the Fairgame Archive

2006-01-11: Cutting up the rpg pie
by Emily

Listening to discussion about the balance of powers on the Alito hearings, and all this talk of co-playership & pull brings me back to the good old basics of what we're doing when we game & design rpgs.  Making sh*t up. But who gets to & how?

Let's take a solo game of imagination.  It would look like one smiley face in Vincent's diagram, plus a balloon of imaginary stuff, plus some cues on the other side, if the player felt like it.  In fact, people do this all the time: the cues are a pad of paper or keyboard etc, and the game is called writing a short-story.  Author stance all the way.

If I play this game, I think about what the world is like, what the characters do, I can choose to think as much or as little about what she feels/thinks/brushes her teeth with as I want.  Let's set aside the readership issue for now and move on to the next game.

Two player imagination:

Now there are the classic two person smiley faces and we get to territory delved into by John Kim, Vincent and others. What happens is what we agree happens: to character, setting etc. We use whatever cues we like: dice, paper, powerpoint slides, you name it.  Here's where it gets complicated.  Where do we now author (in the normal, non-rpg-centric sense) from?

Do we throw ideas out to one another and see what sticks?

Do we brainstorm about what kind of story we want to see and improvise off of one another's ideas?

Do we say "you think up everything about these parts of what we make up, and I'll think up everything about these"?

Or do we say "you write what this character does and I'll write everything else?"

Now, mind, once you get into 7 or 8 smiley faces sitting around a table, the arrows pointing to the many imagination bubbles from faces and back over to cues does get mighty unwieldy.  I can well imagine wanting some kind of switching post or hub to get people working together.  But just looking at what we are really doing (making things up) why is scenario 4 such the standard place we come to the hobby, rather than 1, 2 or 3 or anything else?

It could be because of real world cues: the miniature, specifically. The piece. Rpg arose from table top wargaming.  The most natural way to split up all the creative activities would be to say: this (your character) is your piece, this is mine. We deal with ours, and this other person has to take charge of the board & refereeing the rules.

But then, how do we explain narrative rp if that's so? Narrative rp (arising out of the fanfic world) has joint authoring of narrative but draws one of its strongest and most important lines "at-the-skin". Not only do you not get to say generally what happens to my character, I have final authority about anything that happens to it. My script immunity is limited only by the social contract between the players that says that if you don't take hits, you're a wanker, or perhaps, it makes a bad story and so shows poor sportsmanship.  My experience with this is only second or third hand, so I leave it to others to talk about the ramifications of this.

But so why is this so pervasive? Why all this position identification with the character? Why, when there is so much to author out there, do we keep wrapping up our authority into people shaped packages? I want to know is this just habit? Is it coincidence that it's been an end point for two divergent strains of the same form? Are there other oases of more mixed up fictive exploration out there? Is role monogamy to blame? If I only have one character am I going to be unwilling to release control because that's all I've got to author with?

Or is it something deeper that we can't combat?  Is it just that we need to learn how to divide the pie differently, or is the issue that we need a different pie?

2006-01-12 15:57:36 Emily

In reflecting about it last night, I think it's the very fact of the role in role playing. It's very hard not to identify strongly with a person that you play.

2006-01-12 16:09:11 Mark W

I think you need to consider our brains, too. Humans are really, really good at modelling other minds in our heads - a necessity for being a highly-social animal. Modeling bits and pieces of a bunch of minds coherently? Much harder.

2006-01-12 16:32:48 Emily

I hadn't considered that. Also, meshing your model of "being you" with someone else is just not a normal activity for most folks. It's hard to describe your experience well enough to get someone else to be able to understand what you've seen/heard etc, much less give you a different version of it. Even less to try to share your internal dialog with someone else, which is what character sharing looks like.  If that makes sense.

2006-01-12 17:13:29 Chris

If you think about it as a formalized discusssion, more people have an easier time with facilitated discussions ("...I'll make up the rest") than learning formalized etiquette (debate, legal actions, conch passing, etc.).

Add in what Mark is saying- it's definitely easier for people to consider motivation than narrative structure to figure out what happens.  After all, in life, we have to deal with real people all the time and situations that arise out of motivations rather than narrative structures.

2006-01-12 17:16:57 xenopulse

It seems to me that I'm one of the few people around who were actually deeply involved in narrative RP (we need a better word for this; I know! I'll call it Character Ownership Narrative Game, or CONG!), which really surprises me. I would have thought that our geeky gamer culture would have jumped into the internet world of CONG all at once.

I actually played CONGs every day, for a good 20-30 hours a week, for about four years (1996-2000), and then much less, but still frequently for the next couple of years. I know, that's a lot of time spent gaming, but I found Lisa that way, and that makes it all worth it.

Anyway, here is my reflection on another main reason why character ownership is the foundation for this type of game:

No solid Social Contract.

Imagine a place with 50-100 players around at any one time (even at night, because it transcends time zones and is played by people all around the globe). Old players leave and new players show up every day. The Social Contract is in constant fluctuation. That's a fundamental difference to a table top group, even at a con, *especially* when you don't have a rule system to establish the basic distribution of authority.

There are great things that come out of this: you get to play in an environment with dozens of people, characters that have plotlines you don't even know about but could still be touched by, things are going on behind the scenes, and if you don't like to play with one person, it's so easy to just play with someone else.

But it also means that you have no chance to easily negotiate any other distribution of authority, so you fall back into just playing and controlling your character. If not you, who else? A bunch of strangers?

Now: once you make friends, you can negotiate other arrangements. I've GMed several games with people where I was given more authority and could hurt the other people's characters; basically, I had complete control. Think about the trust that necessitates.

Another reason is a strong tendency of CONG players to identify with their characters, often because the players had no RPG experience and felt that the character was more of a personal chat avatar. For some, they were simply wish fulfillment and socialization vessels (including cybersex, which was rampant).

- Christian

2006-01-12 18:29:22 Emily

CONG.  jeepers. Cool.

For some, they were simply wish fulfillment and socialization vessels (including cybersex, which was rampant).

So in those cases it's not even identification really, it's more of an alt identity, like a mask.  0 incentive to look from more than one view point.

Although, playing multiple characters online is normal & even necessary many times in order to fulfill roles.  It is like an ensemble acting cast. Or rather, it is one.

Imagine a place with 50-100 players around at any one time (even at night, because it transcends time zones and is played by people all around the globe). Old players leave and new players show up every day. The Social Contract is in constant fluctuation.

Makes my head spin.  The lines of demarcation need to be strong & easy to see.

There is, though, all kinds of scripting & narrative thought going on. But it's in the background, on locked threads and such like. Any light you can shed on that XP or others? Those folks are looking specifically at the structure & arcs etc. Is that limited to administrators & everyone else interacts with the planned plot via their own character's motivations (which are much easier to get a handle on, good point, Chris.)

2006-01-12 20:14:44 Joshua BishopRoby

Emily, do you watch Stargate at all?  There's a freeform play-by-email game my wife and I are in that you could join to see how it goes.  One of the great strengths of this form is that the time commitment is low and flexible; just check your email once a day or so.

2006-01-12 20:04:05 Mark W

I'll pipe up as someone else who's done this, although not in the same way as Christian talks about. Back in the prehistoric days of the interweb (I'm talking my college days, 1986-1990), there was e-mail, and there were local BBS-style systems connected by FidoNet. We used to do rp on the BBS by writing these big masively intertwined narratives and posting them on the campus BBS. There were two main kinds of product: single-author stories using a stable of shared-universe characters created by the group of players in previous play, in which you were pretty much "anything goes" as far as using somebody else's characters; and braided narratives assembled round-robin-style, usually with massive coordination through e-mail and offline conversation.

There was NO character identification, really - we tended to spin up characters as needed for the storyline and furthermore, we'd re-write them pretty regularly between stories.

Later on, I tried to get into the MUD/USENET style of play that Christian talks about, but I found it difficult to get anything done without massive overhead - I think because the scale of the "games" meant that you had to manage negotiations with too darn many people at once over events, characters, and locations. All too often, you'd tick along nicely for 24 hours and then somebody would storm into the thread insisting on rewinding continuity back to where he went home for the weekend and lost his net connection.

2006-01-12 20:20:56 Joshua BishopRoby

As to your questions, Emily, it's always been my understanding that freeform eventually traces its roots back to D&D and thus wargames, as well.  The one-player-one-(primary-)character is a potent historical artifact.

However, it's also easy.  We all have experience being one person in a much larger environment, and so when we simulate a fictional environment, a single person-shaped point of view is the easiest to latch on to.

And lastly, thinking narratively is not a mode of thought that is common.  Come visit California and watch a movie with my dad.  He'll stop watching movies if they're "unrealistic"—and bailed out of Chasing Amy when the threesome was suggested because, you know, that doesn't actually happen in the real world.  Which totally missed the point in that the character had been pushed to the point where he'd make such a suggestion, and fueled the reactions of the other two characters—but all that wasn't important.  So why can't we distribute authority based on narrative structure?  Cause most people don't think like that.

2006-01-12 22:44:39 Ben Lehman

I've been thinking recently that it would be interesting to have something the other way.  Explicitly establish a character as an icon—you in the gaming world.  Not for a narnia fantasy thing but so that you, you at the table, have a direct voice in the fictional events.



2006-01-13 19:01:20 Brand Robins


Having looked at the marginalia, which is now longer than your post, I thought about this in the context of MUSH play (which I have a lot of experience with) and some types of LARP play (which I have little experience with).

In both situations there are a group of people who are basically getting together to "hang out with friends." There was a post about this on the Forge not to long ago (that I can't find now) in which when the poster told his friends he didn't like LARP they told him that was fine: all of them were just going to get drunk and hang out with each other in character. He then questioned why they would do that when they could much more easily hang out with each other OOC and get drunk. His thought on the matter was that for some folks its easier to hang out when you're a cool character than when you're your awkward self.

In MUSH play you often combine this with the ability to be fully the person you make up (thus the obsessive detail some people have with the descriptions of their characters) in a fully imaginary environment. For text-friendly thinkers its about as close to virtual reality as you get. And in this world you basically get a bunch of "guys and girls that I would like to be in this fantasy world" hanging out with a bunch of like characters. The character is, as you say, the icon of the player in the projected world of the SIS. As such the level of character-identification is automatically high, because there is no fictional character as such, just a referential icon overlaid upon the player's self.

Thus we get to one of the important reasons for "consent based games" which run as Emily says, at the skin: "Not only do you not get to say generally what happens to my character, I have final authority about anything that happens to it." This is important in those situations, for those players, because they are really getting to say (or not say) what happens to their virtual self.

This also falls into the assumed mode of telling story through both forward progression movement and task resolution, because those in the story are not thinking of it as a story. They are thinking of it as the life experience of their virtual alter-ego, who interacts with their virtual world and friends in a similar way, though cooler and more escapist, to the way the player interacts with their real life.

That many get frustrated with the fact this doesn't (always/often?) lead to good story is a bit odd, however. We all know that our own lives only occasionally lead to good story, so if we're playing out our alter egos lives in a naturalistic progression mode that mirrors real life (but with cool powers), why the shock that it only occasionally does too?

Note, this is pretty specific to MUSH play at this point. Joint fiction and many narrative games take a very different slant on it, and often come at it fiction forward rather than life forward. Perhaps in that case the underlying motive is similar (me in this cool thing, as shown by the focus of this avatar character), but the method of construction is different? That is to say, they actually approach it as constructing a story using whatever their understanding/mode of dramatic writing is, where the MUSHers approach it through a naturalistic life mode?

(Which btw, destroys the whole "you need to differentiate between your OOC and IC/self and character" argument pretty hard. For those folks the only difference between IC and OOC is that one is happening virtually.)

2006-01-13 23:53:59 xenopulse


I need to write a few thousand words on CONGs someday to get through this all in detail.

In short, a lot of play I've seen is actually not very structurally planned at all. It's mostly about character interaction, building relationships, and seeing how everyone interrelates. The problem with creating stories in this environment is that it has no agreed-upon "setting", if you want. Try creating situations without setting, and you're left with what you have: characters. Ergo, character interaction.

There's planning and scheming going on in the background, and people talking ooc all the time, but it's hard to really plan much when you can't enforce anything. That's why small groups form that grant GM powers to a player for running small scenarios. Or other games where you create a hierarchy. We had a game where the GM played a Queen of a realm with several smaller kingdoms. Some players got to create Houses and rule over them (IC as well as OOC as sub-GMs), and she'd resolve disputes between the Houses, also IC and OOC. That worked pretty well, actually, though you get to the point where people befriend the queen OOC to have her favor IC, etc. etc.

Anyway. The point is, once smaller groups form, you get more structure and trust and favorable negotiations, and then more planning and actual plots and setting and situations.

- Christian

2006-01-14 00:14:17 Mo

When we're children, usually around the age of two, the identity formation process begins. Formative experiences begin to formulate identity in the conceptual transition of separates. Somewhere in the process, something will happen which brings a sense of recognition, in a symbolic rather than linguistic sense that I am a distinct entity. This is the formative, primodrial "I". Lacan said that this occurs in children the first time the see their reflection in the mirror, and the monkey brain recgonizes that the reflection in the mirror is themselves.

From this point forward, the child's brain seeks to make distinctions between themselves and others: they begin to understand that "Mother" is not "I" (quotes exist because this is not a linguistic differentiation). During this time, Winnicott pointed out, they adopt a "transition object" a blanket, a bear, a doll, a ball. The object, to the child symbolizes a conceptual other... something that is separate from that "I". Having the transition object emotionally calms the child from a sense of separation anxiety. It allows the child to feel safe and connected even while he is coming to the understanding that he is distinct from everything else around him. The theory goes that we repeat this process over and over again throughout our lives. We attach to objects that are familiar to keep ourselves from feeling lost and separate in the world.

So maybe we build characters because the serve as transition objects in activities that require intensified social competition or intensified social negotiational collaborative energy. Maybe having a second me just comforts us and makes our social, relaxation time feel more comfortable and social and relaxed.

Funnily enough, Lacan went one more in the theory I talked about up top: he said that at the moment that the child recognizes himself in the mirror, something else happens besides the formation of the symbolic concept of "I". Because the child at this stage has no actualized concept of self, the child also has no concept of self doubt and the "I" becomes the "imago", or ideal self that the child, that we all strive to (unsuccessfully) become for the rest of our lives. If the character is a transitional object, maybe character can also be an expression of the ideal self.

Really, when you think about it, it's really a crazy and interesting hobby we have here.

2006-01-14 00:16:22 Brand Robins


That would explain why some people have such a huge and overwhelming response to their character being attacked or critizied or losing. (The "my guy is always right and moral and justified!" response.) When that happens we aren't just attacking the virtual them, we are attacking the image of themselves as the best they can ever see themselves being. We aren't just saying they suck, but that everything they hope to be sucks.


2006-01-16 17:36:49 Emily

Let me emphasize what you just said:

When that happens we aren't just attacking the virtual them, we are attacking the image of themselves as the best they can ever see themselves being. We aren't just saying they suck, but that everything they hope to be sucks.

We are stepping out of the shallows here, folks.  More to come.

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