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TSoY, Solar System, and supporting characters

Started by Paul T, April 09, 2010, 04:20:05 PM

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Paul T


In an Actual Play thread about transitioning from "mission-based play", you wrote:

Quote(Note that you can't do this in all games; TSoY allows this due to the game's traditional flexibility in set-up, while something like Sorcerer won't really be equipped to give a sidekick player a meaningful interface into the game.) [...] This sort of thing is perfectly feasible in TSoY or Solar System due to how the game already supports both sidekick characters and protagonists.

Can you explain how TSoY/SS differs from other games, and what about its design makes possible to use both sidekick characters and protagonists? What aspects of other designs interfere with this kind of play, and how are they lacking in TSoY/SS?

That comment really sparked my interest, and I'm curious to hear what you have to say on the subject!



Eero Tuovinen

This is actually pretty straightforward: some games have strong assumptions about the roles of the players, while others have more flexibility in it. Sorcerer is a good example here because its character creation procedures strongly presuppose the existence of a creative drive and associated basic skills; to create a character in Sorcerer means being able to phrase such things as the Price of sorcery and the Kicker and the story bull's-eye at the back of the sheet. All of those choices become shallow mockery or empty ritual if a player actually lacks the creative commitment to playing a protagonist in the dramatic sense.

This will also be evident in play: consider the effects of having a non-protagonistic player character running around in Sorcerer, flinging demons left and right and having an impact on the situation without actually having meaning behind that impact. I haven't had this specific situation in Sorcerer myself, but I've had it in similar games, and it's not pretty: it seems to me that players who don't want to play protagonists usually replace the associated drive with a vague sort of interference; they'll grief other player characters or NPCs, or latch to the first NPC demand made of them as a mission to accomplish, and pride themselves on how their character cannot be touched by anything, especially emotionally. In my experience this sort of thing will devolve into highly complex mechanical execution that does not have comparable thematic drive behind it, as the player doesn't really understand or want emotional commitment in what his character does. That is a clear problem in a game that procedurally doesn't prepare the GM to handle it - playing by the book, a Sorcerer GM (or Dust Devils Dealer or MLwM GM or any number of other game roles from games that presuppose creative harmony) will strive to support the player character's empowerment and problematize his choices, which will only make the disruption of valid play happening with other players worse. You can't even do much about this in a game like this even if you realize what is going on, as the game's system is uncompromising in driving the player character to power - you can't stop a Sorcerer player character from summoning demons, for instance.

In comparison, Solar System is a much more toolbox-like in what it does; there is advice in all versions of the game text on how to go about character creation and such, but the game's procedures and mechanics do not actually enforce placing player characters in protagonist-like situations and roles. It's still possible to make a mess of it (and Lord, I've done it plenty enough times before figuring out how to deal with sidekick players), but the game's rules and procedures do not require it. Specifically, it is entirely feasible to deck a sidekick player character in SS with a couple of harmless Keys (Key of Cheese in World of Near is an example of the epiphany I had on this after a campaing we played with a particularly uneven group of teenagers last spring), a cool Secret or two and a strong relationship with a more purposeful player character, with the understanding that this character's deal will be to follow the real protagonist around, provide some comic relief and act as a tool for the dominant character. The player will be happy to have a valid role in the game, everybody else will be happy to not have the player mess with the meat of play, and nobody has to be driven out of the group for the game to succeed. The best part is that sidekick characters actually often develop to have valid themes themselves if you have the time and patience to work with the player at his own pace. The sidekick role will act to orient the character and shield him from the full pressure of the game's events while you and the player figure out whether his role in the campaign can extend beyond being Watson to another player's Holmes.

A striking example of the distinct design choices in Sorcerer and Solar System is the role of the Kicker: if you read the Solar System booklet, you'll find that I basically tell the player to write a Kicker, except if they don't feel up to it, in which case the GM'll take care of tying the character into the campaign. This wishy-washiness is basically because of the different roles of these game texts: Sorcerer is didactic and it presupposes a certain unified creative agenda, while SS is a toolbox that assumes a GM already working more or less within the tradition it espouses. The latter is a more humane approach in that it assumes that the GM will have to be flexible and adapt the game to the needs of the players anyway.

I should add that I do not advocate sidekickery in this sense as a good thing, per se; I see this more as a practical real-world condition that many of us have to struggle with in our roleplaying. The fact is that while many of the games we play would work better with an uniform group that shares skills and creative drive, in practice we sometimes have to play with groups that are more uneven. My own experience is that the clueless player can still participate in a successful game, and he'll participate better, if we accept that his role is complementary to protagonism instead of being a protagonist himself.

Incidentally: I don't have enough Sorcerer experience to say, but if I had to start another Sorcerer campaign with an uneven player base, I would today quite seriously consider giving the weaker players some demons to play. They could have their own character sheets that make clear their goals and responsibilities, and the players would probably enjoy getting to do dramatic dialogues and acting badd-ass with hell-powers. Getting to turn on the sorcerer player(s) when the GM gives the word would also be a definite plus, I imagine. What the demons do in Sorcerer is in many ways a reflection of traditional player roles in how simple and straightforward their activity is.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Paul T


That makes a whole lot of sense. I also like the suggestion to let "sidekick" players play Demons in Sorcerer.

Are there any things in particular to watch out for when running Solar System for a mix of protagonist and sidekick characters? Any rules challenges, scene framing challenges?

In particular, you mention Key selection, which I imagine might be an important aspect of rule application in such a game group.

Finally, how easy is that to handle socially? I have a feeling that many players who would be happy playing sidekick characters would be offended or deny that fact if it were brought into the open. How has it looked for you in your games? What kinds of conversation helped, and what kinds didn't?

I'm excited to hear more about this concept!

Eero Tuovinen

I haven't had a lot of experience with using this as an explicit technique yet - I first managed to phrase this thing to myself last spring when I was writing World of Near. Some notes based on last year's play:

Based on my limited experience this sort of thing is rather natural and unproblematic as long as you don't try to force it by drawing attention to it - so no different character sheets for different sorts of players or stuff like that. Rather, soft power: encourage a player you know to be potentially disruptive due to inexperience or incompatible mind-set to take Keys that are easy and undisruptive to score; proactively interpret their character for them in useful ways, such as by emphasizing constructive social roles; suggest courses of action that allow the player to participate without being disruptive. This is basically the same thing you'd do for any player, it's just that with a sidekick player you encourage constructive action instead of dramatic action. (For clarity, the negative way of saying the same would be that you're encouraging conformity instead of disruptive action.)

Good sidekick Keys are constructive (I repeat that word a lot because being cooperative and affirming positive content in the fiction seems to be a problem in these cases in my experience) and often internal. For example, a Key of Courage has potential due to how it's relatively straightforward to activate it, as does Key of Fidelity towards the actual protagonist. The Key of Cheese is a brave shot at an edgy treatment in this context; the group sort of has to explicitly agree that this player's character is something of a comic relief when that Key is in play, it's not just you the GM adapting your own technique anymore at that point. The players I've sampled this Key with haven't minded being the comic sidekick, though; I could imagine that a certain sort of player might be offended, but I'm pushing weird shit at player characters all the time anyway ("Hey, anybody wanna sell their souls to get laser eyes?"), so I'm not worried about offending anybody in practice, in my own campaign.

Note that the idea here is not to put down the player - that is definitely not what I'm about (and I hope the random reader doesn't get that impression; I'm pretty hot on human respect at the gaming table, as you might know). The idea is not to give the player Keys that don't work so he doesn't get powerful from XP and mess the game, for example, and neither should the GM think of a player contributing to the game as a sidekick as somehow lesser than other players - you might be having trouble in communication and creative coordination, but the guy is still your friend, and presumably you have good out-of-game reasons for playing with him, so you're making the best of it by finding him a game role that allows him to participate constructively. As far as I'm concerned the power-level of a sidekick character is a non-issue, the real challenge is in possessing the correct techniques for playing with him. It's also important to me that the idea of sidekick vs. protagonist is a GMing method, not a rules-point: a player can switch from one role to another fluidly as the group learns to play together and the campaign develops. From my brief experience with explicit sidekickery-encouraging Story Guiding I'd say that there are indications that sidekick-players "graduate" towards more protagonist-like play with time and subtle encouragement, not to speak of the example of the other players. I haven't seen such a character draw the spotlight yet, but an equitable Batman & Robin set-up seems to emerge, at least with the players I've tried this with.

For practical play, consider encouraging constructive relationships between sidekick characters and protagonist characters, and framing sidekick types into protagonist scenes whenever possible. Give the sidekick character a starting hook into the campaign that clearly makes him invested in the success of another, self-directed character; in my experience the stuff a sidekick player invents himself for character goals is difficult to use due to the excessive amount of violent grand-standing - "my guy is an assassin sent to kill that other player character" seems like a favourite, for instance, and while that can be played, you'll save yourself some effort by gently suggesting a constructive hook for the player, instead. Once you've established a relationship, you don't really need to give the sidekick character as many "personal" scenes as other characters are getting, because he's piggy-backing one or more of the protagonists. I recommend having some low-key, beginner-level story stuff for the sidekick, too: one scene per session, perhaps, that develops something that is particularly interesting in that character. Aside from that your goal is to have the character be low-maintenance and stay out of the way insofar as important story-decisions are concerned; the player should, if he's sidekick-material, be only too happy to back up choices made by the lead character. He'll be busy raking in xp from his Keys (which do not require dramatic actions, only playing the character consistently) and engaging the system to do things suggested by his protagonist.

I haven't encountered this myself, but if I knew that the group is touchy about character power, then I'd consider having the sidekick character be the stronger character in the fiction. A Jeeves & Wooster set-up, in a way. Thinking back to my favourite sidekick player, I could see it working really well in play if I paired him with somebody playing a vulnerable princess, for example, with him playing a big strong brute barbarian tasked to protect her; the sidekick could act tought, be heroic and be impressive all around without actually having to have any sort of dramatic weight. (Thinking of southern Near here, as per our last campaign.)

Incidentally, typical sidekicks (or rather, characters who should have been sidekicks) in my experience fall into two types: either the character is a grim killer like Wolverine, or he's a wacky jokester like... I don't know, some mischievous guy? Mickey Mouse? The former seems more typical of the experienced roleplayer trying hard to make a cool protagonist (mistaking strength for protagonism), while the latter is a honest expression of a light touch typical of younger and uncertain players. Play that is typical of Wolverine involves taking decisive lethal action and enjoying efficient success therein; play typical of the jokester is unexpected and risky, enjoying the ensuing chaos and consequences. Both of these character types can be managed as sidekicks, mostly the differences concern just what the player likes to see. For instance, Wolverine doesn't want to be made fun of and doesn't like defeat, while the jokester won't mind, even if he's not actually trying to be a ridiculous loser. So that's something to keep in mind.

A practical point I want to emphasize here is that my current viewpoint on how to handle this type of player is largely based on my experiences playing with a new crop of younger teenagers in the 12-15 age range last year. Some of them hack this shit with flair, while others don't. In that context I've specifically noticed that GMing techniques that I take for granted with more mature players can fail in an interesting way here. Specifically, neutral arbitration that respects protagonism, which is an important ingredient in many games, doesn't do well when the player needs support, not freedom. Without going into a full actual play report I can say that we managed to spend around three sessions of play in various games (scattered over several months) on a single player having his character chase his tail before I figured out where our play was breaking down; it's really seductively easy for the GM to get confused and work on autopilot, skillfully reintegrating the player's input into the fiction, respecting his protagonistic freedom and not necessarily noticing at any point that the player is not actually operating on that level. At best it's going to be a wild and unexpected ride as the GM shapes random input into story, at worst it's going to be dull shit as the player abuses the game's systems because he doesn't really understand the direction of play.

Thinking back to my D&D campaign some years ago, this was totally the element that I was lacking then. I was very stubborn about being an impartial GM, which in practice meant that I was not as helpful to the players in supporting the group dynamics as I could have been. In practice the players did form clear protagonist-sidekick relationships and got a functional party out of it, but I could have been more proactive about making this happen by outright offering simple character hooks for the sidekick-type players instead of forcing them to invent shallow and largely ignored self-direction that'd get subsumed by the protagonist players and their properly heroic epic goals, anyway.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Paul T



I'm eagerly awaiting some actual play examples of that kind of breakdown in play. I think I know what you're talking about, but I'm not 100% sure. I haven't played enough with people not into heavily engaging and creative play in the last few years, so the experience is somewhat distant in my mind.

Looking forward to hearing more. If you're going to post in Actual Play, would you consider posting a link here?


Eero Tuovinen

I'll keep that in mind, although I don't know if I'm going to write actual play reportage on this for a while. APs take time, and I'm pretty busy this spring. We'll see.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Paul T

Great, thanks.

In the meantime, if you think of any brief examples for the sake of this thread, I'd be very interested to hear them.