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Author Topic: how we played Chalk Outlines  (Read 20037 times)
Paul Czege
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« on: January 09, 2002, 07:55:12 AM »

Hey Vincent, everyone

The title is how we played Chalk Outlines because I want to allow the possibility that we did a disservice to the game, by playing the whole cycle, from character creation to wrap-up, in one evening, one session, and to caution against taking all that appears in this post as proven fact without some playtesting by people who aren't idiots like us. The rules call for the game to play for at least five sessions.

But heck, if a movie can deliver a whole heist in around two hours, shouldn't we be able to do the same in four?

Still, this post shouldn't be perceived as a review. I don't think you can justify reviewing a game after only one session of play. These are just a few observations to have conversation about from our one session of play.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for the group to negotiate was the nature of the job. Everyone seemed to feel some pressure to make the objective truly special, not just jewels, but the skull of Jesus or something. Tom did start to push for jewels as the negotiation dragged on, but ultimately the group settled on an item with the potential to change the way we think about reality...a tape of the Beatles singing a cover of a Rolling Stones song...with Elvis. In retrospect, I wonder about the difficulty here. In some ways it reminds me of the dysfunctional game group arguing over the details of the game they're planning, each pushing for their own personal concept of the one true game, except in this case it was preferences for individual micro-genres within the larger heist film genre.

Another thing we struggled with was knowing where conflict was supposed to come from. Tom created a safecracker who was lousy at keeping his temper and at walking away from a fight he'd lose, and Scott created a character who was lousy at trusting his friends and lousy at telling his friends from his enemies. And I think as the game played out, Scott and Tom came to feel that those combinations of lousy traits gave their characters almost too much potential for deprotagonizing other player characters. I think they felt like they had to be very careful with their characters. And it raised all sorts of questions about whether the conflict during gameplay should be between the player characters, the members of the crew, the way it is in the films, or between player characters and NPC's, and that they should have made an effort during the job planning stage to identify needs that were NPC's they needed for the crew.

The job planning stage took a second effort as well. The initial pass came up with needs like deck plans for the private luxury vessel that was transporting the recording, information on the safe it was being held in, and an itinerary for the ship's journey. But heist films aren't really about the heists. They're about the interplay of personalities. So the group refocused and made a second pass at the needs list, and came up with things like needing to procure from a specific local named Guadaloupe something to deter pursuit during the getaway, and needing to get a pretty girl to distract the guard that would be posted in front of the room holding the safe.

But hey, ultimately we overcame all the stuff that was problematic for us except one thing. So maybe all that's needed for the other stuff is some clarification in the text of the game. It's the one thing that we pretty much didn't overcome that might require some design thought. Basically, we had this problem with resolving scenes where the more Narrativist in his thinking the player was, the less protagonizing and interesting the scene turned out to be.

In Chalk Outlines, players have power over both scene framing and the details of conflict resolution. The GM selects the core conflict for a scene from among conflicts the player identified for the character on his sheet, and then asks the player to frame a scene based on that conflict. And when it comes down to a dice roll, the player interprets the result and narrates the outcome. It played out and felt very similar to the last session of the scenario I ran for The Pool, during which two separate customizations of the system worked to deliver to the player both power over scene framing and the pretty consistent opportunity to take MoV's.¹ And I have to say, from the Chalk Outlines experience and from the way we played The Pool, I'm starting to formulate some fairly strong opinions about the right ingredients for really electric narrativism, and that particular combination has been kind of a let down. It's hard for me to pinpoint why exactly, but it's as if the player has too much control over what protagonizes the character.

At one point during the fallout section of the game, I asked Scott to frame a scene around his "lousy at trusting his friends" trait. And he framed right to the drama. He described, basically inventing right then, his character's frustration at having come to believe that the other guys were not sticking to the plan. He narrated how his character had already inflated and dropped the crew's escape craft into the water, and how he was busily throwing chum over the railing in an attempt to quickly lure sharks to deter the getaway when one of the ship's security officers approached him. We roleplayed maybe two sentences of dialogue, and the security officer took him by the elbow. He rolled the dice, and narrated the outcome of throwing the security guy into the water. I'm not sure this description conveys just how blah that scene was.

Let me contrast it with something else. During the planning and logistics phase I asked Tom to frame a scene around his trait of being lousy at controlling his temper. He was less aggressive at framing directly to the drama. He set the scene in the offices of the Greek Port Authority where he was attempting to get an itinerary for the ship they were after and explained that he'd been waiting for some time. The roleplay was more extensive, because I had to give him something to lose his temper about. We were guided by the common objective of putting the character in the position of losing his temper. I roleplayed the sergeant professing an interest in "expediting" the character's request and his problem with having too many "other priorities"...fairly explicit innuendo for "bribe me." And it played out as one of the more interesting scenes of the game, with Tom taking one concession of a badly broken nose.

But that scene was a relative rarity, one of the few where we had to work to get to the dice roll. The first example with the chum was more typical. Generally the player framed right to the drama, like an aggressive Narrativist, described a conflict and described the outcome. The player put the character in a difficult position and then determined the character's reaction. In some ways, Chalk Outlines didn't even feel like roleplaying.

We had a discussion about the game afterwards, during which people offered various observations. Players described frustration with having to frame multiple scenes from the same couple of lousy traits, and wished they'd taken more lousy traits, or at least less similar lousy traits. The comparison with the last session of The Pool came up, and everyone pretty much agreed that Chalk Outlines was showing similar problems, but that characters were slightly better protagonized in The Pool by virtue of interacting with more fully rendered NPC's, rather than the throwaways we found ourselves creating in this game. And that brought up the question of whether I should have prepped NPC's for the game, or whether the design intent was for NPC's to be created through play. We offered opinions about whether conflict in the game was supposed to come from the other characters or from interactions with NPC's, and talked about the difficulty of creating interesting conflict between PC's without deprotagonizing each other. Someone made the observation that the GM really didn't have any power in the game, that he got to pick from one or two lousy traits on a character's sheet and ask for a scene, but that players framed the scene, improvising the NPC's for it into existence at the same time, and then determined the outcome of the scene. It was suggested that reacting to things delivered by the GM is good for character protagonism, that perhaps a game needs adversity delivered to the character by someone other than the player. And someone suggested that perhaps the GM should determine the heist.

Everyone thought the game and the character creation mechanics are perfectly evocative of the heist genre, and everyone loved the concession mechanic for conflict resolution. Players liked that there was no whiff problem, that the characters were actually good at what the player wanted them to be good at, and that they would definitely get scenes to show what they were about. And we did definitely have fun.

So I dunno, perhaps there's a way to regulate choosing the heist micro-genre, and perhaps there's something that can be done about the deprotagonizing double-whammy of the player both creating and resolving his character's conflicts. And perhaps we didn't play it right?

Paul

1. I make the same observation, but more in relation to the mechanics of The Pool, in this http://indie-rpgs.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1138">thread in the Random Order Creations forum.
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« Reply #1 on: January 09, 2002, 08:39:34 AM »

Interesting. Perhaps, Paul, the problem is that the players must feel something of what the character feels. That is, the character is being thrown into a situation, but the player is not, in the case of the Double-Whammy. So the player does not have the RL feeling of reacting that the character does. Or perhaps it is just the reacting that's entertaining. Otherwise it's pure creation.

I think that Simulationists are just players who like the reaction more than the creation (which is what Narrativists seem to prefer). A spectrum then of reaction to creation.

Mike
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: January 09, 2002, 09:25:57 AM »

Hi Mike,

I think that your distinction between Simulationism and Narrativism is a bit too simplistic, but that's a topic for another thread.

My take on what Paul describes includes the following points.

1) As I've written in detail elsewhere, to generate "protagonism" in role-playing is not an internally-directed task, but rather directed toward the other humans who are participating. Therefore they have to be somehow engaged in the situation, even if their characters aren't. In Vanilla Narrativism, this is usually accomplished by OOC conversation.

2) Point #1 then leads to the issues raised by Emily Care and Vincent (lumpley), when they point out that their games are not GM-less so much as GM-full, in that everyone acts as GM toward the other players at one time or another, in a more-or-less ongoing trading-off of that role. To me, this seems like a more focused or "honed" version of establishing that #1 point (among other things), in that you're engaged in another player's situation because you're actually presenting it to them.

3) It strikes me that what Paul is describing in Chalk Outlines, is more like GM-less play, and that it carries with it a kind of ... well, isolation, I guess, of generating both the problem and its outcome.  Thus the priority of Point #1 is lost, because you've actually travelled in the opposite direction from Point #2.

Since I'm not too familiar with the system in question, I can only go by what Paul's presented here and in the Pool forum, so all my thoughts are of course limited to speculation.

Best,
Ron
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #3 on: January 09, 2002, 10:03:24 AM »

My bad. I should have said "one difference". Certainly all players of a certain ism cannot be defined by just one simple trait. Still, I think the point is interesting...

As for your argument, yes, its the player interaction that makes it exploratory. Otherwise there is no discovery by the player, just player solo creativity. That was my point. Exploration derives from one player delving into the creation of another (possibly the GMs) and having the subsequent creation of events be more interesting than solo creation. That's what I meant by reaction, creation in response to another player's creation.

Some players seem to seek more of this reaction level play, and others seek more player control and creativity. For Paul, Chalk Outlines seems to have gone over the edge. He'd rather see a little more reaction. Am I close, Paul?

Mike
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Matt Gwinn
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« Reply #4 on: January 09, 2002, 10:25:55 AM »

Moose and I discussed the game a bit further on our way home and discovered that part of our problem may have lied in our attachment to our characters (or lack there of).

I think the fact that we crammed everything into a single session prevented us from really fleshing out our characters.  We had no opportunity to establish a cast of NPCs ahead of time which meant we had to create them on the fly which simply results in more bland characters.

One of the stats on the character sheet is:
You are _______ at your day job

Well, not a one of us knew what our day job was, or at least we didn't voice it in the game.  

As far as the system goes, I liked it alot.  I really like the idea of consessions and the negation of the Whiff Syndrom.  The one thing I didn't care for was the way the scenes needed to be framed.

The rules state, you are only required to have one Lowsy trait (we all had two).  Since the scene framing is based on your Lowsy traits the scenes get repetative and rather boring (I think Paul mentioned this briefly above).  In order to make your character's scenes interesting, he has to be Lowsy at just about everything.

Would it be too much of a change to devise a different way of framing scenes?

,Matt[/b]
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hardcoremoose
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« Reply #5 on: January 09, 2002, 12:28:29 PM »

As a variation of what Matt said, I think part of my problem was my attachment to the other players' characters.

Heist movies aren't about the heists, they're about relationships.  Hell, most things are about relationships.  Heist movies are mostly about the relationships between the members of the crew,and usually those relationships are less than perfect.  And Vincent even says as much in the text of Chalk Outlines.  But the game, as we played it, didn't deliver those interesting relationships.

We tried.  Tom, Matt and I tried hard in one scene to build tension between our characters, but it became clear that we couldn't all emerge as protagonists from such a situation.  It probably didn't help that we only shared two scenes together - a problem that might not have been a problem had we taken more time to play the game.

I'm not sure what the fix is.  Maybe an extra round of scenes where each player is required to develop a connection between their character and another PC.  Other scenes use the skill qualifiers to determine their content - Lousy or Excellent, depending on what stage of the job you're in - so maybe these scenes focus on just the interpersonal skills (Trusting Your Friends, Telling Your Friends from Your Enemies, etc.).  And then provide some rules justification to keep the players from beating the hell out of each other.

And on the issue of time - Chalk Outlines is writen to take up several game sessions.  I think that's a mistake.  This is just my opinion, but as a mission based game with such simple rules and chargen, I see this as a one-shot type deal where whole jobs are planned and carried out in a single session (or maybe two, at most).  Just my opinion, of course.

- Moose
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lumpley
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« Reply #6 on: January 09, 2002, 06:49:22 PM »

Y'all are way too cool.

The game's http://www.septemberquestion.org/lumpley/chalk.html">here, anybody who's curious.  And of course you played it right.  I'll own my own bad game design.

I couldn't be pleaseder that the concession mechanic works.  Sounds like that part went just as I'd hoped.

I'd want to play the game for maybe 6 to 8 hours, which (sadly) is five sessions for me.  Two 3-4 hour sessions would be ideal -- I find in general that two-session one-shots go better than one-session one-shots.  The downtime in the middle is important to my imagination, as a player or GM.

I can't imagine it taking 20 hours or whatever five normal sessions are.

I envisioned more than one PC in every single scene, and definitely the interesting relationships are the ones between the PCs.  The other PCs should be the friends you're lousy at trusting and so on.  The issue of competing protagonism is not one I have a handle on, though.  What if you explicitly de-protagonized all the PCs in a scene but the one PC in question?  Since everybody gets a scene -- well, I'd be willing to play my character as support, knowing that I get a scene of my own.  Maybe not everybody would though.

I'm thinking of Things To Do in Denver when You're Dead, where Jimmy the Saint is clearly the protagonist, except in scenes with other people in his crew (after it's gone so terribly bad).  In those scenes, he's only there to support their protagonism -- he offers them the chance to get away, and they each make ethical/practical/moral/personal decisions to stay.

What did you do with "My usual arrangement is ___, but this time I want ___."?  I intended that to be a (small) nudge toward establishing working relationships between the PCs.

I don't know what to say about the sub-genre problem.  Me, I like really low-level heists -- stealing 15 grand from DeMafioso & Sons Tire Outlet, that kind of thing.  

I'm open to any alternatives for framing scenes, provided everybody gets to play a scene about what they're lousy at.  Any ideas?

What if the GM said "Chaz, I see that you're lousy at your day job, and Carmichael, I see that you're good at telling your friends from you enemies.  Can we have a scene about those?"

Then Chaz and Carmichael would put together the initial setup of the scene.

(I think you guys were framing to too late in the scene.  I want to see whether Moose manages to trust his friends, and what concessions he has to make in order to do so.  I don't want to cut straight to "I don't trust my friends, so..."  It sounds like the bribery/broken nose scene went how I'd hoped.)

But maybe you're right about the player setting up the problem and then resolving it, and what fun is that?

Maybe GMs are good for something after all.  Must mull.

Thanks so much for playing my game.  I feel like christmas morning.  And you give great critique.

-Vincent
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Matt Gwinn
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« Reply #7 on: January 09, 2002, 07:25:05 PM »

Quote
What if you explicitly de-protagonized all the PCs in a scene but the one PC in question? Since everybody gets a scene -- well, I'd be willing to play my character as support, knowing that I get a scene of my own. Maybe not everybody would though.

I think the problem we had here wasn't that we were placing each other in supporting roles, but that we were getting to the point where our characters didn't want to work with each other.  I half expected Moose to take off with the loot at the end and leave us on the ship empty handed.

Quote
What did you do with "My usual arrangement is ___, but this time I want ___."? I intended that to be a (small) nudge toward establishing working relationships between the PCs.

I don't know about everyone else but I had
"My usual arrangemnt is cash on delivery, but this time I want all expenses paid in addition."
NOt that it mattered because it never came up in play because we never established who were were working for.

One question I have, and maybe this is the gamist in me talking, what's to stop someone from having 1 lowsy and everything else excellent?  Aside from it making for a really boring character.
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lumpley
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« Reply #8 on: January 09, 2002, 07:56:53 PM »

Quote
One question I have, and maybe this is the gamist in me talking, what's to stop someone from having 1 lowsy and everything else excellent? Aside from it making for a really boring character.


That one's easy, at least.  Nothing.  My experience is that those players who're prone to making monster characters totally seize up when you tell them they can have every stat at 18 if they want.

In a game like Chalk Outlines, it doesn't matter much anyway.  The stats in question aren't really about in-game effectiveness.  So they're excellent at relationships, their day job, telling their friends from their enemies, and keeping their big mouth shut?  Cool with me.  The brilliant winner of a person with one fatal flaw is as good story-wise as the total loser who's good at only one thing.

Quote
I think the problem we had here wasn't that we were placing each other in supporting roles, but that we were getting to the point where our characters didn't want to work with each other. I half expected Moose to take off with the loot at the end and leave us on the ship empty handed.

Mm.  Rough.  Did you vote at the end?

-Vincent
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contracycle
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« Reply #9 on: January 10, 2002, 05:18:45 AM »

this bastard thing ate my reply!
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contracycle
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« Reply #10 on: January 10, 2002, 05:19:31 AM »

retrieved:

Quote from: hardcoremoose

Heist movies aren't about the heists, they're about relationships.  Hell, most things are about relationships.  Heist movies are mostly about the


Sigh.  Every time I see this stuff I groan out loud.  Let me take this opportunity to throw out some fairly radical claims which, I hope anyway, might shed some light on thise scenario; anyway its how I think about these things.

First off, Heist movies are not about the characters, they are about Heists.  Much of the audience interest is in the characters in exactly the same way the audience interest is in the little hyena or whatever it is happens to be the star of a nature documentary.  IMO this is almost totally the wrong model to apply to RPG's because the audience IS the characters.  And inasmuch as the players have channels to the game world, the widest available channel is their characters emotion, because it operates in sympathy with the players own emotions.  Thus, worrying about the characters emotional relationships or experiences is IMO the very last thing an RPG design or GM needs to worry about; the players WILL do this anyway.

Furthermore, I think it is unhealthy for an RPG to be PRIMARILY concerned with these matters.  Looking at the description of the session above, it's almost exactly the kind of experience that poisons people against narrativism - a bunch of people wandering about in an essentially formless landscape managing at best something as solipsistic as waiting for godot.  I think this perception arises from the fundamentally correct, albeit tacit, recognition that protagonism comes from situation at least as much, and almost certainly much more IMO, than interaction with other characters.  Indeed, in most narratives the bit parts are not really "characters" so much as "situation".

It does not surprise me at all that the characters were de-protagonising each other; who and what else did they have to interact with?  They didn't even know who they worked for!!!  They were, it seems to me, totally divorced from any kind of situation which would encourage, indeed force, protagonism on their parts.  Like a Big Brother set, trapped in a confined space with no-one but themselves, what can they do but snipe?  Indeed, the only available context against which a characters own protagonism can be defined is the presence, and by implication protagonism, of the other characters.  Worse yet, given that much of the setting definition has been placed in the hands of the players, it seems to me that very few of their own actions can be in any sense protagonising because there is no tension, no danger, no risk; even if such a scene resulted in a characters death, it would contain no tension.

Furthermore, the game appears to be stablished to address the question: what determines a "good" criminal and a "bad" criminal , but how is this to occur?  In a movie we might see a character who refuses to shoot their hated enemy, thus giving them humanity kudos withou disqualifying their criminality.  But why?  Why is it important, why did it occur?  From the directers perspective, to expose the character to the audience; but in RPG, the player already knew that about the character; the scene has no dramatic function in temrs of that player.  It might be expository to other players, but does not protagonise them; it protagonises the one character for whom all this is old news.

Fundamentally, people are not a free-floating emotions which interact in some pure abstract space; they exist in a real physical space of which there emotional responses are interpretations.  Emotions are the symptom; not the cause - ton construct a game based on emoting as the primary means of self expression is IMO doomed.  What protagonism really requires is action, challenge, confrontation - that these be experienced, not merely portrayed.


Each angry word
Every cynical put-down
Every song is carefully born
From a hope of something better to come
All jumbled-up
Love and hate and love
Each prompted by the other
For the cause of peace we have to go to war
Refusing to sleep
Whilst there's a world to win
Yet happy to dream
Dreams make the plans to change this world
Not just some future heaven
But today and every day
In our place of work
In the queue for the metro bus

- Chumbawumba
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #11 on: January 10, 2002, 08:52:33 AM »

Hey Gareth,

Nice post.

In a movie we might see a character who refuses to shoot their hated enemy, thus giving them humanity kudos without disqualifying their criminality. But why? Why is it important, why did it occur? From the directers perspective, to expose the character to the audience; but in RPG, the player already knew that about the character; the scene has no dramatic function in terms of that player. It might be expository to other players, but does not protagonise them; it protagonises the one character for whom all this is old news.

The perspective embedded in this is that a character, once created by the player, exists to be revealed through play. This isn't how a Narrativist thinks about their characters. A Narrativist is looking for play to be a character authoring experience. The Narrativist player isn't revealing a character, he's creating the character during play. It's why Kickers are so beloved of Narrativists. They sort of tear down the character at the beginning of the scenario, and get the ground ready for rebuilding. Strewn about the ground are pieces of the character that the audience remembers from the group character creation session. The game will be about seeing just what new stuff gets added and what old stuff gets preserved in the rebuilding. And the building process is just as likely to be surprising to the character's owner as to the GM and the other players.

That's why I agree with you about the importance of situation. The player needs situation to force the character authoring experience down at least a marginally different path than what he envisions created the pre-Kicker version of the character. But underlying this is probably the belief that if the obstacles faced during the rebuild are just dispassionate circumstances, not hateful, or personal, or emotional, then a character, just like a real person, grits his teeth and continues on the path of being again who he was before. So the reason Narrativists talk about relationships so much is because they believe ties of kinship and ties of love will push and pull at the character during the rebuilding process in ways that drive audience interest in the player's authoring of how things turn out.


Paul
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« Reply #12 on: January 10, 2002, 08:54:15 AM »

Wow. Well said, gareth.

I might not have gone as far, but I've been thinking the same thing for quite a while now. Nothing wrong with character emotion, but without significant context that includes things other than just relationships, it does seem a bit flat for me. Hell, it sometimes makes me darned uncomfortable to just dwell on such touchy-feely stuff. As Gareth said, I can feel for my character just fine, thankyouverymuch.

In addition, I do watch heist movies for the heists, action movies for the action, play fantasy games for the spells. In short I have other interests than just people. Lots in fact. I think that the Narrativist movement has gone overboard a bit, not so much in valuing relationships, but in dismissing everything else as relatively unimportant.

As Jared has said, (paraphrasing heavily) RPGs should be about creating the sort of action that is interesting with regard to the setting. That includes a lot beyond just relationships it seems to me.

Mike
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #13 on: January 10, 2002, 09:03:59 AM »

Quote from: Paul Czege

The perspective embedded in this is that a character, once created by the player, exists to be revealed through play.

Why? Because a player like Gareth sees no point in displaying his character's emotional state to the group the character must be static? How does that make any sense?

Quote

That's why I agree with you about the importance of situation. The player needs situation to force the character authoring experience down at least a marginally different path than what he envisions created the pre-Kicker version of the character.

That reaction I spoke of. As you say, in a vacuum the character would be static.

Quote

But underlying this is probably the belief that if the obstacles faced during the rebuild are just dispassionate circumstances, not hateful, or personal, or emotional, then a character, just like a real person, grits his teeth and continues on the path of being again who he was before. So the reason Narrativists talk about relationships so much is because they believe ties of kinship and ties of love will push and pull at the character during the rebuilding process in ways that drive audience interest in the player's authoring of how things turn out.

I'd say relationships are powerful this way, yes, but not the end-all. A character can be dynamic due to setting or situation. I think that player metality has much more to do with that than what the character encounters.

This also leads to another question (possibly needing it's own thread). How much is a player responsible for displaying their character's protagonism openly in order to "entertain" other players? If he's having fun by himself internalizing his character's protagonism, but doesn't go out of his way to make it visible, is he playing poorly? I'd think this is a social contract issue, no?

Mike
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« Reply #14 on: January 10, 2002, 09:21:15 AM »

Solid points going on here. Gareth, I really like your post.

As I've said many times, Narrativism comes in flavors and different starting-points. "Character," in the sense of either pre-play creation or during-play development, is only one topic to emphasize. Situation does seem to be the place/thing in which the other factors all come together.

I think that no one of the five "basic" elements Setting, Situation, Character, or even Color can be totally ignored when you get into actual play, not for any role-playing I can think of. And I also think that (say) Setting may certainly be more powerful or prevalent toward generating Premise than Character is, in many types of Narrativist play.

Best,
Ron
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