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Author Topic: Character design from the eyes of a 5 year old  (Read 18852 times)
TheTris
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« on: November 29, 2005, 04:39:05 AM »

Reviewing most (all?) of the systems I know, character design is approached from what seems like the view of an child looking at the character in question.  My example:

daddy is "Safe, Fat, Bearded"
Uncle Vernon is "Scary, Tall, Loud"
Mikael the Swordsaint is "Good with a sword, Tough, Mysterious"

Although some systems are less obvious, they still largely seem to compromise the character's wholeness by approaching the character as if looking at it from that childlike point of view where you haven't yet realised that everyone else is also a compete person, not just animated and interesting scenery.

Does anyone else draw their self image from concepts like "Bearded" or "Good with swords".  Or even "Good at RPG design"?  One of mine is probably "I'm a nice guy", which sounds innocuous, but drives quite a lot of emergent behaviour.  Another is probably "I'm clever" which is perhaps less 'good' and leads to me being quite aggressive in arguments, if I'm not careful.  I think there are fairly destructive counters to these self beliefs, like "Noone could ever love me".

I don't think the character has to be aware of these...beliefs?

Is there a useful way to begin creating characters from the point of view of an adult looking at that character, so that we realise they are fully formed?  It seems to me that there are great benefits to being able to do this in line with character generation, am I in a minority?

Okay, those are some fairly half formed thoughts which came from a program about a psychoanalyst profiling hitler, and playing with my flatmate's 5 year old kid.  Lets kick those ideas about a bit :-)
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My real name is Tristan
Matt Machell
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« Reply #1 on: November 29, 2005, 04:43:10 AM »

I reckon there'll be a stampede to point it out, but, have you looked at Burning Wheel?

It's system of Beliefs, Instincts and Traits does exactly what you're looking for, and is built directly into the character generation.

-Matt
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TheTris
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« Reply #2 on: November 29, 2005, 05:20:24 AM »

I have indeed looked at Burning Wheel, (actually it was the first thing that sprang to mind when I started this line of thought) and at the moment I think it still seems to address the external manifestations of the character, rather than the rounded character in completeness.

I think a belief of (for instance) "I will rule this city from the iron tower" or "my sister is the first rung on this ladder, climb her" is fully formed and expressed by the character, and it seems beliefs as described in the burning wheel fit this pattern of giving the outside view of the character.

To illustrate this point, I think that a character with those beliefs could have two very different *core*? descriptions which shed light on the actual character more than the beliefs would.

(My family love me) (I work to better the lot of all people) -->

(I'm not worthy of love) (I am the saviour of my race) (I have power and respect) -->

These could both inform the same Burning Wheel beliefs and instincts, but the characters they describe are fundamentally extremely different.  They may both want to rule the city from the iron tower, and may both belief their sister is the first step on the path upwards.  The second may not even realise that he has the doubt, but it will define his more conscious beliefs and the ways he acts on them.

I hope I'm making sense.  I do think the Burning Wheel system of beliefs and instincts is great, but I don't believe it does what I'm talking about.
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #3 on: November 29, 2005, 05:25:30 AM »

Also worth looking at would be Over the Edge.

yrs--
--Ben
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TheTris
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« Reply #4 on: November 29, 2005, 05:34:52 AM »

I'm curious (and trying to provoke discussion :-)  how does Over the Edge handle this concept of character?
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My real name is Tristan
Victor Gijsbers
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« Reply #5 on: November 29, 2005, 05:44:09 AM »

I was very much impressed by character creation in Breaking the Ice. A player writes down the favourite colour of his/her character. Using free association, he/she writes down another word, and links it up with the colour. Now the second player takes a turn, and again by free association thinks up a word that is related to either of the previous two. It is written down and connected with one of the other words. And so on, until 13 words have been written down.

Now, for use in the game mechanics, you have to write down explicit traits for your character, using the web of words as inspiration. But the web of words always remains on your character sheet, and I found that it takes on all kinds of meaning while you are playing the game. It's just some words; there are no propositions involved. And that is exactly what makes it deep and rich and a constant source of inspiration: it contains more meaning than you could ever extract from it. For me, at least, it generated a sense of my character being a real person.

We do not think of ourselves in terms of a set of proposition. We know that we are far too rich to be captured in some explicit statements. Yet most roleplaying games do define characters that way. Is this line of thought comparable to yours?
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TheTris
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« Reply #6 on: November 29, 2005, 05:54:51 AM »

A cautious yes.

Because I really dig what you could get out of having those words written, sort of providing depth beyond what you have envisioned for your character at the start of play, if I'm reading you right.  And then what I'm trying to define seems to be a system that lets you try to describe a character with a few phrases, but tries to work from a different perspective than games I've seen.

So I think I get what you are saying, and think it's a cool idea, and I do agree that you can't define a whole person with a few phrases.  On the other hand I'd love to have a system where you can define as much as possible with a few phrases, and that gets behind what a child might see "that's an ugly man who gives me sweets and fights bad guys" to what that character might not even know about himself "I get my self worth from being nice to kids, being respected in the community and my skill at the blade"
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #7 on: November 29, 2005, 12:16:54 PM »

Tris, I think it might be worthwhile for you to distinguish between a character being played and a [/i]character on a sheet[/i].

Equating the character sheet and its traits and stats and whatnot with the character is a very easy and common error, as is the assumption that a character 'springs from' the character sheet, that characters are somehow character stats given motion.  Ideally, it's the other way around -- a character sheet is a shorthand way that we encode a limited portion of what the character is, but the character needs to come first.  The character sheet is based on the character, not the other way around.

All those good, juicy, engaging character traits and beliefs that you're talking about are very possible -- they just don't need to be on the character sheet.  In fact, I'm skeptical of their ability to be encoded in short descriptive phrases and numbers.  They're far more complex, squishy, subjective things, and they're best expressed through roleplay.
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Andrew Morris
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« Reply #8 on: November 29, 2005, 12:46:21 PM »

Have you looked at Dogs in the Vineyard? Because you could quite easily have traits like "I'm a good person" and "I protect my people" and similar ones. One of my current players has the trait "Y'all are supposed to listen to me" and another has "I know I'm not worthy of my position." Sound like what you're looking for?
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lumpley
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« Reply #9 on: November 29, 2005, 01:30:22 PM »

I'm going to go Joshua one further and say that your character only ever exists in your head and the heads of your fellow players - in what your group says and does and thinks and feels. The stuff on your "character" sheet isn't about your character at all - it's stuff that you, the real live player, have at your disposal when it comes time to decide how the game's going to go.

In lots of games, the stuff on your "character" sheet is named after stuff that's true of your character - but that's a coincidence or a mnemonic device, there's no genuine connection between them.

(And in lots of games, the stuff on your "character" sheet isn't useful to you when it comes time to decide how the game's going to go - it's empty nothing that happens to be named after stuff that's true of your character. We call those games "poorly designed" or, if you prefer, "crappy.")

This, by the way, is a simple restatement of the so-called Lumpley Principle.

-Vincent
Lookie me! I'm a frickin' PRINciple.
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TheTris
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« Reply #10 on: November 30, 2005, 01:34:09 AM »

Andrew - yes it does, I'm talking about exactly some of those traits, but explicitly made part of character creation, so all characters have internal motivations.

Joshua/Vincent - I agree with what you are saying, if I'm reading it correctly.  I don't think you can ever have your character written out in full on a piece of paper, if you are playing more than just "Fighter #3".  I do think that this begs the question "Why have character sheets?"  To me it seems that they are a way of helping set down the character you are playing, to help you get to know them and their abilities.

If this is true, and a defined (and well designed) character generation process is desirable in a game, then I can't find a reason why exploring the roots of the character's psyche isn't a good idea.

Scratch that - it does depend on what I want to play.  My first ever character was a pawn.  I can remember his name and class, and some of his abilities, but he didn't really have any character.  I've found roleplaying more satisfying trying to portray characters with character, and I think that's what is driving this suggestion.  IF you are playing a game where you bother writing down your characters externalised beliefs, why not try to suggest where they have come from?
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My real name is Tristan
Victor Gijsbers
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« Reply #11 on: November 30, 2005, 01:55:38 AM »

All those good, juicy, engaging character traits and beliefs that you're talking about are very possible -- they just don't need to be on the character sheet.  In fact, I'm skeptical of their ability to be encoded in short descriptive phrases and numbers.  They're far more complex, squishy, subjective things, and they're best expressed through roleplay.

I'd say it's the task of a good RPG designer, given that he wants characters in his game to have these kinds of traits and beliefs, to ensure that they do - and a carefully designed character sheet might well be one of the most powerful tools available to her. The strong distinction you postulate between 'character sheet' and 'roleplay' does remind me of the old system versus roleplaying debate, which I'm sure we've all left far behind.

I'm going to go Joshua one further and say that your character only ever exists in your head and the heads of your fellow players - in what your group says and does and thinks and feels. The stuff on your "character" sheet isn't about your character at all - it's stuff that you, the real live player, have at your disposal when it comes time to decide how the game's going to go.

I think this matter is far more subtle than you make it out to be. The lumpley principle ("System is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.") certainly doesn't imply an ontology of characters. This is perhaps not the thread in which we should discuss this, but I'd nevertheless like to give a few counterexamples to your claim.

First, assume that we are playing a mystery game in which one of the player characters has committed a murder. None of the players know, as yet, whom the murderer is. However, each of the character sheets has a hidden part on which it says whether the character is innocent or the murderer. Also, the players have decided, beforehand, that this hidden part of the character sheet will at some point be revealed and is then authoritative with respect to pointing out the murderer. It seems very reasonable to say that it has already been determined which of the characters is the murderer; that it is therefore already fictionally true that one specific character has committed the murder. And yet none of the players knows who the murderer is. This truth about the character is only stated in the sheet. (Yet, because of the agreement, it is a truth about the character.)

Second, assume that you send me a character sheet used in your latest Dogs in the Vineyard game. According to your claims, upon receiving this piece of paper I still know absolutely nothing about your character. (Because the sheet "isn't about your character at all".) But this is simply not true. Given that I know the system of social conventions in which this artifact was produced - and I know this system, because it has been described in detail in a little book I own - I can deduce all kinds of things about the character just by looking at the sheet. There is no way I can have direct access to what was going on in the minds of you and your group - and yet I can get to know your character.

Hence I think it is too simplistic to say that characters only exist in the mind, and have no basis in the material of the character sheet.
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Andrew Morris
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« Reply #12 on: November 30, 2005, 06:57:27 AM »

I'm talking about exactly some of those traits, but explicitly made part of character creation, so all characters have internal motivations.

Okay. I'm not completely sure I'm understanding exactly what it is you're looking for, but I think I'm getting closer. Something with traits like those in Dogs in the Vineyard, but with the requirement that they be character motivations? If that's the case, the closest thing I can think of is actually a LARP system still under development by Adam Cierling (WhiteRat on these forums). It's called Ends and Means, and characters are made up of Ends (goals) and Means (personality traits, attitudes, and skills). Just because it's designed to be played as a LARP doesn't mean you can't use the system for a table-top game, however). Here are some links for Ends and Means: [Ends and Means] Debut, [Ends and Means] Werewolves in L.A., [Ends and Means] Memorial Day Playtest, [Ends and Means] King Lothian's Court.

Of course, either DitV or Ends and Means could be adapted to your needs by simply making a rule that traits must express personality or motivations or whatever it is that you're looking for exactly.
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lumpley
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« Reply #13 on: November 30, 2005, 08:58:25 AM »

Joshua/Vincent - I agree with what you are saying, if I'm reading it correctly. I don't think you can ever have your character written out in full on a piece of paper, if you are playing more than just "Fighter #3". I do think that this begs the question "Why have character sheets?" To me it seems that they are a way of helping set down the character you are playing, to help you get to know them and their abilities.

If this is true, and a defined (and well designed) character generation process is desirable in a game, then I can't find a reason why exploring the roots of the character's psyche isn't a good idea.

Scratch that - it does depend on what I want to play. My first ever character was a pawn. I can remember his name and class, and some of his abilities, but he didn't really have any character. I've found roleplaying more satisfying trying to portray characters with character, and I think that's what is driving this suggestion. IF you are playing a game where you bother writing down your characters externalised beliefs, why not try to suggest where they have come from?

Awesome questions.

What's your name, by the way?

Here's where I'm going to zoom in on you: To me it seems that they are a way of helping set down the character you are playing, to help you get to know them and their abilities.

That's half of the answer. That's the half of the answer that, in fact, you don't need a character sheet for. You can do just as well setting down your character and getting to know them with a notebook, or 3x5 cards, or a blog, or sketch paper, or whatever's handy.

The other half of the answer is that your character sheet contains your resources as a player of the game. If your resources as a player of the game aren't super simple, you oughta write them down, in a format that helps you a) find them easily and b) remember how to use them.

Now, historically, lots and lots of games have bobbled this. They've conflated these two in-principle-unrelated processes: imagining a fictional person and establishing a starting position for the player. What you have on your character sheet in those games is all kinds of random crap, some useful some not, some inspiring some not, some simply a record of how you got to the next thing.

So far so good?

[To me:] This is perhaps not the thread in which we should discuss this, but I'd nevertheless like to give a few counterexamples to your claim.
...
Hence I think it is too simplistic to say that characters only exist in the mind, and have no basis in the material of the character sheet.

If my answer to TheTris doesn't make you go "oh, right, I see," then yes, start a new thread.

You say "too simplistic," I say "a necessary starting point."

-Vincent
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #14 on: November 30, 2005, 09:30:31 AM »

Vincent, while I first read your reply and nodded, I think you're reducing the character sheet to its core function and discarding its other potential uses as an artifact.  You are absolutely correct that character stats, as tools of credibility, relate directly to player power.  Hands down, the character sheet therefore presents a laundry list of player tools.  However, there's nothing to say that the expression of those tools can't also be evocative of the fictional content.  Having five coins to spend on actions and having Master Ninja 5d6 might be functionally the same in terms of how the player can affect the fiction, but the latter can certainly help inform the player (and the other players) about the character and world he's situated in whereas the five coins do not.  It's the difference between playing GURPS Swashbucklers where I have the same exact stats as when I play GURPS Traveller, or playing 7th Sea where I have a stats like Panache and Finesse -- it does lend play a certain feel which cannot be completely overlooked.

I also like making custom character sheets for specific campaigns; when we ran Riverworld I made a character sheet with little pictures of grailstone, ujoj, flint knives, and the like, so that everybody around the table had a similar conception of what these things looked like.  While this has little to do with character design as the OP presented, it is sort of an exagerrated example of the potential evocative quality of content presented on the character sheet.

So: character sheet as list of player tools?  Yes, definitionally.  Character sheet as evocative of character's psyche and fictional world?  Yes, possibly.  Character sheet as exhaustive description of entire character?  No, impossible.
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