Help, Story Games! What Mechanics/Designs Give Good Direction to a Character Concept?

I'd like to hear what your favourite methods might be of giving direction to a character's "story path". They can be from existing games, games which are not yet out, or even entirely hypothetical.

Why do you think they work well?

How economical/simple can they be?

How do they give direction to a character's "story"?

Some examples:

* A character Goal simply says what the character is trying to achieve in the story - we know we will progress towards this goal, and eventually succeed or fail. To create story for this character, we simply need to provide them with opportunities to advance towards their Goal and obstacles to stand in their way.

* A Destiny (from Archipelago). We know where this character will end up; we just don't know how they will get there. ("Jurel will one day sit on the throne, missing one eye.") To create story for this character, we simply need to work together to move the character towards this endstate, possibly throwing in some foreshadowing or irony (e.g. we start the story by having Jurel captured into slavery).

* Best Interests (from In a Wicked Age...). These position a character in opposition to other characters in the story; the story will then develop no matter what the characters do, since they are, by definition, adversaries. To create story, we simply frame the characters into a common situation, or escalate it by giving them access to power or means they did not previously have (e.g. place a gun on a table between them).

What are your favourites (or hypothetical concepts), and why?

Comments

  • I recently play-tested a horror-themed RPG in which one of each character's attributes was some kind of inherent flaw or weakness (cowardice, overconfidence, stupidity, etc.). Built into the system was a way to encourage players to explore that flaw by providing certain bonuses/benefits if players choose to respond to a game problem in a way that is motivated by their weakness. It made for characters with immediate depth and also caused some interesting events in-game when players could find ways to use their "flaw" as a useful trait in certain situations. Apologies for not remembering the name of the game or designer, it was a very early-stage prototype at ConQuest Avalon in Sacramento last fall.
  • Great example! How do we use those attributes to create story for that character? (Let's say I'm GMing a scene for you, as the character. How do I turn that into a situation, scene, or action?)
  • In this particular case I'm not sure it's necessary for the GM to do much with regards to scene framing. I enjoyed as a character finding ways to play to my weakness at particularly appropriate or inappropriate times, and didn't need any prompting from the GM to do this. However if you did want to play to this as a GM, you could build the narrative up to climactic moments that would test a character's weakness and see if they can overcome it. Or create situation after situation that would make the character give in to their weakness over and over until they hit some kind of rock bottom state, and then transcend it (or not).
  • Kickers, as in Sorcerer.

    Primetime Adventures also works very well in defining what the character's "problems" are (don't remember he actual terminology used in the game), as well as what the series premise is.
  • Kickers, excellent. Do you have any particular insights into how to create a good Kicker, or what makes it work?

    PTA's "Issues" are a similar, more general framing of the "weaknesses" RickDean mentioned.

    I'm particularly interested in how these frames turn into long-term play (I don't mean a campaign, but just how they keep being used by the group once the initial scene or situation is played out). If you have more to share on that front, please do!
  • About PTA I can't say much, since I don't have much experience with the game.

    For kickers, well, that's a though one to resume in a post. There have been many threads about kickers all over the internets since 2001.

    The thing with kickers is that they basically amount to a series of things all rolled up into one:

    - It's a character hook
    - It's a player hook, since the player comes up with it, so player's interest in the "story" is guaranteed
    - It establishes what the story arc will be about; when the players feel that the kicker has been solved, that's the end of a story arc/scenario for that character.

    Add to that that the players (in Sorcerer) create a background story for their PCs including NPCs, locations, etc that go directly into the Diagrams that will be used in play by the GM, and you (the player) have a really powerful tool to get the kind of "story" you want.

  • I'd like to hear what your favourite methods might be of giving direction to a character's "story path". They can be from existing games, games which are not yet out, or even entirely hypothetical.
    After seeing quite a few of these I've come to conclude that the most powerful method is to not have a "story path", but rather to have "character identity". A few examples so as to differentiate between these concepts:

    A character's story path is...
    * An explicit goal in the scenario
    * An expected arc of development
    * A role in the dramatic dynamics

    A character identity is...
    * A socio-economic position
    * A psychological understanding
    * A thematic premise

    (Don't confuse "character identity" with "character concept", by the way; I almost used that term before I realized that I've never seen a game that used "character concept" in an useful way.)

    The reason for why I prefer the latter, and consider it more powerful, is that it helps the player develop an internal viewpoint on the player character, which in turn aids in creating an emergent story. A specific virtue is that it is more difficult to play with a superficial "going through the motions" attitude when the game takes the internal viewpoint as the starting point and only goes into "what is supposed to happen in the plot" as a second-order concern.

    This is not to say that story path mechanics in the above sense are deprecated - they have virtues, the foremost of which is that they're quick, bold strokes. I like them best in games that take advantage of the spontaneous energy of quick sketching: light, storytelling-oriented one-shots. Another good use is in simulationistic story games, which may benefit from direct manipulation of story arcs - e.g. Ars Magica does some successful dramatic coordination in this way.
  • edited March 2017
    Great input, fantastic.

    For now, I should clarify and re-focus a little bit:

    I'm looking at tools that give us direction from *outside the perspective of the character*. As such, "quick, bold strokes" are ideal, far better than immersive or introspective insights into the character's state of mind.

    What I'm looking for is a survey of clean, economical ways of defining a character's story/path in a way which gives the other players good tools to generate a story around them - whether that means providing them with opportunities, antagonists, foils, situations, or scenes.

    Eero,

    I would still love to hear your further thoughts on "character identity" - "thematic focus", in particular, is an important aspect of any story creation - even though you're veering away from my own interests for the purposes of this thread. It's a welcome curveball!

    Would you be willing to illustrate your argument with some examples, whether from actual or hypothetical games/play? Where do Keys fit into this line of thinking?

    Peter,

    I'm familiar with Kickers - an excellent technology. The player's input helps define the character and create buy-in for the player herself. How does the GM, though, engage with it? Could you crystallize the important elements? (It's okay if you don't or can't, I'm just fishing here! Maybe you have some great insights. Thanks!)
  • I would still love to hear your further thoughts on "character identity" - "thematic focus", in particular, is an important aspect of any story creation - even though you're veering away from my own interests for the purposes of this thread. It's a welcome curveball!

    Would you be willing to illustrate your argument with some examples, whether from actual or hypothetical games/play? Where do Keys fit into this line of thinking?
    Keys can perform both roles depending on how they're built. I used to favour external dramatic Keys like "Key of the Vampire Hunter" (you hunt vampires, and they hunt you, and at some point maybe you become one of them), but after a lot of TSoY/SS play I've come to prefer internal thematic Keys like "Key of Lacking Self-Worth" (you are driven to prove yourself, yet can never be happy with who you are - let's play to find out what all this means, if anything).

    More generally, I don't really have much of an argument for my preference. It's just that the very concept of dramatic arc as an explicit tool in a narrativistic game "tops out" at a lower level of intensity than a game that does not take the "easy road" in this manner. It starts out much stronger, as I mentioned, which means that it still has its place: I would pick dramatic arcs over thematic identity for a scenario-based one-shot, for example, while a game like TSoY is generally played in a campaign format where you have ample time to make things work without that particular crutch.
    I'm looking at tools that give us direction from *outside the perspective of the character*. As such, "quick, bold strokes" are ideal, far better than immersive or introspective insights into the character's state of mind.

    What I'm looking for is a survey of clean, economical ways of defining a character's story/path in a way which gives the other players good tools to generate a story around them - whether that means providing them with opportunities, antagonists, foils, situations, or scenes.
    It's a good question.

    As a general observation, I think that all story arc mechanics are character story arc mechanics - the character specificity is a bit of a red herring in that of course a given game may construe of its story in a character-specific way, but it's still basically a story.

    This is relevant because I've long been enamoured by the "not yet" type of drama arc mechanics, and while those often aren't character-specific, there's no reason they couldn't be. For example, Dead of Night uses story arcs powerfully in the concept of Tension, providing a framework for the GM's horror story; the same idea could just as well be used for an individual character's story, too, with barely any changes.

    Another thing I like are story arcs that are cast in doubt: you have this supposed way the story might go, but perhaps it won't after all. Taken this way the promise of an implied or explicit story arc becomes a challenge to the players: do I want the story implied by this arc, or do I want to break out of it? This is a bit different than "not yet" in that the mechanical conceit is not pacing you so much as it's challenging you to either embrace or reject the truth inherent in the suggested story.

    Speaking of implied story arcs, that starts infringing on the idea of "thematic identity", but it's fruitful infringing: often the most important thing that a story arc mechanic gives you are the things it leaves unsaid by design. Just look at My Life with Master.
  • I'm trying to use the Fiasco setup as a model for creating PCs/NPCs relationships that easily bring out a conflict as soon as things get in motion. Since the mechanic as it is is more adapted to a specific type of genre and resolution, it seems to require heavy tinkering. But the "Totally not a D&D fiasco" setup seems like a good starting point for what I'm looking for.

    The key here is not only creating relationships between two players but adding some detail to it that turn it into a trigger for some kind of action when common elements of the setting appear on scene. Like, two pc's who happen to be brothers who survived their whole town becoming undead, which will definitely react against a similar situation. Two people sharing the same instinct definitely work better in the table than one, as players alone usually forget what they put for their background early on the game unless its brought up often.

    Also, the GM checking on this stuff as if they were Flags and using as much as they can when making prep helps players engage in a story they would be genuinely interested about. A thread here on the past months convinced me that giving XP or other form of game currency to players who go after their Flags enforces the idea that going after their Flags (aka the interests they had when making/playing the character) is the best course of action. Give players a reward for something they want to do and it will definitely make them feel better about it. Give them a reward for something they don't want to do and they will just push it as a button to get the reward, ruining the game by abusing the mechanic.

    Even more economic/simple is looking at the Skills, attributes and other choices the player takes when making or levelling up their character. These can give a lot of info about what the player expects and what does she want to do on the game. Cross some information and you can get an idea of how the character thinks and feels, what do they feel about the world and others, etc. Asking questions to the player about her choices is one of the best ways to make sure you're understanding her take on the setting. She's playing an elf? Then what does elves look like in this setting? What do they do, what would they rather be doing, what are their usual dreams, aspirations and fears?

    This questions are meant to help the player build the character's identity around the choices she has already made instead of searching for ideas outside it. You can then take whatever came up to feed the setting which will become in turn more interesting for that player and others.
  • Well, kickers don't give you a "story arc", as you know. What they do is establish situation now, in a way that the character will have to do something about it. There is no "path" for the "story", although you will know when that kicker is "solved". With that said, I don't find it difficult to pick up from there. Just play the NPCs as the players play their PCs. It's all dynamic interaction between characters.

    One thing that you may find interesting is the concept of Destiny in Sorcerer & Sword. It's probably similar to Archipelago's Destiny. Say, Conan would have as Destiny "will be King of Aquilonia". But even there, beyond knowing that your character will not die before his Destiny is fulfilled, there's really no "path" either.
  • Some good examples. The idea is not to plot out a specific path, with a known endpoint, but just to provide enough of a constraint to the players that they find it easy to create a story for that character.

    Some personality/character types can be sufficient for this kind of goal, if they are predictable enough. For instance, some people feel that he current U.S. president suffers from narcissism, low self-confidence, and reacts predictably by lashing out at those who do not agree with him and shifting blame to others. We also can assume that he values money and notoriety.

    If that's indeed the case (I'm not trying to get into politics here; just drawing a caricature of a person for the sake of example(, he would make an easy character to GM for in an RPG. Provide him with rivals and scapegoats, threaten his self-image or financial assets, and throw opportunities to expand his wealth or fame, and you'll never run out of material.

    Eero,

    You're right that this isn't necessarily limited to a character, although that's what I'm particularly interested in looking at now. (For example, there are other "story directions" which can be created by using motifs, story structures, repeating or cyclic events, national conflicts, or whatever other ideas... but I want to stick to the traditional experience of one person playing one character, and making story around their point of view.)

    Your comments on Keys are interesting to me, because I remember being surprised by your example Keys in the Solar System booklet - the rather "external" ones just didn't look like they would be much fun to me. I'm all about "internal" Keys; ones that present personal choices for the characters. The distinction makes sense here.

    I haven't played Dead of Night, so I might be missing your other points here. What would a hypothetical adaptation of that system look like for a character's story? Would it bake in a specific story arc for the character? (I'd prefer more open-ended concepts, in general - if nothing, to make the game replayable.) Could you describe in a little bit of detail, just to give me an idea?

    And what are examples of "story arcs that are cast in doubt"? Are we simply doubting the outcome (which most of these models do), or doubting the very premise of the story arc/direction?

    The way Keys can be bought off and acquired comes to mind, but, other than that, I'm drawing a bit of a blank.

    Peter,

    I think you might be overlooking the significance of the basic frame of a Sorcerer game, as well. The nature of a PC's relationship to a Demon or Demons, and the power that brings to change their life/situation, is key to truly making a Kicker work.

    I assume that, in Sorcerer, aside from that basic frame, writing a good Kicker is more art than science. Is that so? Or are there checklists, procedures, or requirements which define a "good" Kicker?

    As a simple example, you mentioned "playing my NPCs", but, at least hypothetically, it would be easy to write a (otherwise very interesting) Kicker with few or no NPCs at all.


    A sidenote:

    I don't particularly like using the term "story arc", because it implies - at least to me - that there is a known starting point and end point to the story. I don't have a better one, though! Models which create a direction for story but don't dictate a specific shape or ending - like Sorcerer's Kickers - are just as good.


  • Trajectory implies potential rather than certainty.
  • Great! I like that. Probably why I started with the word "direction"; same idea.

  • Peter,

    I think you might be overlooking the significance of the basic frame of a Sorcerer game, as well. The nature of a PC's relationship to a Demon or Demons, and the power that brings to change their life/situation, is key to truly making a Kicker work.

    I assume that, in Sorcerer, aside from that basic frame, writing a good Kicker is more art than science. Is that so? Or are there checklists, procedures, or requirements which define a "good" Kicker?

    As a simple example, you mentioned "playing my NPCs", but, at least hypothetically, it would be easy to write a (otherwise very interesting) Kicker with few or no NPCs at all.


    A sidenote:

    I don't particularly like using the term "story arc", because it implies - at least to me - that there is a known starting point and end point to the story. I don't have a better one, though! Models which create a direction for story but don't dictate a specific shape or ending - like Sorcerer's Kickers - are just as good.


    The demons are essentially the character tools that enable you to answer the premise of the game: How far will you go to get what you want? But you could just as well use that premise in any other game as long as the characters have access to means/tools/whatever that gives them meaningful choices and enables them to answer the premise.

    My point is, kickers don't require demons nor have to be specific to Sorcerer. Kickers would work well in most games (Story Now games, that is).

    There are quite a lot of discussion on what makes a good kicker. You'll have to search the internets (check the old Forge forums, for example). But I think that, beyond some general points, practical examples work best. From that point on it's personal experience. And yes, it's more of an art.

    Regarding "story arc", I don't like it either. But I don't like "story path" or "story direction" either. They all assume that the story will go in some "direction", which starts encroaching into railroading land. For me, what is important is to know what is going on NOW. With a good kicker and prep work by the GM it just flows from there.



    Just one further comment about your statement above
    "The idea is not to plot out a specific path, with a known endpoint, but just to provide enough of a constraint to the players that they find it easy to create a story for that character"

    I don't think the point of Narrativism/Story Now is to make decisions for your character based on what makes the best story at the end of play. The point is for the players to put the characters through conflict, meaningful choices, etc, and whatever story emerges from that is fine. The fact that this kind of games nowadays are mostly known as "story-games" doesn't really help dispel this notion. Ron Edwards even comments on this in Sorcerer way back in 2001, and he has done so many times after: there is no guarantee in Narrativism that the emergent story, when all is said and done, will make any sense. You can just as well end up with something that reads like a David Lynch script. It's the journey, not the AP you write about afterwards that matters.

    So what the players need is to have a clear idea of who their characters are and what their motivations are, and what the situation at the start of play is. There's no need for a direction to make the best "story" for their characters.



  • So what the players need is to have a clear idea of who their characters are and what their motivations are, and what the situation at the start of play is. There's no need for a direction to make the best "story" for their characters.

    I don't think kickers should remain totally as an art as described previously; there must be, perhaps not a single procedure to help players make them, but a few of them and they must be somewhat oriented at helping the players produce a certain atmosphere particular to the game, genre, playstule, etc.

    What Peter wrote here is a good starting point. What I wrote on my post above a while ago was my take on this, geared towards trad PCs for D&D atmosphere. That procedure is based on a few ones that do work, though right now I still have to test it in play.
  • Indeed.

    Peter,

    I don't really care if the game is Narrativist or otherwise (for example, genre emulation Sim). I'm looking at this at a much more basic level: what mechanics or models provide enough grist for the mill of players playing that game.

    Do I, sitting at the table, have enough to go on to create fictional situations for this character?

    I'm looking for models which do that, and asking questions about how and why they work.
  • edited March 2017


    I don't think kickers should remain totally as an art as described previously; there must be, perhaps not a single procedure to help players make them, but a few of them and they must be somewhat oriented at helping the players produce a certain atmosphere particular to the game, genre, playstule, etc.

    What Peter wrote here is a good starting point. What I wrote on my post above a while ago was my take on this, geared towards trad PCs for D&D atmosphere. That procedure is based on a few ones that do work, though right now I still have to test it in play.
    I do agree. Maybe I wasn't clear, but none of what I said contradicts what you said above. There are some guidelines, obviously, but there is no formula that will get it right all the time. Examples and practice will get you there, and in that sense it's an art as opposed to following a recipe.
    I don't really care if the game is Narrativist or otherwise (for example, genre emulation Sim). I'm looking at this at a much more basic level: what mechanics or models provide enough grist for the mill of players playing that game.

    Do I, sitting at the table, have enough to go on to create fictional situations for this character?

    I'm looking for models which do that, and asking questions about how and why they work.
    My comment on Narrativism was specifically about a particular statement you made regarding playing and story, and somewhat tangential to your main question, nothing else.

    PS: How does one make more than one text quote around here?
  • edited March 2017
    By the way, Paul, are you familiar with Monster of the Week? That is a PbtA game that has a very clear setup about where things will go and characters' roles in them. It doesn't do this with mechanics, just setup, since the characters are all part of a monster hunting team and scenarios are basically about getting called (or some other hook) to investigate something and dealing with it. World Wide Wrestling, another PbtA game, achieves the same. These games provide both the GM and the players with very clear gameplay objectives without resorting to specific mechanics or scripted plots to do so. It's interesting that you can achieve similar results using different techniques.
  • edited March 2017
    I haven't played Dead of Night, so I might be missing your other points here. What would a hypothetical adaptation of that system look like for a character's story? Would it bake in a specific story arc for the character? (I'd prefer more open-ended concepts, in general - if nothing, to make the game replayable.) Could you describe in a little bit of detail, just to give me an idea?
    A hypothetical heroic fantasy adventure game with the Dead of Night Tension mechanism put to the task of character conceptualizing would look like this:

    The player creates a cool idea for a fantasy character, something that they desire to bring to fruition in the game. A powerful idea, plus a variety of ways for that idea to be expressed. This would be total princess play Sim, to be clear; the idea is that you have a character vision you would desire to express through play.

    An example of what this might look like in practice:

    Thematic core: My character shall be a beautiful and self-confident princess, loved by all and respected for her piety and wisdom.

    A few ideas for key events that express my thematic core:
    * Woodland animals befriend her, as she is so pure.
    * A good man falls in love with her virtue.
    * The wicked cannot bear to harm her.

    Next we come to the "not yet" aspect of the DoN rules: each character in this hypothetical game has a "Heroism" resource point pool. The pool is increased by adversity, and it might be used situationally for hero points or whatever - not important here. The key element of the Hero Pool is that the more full it is, the more blatantly your character's thematic core is expressed in play. Like so:

    <=5 points: The heroism is subtle, understated and realistic. It is possible for the audience to misinterpret or outright miss the core concept in its depiction.
    6-10 points: The heroism is clearly present, yet ambivalent and capable of being cast in doubt. Heroic moments may occur, yet they will generally be experienced in an obfuscated and uncertain manner.
    11+ points: The heroic concept is expressed fully, in as definite terms as possible. There is no ambiguity to what the character is and has become.

    As per Dead of Night, individual ideas for key events may either be slotted to various levels of the Heroism pool by the player, to be actively triggered into play as the pool rises, or they may occur at any level; either way, the higher the Pool is, the more clear and definite is the Truth expressed by the core concept. For example, if we are depicting the example Disney princess engaging with woodland creatures at a low Heroism level, perhaps her natural affinity with all living things is expressed in subtle ways, while the same event at high Heroism level would feature a musical number with dancing animals. Or, it might be decided that this particular expression of the thematic core will only come into play at e.g. Heroism level 6+.

    This particular dramatic arc mechanic falls into the "not yet" type I mentioned - that is, arc mechanics that affect pacing specifically. Its main influence is that it tells the player when to delay introduction of some specific idea or style of narration. As you might expect, Dead of Night utilizes this entire idea for the purpose of pacing the GM's horror story: the GM has a variety of horror imagery ideas stashed away, and depending on the current Tension level of play he chooses what to throw into play next, and how to express it. I find the expression part particularly clever and fresh when it comes to drama arc mechanics: DoN does not so much say that your character can't call on woodland animals at low Heroism levels, it merely says that the core thematic concept you are trying to express with the scene is only allowed to be so blatant. The effect of this drama arc mechanic is, ultimately, to retain ambiguity and nuance in favour of clumsy garishness, which in turn will make it all the more exciting when the rules finally allow you to lift all restraint at Tension/Heroism level 10 and put everything you have into describing the aesthetic idea you're shooting for.

    Of course this isn't that relevant to your purposes - sounds to me like you're thinking in terms of narrativistic games, and while this DoN stuff is very clever, these ideas are intended for a somewhat different sort of story game game.
    And what are examples of "story arcs that are cast in doubt"? Are we simply doubting the outcome (which most of these models do), or doubting the very premise of the story arc/direction?
    Ideally I like doubting the very validity of the story arc as attached to the given character :D

    For example, consider the way the Devil works in Dust Devils: the player chooses the Devil for their own character, and thus we implicitly accept the idea that this potential dramatic arc is what the character is about, whether in rejecting or embracing it. If your Devil is Alcoholism, you will be tempted by the bottle, and that will be your story - with an ending dependent on other things, of course, but it will be about alcohol and your relationship to it. Very sensible for a scenario-based blood opera game, by the way; we wouldn't want to spend all that game time and effort in establishing the character's alcoholism before we get to the meat of things, so it's good that the player simply chooses this to be so.

    However, we can go to more remote on this assignation of dramatic arcs to characters, and thus achieve more ambiguity and struggle. I've been playing a lot of S/lay w/ Me lately, and it's a good example of a game with very ambiguous dramatic arc mechanics. Consider:

    * As the character player you begin the game with the heroic credo, disclaiming all fidelity to god and men, and swearing swift death to your enemies; you are an unbound force of will, a heroic figure.
    * As the GM player, your task is to invent and develop a Monster and a Lover: the Monster will kill you, the Lover is willing, as the tagline of the game says. These characters have explicit functions/desires in the story, and there is a certain core story, a pulp adventure story, that they evoke by being placed onto the set.

    The inherent paradox between those two concepts in the same game makes SwM a far, far more ambiguous game than Dust Devils in terms of its dramatic arcs. The question of whether the player character hero accepts their role as a hero, a slayer of the Monster and a lover of the, well, Lover, is very much in the air. It would not be far-fetched to say that the only thing that the game is about is really just whether and how the tempestuous central character is willing to fulfill the role that the game hoists upon them.

    To remind us of the discussion premise, I was just saying that I personally like this sort of ambiguity when working with dramatic arcs. It's related to the Czege principle, ultimately: it's more interesting if instead of the same player selecting a dramatic arc and exemplifying it, there's interaction where the other players push a story at you and it's up to the protagonist character to accept or deny the story they're being offered. Of course I understand why it's often done the other way around (it's much, much easier for getting cooperative buy-in if a player basically chooses their own story), but it's not a mandatory ingredient by any means for a story game.
  • Peter,

    I don't know a way to make multiple quotes except by manually copying the "blockquote" tags. Not hard to do, but it isn't terribly user-friendly, either. (Maybe someone smarter than me can come along and tell us how!)

    I haven't played Monster of the Week or WWW. My guess is that those games do this well by providing a context for ALL the characters, right? For example, "you are all monster hunters" already gives us 90%+ for what we need to know where we're headed, and what the roles of the characters are.

    So what the players need is to have a clear idea of who their characters are and what their motivations are, and what the situation at the start of play is. There's no need for a direction to make the best "story" for their characters.
    Yeah, don't get distracted by the word "story" (again, I'd use a better word, if I knew one). All I mean in this context is "a series of interesting, causally connected events" - interesting things happening, in other words.

    Railroading, Narrativism, etc, is all a red herring here. You'll see that my examples, in my original post, don't address any of that. I'm looking at a much more basic level.

    You nailed it above, with "have a clear idea of who their characters are", "what their motivations are", and "what the situation [...] is". That's what I'm looking for methods to do.
  • What do you think of handcrafted artisan situation as a dramatic constraint, Paul? I'm reminded of this because some of my favourite story games run entirely off this technique insofar as dramatic constraint mechanics go. If the situation the game starts with is specific enough, there's no need for further mechanization, because dramatic focus is already in-built.

    For example, Fables of Camelot has a campaign story arc mechanism separately, but when it comes to the player characters, it's all just "You're knights of the Table Round. Arthur expects you to act for him in the Realm. Deal." Dogs in the Vineyard and Poison'd and such Vincentries are similar: careful artisan-crafted literary situation as a practical premise of play, and being specific and interesting enough, there is no strict need for game mechanics to define it any further.

    Now, you might say that all these examples are fine, but they are not character- based. To that I say hah, witness Apocalypse World: a game where the primary drama constraint mechanism is character class selected at the start of the game. The setting of the game may be expansive, and there are many possible situations for a game to tackle, but all that basically starts with the players choosing their character classes and, therefore, their dramatic arcs :D
  • edited March 2017
    Peter,

    I don't know a way to make multiple quotes except by manually copying the "blockquote" tags. Not hard to do, but it isn't terribly user-friendly, either. (Maybe someone smarter than me can come along and tell us how!)

    I haven't played Monster of the Week or WWW. My guess is that those games do this well by providing a context for ALL the characters, right? For example, "you are all monster hunters" already gives us 90%+ for what we need to know where we're headed, and what the roles of the characters are.

    Yeah, I was trying to avoid the copy-paste part, but I guess it will have to do.

    Yes, those games have very tight genre-emulation setups, so they naturally provide a starting framework that already makes it clear to players and GM alike "what to do", unlike AW, MH, Sorcerer, and the likes.

    An interesting thing is that, even with good kickers and/or clear situational awareness/character motivations, these latter games do occasionally produce one or a couple of sessions that feel a bit loose and only really start firing on all pistons one or two sessions later, when players and GM have developed the fiction a bit more and things feel like they have a bit more "direction" (terrible word). It's not a bad thing or a pathology of the games, it's just expected given the framework you're working with. If everyone is in a team of monster hunters contracted by some agency to deal with a specific problem than obviously this tends not to happen.

    Then you have GM-less games like Zombie Cinema and The Shab Al-Hiri Roach (two games I acquired recently from Eero Tuovinen, by the way) and those also need some form of play direction since they are one-shots. They deal with this in different ways, one with a board that provides some kind of "path" to an end objective, and the other by having a list of set events. In both cases, you get some form of "direction" where things are going.

  • "have a clear idea of who their characters are", "what their motivations are", and "what the situation [...] is". That's what I'm looking for methods to do.
    If that's the goal, then my favorite methods are in some ways opposites of the ones in your opening post. Rather than predetermine what the character will do (beyond the bare minimum required to make their player able to play with the other players), I prefer to go the emergent route. First, get to know who the character is. Then, see what they do. My one-shot char-gen for Delve is a fairly clear example.
  • I am very interested in those, as well (in fact, I would prefer to see more of such), but I have rarely seen a good formulation. How does it work in yours?

    Are there other games that do it well?
  • When making kicks, identity, motivations, objectives, arcs, etc. do you also think about what kind of conflict this could bring into the game?

    I mean, after all that's where the primary drive for the story is, and it's also a crucial thing to ponder: if there's lots of color on the character background you may have a PC that could be awesome to see roleplayed, but not one that will move the story forward and/or take it to interesting places. If you have something that could trigger a conflict under the right conditions that's gold for the GM and other players to mine. And if you have something that too blatantly generates conflict between PCs you may have a lot of trouble coming at the table and probably not in the good sense, unless the game and the group can cope with a lot of confrontations between players.

    This is why I suggested the Fiasco approach. The idea is to help the players develop relationships between their characters that would give them common triggers to make them jump into conflicts together. Fiasco excels at that mostly because of how are the setups phrased. Lots of things there are perfect triggers that will make characters jump at something. With a few adjustments you can gear a setup to properly address the actual themes of the game you're playing, leaving it open enough so players can interpret the setup results to their liking.
  • WarriorMonk,

    Developing sources of conflict in the game/story is exactly what I'm looking for. I don't really care (as much) about character background, personality, and so on - I'm looking at ways to create story, and that usually involves setting up some kind of conflict.

    I saw your comments about "the Fiasco approach", but I don't know what you mean by that. I assume you're talking about the Setup, right? From that I take the idea of writing relationships which put characters in asymmetrical or conflict-prone configurations, and then the idea of Needs (which I've never gotten quite as much out of in a game of Fiasco). Is that what you're talking about?

    I'm not sure how much can be distilled from that outside the context of a Fiasco game (or some other game which provides the remaining context for what play is fundamentally *about*).

    Eero,

    We are very much on the same page here. My preferred methods for setting up a character and a story are like what you describe here: somewhat lateral in approach, and ones which leave finding *what kind of story* we're going to have to the process of play, so there's room to invert its very premise.

    However, for the purposes of this thread, more direct or straightforward approaches are just as good. I'm looking to survey the field and get a sense of what people get a lot of mileage out of, and how that works.

    Peter,

    I agree with those observations in full! And your examples of Zombie Cinema and Shab al-Hiri Roach are also very good.

    As I understand it, Zombie Cinema produces direction by creating a conflict within which the story takes place: everyone is at risk of being eaten by zombies, and the board creates a visual reference for both the threat and the possibility of survival/redemption. Then the rules encourage us to create conflicts between characters who occupy the same space. Nice.

    Shab al-Hiri Roach isn't one I've played, but you're saying it creates direction by providing a series of preset events. Is that right?
  • It seems to me that many good conflicts come from characters whose backgrounds and personalities make them bad fits for the status quo of their settings. In Apocalypse World, you're in an ugly, threatening, unstable setting that you can somewhat have your way with because you're a special badass... so what do you want to do? That's a conflict to explore and develop and hopefully savor. "Can I win the throne of the monkey king?" on the other hand is just... without more to it, it's a just a one-dimensional entity and a yes/no question.

    In Delve, characters don't just need to have ambitions, they need to be ambitious. With that, conflict is inevitable.
  • edited March 2017
    WarriorMonk,

    Developing sources of conflict in the game/story is exactly what I'm looking for. I don't really care (as much) about character background, personality, and so on - I'm looking at ways to create story, and that usually involves setting up some kind of conflict.


    [...]


    Peter,

    I agree with those observations in full! And your examples of Zombie Cinema and Shab al-Hiri Roach are also very good.

    As I understand it, Zombie Cinema produces direction by creating a conflict within which the story takes place: everyone is at risk of being eaten by zombies, and the board creates a visual reference for both the threat and the possibility of survival/redemption. Then the rules encourage us to create conflicts between characters who occupy the same space. Nice.

    Shab al-Hiri Roach isn't one I've played, but you're saying it creates direction by providing a series of preset events. Is that right?
    Let me start with the last part. For Zombie Cinema it's better to let Eero comment, but in general yes. For The Roach, it's a very free-form game, and the source of "gameplay direction" comes from both cards and set events, so you're right.

    Regarding background: don't discount it as a major source of conflict, especially in Sorcerer because in the latter creating the character background is a formalised/systematised procedure. The player comes up with NPCs and locations that go directly into the Diagrams in the PCs' sheet. This is the fodder from which the GM works right from session 1, together with the kicker. It's the way of the player saying "I want to interact with these NPCs and locations", unlike most trad games in which the character background is mostly colour that gets lost after 30 min of play. The "setting" and source of conflict in Sorcerer is, to a great extent, the character background acting in tandem with the kicker. Those Diagrams are part of the game system, not just a colourful list adorning the sheet for the GM to forget about. It's where the story "cast" and major locations in play come from.

    One of the best Bangs I ever read about for Sorcerer was when one character was getting ready to kill someone and his wife (right there on the Diagram for the GM to see and exploit) calls him to say that she is pregnant and loves him very much. BUM, balls to the wall emotional conflict right there. Bangs don't get much better than that. And it came straight from the PC's background, nothing else, thanks to the Diagram.

  • Excellent points. I agree in full. Some of my favourite gaming has come out of similar methods - generating NPCs and other story elements all in relation to the character.

    Dave,

    Can you think of any way to generalize that kind of tension, to reproduce it in various contexts? I think you make a great point about the intersection of character identity and the nature of the setting - in both those games, juxtaposing one against the other is sufficient to create forward motion.
  • Eero,

    Great observations, as well. I like the direction you're going, both with "crafted scenarios" and the role of ambiguity in certain forms or story creation - I am very fond of types of play which allow players to push against each other in the way you describe, leaving uncertain as to what kind of story we'll end up telling.

    S/lay w/Me is a great example, where a starting premise, a Lover, and a Monster work together with the "GM's" interests in crafting story elements the other player will care about.

    In all these cases, we have a tradeoff between *clarity* and *complexity*, it seems to me. Ambiguous and interesting setups can have a greater payoff but can also be more difficult to bring to bear at all, or perhaps more likely to fail altogether with unskilled players.
  • Can you think of any way to generalize that kind of tension, to reproduce it in various contexts?
    Sorry, "characters whose backgrounds and personalities make them bad fits for the status quo of their settings" is the most general description I've got.
  • WarriorMonk,

    Developing sources of conflict in the game/story is exactly what I'm looking for. I don't really care (as much) about character background, personality, and so on - I'm looking at ways to create story, and that usually involves setting up some kind of conflict.

    I saw your comments about "the Fiasco approach", but I don't know what you mean by that. I assume you're talking about the Setup, right? From that I take the idea of writing relationships which put characters in asymmetrical or conflict-prone configurations, and then the idea of Needs (which I've never gotten quite as much out of in a game of Fiasco). Is that what you're talking about?

    I'm not sure how much can be distilled from that outside the context of a Fiasco game (or some other game which provides the remaining context for what play is fundamentally *about*).
    Peter beat me to it but yes, background and whatever else is in the character sheet is everything. The thing here is that you need a procedure, a tool (yes, something like Fiasco's Setup) to help players include in their backgrounds a little something that guarantees Conflict.

    I pointed to the Totally Not a D&D fiasco playset as a starting point for this. I still have to try it for PCs and definitely it needs some tweaks here and there to adapt it to your own campaign, but the trigger for conflict is there. At least it's hard not to have something in your background that will make your character react in certain situations.

    Good things about this:
    -The PCs will react and you will only need to present them with the situations for their triggers to activate, and they will decide how far they want to take the conflict and in which way. No destiny nor predefined plot here.
    -Since they are sharing these relationships and needs, they will go in trouble together, even if it's for different reasons, which makes perfect sense.
    -Some players may prefer a bit more of control instead of the impositions of a random table. You can have them choose their own poison. However the limitation must prevail: their PCs must have some triggers in common, though not all the group needs the same exact triggers. Having two players sharing one is more than enough.

    Now, does it have to be exactly like the Fiasco Setup? I'm using it as a quick way, but there's another way I'm exploring in my current campaign. You see, well looked, everything you can find on a player's character sheet can be turned into a story. I mean, the players took those choices for a reason, they briefly pictured something when they decided to put those points in dex, when they picked an elf to play and made it a rogue. Ask the right questions and you can help the player develop those stories. Use those stories as background, make the elements in those stories part of the setting, make opposite reflections of those elements part of some NPC, monster or faction and voilá, you get plenty of triggers for future conflicts!

    For example, in our campaign a player choose to play a barbarian Goliath, so I asked him what were Goliaths like in this setting. We both had read about them, but that didn't mean we had the same vision about them. He ended up defining them as "pacific farmers and herders who believe they are common people but don't realize they are supernaturally strong" So far not too much conflict there, I took it as the player was sayings "they won't be going anywhere stirring trouble." Then we spoke about the barbarian totems, so we turned those into the guardians of the tribe. His character had a long life and had been called by the totems to be an adventurer, but he had missed the call and only recently noticed about it.

    Little by little his character and the two Goliath tribes of the setting took shape and ended up being a major staple in the story. Turned out the other Goliath tribe consider themselves guardians of the Goliath people and the PC hated that haughty attitude of them. There was a prophecy that these tribe would someday be called to save the world so they started to prepare for that day and turn all this into part of their culture. It turned out that same as the PC, the whole tribe had missed the call and the thing they had to prevent had already happened (though the world was saved by others anyway). When the PC found out he shamelessly shoved this truth into the face of the tribe's leader, who shocked, gave up his axe -the symbol of the whole prophecy- and went back to tell his people, ashamed and empty.

    The party is about to find out a demon gave these guys a new purpose in life. With no other place in the creation, they have embraced it fully, turning them into destroyers of the same world they once swore to protect. So far they have already wasted the main town of the PC's tribe, which he just found out. And so this turned a simple player choice into a trigger and a hook for future conflict, just by asking some questions and taking interest in the player's choices.

  • WarriorMonk,

    I'm hearing two things here. One is that you like the Fiasco setup (which I also do; I made a version of it I use when I play Monsterhearts, for example - It All Ends in Tears).

    Another is that any character information can be used as Flags to generate material for play. (Which, in turn, you explain how to leverage the output of a Fiasco playset.)

    Those are great. However, I was hoping for more streamlined/concise forms of creating direction for a character/story, in terms of the needs of this thread. I think using provocative questions and Flags is a great technique, and has been explored very thoroughly, but its usefulness depends a lot on context - how much time you have, who's playing, what's the setting like, and so on. For example, lots of games generate character information which doesn't make great Flags, whereas other games do so with incredible ease - it's the difference between those two that I'm looking to explore.

    Thanks!
  • Dave,

    Cool; that's a good start. I sent you an e-mail on that particular topic. Thanks!
  • edited March 2017
    Hmm okay, if you want something more streamlined part of the things above could be simplified to this:

    As a player Pay attention to the setting and realize this: My character craves for something so much that she learned how to do (all the skills on this character sheet); that lead her to own only (all the things in the inventory), that took her to ally with (the rest of the PCs) and do (at least one thing on their background). Then ask yourself: What in this setting is that she craves for? Why? Where must she go to get it? What does she have in common with the rest of PCs?

    As a GM Check any player's character sheet and make yourself two questions about each attribute, skill, ability, item, background, etc: Can this be threatened/questioned/stolen/etc by anyone? Can I make that conflict fun? if you don't find anything, ask the player to help/add/change some things of their character.

    Hope this helps!
  • edited March 2017
    Here's what works well for Delve one-shots:

    I follow the Path of [pick one: Power, Fame, Humanity, Plenty]
    My life goal is [refines Path and makes it more concrete; will never actually be reached in play]
    My next step is [connects current paid magical problem-solving for govt to personal ambitions]
    Supernatural secrets should [pre-orients player to content of play; vetting for compatible attitudes]
    I am [pick one: grounded, open-minded; indicates susceptibility to supernatural] and [primary personality trait; anticipates roleplay style]
    I tend to [non-practical habits; anticipates how to communicate character to the group]
    The first thing people notice about me is [incorporates visuals or other things to communicate]
    Height, Weight, Hair, Eyes, Garb, Distinguishing Marks, etc. [completing the vision]

    I also provide the circumstances of your birth and upbringing: your name, your bloodline, your father's name if that's a thing your bloodline cares about, and the name of your hometown. There's also a list of general stuff the character knows or can do just from existing in the setting, like farming and making fires.

    Before we start play, everyone's ready to get into their character's skin. Then we start play with visual intros, and the first interaction tends to be conversation with NPCs so every player can develop a speaking voice for their character.

    After that, everyone's usually able to respond to the events of play pretty spontaneously in-character. This doesn't guarantee that a story-like transcript will emerge from play, but I do think it cuts down on certain counter-productive responses, like brain freeze, random player whim, or distant authoring from on high. Given interesting content to interact with, I like my odds that the characters will in fact do something interesting with it.
  • Good stuff, gentlemen.

    Do you think it would be misleading if I mentally filed both of those in the category of "Character + Goal" (albeit with some nice detail and insights)?

    Of course, as I recall, in Delve the character is not the full picture - the main drive comes from a challenging scenario presented by the GM. The idea behind the character writeup is to ensure that the character is suitable for engaging with the challenge (or at least interested in it) and then to give the GM an idea of what they might be hooked by, or how they might react to various opportunities. So the character Goal is more of a long-term driver, not an immediate in-game concern.
  • edited March 2017
    Not sure what your purpose is in in defining that category, but I don't see anything misleading about the words "character" and "goal". :)

    As for Delve, "How do we profit by the GM's scenario?" is always the immediate drive, but definitions of "profit" are up to the characters. Some prioritize building their rep, others prioritize saving the innocent, and others prioritize learning magic. I had one group try to con the villagers and lords while undertaking minimal risk, and another flat-out sign up for villager casualties whenever that gave them more chances to learn arcana. Most try to juggle everything and get the best of all worlds, but there's often fun intra-party conflict about priorities when push comes to shove.
  • Sure. Delve seems to fit pretty snugly into the D&D model - motivated group of adventurers seeking to profit from a challenging situation invented by the GM. Presumably it similarly threatens to fall apart if the players decide they are not interested in the GM's situations.

    Slotting those two into "Character + Goal" is useful to me because it's entirely different from, say Character + defined Destiny, or Character + pre-plotted story arc, or Character Opposed by Another Character, or Character vs. World (a la AW).
  • Ah, gotcha!
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