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Author Topic: Narrativism and the Impact Character  (Read 15186 times)
Alan
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« on: August 12, 2004, 02:05:54 PM »

I've recently learned some fiction theory that I think might be useful when thinking about narrativist role-playing and game design.

First a disclaimer: the following is specific to this one theory (from a writing program called Dramatica) and I make no claims that it, or the definitions that follow are those accepted by litcrit or even the dictionary.

Definitions:

Protagonist - the character who drives the overall story.

Main Character - the focus character, through whom we interpret most of the story.

Hero - A main character who is also the protagonist.

Impact Character - a character in roughly the same situation as the main character,
    demonstrating different responses.  The main character's interactions with the
    impact character lead to one of them changing in a way that affects the overall story.

Antagonist - the opposition to the protagonist's goal.

M/I Throughline - the conflict between the Main Character and the Impact Character
       that leads one of them to change.


EXAMPLES

If we take Star Wars: A New Hope, we can see that Luke Skywalker is both protagonist (the one who achieves the overall story goal) and main character (the point of view character.).  Obi Wan is his impact character, leading Luke to change, accepting the Force as a guide.  The Empire is the antagonist.

In Gattaca Jude Law is the impact character, Ethan Hawk is the main character and protagonist, and the antagonist is The Company or society.  In this case, it's the impact character, Jude Law, who changes, giving up his life, so Ethan can achieve his dream.  

Separation of MC and protagonist doesn't happen often in SF movies.  For that, take a look at To Kill a Mockingbird, where Atticus (Gregory Peck) is the protagonist and his daughter Scout is main character.  In many Sherlock Holmes short stories, Watson is main character and Holmes the impact character and protagonist; Watson is the one who changes/learns at the end.


SEPARATION OF ROLES

One interesting element his the separation of the functions of protagonist and antogonist from those of main character and impact character.  In fiction the protagonist does not have to be the main character (and likewise for antagonist and impact character), though in heroic fiction (especially SF and fantasy) they do tend to be the same.  

This separation of roles might apply to RPG theory.  Perhaps satisfying narrativist play requires that a player be given the role of protagonist as well as main character, while simulationist play only requires the player to be main character, leaving protagonist to the _character_ - ie the player character's protagonistic role is incidental to simulationist emphasis on exploration.  I have no theories about gamist play right now.


MAIN / IMPACT CHARACTER IN SORCERER

The most interesting part of Dramatica theory as it applies to role-playing - specifically narrativist play - is the main vs impact character relationship.  The two characters interact throughout the story, leading one of the two to change for better or worse.

I think we can see this formalized as a mechanic in many narrativist designs.  In Sorcerer, each PC is bonded to his demons, in My Life With Master, there's the relationship with Master, and in Trollbabe the relationship mechanic might provide a framework for this.  

Any mechanic that sets up a thematically-evaluated relationship dynamic can produce this effect.
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- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: August 12, 2004, 03:16:35 PM »

Hello,

Christopher Kubasik once explained to me how demons in Sorcerer were built-in Impact Characters, although I don't remember whether he used this specific vocabulary or reference.

Best,
Ron
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #2 on: August 12, 2004, 06:10:03 PM »

Hi Alan,

Have you seen this http://indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=1498">earlier Forge discussion of Dramatica?

And I did actually try the notions I theorized about on that thread, http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=2536">with inconclusive results.

Paul
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My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans
Alan
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« Reply #3 on: August 13, 2004, 08:42:22 AM »

Hi Paul and Ron,

Quote from: Paul Czege
Have you seen this http://indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=1498">earlier Forge discussion of Dramatica?

And I did actually try the notions I theorized about on that thread, http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=2536">with inconclusive results.


No, I hadn't seen that.  I've just read those threads.

As a general response to the discussion on Dramatica theory, I notice the thread focused on the ability of the program to create a structure of point-counterpoint thematic points - and on archetypes (protagonist, antagonist, skeptic, etc.)


THEMATIC STRUCTURE

Dramatica has an intricate process of determining which theme or element of theme is appropriate for a particular stage in a story.  This is fine for writing fiction, but it would be restrictive for the improvisational process of RPG play.  In addition, as the Dramatica book does say somewhere, the program is merely laying thematic details that people will tend to expect - and the other side of that coin as applied to RPG play, is that players will think of many themselves and tend to use them when appropriate.  

In fact, this may explain the moments that feel "right" - they're particularly on the theme appropriate to that moment.  I wouldn't want to try to structuralize that process in RPG play, though - I think finding them in play is a great deal of the fun and art of narrativist play.  

However, perhaps at the highest level, the thematic act structure might be codified in an RPG rule set.  I'll post this idea separately later.  


ARCHETYPES

A clarification: there are two categories of terms in this theory: archetypes (like Protagonist, Antagonist, Contagonist, etc.) and structural roles (Main Character, Impact Character).  They can be assigned separately.  In an RPG, I think that assigning structural roles is more productive.  Archetypes, because we all subconsciously know them, tend to take care of themselves in RPG play.

(BTW Dramatica does recognize that archetypes are only one way to define character.  Each archetype is actual a confluence of other sub elements that work together to produce the recognizable stereotype.  If we mix the sub elements, we get complex characters that don't quite act as we expect.  A simple example is Tinman and Scarecrow in Wizard of Oz.  "Emotion" archetype has the traits emotion and uncontrolled, while "Reason" has logic and control.  However, these two characters have swapped traits: Tinman is emotion and control; Scarecrow is logic and uncontrolled.)

Also consider that archetypal roles are relative to one another.  A character may be someone's antagonist, but not have that archetype to another character.  

I would suggest rules that create ties between characters but which allow the players to detail and develop those relationships.  This would allow players the artistic freedom to paint our their own versions or variations of archetypes.  Underneath that however, certain structural roles could be codified:


MAIN / IMPACT CHARACTER RELATIONSHIP in RPGs

I notice in Paul's the World, the Flesh, and the Devil thread that he mentioned giving his players impact characters.  I wonder who designed those characters.  The fine points of whatever themes interest the player may not yet be fully stated or conscious, so how could the GM guess right consistently, even with a fancy theme engine like the Dramatica program?  A GM who creates a character hoping it will become a player's impact character is taking a crap shoot.  

I notice that in both Sorcerer and My Life With Master, it is the players who create the creatures they're bound to: demons in one, and the Master in the other.  I think this allows the players to inject meaning into the relationship.  

Alternately, in Riddle of Steel, while players rarely create their NPCs, they can use Spiritual Attributes to bind their characters to the NPCs they find most interesting, and bind them around an issue that interests them.


SATISFYING NARRATIVIST PLAY

So I would speculate that good satisfying narrativist play provides ways for the player to establish whom a relationship is with and what the relationship is about, and reinforces that with rewards.  In some designs, the rule structure enforces a system of pairing PC and NPC such that one or the other must change in some way over the process of play. This is the definition of an Impact Character - the one who makes you change in a way that is most important to the story, or who is changed.

So far, in Sorcerer and MLWM, I've seen mechanisms for Impact Characters established at the start.  I haven't actually read a design that lets players designate an Impact Character as a particular special relationship in process.  Trollbabe and The Riddle of Steel both let you tie yourself to NPCs, but leave the rest to play.  Perhaps someone will experiment with starting with a framework like that, then letting players designate an Impact Character.
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A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com
Alan
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« Reply #4 on: August 13, 2004, 08:44:49 AM »

DRAMATICA ACT STRUCTURE

At the highest level, Dramatica theory says that a compete story is explored from four perspectives: the Overall Story, the Main Character story, the Impact character story, and the Main vs Impact Character struggle.  

There are also four thematic Realms: Situation in opposition to Fixed Attitude; and Action opposite Psychology.  You can see this as a quad, with oppisites at diagonals:

Situation | Action
Psychology| Fixed Attitude

Each of the four stories explores one of the four Realms.

For example, in Star Wars IV,

Overall story: Action - fighting the empire.
Main character story: Situation - farmboy discovers he's tied up in all this somehow.
Impact character: Fixed Attitude - obi wan has definite views on the struggle,
                                    but has been asked to return to it.
Main v Impact: Psychology - obi wan prepares luke for his greater role in the battle.

(There's rules for point-counterpoint in all this: the Overall story is always the opposite Realm from the Main v Impact story, and Main and Impact character are always in opposite Realms.)

So we get four sub-stories (called throughlines) woven together to make the greater story.


HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO RPGS?

Two ways:

First, it confirms the difficulty of defining a single theme or premise.  A good story looks at issues from several different angles, having slightly different themes and issues in each sub story.  I think for this reason, Ron likes to pose Premise as a question - it allows the players to answer in different ways, but provides a hub around which the answers turn.

Second, this suggests some ideas for RPG design.  For example, the design might allow the group to designate ocerall story to one Realm, then choose main character realms.  Eg: a particular story arc might be designated as being Action in overall story. The players could choose either Situation or Fixed Attitude as their player character's role.  

As I think an RPG is action a multiple main character process, I would allow more than one PC in a quadrant (eg two or three in Situation).  Now in Dramatica theory, the character in the opposite quad is the Impact Character.  But as I suspect all players think of their PC as main character, this could be flexible.  NPCs could fill these roles instead.  Dramatica has nothing against multiple stories running simultaneously - it just isn't efficient for fiction or screenplay.

So now you have characters designated in different quadrants.  You also have an overall story quadrant.  Each PC might have two layers of reward mechanics: one for addressing the overall story quad and one for address his chosen PC quad.  I think you'd need a rule for each player to designate an Impact Character.  Then given all that, I think that the Main v Impact character interaction would develop naturally.

What kind of things is rewarded would be determined by Quad.  Perhaps the group choose the nature of the overall story and agrees on an evaluation standard (like a humanity standard) for it.  Then the players would detail their main character categories and sets their standard of evaluation:

Situation - What the sitation is.  

Action - What actions are required.

Psychology - addressing internal change or external manipulation.

Fixed Attitude - fixed inernal terrain of mind.  What is it?


Whew!  That's enough for now.
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- Alan

A Writer's Blog: http://www.alanbarclay.com
Paul Czege
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« Reply #5 on: August 13, 2004, 09:17:42 AM »

Hey Alan,

I notice in Paul's the World, the Flesh, and the Devil thread that he mentioned giving his players impact characters. I wonder who designed those characters. The fine points of whatever themes interest the player may not yet be fully stated or conscious, so how could the GM guess right consistently, even with a fancy theme engine like the Dramatica program? A GM who creates a character hoping it will become a player's impact character is taking a crap shoot.

I created the Impact characters...but they were based on the Trials and Annotations written by the players. I already knew from playing Sorcerer and other games that satisfying narrativist play could be produced from player created NPCs: lacking full articulation of thematic interests, everyone interpolates those interests just fine from the articulated relationship. The question in my mind that drove the experiment was whether the reverse was also true: that an understanding of story (as Dramatica understands it) is embedded in us all such that relationships with NPCs created by a GM in Dramatica-defined archetypal relationships to the more fully stated themes of The World, the Flesh, and the Devil's Annotations and Trials would be interpolated in story-relevant ways in play. Would a player unconsciously recognize and adopt a sidekick, or fall naturally into self-doubt when conversing with a contagonist? In light of The World, the Flesh, and the Devil's mechanical issues, I think the results were inconclusive. At some point I need to try again...quite probably with Vin Diakuw's http://members.fortunecity.com/vindiakuw/reverseRPG.htm">Reverse RPG rules.

Paul
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My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans
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