[Bliss Stage] Different approaches to character

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Simon C:
We're playing a long-running, seven-player game of Bliss Stage. I think we've played maybe five or six sessions now, with maybe one or two more to go. The group is pretty diverse. Some of us have known each other for a while, and others have met for the first time at the game.

The game is going really well, with intensely emotional scenes, and  a lot of very good drama and action. The game is set in an old WWII fortress, all tunnels and bunkers and gun-pits, which overlooks Wellington. There are three Pilots, and three anchors.

There's a thing I want to talk about regarding Piloting, and how it feels slightly unsupported by the rules of the game. I'm not sure if I'm properly able to articulate that yet though.

The thing I want to talk about is an issue I've noticed about how three of the players approach playing their characters, and how it's really different to how the other four play. One of the pilots, Sarah, and two of the anchors, Rachel and Lucas, are played quite differently to how I play my pilot, Aaron, and how the others play their characters.

My own approach to play is very intuitive. I don't really plan what Aaron is going to do in future scenes, I just sort of put myself in Aaron's shoes, think about how he might feel, and react instinctively from that. I guess I kind of have a "sense" of Aaron, that I'm trying to be faithful to through play. It took maybe half of the first session to develop that sense, and then it's got stronger as we've played. One of the advantages of that approach to play has been that I'm constantly surprised by the direction Aaron takes the game. He started as a very idealistic, enthusiastic pilot, who saw himself as a hero. Repeated failures, trauma, and the death of a close friend have seen him become more bitter, more angry. He's still idealistic, but he's more afraid now, I think. His relationships have suffered, and he's pushing more and more people away.

Other players, like Steve, playing the anchor Daisuke, are more considered. Steve will do a lot of thinking and planning about his characters (he also played an anchor, Alex, who died), but I think he still has a pretty reflexive style. He talks about how he discovers Daisuke through play. The most recent session was kind of a spotlight on the relationship between Daisuke and his pilot, Nella (played by Emma). The various scenes each pushed the characters in various directions, bringing out various emotions. The session ended with Daisuke and Nella having sex for the first time, cementing their unusual but functional relationship. It was a result I think none of the players anticipated, but it felt true to the characters and was a powerful scene.

What I think is common to these approaches is the way we discover our characters through play. We aren't the final authority on the characters. If someone else says to me, "y'know, I think Aaron is actually just a coward", I'll think about it, and maybe agree with them, or maybe not, but I don't get to say "Nope, you're wrong. He's not."

Some of the others play differently though. Aaron's anchor, Rachel, is played by Vic. Vic talks about how she's got a simple rule for how Rachel reacts to things, and play for her is about working out how to apply that rule to particular situations. Talking to Vic, I get the sense that she feels she has final authority over Rachel. If we say "I think Rachel is maybe a bit crazy", she'll say "Oh yes, Rachel is really crazy in a very specific way".

Sarah, a pilot, played by Ivan, is kinda similar. She's torn between two lovers, Aaron and Lucas. I get the sense that Sarah is unable to choose between the two lovers not because the choice is difficult, but because Ivan has chosen to play someone who can't decide. I feel like he's decided how Sarah is, and now he's going to let things play out, and see how things go.

The distinction I'm making here is between players who play their characters with a sense of discovery, and players who play their characters with a sense of performance.

You might think that this is a problem in the game, but it seems like in practice it's actually been quite productive. I think the result has been that the characters who are evolving through play, Nella, Aaron, Daisuke (and to some extent the adult, Theresa), are the main characters of the game. With seven players, it's useful to focus on only a small number of lead characters. The other characters seem to act more as foils to the main characters. Because they have little apparent internal life of their own, we're less invested in how they are affected by the events of play. That lets us focus more on the character who are changing, who we are invested in.

So what's this about? I'm guessing it's creative-agenda related, because "discovering" versus "displaying" seems like a good paraphrase of Story Now and Right to Dream play, but it seems like in this instance at least it's producing a productive synergy. I can certainly see how it could be troublesome (and could become so in this game), but for the moment it's not. Thoughts?

Ben Lehman:
Hi Simon.

Yeah, I've noticed that. I'm not sure I'd draw a Nar/Sim divide between it, though: I think that both sorts of play are necessary for the premise of Bliss Stage (which is about the growth of these characters as adults and their understanding of love, community, and each other) to hit on all cylinders. Some characters are the people who are going to grow, and some characters are the people who are going to be grown around, if that makes any sense at all.

In the last game of Bliss Stage I played, I think that my anchor, Becky, was a really good example of the non-growing type. She was very mature, sexually active, non-judgmental (several times, playing her, I was definitely channeling Dan Savage, if you know who that is), and really engaged with _her job_, which she saw as tending to the emotional and intimate needs of pilots. Ultimately, she didn't really change very much over the course of the game, despite becoming pregnant, having one of her lovers die, and so on. She was just ... Becky. There were a couple of hints that she did have issues (her aunt, the authority figure, had a problematic relationship with her), but they were never really explored "on camera" because none of the characters involved were pilots.

This in no way meant that the character was "flat" or not engaging. She dominated many scenes that she was in, forcing other people to cope with her and change around her: to deal with their sexuality in the face of her frankness, to come to terms with their own abandoned kids, to be able to express their own needs rather than other people's.

Is that the sort of thing that you're talking about? I often see anchor characters falling into this role (although that's far from a rule.)


Simon C:
I think we're maybe talking about slightly different things? I'm not sure. Maybe we're talking about the same effect with different causes?

The reason I think it's a creative agenda thing is that it feels like it's coming from something fundamental about the players' approach to play, rather than a reaction to something the story demanded. Like, I think the story has kind of built itself around these players' style, rather than them adapting themselves to the demands of the story. That's based on not talking to them about it though, so I could be talking out my ass, but it feels right.

For example, Sarah, Ivan's pilot, Sarah, seems like she's in a perfect position to change and grow. Her two lovers, Aaron and Lucas, fought over her, fought with her, and then reached an uneasy peace, with Lucas winning out.  But none of it really affected Sarah. I feel like she's the same person she was when we started. She hasn't made a choice (and in fact slept with Aaron last session). The scenes with her just kind of dried up when other characters weren't forcing them. I mean, maybe that's the way Ivan sees the character, but it feels like Ivan is interested in playing a character who is a certain way, and he'll play her that way no matter what.

I guess I think about some of the stuff Eero's been talking about, with his Solar System play, where the players who couldn't grasp playing a protagonist in the way Solar System requires would end up playing a sidekick, quite functionally. He explicitly describes this as a creative agenda difference that doesn't lead to disfunctional play.

Simon, I can't speak for Vic, but I think you've misunderstood Sarah.  She did change, she did grow, and she did make her choice.  Over the last couple of sessions she (and I) thought she had put Aaron behind her, and she began to get on with the rest of her life.  And then Aaron propositioned her and all that frustrated desire came flooding back.  Her situation is now crucially different: she's made her choice, her commitment, and started to build her life around it, and has now found out (too late!) that she's too weak to stand by it.

Moving away from the specific example, what you've identified, I think, is a difference of degree rather than a difference of kind.  By your account, you're playing Aaron very spontaneously, entirely "discovering" him through play.  I obviously started out with a distinct conception of Sarah, but (from inside her head at least) she hasn't been stuck in that conception.  (Given recent events, I can see why it would come across that way to an observer, but for me she has definitely changed.)  Most players mix the "performance" and "discovery" styles in different balances: I know some people tend much more towards "discovery," but I think most people blend this with exploring within a known concept.  It is a continuum, not an either/or.  Or perhaps the difficulty is your implication that "performance" is static: sure, a "performance" player may have a strong idea of their character at any given point in time, but that doesn't mean the character doesn't change and develop.


Simon C:
Hi Ivan!

You make good points. I think you're right that I clearly have misunderstood where you're coming from with Sarah. I can see what you mean about her development as a character through the game. Here's a question though, which I offer in the spirit of further understanding, rather than criticism. When you say:

"She did change, she did grow, and she did make her choice.  Over the last couple of sessions she (and I) thought she had put Aaron behind her, and she began to get on with the rest of her life.  And then Aaron propositioned her and all that frustrated desire came flooding back.  Her situation is now crucially different: she's made her choice, her commitment, and started to build her life around it, and has now found out (too late!) that she's too weak to stand by it."

Do you think of that as an authoratative statement about the truth of the character, or an interpretation of the character as you have perceived her in play? I think that's the fundamental difference that I'm getting at.

I think that you're right that change and development aren't the crucial difference I was describing them as.


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