2007-04-18: Leverage in gaming
I recently noticed something wierd and useful. It's something that's been a boondoggle for me in gaming, so it seems worth sharing, though it seems like such a no-brainer. But to talk about it, I have to explain "what my character did" so beware:
Here I am playing Julia's game Steal Away Jordan, where you play slaves in the antebellum US South. I'm having the same problem I always have: can't figure out, for the life of me, who the heck my character is for the first 2-3 session of the game. I've talked about this before, and my game group kids me about it, but man, it frickin' sucks to be there.
My character: Cupit. Yes, that is a stupid way to spell "Cupid". Sucks to be a slave and named by somebody else, doesn't it? Cupit is from Florida (possibly Black Seminole?), though he's in Tennessee now. He has nimble hands, he has a friend who is a servant girl in the house. He doesn't seem to take anything seriously. All this is fine, but it doesn't orient me in the character. I'm still wondering, "what do I do with this guy?"
Okay, so other major connections: My character is in love with this girl Ginny. Joshua's kickin' recently from Africa and also the local root doctor character, also happens to be in love with Ginny. She's pregnant, and playing all ends against the middle by saying it's mine, his, the recently deceased master of the plantations, the works. This is much better. I feel connected to storylines, there is adversity pointed at me. Great!
But when the characters shove off into play, I'm still lost. Joshua frames a string of scenes between his character and Ginny. We learn more about them both, and he establishes their intimacy and that they are going to run away with one another. I should see some way to interject, some way to protagonize myself here—but instead I feel undercut in what I'd written. Why did I choose to compete with him again? I ask myself. But look what I did here:
I put my character in direct competition for the love of a woman:
—with a character who was described as being more forceful, more skilled and more of a local commodity among the other characters than my own.
—I didn't provide myself with anything that would be a draw for Ginny, except for my protestations that "the kid is mine". Who know or cares! Ginny will be for whoever it makes the most sense for her to back being the father.
—then, I let the scene framing get away from me and I didn't establish anything in play to help: no long-term relationship with Ginny, no saving her from any fate.
I put myself in a weak position with respect to what my character wants in the story. Even mechanically, Cupit is way weaker than Joshua's character. But that hasn't mattered at all. What I am missing right here is leverage in the story, narrative capital.
Okay. Next session, my capital arrives. In the first session, I mentioned that I'd like my character to be from Florida, and possibly he knows people who have escaped to live in Marroon colonies there, possibly with Seminole Indians. Julia didn't have any specific information about this, so she said it was okay, but we didn't do much more with it. Cut to the second session, and she tells me that, yes. Slaves would escape and be adopted into Seminole culture. There were communities of freed slaves living with Native Americans. I could totally know some, or have been part of one and so on.
This changes things for me. Suddenly, when I insert myself into a scene where Vincent's character is planning to leave—I have something that makes them wait for me before leaving. When I got tell Ginny that I want her to leave with me, she rejects him, but then thinks twice—and decides to reject Joshua's character instead. At least saying that she'd rather be with Cupit, that he could pass for a free black man.
Kickers, interests, conflicts, advantages, attributes: all these mechanical things are there to help us find story capital. And also, mechanics enforce the weight of elements we make up to act as leverage. My 2d8 "dusty bowler" in Dogs weighs heavily, if I've invested a lot of fallout in it. A good kicker gives the GM or other players really solid narrative capital to use against you. A less useful kicker can be ignored.
I feel like these things should be obvious. But they just aren't to me. Perhaps I'm not alone.
2007-04-18 09:55:54 Troy_Costisick
You aren't alone :)
Thanks for this.
2007-04-18 18:38:34 Julia
This is really useful and helpful to me! If I weren't at work, I'd be reading and taking notes. But for now, may I give you hints that are specific to your character and possibly the game?
First, this is my second time ever GMing a game. I'm not very good at it, I'm inexperienced, and I'm nervous GMing with a bunch of folks who know way more about how to do this tham me. So where you think you're struggling, just know I'm barely keeping my head above water. So maybe some of the problem is my inexperience and the fact we're playing a mostly but not completely finished game and thus exploring uncharted waters?
I would use Cupit's weaknesses as an advantage. Something I was going to bring up in the next session is that in Ginny's eyes, Ginny's baby is Ginny's baby. It doesn't matter who the father is. Think of Cupit's (and the other slaves') community as a matriarchy under the masters' patriarchy. Paternal ownership is a modern assumption. Assume that Joshua's "crazy outsider African" character doesn't understand this, whereas Cupit would totally get it. If Cupit gets it, he's got a real upper hand against Martial. He should let Ginny know that he respects that her baby is hers. Once the Master Strong died (before our story started) the baby's paternity only really mattered to Elizabeth.
As the game designer, I'm glad you're chafing under your stupid misspelled name! Maybe it's insignificant, but I can see a character better when I know her name. What would Cupit call himself? What will he change his name to if he manages to escape?
2007-04-18 20:05:41 Emily
I'm glad it's useful to you, and I hope it doesn't make you more self-conscious. I'm using this as an example because it is fairly clear, but it's the kind of thing that often happens to me!
As I said, other folks in the game had no problem finding what they needed—this is a weak spot for me, so I'm grateful for your help in mirroring what became leverage for me, it helped me figure out what I needed to do to feel more empowered.
I love that you gave my character that name. I'll have to think about what he would call himself. I'm sure he has something. And very interesting stuff about Ginny's baby.
You're doing a great job, Julia! Thanks for helping me find my way.
2007-04-24 17:31:42 John Harper
This is a wonderful post. Thanks for articulating this so well, Emily. It's something I've struggled with, too.
I'm linking this on the Atom. :-)
2007-05-10 23:51:41 Levi
Very solid thinking, there.
2007-05-15 06:01:53 Joshua A.C. Newman
"Martial's" name sure the fuck isn't Martial.
"What's your name, boy?"
".....They call me Martial."
We'll see *that* get ugly the next time we sit down. Thursday?
Emily, I'm bringin' it hardcore to Ginny next game. You'd better be ready to fight.
2007-05-22 14:02:45 Julia
Okay, "Martial" and "Cupit" should also remember that not only is Ginny's baby her own, but her baby's father will be determined by her as the person best suited for the role. There's no DNA testing in the 19th century. Ha!
I can tell you that Ginny's baby daddy isn't dead, though. Not yet, at least.
2007-05-23 07:37:14 NinJ
Martial's not worried. He's getting what he wants or he's getting dead.
2007-05-23 18:09:30 Emily
Ginny is a great character. Very complex and strongly motivated. You do fabulous npcs, Julia. Worlds away from the "here's the information you need to know" variety.
Can't wait until we're all in the same state at the same time so we can play again! Have fun with Miss Schiffer's.