino's (and more) from the start. But what was in the game right now was...how to put it? Emotionally? What was emotionally in the game so far were the psi mongrels and bandits. And once defeated, there was no urge to move on - peace had been achieved.

And I think I need that emotion of 'defeat the problem' in order to write more of the game, otherwise I just get that weary, empty, drained feeling. I think it's probably a reflection of my morals - going on to kill bigger things so you can get bigger guns, when you weren't under any further threat, is just murderous capitalism (or whatever you might call it). I mean, I've played games like that (world of warcraft, anyone?) - it's not like I'm utterly against toying with the idea. But actually going through the work of coding crap like that, no! Or atleast 'no!' now I reflect on what's going on and see it more clearly. I need the emotional energy of wanting to defeat an established problem, in order to write. And there is no problem there, so I cannot write. Well, maybe if I was payed and needed the money to solve RL problems, then I could, but again, there's actually a problem to solve.

I think the better table top games I've run have been problem first, but I wasn't really aware of it at. From shifting corporate loyalties in a game of underground, to the mystical machinations effect on the newer generations of an old feud, I think those games really were problem first. But since players (this is in two seperate groups) were so focused on what their characters were doing, as a GM I tried to facilitate and follow those actions (sounds like what is touted as good GM stuff, right?). And basically what the players were doing was "Oh yeah, I beat X in so and so a way, yarh!". So I pursued that and the excitement went downhill - I've written about that in the past, actually. All I ended up doing was making problems so they could go yarh! There was no initial problem that needed to be resolved - they just needed shit to kill so they could look good. I focused on character first, and it began to suck more and more as I became more and more weary.

And it occurs to me, whether traditional or indie, how many roleplay games focus on character first - jamming character creation right up the front of the game. No wonder I'd gotten into the habit of thinking character first, even though my own moral system works the other way around. A book I've been reading describes a study where, when a certain moral situation and choices involved are described, people would say their choice with alot of certainty. Even though they usually couldn't really describe the logic behind their choice. So it's possible to have a moral tendency, yet at an intellectual level, be unaware of that tendency and perhaps work under some other principle.

Of course this hinges on my own prediposition that making problems just to make a character look good, doesn't look good at all. Indeed that character strikes me as insidious, when I think about it/consult my feelings on it. But yeah, this hinges on my own particular 'bent', but I thought it was worth noting, all the same.
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JoyWriter
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Posts: 500

also known as Josh W


« Reply #1 on: February 07, 2009, 07:12:49 PM »

If you don't mind I'm going to rephrase what you just said as I understood it, so you can see what I've misunderstood:

By starting with a conflict mechanic you then went on to develop different kinds of conflicts. And because there wasn't any reason overriding to keep conflict going, it was meaningless warmongering of various kinds.

Now to me that doesn't sound like "character" except that the force in that direction comes from your players. Its just pure conflict for the sake of it.

Now what is more fulfilling? Well I'd say any post-apocalyptic setting where you try to build stuff up, whether it's civilization or your own health, that's got a bit of built in impetus that in the absence of conflict can still have substance.

Now to me that's quality character, when they have a real relationship to the world around them, and react to or embody it's issues.

So how to give characters that input? Well one method (I think I got it from Mike Mearls) is to ask semi-leading questions about the characters based on the setting, so that characters are built including them, and on the other side to fit elements of character into world-building, like kickers etc.

To be a little more abstract, starting with characters first is conventionally done because it is how most of the players will influence the game, so you pretty much have to give them a character or they have no window on the setting. But while this may be true their focus is almost immediately (and exclusively) on conflict power, rather than showing the setting via character generation (roots of character traits etc). A possible weakpoint in my mind, but a pretty accommodated one.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #2 on: February 08, 2009, 08:02:31 PM »

I think that's a fairly accurate rewording, but mixed with some approaches I don't happen to use.

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Well I'd say any post-apocalyptic setting where you try to build stuff up, whether it's civilization or your own health, that's got a bit of built in impetus that in the absence of conflict can still have substance.
If so, why is that?

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starting with characters first is conventionally done because it is how most of the players will influence the game, so you pretty much have to give them a character or they have no window on the setting
Well, here's a thing - taking 'game/setting' to mean some initial problematic scenario (of whatever size), why do players get to influence that? Why is player influence assumed?

Particularly that window comment - the players can only 'see' (have a window on) what they can influence? I'm not poking at your specific wording. What you've said seems the commonly spoken wisdom in roleplay culture and I'm questioning it in a general sense.

What about being able to see the whole problematic scenario, even when they can't influence it? What about being interested in the problem before you can actually do anything about it? What about being interested in the problems (semi?)fiction even if you could never influence the fiction of the problem?

I'm vaguely reminded of this thread and the need to shudder first (or how I read it is that you need to be able to shudder first, before you can play sorcerer)

Or in roleplay culture, is there usually only interest in what one can influence and that's as far as the interest goes?

Indeed, on reflection, such an interest seems destructive if you have an interest in a certain problematic scenario - no one cares unless they can influence it, and if they can influence/change it, then it's not that problematic scenario anymore is it? It's either forgotten about, or changed. I suppose changed isn't so bad if it's pure imagining. But if it really is semi fiction and draws on real world problems (even if it's as boys own adventure as 'how to get food and survive in the wilderness'), just because you had a roleplay session doesn't change the problem in the world. But the fiction of that problem is either forgotten about if it can't be influenced, or it is treated as changed when really the initial inspiration for the fiction has not changed at all. The roleplayers have grown some crops or whatever in the fiction and 'that's all done now' and there's no going back, because they have to have influence and that part has been influenced now. There's still a problem to be gotten at, but the roleplay has moved on from actually doing that, since it influenced/'changed' it all already.

Yeah, I'm now seeing roleplay culture as I have known it atleast, has you pitching a problematic scenario only as the pitch toward play/influence. Not pitching the problem for it's own sake, to see if someone shares concern about it, even if they can never affect the semi-fiction of the problem.

It's a subtle distinction, but seems an important one on discovery...
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FredGarber
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Posts: 95


« Reply #3 on: February 08, 2009, 11:39:25 PM »

It seems to me that you forgot an element of your game design: your players have no reason to play.
You answered some of the famous "W"s of journalism: You mapped out Who (PCs), What (defend against attacking monsters), When and Where (in a post-apocalyptic setting) and How (with various resolution-mechanics). What you forgot was Why : Both the Why of "why do the monsters want to attack me?" and "Why do I bother fighting them off?"

Because of this, you have no Exploration of Character designed.  As a result, you have found that your characters act like robots: After the first wave of monsters are finished, your characters have no desire, and they feel flat and dull to you. 

Think about why your characters, faced with a nasty and brutish existance, bother to go after the bandits and the mongrels in the first place.  Why don't they just kill themselves and get it over with?  The answer has to be that they have found some reason to go on living.  And if you, as the designer, know that reason?  You can tailor the second stage dangers to threaten that reason, and that provides impetus to go out and deal with these threats.

On the other hand, you could go a different route. Perhaps the enjoyment that your players will feel is less the emotions of living a tough life, and more humorous.  Maybe it's more fun to watch your avatar get eaten by a dino (or blow a dino up with advanced weaponry) instead of a dealing with a simple bandit.  That could motivate your players to go on, to see what threats / challenges will kill them.


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Callan S.
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« Reply #4 on: February 09, 2009, 03:12:22 PM »

Well, I think in the comp game, there was a "Why" - the character didn't wanna die. Of course that's not giving a reason to live, but I think it's still a valid 'why' all the same. It doesn't really lend itself to exploration though - the only question I can think of is to apply pressure and ask "Well, do you wanna die now, after X happened?!?!". Which isn't something I want to explore anyway. Or to be more exact, there no explorative reward for programming more of the game, in terms of that. I suppose I just want the feeling of 'I don't wanna die!', without any real exploration of it, anyway. It was intended as a fairly gamist exercise in resource management, so I guess really I just want resource managment with a certain human feeling on top (hell, even Mario Bros has that, with the whole save the princess thing and 'I'm just a damn plumber!" - or I'd say. If mario had just been a coloured block, it'd loose some feeling, right?). However, once the bandits and mongrels were gone, I lost that feeling (I couldn't just add more problematic resources, like the dino). The whole design had to have these creatures threatening the guy from the start, otherwise that human feeling would go (he'd just settle down to grow potatoes...and hell, good on him!).

In the end I coded the dinos into the first level, just a few, that prowl around and you have no way of fighting them and if they catch you, you automatically die. But they stay roughly in the same spots, so looking ahead and remembering them deals with instant death mostly. But it still grants that feeling of being under attack from them.


In the good roleplay session, it's interesting in that yeah, the players had no why, but the NPC's certainly had lots of 'why' in terms of what they were doing (and further, those 'why's were in conflict with each other). But as I said, players were interested in clomping whatever came at them. Like at one point there was a wizard who was controlling a beast - the beast was actually a man previously, who'd raped the woman he loved in the past (she loved another) and then turned himself into a monster in a sort of shame/bid for power. The wizard was controlling him - but who was the wizards father, unbenownst to him...yeah, that's right, the monster! I'm pretty sure I'd outlined all this, but when the PC shotgunned the wizard to the ground and the wizard shouted out some line about his power, the player laughed that the guy was doing that after being knocked to the ground.

That was all there was to the scene, for him. I'm not saying he decided not to act/have his character act on that emotional backround - I'm saying that wasn't there at all for him (from an educated guess). They shot him again when he was fleeing, looted, left. But when I started trying to make gamist puzzles (eg, figure out that you ride or guide the unkillable worm through the rift to get rid of it), that was boring for them. Come to think of it (and maybe this is bitterness on my part), perhaps they were playing nar like as in their characters all "I don't give a shit about anyone elses attitude", but it's fairly primadona-ish, as even as a player they wont acknowledge the troubling moral choices NPC's made (fair enough their character doesn't, but as a player ignoring anyone elses moral choice/never talking about that and only focusing on your own characters choice, that'd be fairly primadonish, wouldn't it?). That'd make alot of sense, actually - but perhaps its bitter wishful thinking. Something to test somehow at some point (I don't play with those guys anymore - it was a club I joined for a fair while)...
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FredGarber
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Posts: 95


« Reply #5 on: February 11, 2009, 11:18:04 AM »

You are correct: "I don't want to die." is not a reason to live.  I feel it's not a Why.  Why don't you want to die? (**).  There are whole doctorates of philosophy (armchair and academic) wrapped up in the question "Is a human life valuable purely for being lived?"

I think it would be primadonna behaviour if they were playing with a Narrative style.  However, by your example, they just weren't interested in Exploration of Character. It seems they were primarily interested in increasing their effectiveness to Step Up to the central Challenge of the game world : Can you and your group take the NPC's Loot? (by combat). By definition, a player can't pursue a Narrative Creative Agenda UNLESS they are exploring the moral choices overtly (not to say there can't be moral heft or story to a Gamist or Sim experience).  When you tried to modify the central Challenge, so that they had to solve puzzles to get to the Loot, they weren't as interested.

It sounds like in the good roleplay session, you did your job too well in painting the the Setting as morally neutral.  In my experience, if the Setting is described as one that rewards a moral code (*), then people will tend to build characters that are, overall, good.  If the setting is one that does NOT reward a moral code, they will invariably create either antiheroes, or characters that become borderline antiheroes, measuring their 'goodness' by the most sociopathic of the group ( Well, I killed the Orc babies, but I didn't eat them like Larry did!) (**)   

I do not find that people tend to make heroic (as opposed to antiheroic) characters, unless something in the game rules rewards that type of behavior.  I find that many people use RP as a chance to act out their darker sides that would be illegal in real life, rather than a chance to take a high moral stance that would be impractical in real life, unless there are specific things in the System (including social contract) to encourage moral character behavior.

On the other hand, maybe I've just been playing with the wrong sort of people :)
-Fred

(*) Or at least pretends to have a moral bias, like D&D. Regardless of how you CAN play it, it's understood you're supposed to kill the dragons and rescue the princesses, and not the other way around. 

(**) Which has to be a different question than "Why don't I want my game session to end."  In a computer game, sometimes 'Because then I can't get high score' is enough to keep a player seeking the next challenge cycle.  It translates In Character to "I am alive because I want to explore, and conquer more things...", which is what you were looking for.  Try adding scorekeeping to your computer concept, and see if that helps keep you interested in not just farming.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #6 on: February 11, 2009, 05:57:03 PM »

Thinking about it now, I'd really think if they are gamist and I'm laying down a puzzle for them to beat - even if that type of puzzle wasn't their exact cup of tea there would be some spark in responce. If they were gamist, someone laying down a challenge is on the right track even if the challenge itself isn't their cup of tea.

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By definition, a player can't pursue a Narrative Creative Agenda UNLESS they are exploring the moral choices overtly (not to say there can't be moral heft or story to a Gamist or Sim experience)
Well by definition, a big ball of flame is not a zeplin. But the Hindenburg was a zeplin even as it crashed in a big ball of flame. Prima donna behaviour isn't nar, it's dysfunctional nar.

Though we don't have to get into an actual agenda - what I'm getting at is that, like your example of players like trying illegal stuff, they had a character in their mind who they enjoyed the idea it wouldn't take shit from no one (hell, weve all had that character in mind at some point, right?). Everytime the character indeed doesn't take shit (rather than run), it's a buzz. I'm saying doesn't take shit not in that his armour stat is high enough, but that he decides to throw down instead of run. Which way will the character go? I'm saying that's what they were into, but just for their own PC.

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You are correct: "I don't want to die." is not a reason to live.  I feel it's not a Why.  Why don't you want to die? (**).  There are whole doctorates of philosophy (armchair and academic) wrapped up in the question "Is a human life valuable purely for being lived?"
Well, no passion is a reason. Passion gives a reason for its existance about as much as fire gives a reason for why it burns - which is to say, not at all. Passion simply burns and burns. I may as well have had a crack addict as my protagonist and you say "I want crack" is not a reason to live. But passion or addiction (tautology?) just keeps going right through absence of reason. That's why I think it's suitable as a 'why'.

Also there's something incredibly arrogant in those doctorates, I feel "Oh, by the way, our little group has decided were able to determine if your reason to live is a reason or not! With it were apparently also able to decide the value of your life too! Who knew!?". It's like a left over from some religion, where there was the assumption of some grand authority figures scheme that everything must fit into. But without such a scheme, all it is is man against man, chanting that the name of their group grants means they do not merely ply and gnaw at their fellow man but instead fit some sort of galactic law. Classic dogs in the vineyard, where the characters assume and 'act under' a god and the players play knowing there isn't one in that imagined universe
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