Etiquette about sharing characters

edited October 2012 in Play Advice
We played Durance on Thursday night. It was great. I'm a fan of the streamlined situation generation and the questions that drive play in scenes. Lots of characters and lots of death. Good stuff.

After we played, we chatted a bit, and it became clear that two players had had a bit of a tussle over how much shared authority people had over each other's characters. They communicated about it, and no blood was spilled, so all is well. But I've seen this kind of conversation happen in other contexts, and I've seen players get extremely frustrated about play that over-reached into their control zone. This phenomenon makes sense given that we are playing with new rules (that is, rules we've been working with in many games over the last 10+ years but are still very different from mainstream games), where a lot of shared authorship happens about the world, events, even character actions.

I keep wishing I had an easy way to say "oh, it's this kind of game". A short hand to get people on the same page early on in the game, and perhaps head off this kind of conflict. And a way to establish some etiquette about play. It's polite and respectful to make suggestions for other people's characters in games where everyone is expected to share characters and share ideas about what someone else's character would do, or what would happen to them. For example, Breaking the Ice works this way (with dice meted out in response), Microscope makes all characters fair game, and Universalis has defined resources that allow you to do so or not. In games where there is a *lot* of collaborative world building, storytelling and plot direction, it may seem natural to also then make suggestions for other players about their characters even when that is explicitly not what is allowed. Fiasco, Swords without Master and Psi*Run are games with a ton of shared authorship, in which the players retain full control over their characters (to my understanding). But it's easy to not see those bounds and slide into speaking for someone else.

We have the stances (actor for in-character play, author and director for story/meta-oriented, pawn for seeing the character as a means to an end). We also have role monogamy, or one-to-one (player to character), one-to-many (each person can have multiple characters) and many to many (characters are shared) play. Looking at it in those terms, this is when people make in-character or authorial/directorial decisions for someone else's character when they're playing a one-to-one game. But even so, Durance brought this up: in a game where mostly you make all the decisions for your character, there can be moments when it is right and good for someone else to. In Durance, in each scene a Guide asks a loaded question about one of the characters that frames them into a scene with potentially some decisions having been made about what the character did. For example, one Guide in our game said "How many notable characters died in the carpet bombing sent by the Brigadier over his kidnapped wife going native?" This was a great question, embraced by all. It's a powerful, and straightforward technique. But when that moment is done, control recedes back to the character's player.

I'm starting to think of traditional GM/Player distribution of authority as locked down. It's defined and doesn't shift (much) over time. It's mediated by the mechanics between the players. Many, many games aren't like that any more. The roles may shift, the boundaries be much more flexible. Having shared characters (or not) is probably the simplest way to talk about it.

I'm curious to see if this is an issue others also encounter, and if so how you deal with it and talk about it.


  • One issue with the Durance game was that, in the first scene, I as the Guide found myself destroying one of the Notables' ramshackle home in order to prompt a hard decision from her.

    This player of that Notable (to my knowledge) interpreted that as a sign that I (the player) was playing hardball.

    His response was (as the next Guide) to seize control over a Notable in my possession the very next scene to commit a borderline senseless act and then hand control back to me to deal with the fallout.

    The player-to-player conflict arose in that "my" Notable's actions then transformed into the kicker that launched most of the fiction, which made me feel as if I had the keys to my brand-new character snatched from my hands and used for a joyride before being handed back to me with a couple of solid dents on the vehicle. If I'm going to watch my character go up in flames in Act II, I at least want to be the force that catalyzes it in Act I.

    I mean, Durance is actually great because everyone gets to mess with everyone else's characters at the beginning, slapping oaths on each other and whatnot. But once play started, I felt that while scene-framing was a perfect time to mess with a Notable's situation ("Why is Sally hanging from that cliff?"), the act of escalation in a scene should not involve a Guide seizing control over a Notable not in the scene and doing whatever they want with him/her.

    @Emily_Care's point is well-taken: once we begin these kind of flexible, GM-less networks of power, we still have to keep transparent the limits of that power and when it's OK to say "I think you're overstepping your agency here" without trying to shut down certain avenues of the game.
  • Boundaries can be positive because they create a kind of empty space that one person feels the need to fill, much like an awkward silence in a conversation when it's your turn to talk.
  • A couple of general thoughts:

    1) Most people learn games primarily by oral tradition rather than by reading rules, at least initially.
    2) Even in a GMless game, there's generally one person who is acting as teacher of that oral tradition and organizing and kicking off play.
    3) What that game-leader/initiator does as a teacher in that first session of play sets the tone for the players who haven't directly encountered the game text, and the players will likely carry that tone into other sessions.

    If those points are "true enough", then maybe game texts really need to hit relevent points and techniques and emphasize them and elevate them to a level on par with that of any other mechanic. And they probably also need to give that first text-reader some straight forward examples of things likely to come up and how to deal with them.

    They should also probably show the game-leader ways to show rather than tell the key desires attitudes and tones necessary to get the kind of play the game is intended for, and build that on the assumption that only one person will ever read the text.

    It does mean that the first reader and organizer does have to commit to be a teacher and role-model of playstyle on the first couple of outings, even in a GM-less game that they're intent on getting into playing as a player with more equalized responsibility.

    I know that doesn't directly answer the core questions about boundaries, but I think it points in the right direction and may be the easiest approach to those kinds of issues. Of course, I also always point to Archipelago's ritualized phrases as a key tool in both sharing creations in play and tools to make that easier.
  • Archipelago's ritualized phrases and Apocalypse World's move lists are, in my mind, two important ways we've established clear boundaries of narration in other systems.

    What I did wrong in the Durance game was conflate my dual roles, namely:
    • moderator introducing the game
    • Guide whose job is to antagonize the players' existence such that they have to make hard choices

    But is there a happy space between having to write down the explicit "move" for narration and just kinda embracing the mess of "frame a scene and then play it to resolution?"
  • Archipelago's ritualized phrases and Apocalypse World's move lists are, in my mind, two important ways we've established clear boundaries of narration in other systems.
    I was just about to say "try a different way" might have come in handy here! I think Archipelago's phrases have a lot of potential to help get players in other games on the same page.
  • It's the approach and expectation, I guess?
    I've played with people who are not okay with alot of player character antagonism.
    Some people just play very close to the chest.
    I think this could be a cool discussion, but I'm not sure what you want to get out of it?
    I wonder if people new to role playing have the same boundaries?
Sign In or Register to comment.