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Author Topic: Using character backstory to assist with coherent play  (Read 6732 times)
Robert Calder
Member

Posts: 5


« on: June 12, 2003, 04:00:42 PM »

Greetings,

I have been lurking at The Forge recently. This is my first post – I’ve been exploring the ‘net of late, trying to find knowledge to help me understand issues I’ve encountered finding enjoyable play over the last few years. Many ideas on this site have resonated with me. Yesterday, I read, “Simulationism: The Right to Dream”. There were many points of interest in this piece, but one idea, relating to character generation differences in consideration of N-S crossover issues really got me thinking (emphasis mine):


“Narrativist character creation in some games requires a fair amount of back-story, just as some Simulationist play does, but in the former, it's about establishing a chassis for conflict, metagame, and reward, and in the latter, it's about Coloring the character and providing opportunities for GM-created hooks. I rank the conflict between these concepts, during play, among the highest-risk situations for the survival of a gaming group. Strategies to resolve this conflict, whether social or design-oriented, are currently not well-developed in the hobby.”


If I understand the thrust of this passage correctly, I am strongly in agreement with the author’s assessment of the potential severity of this problem.

I will begin by sharing some recent gaming experiences to provide context.

My gaming group has two primary GM’s. I am one. A good friend is the other. He is not only an enthusiastic role-player, but also a talented writer. Unfortunately, our group has experienced anguish in the past over his method of running some of his games.

Our primary frustration appeared to center on his usage of pre-written adventures. However, as I learn more, I think the issue is much deeper. We have experienced games where there was no direct reason for the involvement of our characters, and pre-scripted events were the focus of the story (this is, arguably, the most common sort of pre-written module on the market). We have also experienced stories where our characters hooked into the plot, but the play still felt unsatisfactory.

Of the games I have run, I have experienced slightly more success. Unfortunately, though I think I have some idea of what I did correctly in retrospect, I am finding it much easier to mull over the games I ran that were not enjoyable and see reasons why things did not work in those games.

In our friend’s case, the unsatisfactory play appears to have resulted from lack of power on our part to make any serious impact to the plot. In my case, unsatisfactory play appears to have stemmed, in many instances, from great power to influence the plot being given to the players, without the expectation that they have this power being fully discussed.

Now, before I go any farther, I will say that I recognize that these are, largely, social contract issues. We have not developed an understanding as a group as to what the balance of power should be.

My suspicion, in the cases where the games I ran met with greater levels of success, is that we had inadvertently put together a good basis for coherent narrativist play. For example, we established real relationships between the characters and the people and places of the setting, developed solid understanding of the character’s beliefs, and considered their level of dedication to those beliefs. This basis established, the group followed its natural inclinations, and successfully engaged in narrativist play. The story presented the players with meaningful decisions as to what actions their characters should take, and the setting responded appropriately, with little to no pre-determination on the GM’s part.

That is where I am coming from. Now, let us meander back to the original point of discussion – discussion of strategies to solve the conflict in the passage I pulled from Ron’s essay.

As I mentioned earlier, I feel that many of my group’s issues in this area have resulted from a lack of discussion of what we were trying to accomplish. Such discussion leads to either formal or informal enhancements of the social contract. As such, one possible solution (which I will undertake to test the next time I run a campaign for our group) is to spend some effort during the character creation phase discussing this.

In fact, Ron mentions this in the previous paragraph (emphases added by me):


“Character generation text and methods are extremely diverse within each GNS mode, which is one of the reasons I favor group communication during this phase of pre-play…”


The success or failure of the method I am considering depends largely on the group member’s ability to trust each other. (I suggest that it is going unlikely that coherent play can be achieved if issues of trust are present!) Simply put, I think the conflict can be avoided by making sure everyone understands why certain things are being done in character creation.

Repeatedly, I have seen groups (and game texts!) that espouse the need for “detailed character back-stories”. However, I am not sure I have ever been part of a discussion of why we want this detail.

Almost without fail, it seems that players bring their own assumptions to the table. One might think, “we need detailed back-stories so the plot can be character driven”. Another might think, “a detailed back-story will allow the GM to bring our characters into the meat of the adventure more easily”, while yet another could be thinking, “I need these details for my character so we can create meaningful conflicts to power the story”. While these are similar goals in appearance, I claim they represent almost incompatible levels of difference in how the play is going to “work”. Since everyone “knows” why many role-playing games include the establishment of detailed character back-stories in their character generation process, no one seriously asks the question, “Why are we doing this?”

I hypothesize that if this question is asked seriously, and a discussion that goes deeper than, “We are doing this to help us make a good story” (which, I argue, any of the three imaginary players I listed above could interpret as being in-line with their individual assumptions) then the chances of experiencing anguish over this conflict will be greatly reduced.

One caveat – I do not suggest that simply asking such a question, and discussing it, will allow the group to play without problems. In fact, discussion of such a “why” my even lead the group to stop playing together – for example, if they realize their interests are incompatible.

Does anyone else have thoughts on this? I suspect much better solutions than the simple suggestion I am presenting exist, but I am hoping I have, at least, crystallized the topic for discussion. :)
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Bankuei
Guest
« Reply #1 on: June 12, 2003, 04:37:10 PM »

Hi Robert,

Welcome to the Forge!  You've decided to jump into the deep end, as it were, but that's a good place to be! :)

The power to determine what happens, that you're concerned with, is what I call "The Ball".  I use this analogy because, like a ball, it gets passed around, and how well you play with it as a team, is highly based off of communication, familiarity, and a host of other cues and factors that make some players work real well with some GMs, and others not so well, and vice versa.  

To pull up something I had posted in this thread(http://indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=6856), that applies perfectly to this topic:

Quote
Raw railroading is when the GM is constantly in charge of the Ball, and only passes it to the players, so that they can pass it back to him/her to do something with it. Think of the star player, who's also a ball hog, and demands that everyone passes to them to score.

On the other hand, you have folks who develop a setting, but don't enmesh the PC's in a conflict, and they're supposed to wander around and "get into" the action on their own. In that case, the GM is always leaving the Ball in their hands....

So, for most people, functional play lies somewhere in between the two, with good passing between players and the GM. But how to get that? Well, one thing is to make sure that players know what they're "supposed to do" in the most general sense when they get the Ball.


I suspect that one issue is that for your group, that they are switching between two different "gameplans", both of which probably use implied rules for passing.  

You might want to take a look at the Pool, Inspectres, octaNe or Dust Devils as games that have very explicit rules for Ball passing.  While these games may not turn out to be your cup of tea, they will definitely get you and your group thinking a lot more about better communication and explicit forms of acknowledging when the Ball has been passed.   I have found that these games tend to be very "therapuetic" in a fashion, which, for whatever reason, assist in communication and play in more traditional games.

I look forward to hearing more about your groups' communication efforts, because that's exactly the kind of stuff I want to explore and discuss.

Chris

PS-  Further Ball analogy can be found in these two threads...
http://indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=6507
http://indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=6522
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Paul Czege
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Member

Posts: 2341


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« Reply #2 on: June 12, 2003, 05:06:33 PM »

Hi Robert,

Now, before I go any farther, I will say that I recognize that these are, largely, social contract issues. We have not developed an understanding as a group as to what the balance of power should be.

If you're looking for confirmation, I totally concur with your self-diagnosis. Can I ask, have you seen http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=2617">this thread? How closely does the group character creation it describes match with what your group does? Can you see how it might establish the kind of functional social contract you're looking for if chargen was informed by a setting/concept one-sheet, but the GM's prep of situation, adversity, and setting details was entirely subsequent to this kind of chargen?

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
Robert Calder
Member

Posts: 5


« Reply #3 on: June 12, 2003, 06:21:20 PM »

Quote from: Bankuei
Hi Robert,

Welcome to the Forge!  You've decided to jump into the deep end, as it were, but that's a good place to be! :)


Thank you for the kind welcome!

Quote

The power to determine what happens, that you're concerned with, is what I call "The Ball".  I use this analogy because, like a ball, it gets passed around, and how well you play with it as a team, is highly based off of communication, familiarity, and a host of other cues and factors that make some players work real well with some GMs, and others not so well, and vice versa.  


This is, indeed, an aspect of my concern. I suspect I may have clouded what I was getting at in the verbousity of some of my context-establishing background text...if so, I apologize.

I think I'd like to take what you are pointing at, though, and move earlier in the process; the bulk of what is going on in these threads you refer to happens at "run time", if you will. (As a side note - those are some fantastic threads you pointed me to! Thanks a ton.)

I'd like to move earlier in the process of play, and look at character creation. Specifically, the fact that many groups, and many game texts, ask the players to create "detailed backgrounds", without getting the group to understand the reason why they are doing it. The first snippet of Ron's essay which I refer to above, crystallizes for me the idea that the activity of creating "detailed character back-story" can be used to facilitate  many GNS modes of game-play in some way or another; players, GMs, and game texts can all come to the table with a potentially incompatible set of assumptions about why such a thing is occuring during character generation.

My current idea is that the best way to resolve this is simply to discuss, as a group, why the step is taking place on a game-by-game basis, in order to assist in setting expectations for the kind of play everyone is looking for.

I'm curious to explore what range of methods, in both system and social contexts, that can be used to address this potential issue.

Let me take a specific game as an example.

Assume we're about to play HeroWars (I won't call it HQ yet since it's not in my grubby paws ;). A group gets together and goes through character creation. I'm sure many people will agree that HeroWars character generation is extremely friendly towards the development of "meaty" characters.

However, let's posit that this group hasn't played HW together before. I contest that it would be extremely easy for the people making these characters to all come to the table with assumptions about why the character generation is the way it is - and that these assumptions could cause serious trouble in-play. (Given what we know of the reasoning behind HW's design, some assumptions may be more "valid" than others, but that doesn't prevent people divorced from such reasoning from coming up with assumptions that appear perfectly valid when confronted with the bulk of the character creation text.)

Assume one player (A) creates his character under the assumption that the game will be "character driven", in the Simulationist sense that he plans to explore the motivations of his character, and act within them, often playing the game from Actor stance.

Another player (B) operates under the assumption that themes and plot will drive the game, in the Narrativist sense; he may spend much of his time in Author stance, periodically moving into Actor stance as it suits him.

Now, when the "ball" is passed to player (A), he decides his character's personality moves him to take actions that, for whatever reason, skew the game away from conflict, and kill the rising of the action. (B) is going to be very unhappy, and (A) may become defensive if not approached carefully about the situation, because even though his action was contrary to the health of the story, it was right in-line with his vision of who his character is. In other words, you could say (B) "dropped the ball", though I hesitate to give it such a potentially negative description because, as far as he was concerned, he was playing the game exactly as he believed the game was suppoed to be played.

I'm taking this to a bit of an extreme, but I hope it illuminates my point. Ball-dropping is a potential symptom of the problem I'm referring to. I'm not sure "run time" game mechanics (such as ball-passing mechanisms) can address the core issue I am referring to, though.

Does that make sense?
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Robert Calder
Member

Posts: 5


« Reply #4 on: June 12, 2003, 07:09:33 PM »

Quote from: Paul Czege
Hi Robert,

If you're looking for confirmation, I totally concur with your self-diagnosis. Can I ask, have you seen http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=2617">this thread? How closely does the group character creation it describes match with what your group does? Can you see how it might establish the kind of functional social contract you're looking for if chargen was informed by a setting/concept one-sheet, but the GM's prep of situation, adversity, and setting details was entirely subsequent to this kind of chargen?

Paul


Paul,

I had not seen that thread before - that's exactly the kind of stuff I was looking for. We've had cases of both under- and over-preparation (particularly experiencing the latter in the case of play that, in retrospect, was expected by many players to be more Simulationist in the sense that setting exploration would be center-stage, while others expected the focus to be character-exploration, and still others expected to tell a good 'ol story and have some hefty plot impact!)

Let me see if I'm in-tune with what you're getting at.

First, the GM provides (likely with player discussion) a brief concept statement that will focus the efforts of the character generation process. In my view, this would include an overview of the setting and system agreed upon, as well as the goals the GM has discussed previously with the group (e.g., "We will be toying with the idea that Man's inability to reach a state of balance in the natural world leads to conflict with nature itself, as well as other civilizations).

After characer generation has occured, setting, situation, and conflicts would be fleshed out in more detail by the GM.  

This would definately facilitate coherent N play, in the sense that the GM could then lead off the "run time" part of play with situations that directly initiate conflict involving the characters.

Your suggestion seems to be adaptable to both N play, and S play where the exploration focuses mostly on character.

I think, on some level, I'm wrestling with the problem of trying to see if everyone "has the same vision" of what kind of game they want to play before run-time play begins. There's really no way to know for sure. I suspect that the majority of games are not offering a strong framework for character generation to assist everyone in getting "on the same page", which leads to the endless myriad of methodologies that exist for the aspect of non-run-time play (boy is that awkward!) where character creation occurs.

In other words, most games seem to assume a framework - "they've read the rules, what we are trying to do in character generation facilitates those rules, so they will all be on the same page".

With few gamers even having a common terminology to discuss what they want, vocabulary further clouds the problem - there's only so many people I can say "let's try to push for Narrativist play" to without getting funny looks. (I know I'm being intentionally dense, to some extent, in this passage - it's not like it's impossible to discuss the idea of N play just because both parties don't understand GNS; it's just that the overhead can be pretty crunchy.)

In many cases, these things iron out in different ways. The group may develop common culture (assuming they survive long enough) and so they know what they want, collectively, when they play a particular game. Or, if a majority of the players are "on the same page", the minorities either drop out (leaving the rest of the group to proceed coherently) or they "get it" and join in with the others.



As a side note...it may be that I'm overcomplicating the issue. It just seems to me that, if you have a game that facilitates coherent play of some sort, it's a shame to not try and develop methods to make sure everyone is thinking about the game in similar ways as early as possible in the process. The longer a misunderstanding lingers, the more "expensive" (in terms of time, energy, or whatever) it is to address it.
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Bankuei
Guest
« Reply #5 on: June 12, 2003, 08:50:19 PM »

Hi Robert,

Quote
My current idea is that the best way to resolve this is simply to discuss, as a group, why the step is taking place on a game-by-game basis, in order to assist in setting expectations for the kind of play everyone is looking for.


Right, I'd say this is getting everyone on the same page right off the bat.  The various GNS goals are different "game plans" of how to handle the ball.  The preplay discussion and work you're talking about is completely about the in play decisions in action.  

One of the benefits of the aforementioned games, is that they clearly establish Nar play without having to explain the concept through theory.  Once you have that, players then have a personal experience that you can draw upon to explain Stances, Narrativism, and the idea of player driven conflict and Premise.  Because the rules do this in play, the players preconceptions are pushed to the side.

Then its simply a matter of taking those experiences and transposing those concepts into games where the rules don't explicitly pass the ball, such as Hero Wars, or whatever system tickles your fancy.

Chris
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Robert Calder
Member

Posts: 5


« Reply #6 on: June 13, 2003, 05:08:06 AM »

Quote from: Bankuei
Hi Robert,
Right, I'd say this is getting everyone on the same page right off the bat.  The various GNS goals are different "game plans" of how to handle the ball.  The preplay discussion and work you're talking about is completely about the in play decisions in action.  

One of the benefits of the aforementioned games, is that they clearly establish Nar play without having to explain the concept through theory.  Once you have that, players then have a personal experience that you can draw upon to explain Stances, Narrativism, and the idea of player driven conflict and Premise.  Because the rules do this in play, the players preconceptions are pushed to the side.

Then its simply a matter of taking those experiences and transposing those concepts into games where the rules don't explicitly pass the ball, such as Hero Wars, or whatever system tickles your fancy.

Chris


Chris,

Ah, yes, I see where you are coming from now! Games such as these could be utilized as teaching tools to pull everyone into the same creative ballpark. I like your strategy of playing such games prior to games that aren't quite so explicitly in a particular arena.

These games establish a shortcut to one of the items I refer to above:

Quote
The group may develop common culture (assuming they survive long enough) and so they know what they want, collectively, when they play a particular game.


As such, they serve as a much more efficient method than, essentially, playing and hoping such a culture develops.

So, it seems like we have three ideas so far:
1) Discussion during character generation to ensure there are no misconceptions about the type of play the character generation mechanics are attempting to engender. This is not very satisfactory, since it in fact requires experiential knowledge of what is being discussed.

2) Tailor the character generation experience towards the type of game that is going to be played. This sets the stage for a particular kind of play, and can help the group get into the same mindset for the game.

3) Develop a culture of "what we like" through game play, therefore acquiring experiential knowledge that the group can use in discussion to firm up the gameplay goals. This can be greatly facilitated by playing games that (as you say) push the player's preconceptions to the side and attempt to force them to engage in a particular type of play.


The more I think about using such a teaching game, the better it sounds - most groups are using method #3 unintentionally, and in many cases, they get what I'd view as culture by attrition:

Quote
Or, if a majority of the players are "on the same page", the minorities either drop out (leaving the rest of the group to proceed coherently) or they "get it" and join in with the others.


This can be minimized through such a game, as you're not as likely to loose people through frustration. Anyone who does leave would likely do so due to disinterest in the play-style.
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