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Author Topic: Protagonization, and what happens when it doesn't happen  (Read 12365 times)
Jack Spencer Jr
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« on: February 03, 2003, 06:25:54 PM »

It suddenly hit me why I had not been enjoying my game group of late, and why I no longer play with them at the moment. It's actually a whole mess of things, but Protagonization is a key issue. Just not the only issue. I offer this in the hopes it helps somebody.

My GM has a particular style where he takes information from the players to fashion "the story." This information is either from the character background, which is mostly generated using Central Casting from Task Force Games or in asking the question "What do you want to do with this character."

This sounds like a good plan on the surface, however, there a bit of the  Impossible Thing Before Breakfast going on here, I think. I'm not entirely certain, you see. The result is rather mixed. I'll attempt to illustrate.

The last game, using D&D3e, has an epic approach. There was some kind of prophesy with each of the PCs being a major part of that prophesy. Except for my character. I really can't complain because until close to the end of that game, I wasn't able to play regularly at all. Once a month *if that.* I had a character so I would have something to do when I could show up. Huzzah, and such, but I was also bored out of my mind and was considering spending my time playing would have been better spent elsewhere. This didn't change when I changed jobs and could play regularly. I was a tag-along. An add-on. An extaneous character.

I was starting to think that maybe it wasme but I recalled a game where my then-girlfriend was in a similar situation. It was Warhammer. We were in Altdorf. She wanted to go to Marienburg for some reason out of her bakground. The group in general, which was centered around me as it happens, was heading the opposite direction. She was de-protagonized, much as I was in the game I described above. She didn't take it well, either. I recall she left one session in tears. She was not having any fun.

Part of what made me realize this was reading the Simulationist article. We were dealing with very Sim character creation, especially with Central Casting, and not all of the PCs went together very well. So the GM would fashion the story out of these backgrounds and players desired, such as they were expressed, as best he could. Those whose characters really didn't fit in stayed with the group "just 'cause" which is not very engaging.

I invite comments and questions at this point since this is the main thing I had realized about my group's play.
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clehrich
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« Reply #1 on: February 03, 2003, 09:37:08 PM »

Certainly sounds dysfunctional.  I've seen it too --- heck, we all have, I suspect.

You've hit on a lot of things here, but for me the #1 problem is The Party.  Taken to this degree --- and it often is --- you've got a variant of the Impossible Thing Before Breakfast.  You've got:

1. The players can invent anything they like about their character backgrounds, and trust me, it'll all be relevant and totally protagonizing.

2. The characters will all join hands and be a PC party because I say so.

This doesn't make sense, full stop.  So when you have a character whose background-arising drives do not fit with the rest of The Party, you have a player who's being told, "You can make up anything you like, but you made up stupid things, and we're going to blow you off."  Naturally it all ends in tears.

BTW, some of these issues came up in the thread about Useless Details, where it started to come down to Design Before (and everybody bend) or Design During (and nobody pre-plan).

But I think the big deal here is party formation.

1. Is it necessary?  Often, yes, in which case
2. What exactly is the goal, and why?  Leading to
3. What's the best way to get there?

I think the answer amounts to Fang's sharing concept.  Overtly or subtly, you have to tell the players what the goal is, and why.  Convenience is not a good answer.  Now let everybody work together to realize this goal.  Should it be before? after? both?  Decide exactly why there needs to be a party in this particular game, then have everyone work at building one.

If the group pulls that off, then they simply can't have the mismatch you describe, unless the mismatch is a deliberate construction by a player.  In that case, of course, the "But I want to go to X not Y!" is not infuriating but a focus on something constructed as a tension point.
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Chris Lehrich
Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #2 on: February 03, 2003, 10:04:48 PM »

Iím left wondering if the players made up their character separately or together as a group.  As Christopher said, if all of the players made up their characters thinking that the door was wide open then you are almost always going to run into problems of party cohesion.  One of them will end up being the ďlone wolfĒ and want to go hang out by himself and mope.  Part of this I believe comes from the GMís technique and part of it comes from poor communication between all of the players.

In a Sim game many times, even if all of the players are dedicated to Sim, they come expecting wildly different things.  I agree with Christopher.  The GM and players need to sit down before the game and discuss what everyone wants, and what the ultimate goal of having the party together will be.  This may mean that during character creation some players will have to give up freedom (they may call this realism), but you will all gain in the form of campaign focus, and complimentary characters.

It also seems to me that the GM has the idea that he is the one solely responsible for creating the storyóagain a lack of communication between the players and the GM, but also I believe a larger misconception about roleplaying in general held among many people.

I suppose it depends when and how the GM was fashioning the story.  Does he pre-plan everything once he has the characters in hand, or does he keep things open as play progresses?  Does he keep all the PCs merely along for the ride (deprotagonizing them all), or does he only isolate the characters whose backgrounds donít quite mesh with his overall plan?
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #3 on: February 04, 2003, 11:44:21 AM »

Quote from: fleetingGlow
Iím left wondering if the players made up their character separately or together as a group.

As a group, but as I had said he uses Central Casting which makes, essentially, a random background. He does allow the players to inject their own ideas into it or even dropping Central Casting entirely if need be. He also asks, after the backgrounds are finished, if the players are happy with their backgrounds. However, to my knowledge no player has ever expressed a desire to roll up a new character, possibly for an number of reasons: they really don't know what they want so they figure one character is as good as another in spite of whatever misgivings they feel about a character, they simply do not want to spend another four hours or so to create a new character which, being random, has no likelyhood of being any more desirable than the current one.
Quote
I suppose it depends when and how the GM was fashioning the story.  Does he pre-plan everything once he has the characters in hand, or does he keep things open as play progresses?  Does he keep all the PCs merely along for the ride (deprotagonizing them all), or does he only isolate the characters whose backgrounds donít quite mesh with his overall plan?

I really don't know, but I think he pre-plans but has learned how to "wing it" when the players do not follow his plans or hooks or seeds. "Well, you guys didn't do what I expected at all" he often says with an air of amusement and, dare I say, satisfaction.

He tries to incorporate all of the character backgrounds into his plot. Sometimes, a background simply will not fit. In such cases, he relies on the momentum of the rest of the group to keep this player engaged. This really doesn't work. He really should disallow such characters as per the Sim essay, but he seems to think that he can or that being permisive about such things is a good idea.
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xiombarg
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« Reply #4 on: February 04, 2003, 12:34:58 PM »

Right now, I'm running a D&D game with a very similar feel to what you describe, in that all the PCs are connected to a prophecy, and that I used the PC backgrounds to create the prophecy and to hang the game on.

However, I did one other thing: I specified that the PCs had to be ready and willing to work for a necromancer, and specific backgrounds that fit into what I was planning were rewarded with slighly more powerful/effective characters. Oh, and people got a reward for connecting their characters in some way. Basically, I made an effort to provide a reason for everyone being together, and then, with the prophecy, gave them a shared secret to keep -- there are elements of the prophecy that could be problematic if they got out. "The party" works -- but you have to design it in there.

Also, the problem could be solved by just making sure everyone gets screen time. That is, if your girlfriend got as much time as everyone else, and what she did seemed just as important, it wouldn't have mattered that she wasn't with the group. This requires a group that is comfortable with the idea that when someone spits off, they're going to have to wait a bit to get their turn, but that's the price you pay for freedom.

So, yes, the problem is protagonism -- but there are ways of dealing with it while maintaining a relatively "standard" RPG set-up.
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love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT
Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #5 on: February 04, 2003, 12:48:52 PM »

Quote from: xiombarg
Also, the problem could be solved by just making sure everyone gets screen time. That is, if your girlfriend got as much time as everyone else, and what she did seemed just as important, it wouldn't have mattered that she wasn't with the group. This requires a group that is comfortable with the idea that when someone spits off, they're going to have to wait a bit to get their turn, but that's the price you pay for freedom.

Yeah, but the GM wouldn't have gone for it. This was five years ago, but he hasn't changed much in this regard. Splitting the party is *bad* to him, but this is a completely different issue, I think.
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xiombarg
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« Reply #6 on: February 04, 2003, 01:11:01 PM »

Quote from: Jack Spencer Jr
Quote from: xiombarg
Also, the problem could be solved by just making sure everyone gets screen time. That is, if your girlfriend got as much time as everyone else, and what she did seemed just as important, it wouldn't have mattered that she wasn't with the group. This requires a group that is comfortable with the idea that when someone spits off, they're going to have to wait a bit to get their turn, but that's the price you pay for freedom.

Yeah, but the GM wouldn't have gone for it. This was five years ago, but he hasn't changed much in this regard. Splitting the party is *bad* to him, but this is a completely different issue, I think.
Well, this isn't neccessarily bad or deprotagonizing, so long as he mentions this up-front. The players can then engage in Author stance to keep the group together. I assume, however, that he doesn't state this requirement up-front.
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love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT
Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #7 on: February 04, 2003, 01:17:23 PM »

Quote from: xiombarg
I assume, however, that he doesn't state this requirement up-front.

We're dealing with fairly incoherent play here. It kind of reminds me of ROns description of game text in the Sim essay where the author assumes the reader "gets it" without being told outright in the text. A lot is assumed at that game table, and plenty is assumed incorrectly. This may be part of the nature of incoherency.
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Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #8 on: February 04, 2003, 04:08:42 PM »

A lot of the problem seems to me rooted in the random backgrounds.  Iím not sure how the central casting mechanic works, but if player decide that their backgrounds donít mesh why not pick a new random background instead of re-rolling the whole character.  Alternatively, why not work with the GM in order to slightly tweak the original backgrounds so that they better fit with both the party as a whole and the preconceived campaign direction.
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #9 on: February 05, 2003, 06:20:17 AM »

Central Casting is like Lifepath from Mekton/Cyberpunk and other games but much more involved. It does take seveal hours for the whole group to go through it
Quote
but if player decide that their backgrounds donít mesh why not pick a new random background instead of re-rolling the whole character.Alternatively, why not work with the GM in order to slightly tweak the original backgrounds so that they better fit with both the party as a whole and the preconceived campaign direction.

This should work, but, well I don't know. I get the feeling he's got a view of what RPGs should be, which is "do whatever you want" or something like that. If his campaign were better focused, then we'd have less of a problem.
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Maurice Forrester
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« Reply #10 on: February 05, 2003, 06:57:10 AM »

Quote from: xiombarg

...
However, I did one other thing: I specified that the PCs had to be ready and willing to work for a necromancer
...


I've never understood, and this goes back at least 20 years, why more GMs don't do stuff like this.  I always start games by giving the players some guidance.  We talk about the PCs and, unless the game is only going to last a session or two, we devote a full session to creating characters with a lot of discussion about the game.  I don't think I had any great revelation when I started doing that, but I'm astonished when I run into a GM who doesn't provide that sort of initial guidance.

Maybe, as Jack suggests, it comes from the notion that RPGs are about doing whatever you want.  And perhaps that comes from the idea that the GM creates the world and the players explore it.
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Maurice Forrester
Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #11 on: February 05, 2003, 08:00:38 AM »

Actually, I take that back. The GM did give some guidance, although after the PCs were rolled up. He emailed everyone a plot summary of what we're going to be doing. I don't think it gave much direction. Basically we were on a quest to recover an artifact know aptly as the McGuffin. He tried to link the whole group relationship map-wise but it didn't work. It didn't work for me (see the asshole player thread) for a number of reasons, the biggest being the social context. I do not know most of these people and would not be all that sad if I never saw them ever again. So linking my character to them "you knew them from college" just didn't work because I was not linked to the *players* at all.

I still have the txt file of the plot for those interested via PM. It's not that big a deal and probably going to be more confusing than enlightening to the casual reader. I mean I don't understand it, really.
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ADGBoss
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« Reply #12 on: February 06, 2003, 12:38:00 PM »

I find your last post the most interesting of all so far. The idea that you were not connected to the players and therefore not connected to the Characters brings up a point about certain gaming assumptions.

Party with a Purpose
Am I correct in saying that when we game we assume we're playing, for the most part, with friends or friends of friends? Ideally even strangers come in with a sense that they will become a more intimate part of the group.  I find it harder to play a satisfying game with many of my friends and its not really their fault. Indeed it is not their fault at all.  Intimate knowledge of one another has made us lazy and assumptive when it comes to taking a game seriously.

Playing with acquaintances has been a bit more satisfying for several reasons. One, their styles are new ground and are interesting to watch and interact with. Two, they do not make too many gaming assumptions about me. "There goes Sean on his Dark Gritty fantasy kick again." Does not come up in play.  I sit down with the idea that I am going to make an impression on them, not to impress them if you catch my meaning.

So I think playing with strangers /acqaintances can be a very rearding experience.  Of course mileage may vary depending on the strangers.
In your case getting to know them or make an impression on them may not have been worth it to you.

Sidekick

"I am not a sidekick, I am a Co-star" What is Frodo without Sam? Batman without Robin?  In a group of characters who are following a quest oriented campaign, could not at least half of them be Grog (to steal an Ars MAgica expression) or Sidekick characters.  In the Belgariad, Olgarra's blacksmith guy who went along and learned to fight and stuff, well he was basically taking up space until the very last battle where he becomes an integreal part of the Prophecy (By dying and rising again).

These Auxiliary Protaganists are very important figures even though they are not the main focus of the story.  Everyone can and should have their moment to shine of course but if the idea is get together for some artistic entertainment, to tell the Story or the Stories, then I think it can function very well.

Now in a long term game it can expand beyond that.  I think, to my mind, after season 2 of ST:TNG at least hlaf the stories focused on Picard/Data. Now, everyone had their day and some great moments by the other characters but, effectively the empahsis was on Picard/Data.  Now I think ST:TNG handled that pretty well.

Ont he other hand we have Voyager, which , once it got Jerry Ryan, every freakin week "7 of 9 was going back to the collective." Harry Kim and Neelix were forgotten characters and in general, the story was badly done from a Protaganism stand point. Everyone did not have their day.

Just some thoughts, not sure how to sum them up or maybe they need to go in a new thread...

Sean
ADGBoss
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clehrich
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« Reply #13 on: February 06, 2003, 10:42:43 PM »

I think part of the problem in all such games is the "party" dynamic.  The Star Trek examples hit this pretty effectively: a show in which there are central characters but periodically even the minor ones get their own shows is more RPG-friendly than one in which the minor characters are, well, minor.  The problem is that if you have more than, say, four players (apart from GM), it takes a long time for each PC to cycle around to center-stage in a traditional party-dynamic game.  Furthermore, the nature of the party is such that there's going to be a leader, intentionally or otherwise, and that person can't help hogging the stage unless she's a truly brilliant leader.

I'd like to see sessions move away from the party model entirely.  I like having the PC group, but I think a constantly cycling focus on each PC's own sideline plots would be great.  Every dog has his day every time, as it were.  The other players would play their regular PCs or NPCs as the situtation permits, but during Your Scene you're the focus of attention, and Your Shtick is everyone's interest.  And then it's the next guy's turn.  I don't think this is easy, although I have some ideas about how it might be done, but protagonization would be a snap in such a structure.

Anyone ever tried something like this?
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Chris Lehrich
Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #14 on: February 07, 2003, 05:46:31 AM »

Quote from: clehrich
Anyone ever tried something like this?

You've just described what I've always understood a Premise-driven Narrativist game *can* work like. I had been given to understand that this sort of thing works better using Premise-driven Narrativism (is there another kind? I keep repeating it to accent the presence of the Premise) because in either Gamism or Simulationism, the players wait while a player has their time because it's "their turn." There isn't much, certainly nothing in the broad strokes view of the three modes, to enforce another player's interest. Perhaps individual games can offer a solution to this, but just plain old G and S you simply have to wait because that's only fair or good sportmanship. Never mind how boring it is. However, in Narrativism, the Premise is the glue which holds the game together. The whole group is addressing the same Premise so interest comes from watching how the other guy is answering that question. Or so I am led to believe, and why it is so disappointing that my GM just don't get it.
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