character restraint

edited May 2011 in Story Games
Ive been thinking about the way roleplaying characters behave. Typically they are unrestrained.

They take actions and make huge decisions that real people dont. example: They get into homicidal fights at the drop of a hat with little thought for the consequences - injury, retribution etc...

They dont get anxious, nervous or uncertain.

etc...

Is this just a function of the majority of games out there - there is not much fun to be had playing a cowardly, indecisive protagonist? Are there agmes out there that handle character restraint in a way that dosent hamstring the ability of the character to be the protagonist?

Comments

  • The only thing that comes to mind is "act under fire" in AW.
    And character restraint overall is not a big part of the game, in the sense you're referring to.
  • It's not just roleplaying characters, it's characters throughout literature.

    If everyone in Romeo and Juliet just sat down and talked for five minutes like normal people, it would all work out fine, and nobody would ever give a shit about Romeo and Juliet.
  • I think it's because we have more investment in our own lives than those of our characters. That's why I think real risk (as in loss) is important if you want people to feel risks squeezing their guts in games just as threatening situations do in real life.
  • @Jason: I think this all the time. "If only they had good conflict resolution skills!" That kind of thing can only be interesting when the adversity comes from some environmental factor, or a monster or something.
  • I think that difference is what makes games or literature or movies fun. They free us from our inhibitions and fear. We restrain our actions because we are afraid of punishment for breaking the law, or loss of relationships, or injury. Being afraid sucks, even if it just afraid if I put my wife's backgammon piece on the bar she won't talk to me for the rest of the evening.

    Taking on a role free from fear is liberating.
  • edited May 2011
    Here's my take, for what it's worth:

    If you look at fictional characters from stories, they hesitate sometimes and are bold and unrestrained sometimes. But when they are bold, they are fucking bold.

    Restrained and bold are rhythms of a story: Luke refuses to go with Obi-Wan to Alderaan when Ob-Wan first makes the offer. Indian Jones does not look at the contents of the Ark of the covenant at the climax, even though before this his strongest character trait is an obsessive coveting and need to look upon ancient things. Neo resists all of Morpheus' efforts to perceive reality for the first have of The Matrix. In long form cable drama (Dexter, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galatica, The Shield, Rescue Me and more) the characters are always waffling about what do, how to do it, and if they should do it.

    The trick, for me, is that stories are about the choices characters make. That's not to say you can't tell a series of fictional events and call it "a story." But if you look at the stories that have been popular for centuries or last week on TV, they all carry the question, "How will this person choose to behave?" The restrains are there because the consequences of the choices have emotional or ethical weight. Will Luke betray his aunt and uncle by running off with Obi-Wan? Will Dexter risk putting his wife in danger for his own obsessions? And so on. In Shakespeare, the Greek tragedies, episodes of Seinfeld, folk tales, The Lord of the Rings, an episode of House... it's always there.

    In a lot of RPG play, this is not a concern. It's fun to be violent, or the fantasy setting equivalent of Navy SEALS and just go in and batter shit down efficiently and well. Or, for a lot of people, being there in the the fantastical world in some sort of immersion is the priority. Choices might have be made, but they are part of the experience of living in the details of the environment.

    But in other games, this concern about choices is a vital part of play. In sessions I've played of Sorcerer, In A Wicked Age..., Prime Time Adventures, HeroQuest (in Glorantha), some of the best moments of play were when Players didn't know what their characters should choose to do next, and got caught up for a moment deciding what choice to make. Of course, these games set characters up to be tied to other people in clever ways through rules and procedures.

    Now, you can do this with any game (I did with AD&D back in high school with my friends). Nor can any game make any group of people behave a certain way. (Anyone playing Sorcerer or Dogs can have his Character behave like an immoral moron. That's the Player's business, not the game's.)

    My only point is that it is the consequences of emotions, morality and the connective tissue between the fictional characters being of value to the Players (or the audience reading or watching something) that makes stories happen -- and the tradition of storytelling is full of characters caught up in moments of restraint, uncertainty, anxiety, and even indecision, and even sometimes cowardice.
  • edited May 2011
    Posted By: Christopher KubasikBut if you look at the stories that have been popular for centuries or last week on TV, they all carry the question, "How will this person choose to behave?"
    Yep! To me, the fun of Story Now play is reaching a series of moments where we're honestly not sure what we think we'd do, what we think the characters would do, what we think the characters should do... but because it's us wringing our hands and making those decisions, it's exciting and fun. And if it sounds a heck of a lot like Step On Up play, that's because it is. The big difference is that Story Now play looks to advancement as a vessel for further exploring the relationship/moral/ethical/"charged" side of things, rather than about greater efficacy per se.
    In AW, my Operator, Olympias, started out as a traveling fix-it gal with a small crew of easygoing folks. When we were shanghaied by a local hardholder's warriors and forced to live in the bowels of his fortress, I decided Olympias would buy herself a katana. Her gun hadn't helped too much against the warriors, and even though a katana was, arguably, only about as effective as her 9mm (+1harm, sure, but hand range instead of close range), the moment she strapped on that sword was a huge change for her - suddenly, she wasn't an outraged, ineffectual oddjobber, but a proud and vicious wandering warrior with justice to win!
    That sword has since become very much the hammer-that-sees-nails-everywhere; it's gotten her into a lot of trouble since then, and really turned up the intensity of her desire to make the fortress a less shitty place to live. Her restraint comes out in that she would never use force against her friends unless they tried to harm her first, no matter how much they upset her, so when she does find a chance to slash off someone's hand or arm or whatever, she usually takes the opportunity to kind of release that tension.


    On another note, there's a huge amount of stuff that happens on-screen in TV that doesn't need to happen in RPGs. Some of this is because of genre conventions (if Conan is just gonna partner up with that thief he met, our party can meet in a tavern, no questions asked!), but some of it is because of the quirks of the medium: you don't have to have AW characters begin to establish their relationship in play, because Hx and Hx questions have already taken care of that for us.
    Your character sheet, especially if everyone can look at it, is basically a couple of chapters' worth of information about your PC. Instead of having to share it all in serial fashion, though, you can just arrange it neatly on the page and jump right into play!
  • edited May 2011
    Oops, wrong thread. Disregard.
  • Posted By: Zac in VirginiaOn another note, there's a huge amount of stuff that happens on-screen in TV that doesn't need to happen in RPGs. Some of this is because of genre conventions (if Conan is just gonna partner up with that thief he met, our party can meet in a tavern, no questions asked!), but some of it is because of the quirks of the medium: you don't have to have AW characters begin to establish their relationship in play, because Hx and Hx questions have already taken care of that for us.

    Your character sheet, especially if everyone can look at it, is basically a couple of chapters' worth of information about your PC. Instead of having to share it all in serial fashion, though, you can just arrange it neatly on the page and jump right into play!
    Yes... and...

    The Conan example is especially rare in long form cable drama. In Dexter, Dexter is already dating Rita when the series begins, has a sister, and the ghost of his dad (or whatever) floating around after him. In Battlestar Galacitca, a lot of the characters already have relationships with other characters before the colonies are destroyed. In Game of Thrones the same thing. (Yes, based on a novel, but adapted to HBO because it is well suited for long-form cable drama.)

    I think long form cable drama, which really didn't exist until 2000, is really my favorite model of saying, "Hey, we're building something like this," when it comes to describing how I like to play these crazy story games: Multi-protagonist, braided storylines that spread out over many episodes.

    As for Character sheets, exactly. I'm not familiar with AW yet, but you can see the same "connections to other characters" in action with "the back of the character sheet" in Sorcerer, Best Interests targeted against other Characters in In a Wicked Age..., the way people can make other characters as Traits on a character sheet in Hero Wars or Herequest. All of these games (and others) bake in a base of relationships that the Player wants his Character to value -- and so a lot of hesitancy and restraint will come into play because of how the Character's actions can affect or impact these other characters.

    This is why, when people forget to fill out the grid on the back of the character sheet in Sorcerer, the game is pretty much doomed from the start. Without stakes in other people, a sorcerer's actions have no consequence of actual interest. It's those moments when the sorcerer has to think, "Wait.... should I be doing this?" that the game hits stride. And that, again, is going to rest on how the character's action is going to affect, in one way or another, someone else, whether it be another Player Character or a Game Master Character.

    Each of these games handles building these connections differently. But it's always about building these elements of restraint for the characters so the choices have consequences.
  • Its fine for a player to want to play like that, but how to back it up in the game design?

    Restraint is behavior that most people learn through fear of consequences. So its up to the GM to present situations which have actual consequences for that make the player decide 'oh, do I really want that to happen?' but its not that easy.

    actual play from a game I GMed last week: the players wanted to infiltrate the nazi fortress, so they hijacked a truck, stole the uniforms and bluffed their way in. (This is in 'story phase' of my game, which means all of this was narrated as it wasn't closely realted to PC goals yet. the point of that is to let the PCs have their way, but concentrate on consequences of their decisions).

    So how they did it involved crashing the truck and getting it banged up a bit, and also it got shot up a bit in a gunfight. I was all over this as a consequence of their decision to use force to hijack a truck. What would the consequences be when they went to bluff their way inside?

    they chose to tell the nazis that they were ambushed by partisans on the way up the road. At this point I felt compelled to introduce the consequences of all their decisions so far -- 'OK, I said, they want you to guide them back to the ambush in force'. Everyone looked at me horrified like - 'you dumbass, we went to all that effort to get in and now you're going to make us go back out again? All the PC goals were invested in being snuck inside the fortress... So after some hand waving and dithering I managed to let the PCs talk the nazis out of that, and just let them wander inside, despite my plausibility alarm going ding-ding, and also despite my wanting to make the characters deal with the consequences of their actions.

    I just felt a bit 'damned if I did, damned if I didnt.' What to do?
  • edited May 2011
    Hi Steve,

    I was just at the gym, and realized that I had only addressed the pre-play set-up elements in the game I was talking about. And I thoughts, "Forgot about the mechanics that regulate behavior. I better post about that!" And you posted before I could get to it. But here it is:

    Now I want to be clear--these elements are part of the games! They are part of the rules! Just because they are words and characters and bits of fiction, it doesn't mean they have weight.

    The games I've referenced so far were designed to make stories. And that, as far as I can tell from the designers, is meant literally. So, it's not extra stuff, this business about having connections with characters and community and the Players naming things that matter to them that they sew into their Characters as they create them.

    If you just have the "restraining mechanics" without this prep, you, as the Game Master, are suddenly showing up with a big stick out of the blue. "Hey!" your players get to say, "where did all the moral and emotional conundrums come from? This wasn't part of the deal!"

    We are, after all, pattern making creatures, and part of the pleasure of stories is found not just in the subject matter of the stories, but often the less obvious elements of their construction: motifs, themes, contrasting behaviors of characters and so on. It's the same way a painting is about the subject (oranges in a bowl), but the pleasure of a painting also comes from the palette the artist chose for the painting, the composition, the brustrokes and so on.

    So, all these games I've mentioned have mechanical elements that act as regulators in play. But, in my opinion, they only really work when stitched with all the other elements of prep I've covered above.

    So, I'll grab Sorcerer as it's taking up too much space in my head right now.

    In Sorcerer there is a stat every character has called Humanity.

    Humanity can be left as the definition, or a Game Master can customize, defining it as something more focused: Compassion; Honor; Service to Others... whatever

    And then there is Lore. Lore is defined by the Game Master, and it's whatever rituals sorcerers do to contact, summon, or bind demons that let them bring demons into their lives to get things done more efficiently.

    The key is that the behaviors of Lore are defined in contrast to Humanity. So, when a Player Character is engaged in rituals of Lore, the Player will be working against what it means to be Human in the story.

    It's important to note that characters can do activities outside of Lore as well, that work against Humanity.

    During play, characters will end up doing things that either act in accordance with Humanity or work against the definition of Humanity. This doesn't really have to be forced. By that I mean, the Game Master often put pressure on the Players to make decisions on behalf of their characters in situations along the "thematic axis" of Humanity. But you don't want to be jumping from one morally challenging moment to the next. That's just too forced and feels too much like cardboard. The moments come along, like an any story, and the feel a natural part of the growing narrative.

    So, if a Players has a character do something in line with Humanity, the Player makes a roll and there is a 50% chance his character's Humanity score will go up a point. And if the does an action or deed that is against Humanity, he makes a roll with a 50% chance his Humanity will go down a point.

    Now, as long as the score is above 0, the Player can have the character behave any way he wants. The value of Humanity does not affect behavior at all. Whatever the Player wants to have the character do, the character can do.

    But if the Humanity score hits 0, the character has bottomed out on his Humanity. He has lost all of his compassion, or honor or whatever. He is no longer worthy of being a character (I always think of what happens to Brad Pitt's character in SE7EN in this regard. But there are countless variations.)

    So you can anything with your character -- but you risk losing Humanity or the possibility of gaining Humanity. But if you dance over the edge of 0, there's a chance you're going to lose your character. (Death is not the big threat in Sorcerer. Losing your humanity is.)


    As to your example, it all sounds very cool. But I kind of see it from the Players' point of view. To escort the Nazi back is essentially what I call "Hitting the Reset Button." They're going to be down the road, with Nazis. And they just did that. Nothing is changed with the consequences you introduced. In fact, things are just moved backward.

    I believe the key to this is found in the fact that no other characters are threatened by the actions of the Player Characters. As I noted above, it is our relationships between the Player Characters and other fictional characters that defines the choices in easy ways for the Players.

    So, if I had been in your situation I would have had the Nazis produce six or eight banged up, captured civilians an ask, "Are these the men?" Because now, suddenly, having snuck in with a lie, they are bound to the fate of the men the Nazis captured. Whether the civilians really are partisans or not, I don't know off the top of my head. But the Players, through their characters could choose to abandon the civilians, rescue them, open a gun fight to rescue them, or try something more clever, abandon their mission, or complete the mission and rescue the civilians and so on...

    But in this way new choices are presented that build off of what they have done so far, and lead into the next set of actions based on what the Players have their characters do next.
  • Thats fucking brilliant - the civies I mean. Let me attempt to codify that in some way, so as to present it as a simple set of reminders to be used during play:

    better consequences:

    lead to further decisions
    effect other characters
    allow the fiction to move forward

    worse consequences:

    restrict options
    prevent the fiction from moving forward


    Is that fair enough?

    Can anyone think of others to add to either list?
  • You just made the book I'm writing easier. Thank you.

    Yes, that was kind of great what you did just there.
  • Posted By: Christopher KubasikSo, if I had been in your situation I would have had the Nazis produce six or eight banged up, captured civilians an ask, "Are these the men?"
    That raises the question "How do you come up with awesome bangs out of nowhere?"

    Because mine are usually like, "Okay, um, so, the supervillain, he's got your, um, [insert something from character sheet] and, um, he'll give it to you if you leave him alone."
  • Practice?

    (And check them against the list above before you actually speak them out loud, I suppose.)
  • Look thoughtful, and hope a player blurts out something you can use.
  • edited May 2011
    Posted By: jdfristromThat raises the question "How do you come up with awesome bangs out of nowhere?"
    Jaime: The answer tot his question is probably the reason I have found Play Sorcerer to be so impossible to write. But now I'm writing what I can, and address this as best I can.
    Posted By: Ice Cream Emperor(And check them against the list above before you actually speak them out loud, I suppose.)
    That's a big part of my answer, actually. In Play Sorcerer I write, "Slow down," about a dozen times. For some reason, there's sometimes this race people at a rpg table put themselves through, as if we as people at the table need to respond as quickly as the characters in crisis. Which is nonsense. So, yeah. Sometimes I stop and just think. I'll say, as the Game Master, "Hang on a moment," and run through a kind of checklist (which is kind of intuitive these days) and then spit something out.

    Other than that, I'm writing a whole, mind-bogglingly difficult book, which I need to get to right now.

    All I can offer now is, watch TV and Film with an eye to the moments characters make choices. I know I take a lot of nonsensical shit for pointing about beats from TV and Film to illustrate this stuff -- but the lessons are there, available, and they are good lessons. The best how to books are on how to understand dramatic narrative are good plays and screenplays. (I suggest dramatic narrative because dramatic narrative is story told through the interaction of characters, which is how most RPGs work, rather than narrative, which depends more on inner life off characters).

    Watch an hour of "House," pausing to note down when characters make choices, and your eyes will open as to how stories are not about the "plot" but built by what the characters choose to do in the face of moral and emotional confusion. Pause whenever big reveals or revelations, threats or opportunities arrive that really put the screws to the moral and emotional concerns of the characters and you have terrific lessons in Bangs. House is good for this exercise because it's compressed and procedural. But if House isn't your thing, there's an hour of Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, Lost, Deadwood, and of course Shakespeare, the Greek Tragedies, David Mamet (see Glengary Glenn Ross, see Red Belt), The Godfather, Aliens, blah, blah, blah.
  • any more suggestions for better or worse consequences?
  • I added the following:

    Better:
    • doesn’t break the logic of the world or suspension of disbelief

    Worse:
    • contradict the logic of the world or strains suspension of disbelief
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