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Author Topic: Backstory vs. Strong Character Creation  (Read 10582 times)
lumpley
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« on: January 05, 2003, 08:45:44 AM »

Spawned right outta Egri & Me.

Hi!

What separates the backstory from the story is a turning point in the character.

Em's character Soraya was abused by her master Severin.  They also killed a dragon -- Soraya doing the bulk of the work and facing the bulk of the danger -- and hid the treasure.  The game starts with Soraya deciding to steal the treasure map from Severin and claim her share, Severin be damned.

Now, at the start of the game, all I Vincent know about Soraya and Severin's backstory is what I just told you.  Emily has probably thought more about it and may have a couple of details in mind, to be revealed in play as mine and Meg's characters talk to Soraya.  But maybe not even -- maybe Em's counting on her ability to improvise.  It doesn't matter.  Soraya's backstory is only real when it comes out in play.

And it will.  Soraya's relationship with Severin, as established, DEMANDS backstory.  As the current, live, in-play events go forward, Emily will be forced to fill in details.  My guy Acanthus turns to Soraya over a beer and says "now what the fuck?  You killed a DRAGON?" and the story of how Soraya captivated the dragon with riddles while Severin snuck up on it comes out.  (Maybe Em had planned that story, maybe she made it up on the spot -- I don't know and can't tell and wouldn't care one way or the other.)

So in the case of this particular Ars Magica game, character creation wasn't responsible for creating a backstory.  It was responsible for creating -- actually, it was responsible only for creating a character at a turning point.  The turning point demanded that there be a charged relationship, and the relationship was responsible for creating the backstory.

In other words, the game started at a turning point.  As the game progressed, both the backstory and the forestory came into being: the forestory the result of the character acting from the turning point, the backstory to explain that the turning point was inevitable.  (To my casual reflection, influenced by Egri, that's how movies and short stories work too.  Not sure about novels.)

Tom, this:
Quote
"He thinks those photos can still ruin my political career, but he's not blackmailing another red cent out of me!"
is pretty much exactly what I'm talking about.  All by itself.  A character at a turning point, implying a charged relationship, implying a rich backstory.  None of the backstory's been established yet, the details are all unknown, but it's there waiting.  That's where we start playing.

So backstory, whatever.  The backstory'll take care of itself, that's what I think.  My concern is: in the Character Creation process, how do we make sure that neither the character nor the blackmailer will shrug and back off?  How do we make sure that neither can easily make the other go away?  How do we make sure that the blackmail story rises naturally into seduction, betrayal, brutality and murder, instead of piddling itself away?

In our Ars Magica game we did it by instinct.

-Vincent
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Paganini
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« Reply #1 on: January 05, 2003, 09:39:25 AM »

Quote from: lumpley

So backstory, whatever.  The backstory'll take care of itself, that's what I think.  My concern is: in the Character Creation process, how do we make sure that neither the character nor the blackmailer will shrug and back off?  How do we make sure that neither can easily make the other go away?  How do we make sure that the blackmail story rises naturally into seduction, betrayal, brutality and murder, instead of piddling itself away?


Vincent, exactly. I have a couple of thoughts about this. In the first place, I don't think that *isolated* character creation mechanics will do what you want. That is, I could create a thematicaly focused character in the same way that an author creates a character - independent of any system. I can *state* that the character is unable to back out of the conflict; I can give reasons for why that is. But when I actually play there's nothing that makes me play the character in a manner that's consistent with the facts I pre-established about him. So I think that chargen must interface with the during play mechanics somehow. The mechanics need to stop players from backing out of conflicts, or they need to reward players who don't back out of conflicts.

A possibility:

Make it so that the mechanics reward players who stick to the theme. In story terms, the results may be very bad for the character, but in game terms some sort of reward is recieved for doing it.

Rewards could take the form of currency, or of narration power. I kind of like the idea that the player only gets to narrate when dealing with the character's core conflict.

Actually deciding on mechanics might be a bit premature, though. Before we talk about how to keep characters from backing out of conflicts, it might be a good idea to decide how conflicts will be represented in the game, how they're created, how many each character can have, and so on.
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #2 on: January 05, 2003, 10:54:31 AM »

Hey Nathan,

So I think that chargen must interface with the during play mechanics somehow. The mechanics need to stop players from backing out of conflicts, or they need to reward players who don't back out of conflicts.

You wear your pain plainly on your sleeve. Someone who'd even once noticed other players move forward in their seats with interest when the action of gameplay focused on his character would never write what I've quoted above. Sincere interest in your character by the other players is the most powerful reward there is. Contrary to what you've suggested, mechanics for dealing with conflict-shy players, what the system and social contract need to actually do is avoid preventing the player from addressing the conflicts embedded in the character. The reward of interest in your character by other players, primed for by group chargen, will do the rest. The player put a specific conflict into the character for a reason. The problem isn't conflict-shy players, but game mechanics that deconstruct character protagonism to the detriment of embedded conflict.

Paul
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #3 on: January 05, 2003, 10:57:47 AM »

Hey Vincent,

Quote from: Paganini
Make it so that the mechanics reward players who stick to the theme. In story terms, the results may be very bad for the character, but in game terms some sort of reward is recieved for doing it.

Rewards could take the form of currency, or of narration power. I kind of like the idea that the player only gets to narrate when dealing with the character's core conflict.

What he said!

In Scattershot, we also call the "turning point" that separates backstory from play, the Precipitating Event.  It's a real useful idea.

Fang Langford

Edit: Almost too late, I fixed the link.  Here's the rest of the Precipitating Event story
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lumpley
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« Reply #4 on: January 05, 2003, 12:33:51 PM »

Hey Pag, Fang.

Nopers.  

If we go that route, we're pretty much broadening the discussion to "how do you design a Narrativist game?" which is worthy, I mean, yeah, but I'm interested in a narrower problem. What I want to talk about is precisely driving Narrativism with character creation alone, without help from Narrativist resolution or reward mechanics.

I just want to theorize, to get a grip on character creation mechanics, because I don't really have a firm one.  I'm not (yet) trying to actually design a game.

So let's stipulate for now that, for this theoretical game, the resolution and reward mechanics are bare-bones character sim.  Maybe these or some like them.

I believe it's possible.  We played our Ars Magica game without resolution mechanics or reward mechanics at all, on the strength of the characters and our casual, social, what happens happens system alone.  Whether it's easy or hard or convenient or fun or desirable are all part of what I want to figure out.

Fang, I think your second link might not go where you intend.  I don't see anything about precipitating events there, anyway.

-Vincent
who has a sinking feeling that this thread is going to wind up, as so many of mine are, poorly named.
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Emily Care
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« Reply #5 on: January 05, 2003, 02:40:49 PM »

Quote from: lumpley
My concern is: in the Character Creation process, how do we make sure that neither the character nor the blackmailer will shrug and back off?


I still think it's a matter of character motivation. (I may not be grokking something right. Let me know.) How they do what you're talking about in 9 out of 10 action movies is to threaten or kill someone that the main character cares about.  Why do action heroes have buddies? So they can get killed at the start of the third act, and motivate the "good guy" to overcome her doubts or whatever is getting in her way and just "bad guy" ass.

That's one way to do it anyway. Use dependent characters as motivating factors.  Any mechanical reason why the character "can't back down" is going to be contrived in a narrativist game (I think) unless it contributes to a plausible reason why the character actually wouldn't.  Mechanics that would do this (examples anyone? I'm thinking of a non-existant "Pissed Off" stat in some game that keeps the character engaging when any sane person would go join the Victim/Witness Relocation Program) would be more successful if they reinforce some narrative situation or allow somone to interpret the results of applying the mechanics to some reason.  Something like a specifically focused set of World/Flesh/Devil dice?

In other kinds of gaming--more adventure fictiony type or whatever--you don't need this kind of justification.  The reason the party saves the world is cause they can, cause there's nobody else to. Or the reason they kill the dragon is pure avarice. Whatever.   Well, actually, I guess I'm saying that you need an in-game motivation of some sort regardless of what style of gaming you're doing, but what it consists of will vary depending on the needs of the game.

Quote from: lumpley
How do we make sure that neither can easily make the other go away?  How do we make sure that the blackmail story rises naturally into seduction, betrayal, brutality and murder, instead of piddling itself away?


The first sounds like it invokes your "balance opposition" thang.  
The second sounds like a place where mechanics could be quite useful.  My Life With Master creates a narrative structure with triggering of the Endgame and so on.  Some variant of Otherkind resolution? Universalis complications help enlist everyone's help in applying 3+ times the grief. What else? What other kinds of mechanics than resolution ones would be helpful? (I don't know if there's been a detailed classification of all the different types of mechanics that are out there, but I'd like to see one someday.)

Quote
In our Ars Magica game we did it by instinct.


Which means that we colluded to make it happen. That's what ya gotta do. By use of freeform narrative or using mechanics to focus the types of events that you're going to encourage to happen in the game.  

Quote from: paganini
Actually deciding on mechanics might be a bit premature, though. Before we talk about how to keep characters from backing out of conflicts, it might be a good idea to decide how conflicts will be represented in the game, how they're created, how many each character can have, and so on.

This seems like quite a good suggestion, too.

--Emily Care

edited in:Sorry Vincent, I forgot that you said you want to address this in character creation alone.  Take what applies from the above.  I think that using dependent characters in chargen is a perfectly valid method.--Em
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #6 on: January 05, 2003, 03:32:14 PM »

Quote from: lumpley
I believe it's possible.  We played our Ars Magica game without resolution mechanics or reward mechanics at all, on the strength of the characters and our casual, social, what happens happens system alone.  Whether it's easy or hard or convenient or fun or desirable are all part of what I want to figure out.

What you're describing here sound like, more or less, freeform play. Check the 8-bit freeform thread in RPG Design for some of my thoughts on the subject and tell me what you think.
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Paganini
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« Reply #7 on: January 05, 2003, 04:13:57 PM »

Quote from: lumpley

I just want to theorize, to get a grip on character creation mechanics, because I don't really have a firm one.  I'm not (yet) trying to actually design a game.


Okay, understood. (Hurry up! Are we men, or are we game designers? ;)

I'd like a couple of clarifications, I think. When you say that characters produced by the system can't back out of the conflict, you mean that they can't do so *as characters,* right? That is, there's something about the character's background or personality purely in the context of the imagined reality that prevents him from backing out. This is opposed to some sort of game mechanical restriction that stops characters from backing out.

If I understand you correctly, you want a character creation system that will produce thematicaly strong characters - not some mechanical or game sense, but in an actual literary sense. Is that right?

If so, I suggest that passion is what sticks strong characters to their course. Emily is on the right track talking about the death of friends motivating a character. An Egri premise springs from passion. Passion, by its very nature I think, prevents one from giving up and walking away.

In literature, for there to be drama, there must be an established norm that is changing in some way. There must be activity. It's what Egri calls "movement" when creating a premise. The movement is a necessary part of the premise and is brought about by passion. I think the first step in creating such a character is to establish a norm. The norm by itself is not enough for story though; the norm has to be something that the character can be passionate about changing. (Like the blackmailing example.) I think that a statement of the norm needs support this by being specific enough to point out something that the character feels passionate about changing. ("Abused Slave," for example.) In a way, the norm is a specialized version of "character class" or "character role" or what have you.

We also need to define the passion and the movement. The passion is what the character feels about the norm, and the movement is what the character is trying to do about it. Finally, before we can have real conflict and drama, we need opposition. The creation of opposition should be similar to an inverse of the above. The opposition needs a matching passion to balance against the character. The opposition also needs to have movement... movement that doesn't match the character's movement.

I think that a character creation system can be as simple as formalizing these 4 elements:

Norm
Passion
Movement
Opposition

We could probably come up with in-game names for them.

It doesn't have to be complicated, for example:

Premi, a slave, is abused by her hated Overseer. Tonight she has decided to kill him.
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lumpley
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« Reply #8 on: January 09, 2003, 06:58:05 AM »

Pag, Emily: nice.  Thanks!  I don't have anything to add.

Jack: it was the free-est of form.  I'll check out the 8-bit thread.

Actually I'm quite happy.  Dunno about the rest of you, but the game designs in my head are better now than they were even a week ago.

-Vincent
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bluegargantua
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« Reply #9 on: January 09, 2003, 09:23:00 AM »

Hmmm...

  An idea I got from listening to NPR the other day:

  The interviewer was talking to one of the scientists who'd come up with Chaos theory andthe scientist was looking for a way to describe it:
Quote

  Scientist: "How'd you meet your wife?"

  Interviewer:  "I was a bartender in college and she was a waitresss, that's how we met."

  S:  "So how'd you get the job?"

  I:  "The bar needed to get rid of their empty bottles to make room for the new ones and the guy who normally did it didn't show up for some reason.  So this guy came walking down the hall of the dorm asking if anyone wanted to make a few bucks hauling bottles away.  I said yes and eventually worked my way up to bartender."

  S:  "Got any kids?"

  I:  "Yeah, two."

  S:  "OK, so your children and your marriage exist solely because of a pile of empty beer bottles and a guy who happened to be walking down a hallway when you were around."

  I:  "Uh...I don't think I'll tell them that."

  So -- perhaps we can use this example of chaos theory to our benefit.  Rather than start at the beginning and build to the turning point -- start at the turning point and work back to the beginning.  
Quote

  Player A:  "I'm gonna fight this guy in a duel"

  GM:  "Why duel him?"

  A:  "He killed my wife."

  GM:  "Why?"

  A:  "It was an accident, he was looking to kidnap her but it went wrong."

  GM:  "Why?"

  A:  "I stole his best horse and he wanted something to hold over me."

  GM:  "Why?"

  etc.

  You might even be able to weave multiple people together in a twisting maze of coincidence and happenstance that result in everyone being here for some Grand Purpose(TM).

  While I think this may produce some great stories, I also think that starting right at the turning point may not always be the best idea.  I'm partial to the concept of building a lot of backstory without forcing a particular turning point (or allowing wide scope for actions you can take within the turning point).  I think that if you hit right at the turning point, you're going to quickly resolve the story and the game will be over.  A less defined start time allows for some exploration and the opportunity to create new links and relationships within the environment.  Which means that turning points will be harded to force to a final conclusion and may sustain longer play time.  

later
Tom
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Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #10 on: January 09, 2003, 04:54:00 PM »

Hi Vincent,

I've been thick before, I'll be so again, and I might even be thick now, so forgive me if I'm not getting something here...

The "turning point" you're referring to struck my imagination immediately as the Kicker found in Sorcerer.  Now I know Ron has gone out of his way on several occassions to explain that a Kicker is a mechanic.  It's in the rules, you have to have one, it drives the session.

(I suppose a player could avoid this, but it would be similiar to an AD&D player sitting back at the table and announcing, "I'm gonna do this one without rolling any dice tonight.")

I'm curious: doesn't a Kicker do exactly what you're asking?  Most importantly, doesn't it prevent a player from backing out of it since the player chose it?

Thanks,
Christopher
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lumpley
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« Reply #11 on: January 13, 2003, 12:43:07 PM »

Christopher, nope, kickers are definitely turning points.  No doubt about that.  But it's been settling into my head over the course of this thread that maybe it's the demons in Sorcerer that provide the balanced opposition.  Which makes me go whoa..., yikes!, and duh, in about equal proportion.

Tom, I don't think that starting at the turning point will necessarily give you short games with inadequate buildup.  F'rinstance Soraya's first move against Severin in our game, starting at her turning point, was to go to frickin' Siberia and dig up all the old dragon gold.  It was two years realtime of play before we even got Severin's first counterattack.  If we'd been playing a lean, mean Premise-addressing machine of a game, it probably still would've taken us months and months.

Your "allowing wide scope for actions" clause covers it, I think.

-Vincent
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contracycle
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« Reply #12 on: January 15, 2003, 08:13:14 AM »

An idea based on Pag's post above.

Quote

Norm
Passion
Movement
Opposition


Thesis: these functions can be explicitly recorded by differentiating the degree of knowledge of their content exercised by two abstracted and notional people, the GM and the player.  This applies even to games which are GM-full.

In the classic mode, the breakdown looks a bit like this:

Norm
- Player: Partially known at start
- GM: fully known at start

Passion
- Player: Fully known
- GM: Partially known

Opposition
- Player: partially known
- GM: fully known

Movement
- synthesised in play

Norm is given as only partially known by the player as the GM may exert privilige to introduce hitherto unkown data.

Passion is given as only partially known by the GM, as the GM cannot read the players mind

Opposition is given as partially known by the player, as the player will produce the contradiction on which the opposition is based.

Movement... my assertion is that if you know the 3 sets of data, Movement is an emergent phenomenon.  Movement is the actual content of play.  On the basis of player-authored Opposition, and GM authored detail, framing and whatnot, I think that the initial proposition of this thread is correct: all play can be outlined at character creation.
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