A Weakness of Character Development in Player-Driven RPGs

I think there’s a big part of character development which is neglected by many story-focused RPGs. I’m thinking of games like Burning Wheel, Hillfolk, and to a lesser extent, Apocalypse World. These games are great at helping players make dynamic, changing characters, however they can leave characters feeling limited in other ways. I'm going to use a dumb, overly long analogy:

Think of Walter White and Tony Soprano. Walter White is a character completely defined by change. We see him go from feckless suburban dad to ruthless drug kingpin. During his journey, we see these two sides battle across time and on several different fronts -- his daily, work, sex, and family life. By the end, these two sides resolve into a truer, more complete Walter White. This is the kind of character supported by the games listed above. On the other hand, Tony Soprano is a character that almost never changes and still manages to be a complex, well developed character. Rather than see a single internal conflict play out over time with him, we are instead introduced to a hundred internal conflicts which never really resolve: he keeps dating people like his mother, he might hate his son, he might hate his nephew, etc. We also explore many of his memories and dreams. This is the kind of character development I feel is neglected by these RPGs.

To clarify, both characters are very comprehensive in one dimension but limited in another (this is not criticism of either show, in both cases it’s intentional and works very well). We don’t really know too many things about Walter. Everything we learn about his family life or his past relates directly to his central conflict. What's he like around his high school friends or his parents? What are his habits? His hobbies? His childhood memories? Why does he like Walt Whitman? We don't know any of these things, because Walter's story is highly focused. Back on the other hand, we can’t really know Tony either, but for a different reason: he never knows himself. Tony, like most of us, is a ball of a million unresolved conflicts. He is never tested or forged into a more complete person. We have a lot of different pieces but we can’t see anything close to a definite person formed out of them, or, more importantly, we don’t know how these different pieces battled over time to become a more complete person (because they never did).

For me role-playing is about bringing the PCs (and to a lesser extent, the setting) to life. If you want, fast-paced drama and dynamic characters, than Walter White and Burning Wheel have everything you need already. Personally, I would prefer to take the time for both kinds of character development. In this regard, player-driven RPGs have actually made me miss some things about how I used to play Pathfinder. Shoving players, by means of a convenient storm or other agent of fate, into weird situations where none of the character’s stated beliefs or backstory could guide them, actually led to some great role-playing. "Boom, you two have switched bodies, you've switch genders, and you're a cockroach." Some of my absolute favorite moments came from throwing players into a bar full of weird NPCs and saying “well, you’ve got some time for small talk”. This meant sometimes having players with absolutely nothing to say or do, but in spectacular moments, a new fetish, obsession, lifelong dream, or childhood memory would be discovered about a character, one the player never would have thought of or needed to mention if every scene was directly related to his revenge mission or love story. In player-driven games, the GM can only challenge the PCs on beliefs/habits/internal conflicts set by the player, which can leave characters feeling a bit narrow. He’s not really supposed to challenge the player himself to add new layers to his character, but that’s one of the best things the GM can offer the player: getting them to think outside of their "story arc", asking questions the player never thought they would have to confront and have absolutely no idea how to answer. Maybe the GM should get to drive a session every once in a long while.

Or maybe my ranting doesn't make any sense and I just play games wrong or something. Thoughts?

Comments

  • This is an interesting idea. You’re basically saying that games which are focused on character Flags and specific issues end up being focused on the specific issues to the detriment of other possible outcomes and developments, right?
  • Content warning: spoilers for TV stuff

    Rats, have you read Hillfolk? It has both Walter White (whom it describes as "virtuous weakness or anti-social power") and Tony Soprano ("family man or Family man") as examples in its dramatic pole system; the idea being that you sorta ambivalently teeter back & forth and in the case of WW the amount of time he spends on the "power" side of things gradually increase; or, rather, the stakes of both sides increase. He gets weaker & weaker and more&more powerful at the same time.

    I've bought into Laws' argument that roleplaying is the most interesting when a character wants something; it could be something like just trying to find out a secret (I've gotten great mileage combining the "socialite challenge"–setups from Silent Legions with the "petitioner/granter" ideas by Laws, more clearly explained in his chapter in the Unframed anthology than in Hillfolk proper), or wanting to change each other.

    Like in my game last Tuesday they're in a dungeon because we do hack&slash & porte-monstre-trésor but even in those places weird things can happen. One character rolled up in XGE that he was travelling with wife & child; and he has also been cursed to only speak the truth, it's been that way for eleven sessions but the other players didn't know it. So he's gotten great mileage trying to be as subtle as possible. He decided that lies of omission were ok; I wouldn't have gone that route but in hindsight it has been awesome. But the other characters finally found out and our cleric (of the trickster god Beshaba; our party is kind of evil) immediately says "Do you think I'm hot?" and cursed guy says "I would rather not answer that" and then etc etc etc drama drama drama. Btw it ended with a simple "yes".
  • "getting them to think outside of their "story arc", asking questions the player never thought they would have to confront and have absolutely no idea"
    I too think that's something desirable. I have been working on a scroll wheel for the players to select (collectively) in what order they cross the gateways into the game : situation, factions map, flavour, character. You can't explore everything at once and I don't like leaving success of a session to sheer luck.
  • edited May 17
    As always, DeReel being insightful [and on-topic] while I just completely miss the point [that the OP was trying to make] ♥

    Edit: clarified that I don't miss DeReel's point
  • This is an interesting idea. You’re basically saying that games which are focused on character Flags and specific issues end up being focused on the specific issues to the detriment of other possible outcomes and developments, right?
    Overall, yes, I think we're on the same page. I probably should have waited until I had something a little more articulate. I would take things just a little further and say that this extreme focus can leave characters feeling a bit inhuman and overly narrow, that PCs could be made a lot richer in these games if they were allowed to develop more in terms of adding more layers, as opposed to just showing how they change over time. And I think that scenes where players have no idea what their characters want beforehand can be good for character development in this regard, also pre-planned adventures and plot-lines where characters aren't driven by their own strong desires but are instead victims of fate. If these things are used sparingly, they give the GM a chance to expose sides of the PCs that never would have otherwise been explored, because so long as the players are the ones driving the action, every scene will continue to reflect the PCs' predetermined primary desires.
    Rats, have you read Hillfolk? It has both Walter White (whom it describes as "virtuous weakness or anti-social power") and Tony Soprano ("family man or Family man") as examples in its dramatic pole system
    That line from Hillfolk is actually what inspired this post, because the description of Walter White works fairly well, while the Tony Soprano description completely fails. In fact, what I'm saying is, that a character like Tony Soprano could not possibly be described accurately using Hillfolk's terminology or played using its rules. In season one the show has Christopher become interested in screen writing and explicitly state, to his dismay, that he does not have a story arc. This is to set up the fact that none of the characters will follow a dramatic arc.

    To make it a little more clear, there's two major reason "family man vs. Family Man" fails. First, "family man vs. Family Man" has nothing to with 97% of the show, at best it's a fair description of a single episode ("College", the one where Tony takes Meadow to look at colleges and simultaneously hunts down a guy in witness protection). What does "family man vs. Family Man" have to do with Tony's love of animals, the fact he can't admit he hates his mother, the fact that a face on a cereal box triggers his panic attacks, his dreams about fish, etc.? Second, "family man vs. Family Man" can't be considered a dramatic pole in Tony, because neither side tries to dominate the other and both sides remain in an unhappy equilibrium. The show makes it clear that whenever Carmela becomes unhappy with Tony's criminal behavior, Tony buys her expensive gifts, she forgives him, and the cycle continues. This is true of all of Tony's internal conflicts. They're all eternal because he never makes any genuine effort to be a different person. Tony is a character who never learns what he wants in life and therefore cannot work as a Hillfolk character.

    Tony is proof that you could hypothetically role-play a great character who doesn't really want anything. It would be pretty hard to role-play, however. I got pretty close once, so I know it's possible.

    I need to stop ranting about television on here. I really hope that helped clear something up for you. I wasn't trying to be argumentative. Thanks for your response.

    One additional note. I agree that petitioner/granter is pretty cool, but only having petitioner/granter conversations could be limiting to your character (assuming that you're interested in the same sort of character study-type role-play I am). Sometimes going into a conversation not knowing what your character wants out of it can teach you something very interesting about that character. You may discover a whole new desire you never planned on your character having.
  • edited May 17
    Naw, that's all great. I haven't watched the show. I'm gonna follow this thread with interest♥
  • edited May 17
    What I wanted to say though was that in Hillfolk, character's don't necessarily resolve these poles, they can keep on teetering on the edge, back and forth, more ambivalently than ambiguously. Do crime ↔ Buy gifts for wife etc.
  • In my home games of Gumshoe (an ongoing series of postmodernist Lovecraftiana with their own legendarium at this point) I've stolen a piece of tech from Smallville: I ask the players to write "statements" for their characters indicating how they see the world and the people important to them. It's possible to "challenge" these statements in order to receive a stat refresh, which I have told them I do not care if it is applied to their Health or Stability, because the intent is to model action sequences where the hero has a breakthrough or moment of resolution and finds the reserves to win/escape/survive. Afterwards, however, they need to rewrite their statement in light of the changed circumstances; things being what they are, this means they usually go darker. (One memorable PC proceeded from "I'm still the man I used to be" to "I remember the man I used to be" to "The man I used to be is dead.")

    I'm wondering if that sort of thing hits your goal? We write the statements with only a vague understanding of who the characters are and what kinds of situations they'll be in, and depending on what happens they may find themselves entering completely different character dimensions. But at the same time they do start from a certain point and will have at least some direction as to possible future arcs.
  • I think part of the problem could be with Robins framework. Different models of drama work better for different people. If it’s not obvious how a certain dramatic framework fits a piece of fiction, especially a framework backed up by rules, then it’s probably going to fail.

    I don’t like Laws structure myself but I still use the concept of ‘wants’. In fact in any given scene I define a character by two things.

    A goal, something fairly concrete that they want.
    A way of being in the world (a set of values and tactics that they use to get what they want)

    This leaves what the character arc is, or even if they have one, totally open.

    The play cycle would be:

    character wants something > obstacle occurs > they use set of tactics to get what they want > this has consequences (do they get the thing, what else happens?)

    Interestingly one of Laws other games, HeroQuest, does use this model. You state your characters goals and the means they’re using to obtain it. I’m not a fan of Heroquest though for a whole variety of other reasons.
  • Not to derail the conversation, I definitely still MC my apocalypse World and monster of the week games like you described your Pathfinder game. I love to do weird things to challenge the players conception of their character. I actually feel more empowered to do so with these games.

    I had a religious character in monster of the week that I tempted into doing black magic and then infected her with temperamental blood powers. None that is in the rules. Hopefully that doesn't mean I'm doing it wrong :)

    Back to your original point when we first started playing powered by the Apocalypse one of my best friends definitely had this criticism. He was saying that he felt the archetype presented was to narrow to allow for him to change and make his own.

    After a while and a lot of reading about these games I did get the impression that they are designed to give a new player a lot to work with if they're unsure, but if you don't like what's written you basically ignore it.

    I think there might be a sweet spot in terms of design, to providing dramatic fodder for a player, giving them an idea of tone and theme, as well as getting them the freedom to really do their own thing.
  • Perhaps your vision stems from restricting play in BW too strictly to the flags. In my experience, many times stuff comes up that's not directly related to beliefs, but completely engages the player for some unknown reason. The game still requires players to fight for what their PCs believe, but that's the whole pitch of the game, ain't it?

    Regarding AW, I've always played it quite loosely in terms of flags, and even had players without a strong agenda and mostly reactive. Not my favorite kind of player, but it's doable and doesn't hurt the game, if at least one player has initiative.

    I think The Shadow of Yesterday would be interesting for the kind of character you propose. In this game, you have keys, which might be less proactive than beliefs in BW. For example, you might have a key expressing just a friendship or that you like to eat cheese, and earn xp for being in a scene with your brother or eating cheese, without any need for dramatic choices and growth. You're rewarded for changing your character's keys, but you may not do so.

    What I agree hasn't been done a lot in games, is have a character face inner struggles like anxiety, fears, confusion, etc. Most of the conflicts in the games I've mentioned are external (an enemy, a wall, something like this), but the player gets to freely decide for the character psychology, change his personality in abrupt ways, etc.
  • This sounds like a classic "focus vs. exploration" dilemma, which is true in any artform. Filmmakers or novelists who hew closely to models of success are sometimes accused of being too "formulaic" and predictable, for instance, whereas the ones who break norms and try to do different things often just create a mess no one is interested in.

    Personally, I haven't yet seen a game which restricted a character's development too much, although I have no problem imagining that happening. Perhaps I haven't played a game with really strong Flags for long enough to see repetition, for instance?

    I look for games which allow (or even enforce) evolution and change over time; The Shadow of Yesterday only works, for example, because Keys will be "bought off" and new ones will replace them, creating dynamic and growing characters.

    A transforming character like Walter White will buy off Keys and buy new ones. A "static" character (perhaps like Tony; I haven't actually watched the show, myself) can still do so, but the new Keys will be exaggerated or heightened versions of the old Keys; the character remains "the same", but the stakes are always rising, keeping our interest in that situation.

    I've never had trouble finding new and creative ways of hitting the same "issues" with a single character just yet. What does that look like when it happens? Has anyone got an example from their play history?

    At the same time, leaving room to breathe and explore is really important. There was a period when there was a backlash against games which simply moved us from one hard-hitting conflict to another, rinse and repeat. People got tired of that, and wanted more slow-moving, less conflict-focused games.

    This seems like a similar topic/issue. I think swinging the pendulum back and forth from "laser focused" to "aimless and exploratory" is a beneficial and happy thing that we shouldn't shy away from. There are great tools and experiences at both ends of the spectrum, as well as in-between.
  • I'm wondering if that sort of thing hits your goal? We write the statements with only a vague understanding of who the characters are and what kinds of situations they'll be in, and depending on what happens they may find themselves entering completely different character dimensions. But at the same time they do start from a certain point and will have at least some direction as to possible future arcs.
    Yes, absolutely! This is very similar to how I used to make Pathfinder characters. Rather than characters starting with an obtainable concrete goals, they would begin with an enigmatic statement of vision about the person they one day wished to become. My intense, unblinking cleric would shout, "I am a worm! But through God, I shall become a man!" (not an original quote, stolen from Wittgenstein's diaries), and my androgynous, David Bowie-looking wizard dreamed of literally becoming a star in the sky. I didn't understand these motivations at all when I begun playing the characters. I loved this because it turned the character into a puzzle and made adding new character details often feel like discovering something inevitable about the character rather than me just saying something is so. Also, because you don't know what appeals to the character about their vision, it can always turn out that the vision they had is not what truly want. (A character might begin with the vision "I want to be the toughest, scariest gangster" but discover he really just wanted to be respected and be a part of a group where he felt like he mattered.) This means the characters path is not predetermined and his story can be influenced by the other PCs and his experiences in-game.

    Bringing it back to my earlier statements, I think that these visions/statements are only useful if you also throw PCs into scenes where they don't quite know what they want beforehand and push them into plot-lines where they get to react to events, rather than events always reacting to them (events brought on by their earlier decisions vs. events of pure "chance"/GM determination).
    Not to derail the conversation, I definitely still MC my apocalypse World and monster of the week games like you described your Pathfinder game.
    Regarding AW, I've always played it quite loosely in terms of flags, and even had players without a strong agenda and mostly reactive. Not my favorite kind of player, but it's doable and doesn't hurt the game, if at least one player has initiative.
    Yep, you're both right. I regret lumping in Apocalypse World. Most of my post was very much specific to Burning Wheel and Hillfolk. Also in Apocalypse Worlds defense, I really like the principle where the GM asks the player questions to get them elaborate on small character details.
    Perhaps your vision stems from restricting play in BW too strictly to the flags. In my experience, many times stuff comes up that's not directly related to beliefs, but completely engages the player for some unknown reason. The game still requires players to fight for what their PCs believe, but that's the whole pitch of the game, ain't it?
    Thanks, I needed to hear this. I'm definitely creating some problems for myself. First, I'm applying rules too strictly. You're right that there's nothing truly stopping me from starting scenes that are based on pure inspiration/intuition. Second, I love Burning Wheel and I'm expecting it do too much. The one given of the game is that you're playing a character driven forward by a strong belief so I can't expect the rules to also account for the times when those beliefs aren't what's driving you. Perhaps, I just need another game to play for when we want to make characters with purely internal struggles that stumble into adventures, but that comes back to the last thing you said, there don't seem to be too many games systems accounting for purely internal conflict (cowardice, self-loathing, etc.). I'm guessing Burning Wheel could handle one PC out of four having no passionate external goal, but with a whole party like that, it would obviously break down.

    Hopefully, my problems aren't totally idiosyncratic and this post turns out to be beneficial to someone other than myself.
    Personally, I haven't yet seen a game which restricted a character's development too much, although I have no problem imagining that happening. Perhaps I haven't played a game with really strong Flags for long enough to see repetition, for instance?

    ...

    I've never had trouble finding new and creative ways of hitting the same "issues" with a single character just yet. What does that look like when it happens? Has anyone got an example from their play history?
    I imagine if I described situations where I felt like it was becoming an issue, it wouldn't necessarily seem like an issue to other people. This comes back to my goal of bringing the PCs to life. I may just fall unusually far on side of your spectrum and am extra sensitive to razor focus. In my experience, it's not so much that the characters in a game like Burning Wheel ever start to feel boring, too repetitious, or contrived for me, but actually, even when they're compelling to watch and continually surprising, they still feel like they're lacking something. This dissatisfaction doesn't subtract from the fun of Burning Wheel per say but rather takes the form of nostalgia for old Pathfinder characters, who feel a little more like people I used to know, more "alive", less like a character made to fit into a movie plot (by which I mean unnaturally focused, rather than cliche or formulaic).

    Now, like I admitted to Khimus, this could actually just be a facet of how I've been playing these games. I played Pathfinder for a long time and despite hating the rules and the combat, I had become very comfortable creating characters within its particular storytelling structure (which we had molded a lot to fit our needs). Also, having not played other games for as long, obviously I've spent more time with my Pathfinder characters than with those of other games. Perhaps, with more time I'll better be able to mold Burning Wheel's rules to suit my needs and characters will have more time to come alive. It's possible that they always need a little more time to do so because there'll always be a little more "focus" than "exploration" in Burning Wheel.

    You could probably interpret this post as my own personal struggle to find a happy marriage between my old Pathfinder role-play style and my new Burning Wheel/player-driven role-play style, which is currently a little too rigid since I'm only just now getting comfortable with it. I've personally gotten a lot out of peoples' responses. Thank you all.

    Don't know if this post has much to offer anyone else, but maybe if I think of some other lessons I've learned trying to do actual role-play in Pathfinder, those could be useful to people wanting to play characters with many different, purely internal conflicts.
  • Ooh, that's some juicy stuff there, @Only_plays_Ratfolk. I love the technique of taking a mysterious catchphrase or concept and then making the character a mystery to yourself, as the player. That's very fruitful, I think (so long as the game has other ways to generate material for play - presumably, in the Pathfinder game, they were things entirely outside of the character, right? The juxtaposition of one type of material - perhaps D&D adventure material - with the internal mystery of the character was what was fruitful, not the mysterious character by himself).

    Don't worry about your examples having to "convince" anyone; I still think illustrating what you're going for, where you're coming from, and what you're missing is really, really illuminating. Those Pathfinder examples paint a much more clear picture than your Walter White/Tony Soprano examples, I think, since they come from your actual play history and experience.

    Unfortunately, I don't have enough personal experience with either Hillfolk or BW to give specific advice, but before you come back with some more examples (of what you're looking to avoid), I have some disorganized thoughts:

    You could probably interpret this post as my own personal struggle to find a happy marriage between my old Pathfinder role-play style and my new Burning Wheel/player-driven role-play style, which is currently a little too rigid since I'm only just now getting comfortable with it. I've personally gotten a lot out of peoples' responses. Thank you all.
    I find that gaming always yearns for balance between opposite poles in this way; sometimes I find things getting "too focused" and I want more freedom, and sometimes they get too aimless and I want more focus. Same goes for intensity, pace, introspection, detail, GM control, dramatic uncertainty, and player input. When I'm running or playing games I'll often seek balance - if for the first half of the session, it's been all players driving the bus, maybe it's time for me to throw something in of my own, to throw a wrench into what's growing so far, you know?

    I think that "as the GM, you should feel free to throw in material that excites and interests you" is a solid principle for anyone who has gone too far away from that pole:

    [...] you also throw PCs into scenes where they don't quite know what they want beforehand and push them into plot-lines where they get to react to events, rather than events always reacting to them (events brought on by their earlier decisions vs. events of pure "chance"/GM determination).
    Perhaps your vision stems from restricting play in BW too strictly to the flags. In my experience, many times stuff comes up that's not directly related to beliefs, but completely engages the player for some unknown reason. The game still requires players to fight for what their PCs believe, but that's the whole pitch of the game, ain't it?
    Thanks, I needed to hear this. I'm definitely creating some problems for myself. First, I'm applying rules too strictly. You're right that there's nothing truly stopping me from starting scenes that are based on pure inspiration/intuition.
    Exactly.

    I've always been surprised to see people say that when they played D&D, they had open-ended, flexible, and creative play, but when they switched to, say, Dogs in the Vineyard or Burning Wheel, it got all constrained and repetitive.

    D&D isn't any more open-ended, in my opinion: you've got repetitive character concepts engaged with a single premise: fighting monsters, saving innocents, collecting treasure, and growing more powerful. But people who've played for years loosen up, and start playing against stereotype, ignoring rules, and trying to see what else the ruleset can do ("what if we apply combat rules to social situations, like hurting someone's reputation at court?").

    So, spending as much time fooling around with any game, I think, can lead to great depths and to finding new things. (Or, at least, I'd like to think so!)

    * Regarding AW, I find it interesting how it occupies a very specific place in terms of how it positions its characters.

    In a game which is all about a character's "Beliefs" or "Goals", and we play to find out how we get there (e.g. Archipelago), the character's starting position is up to us to develop and explore, but we're heading towards a set endpoint. We'll learn where you came from and why as we go along. In AW, it's kind of the opposite: you get a lot determined about your character from the get-go, often including their current position in society and what problems they're facing (e.g. the Maestro'd), but then the future is entirely unwritten. Playbook changes are the largest driver of character change in AW: most starting Angels are fairly similar, but when the first Angel becomes a Gunlugger and the second turns into a Hocus, we've got two completely different character arcs. You never know where your character will end up!

    * I think the best way to create more "open-ended" characters in a game which defines their Beliefs or Goals strongly is to do something non-obvious with those tools.

    For example, take a character and give them two contradictory Beliefs. What does this mean? Which one will be forced to snap and break first? Why? Or will both get discarded?

    Or write a Belief/Goal which is, in some other way, entirely opposed to the character's actual needs or best interests. Now what?

    Give them tools, interests, resources, and relationships that don't relate clearly to those Beliefs or Goals. Your Goal is to become the President of the U.S.A., but you hate politics, your qualifications are in botanical science, and your main Belief is that a person's individual autonomy should come before anything else. Now what?

    * Another idea is to start, as you did, with some vague or abstract concept for the character, and then write Beliefs/Goals/whatevers which are small-scale and don't answer the question of that abstract concept at all. Make them about minor matters, which ultimately don't reflect directly on that abstract/larger question.

    Your character dreams of becoming a star in the sky, but her immediate issues/goals/problems are making up with a friend who's become estranged and taking good care of her pet chinchilla. Those will get sorted out pretty soon, hopefully, and other, seemingly unrelated things will replace them; eventually, the idea of "becoming a star in the sky" will worm itself into the story in some way.

    In Pathfinder, there was probably an adventure or threat of some kind (and the implied Beliefs of confronting evil or collecting treasure, or whatever your particular group valued in D&D), and your personal character ideas were more or less orthogonal to that. You can do the same thing in any game, I think.

    Attack the problem from lots of different directions, in other words, and leave room for non-obvious answers. It sounds like you learned to do that in Pathfinder, even though the game is really set up to work against you when you do so; bring some of those techniques and tricks into whatever new game you're playing and see what happens!
  • Paul, much of what you wrote in that post could almost be taken word for word from the Adventure Burner, Luke's book of Best Practices to get the most out of BW!
  • Really? That's hilarious! Someday I'll have to actually play Burning Wheel and see what all the hype is about...
  • Those Pathfinder examples paint a much more clear picture than your Walter White/Tony Soprano examples, I think, since they come from your actual play history and experience.
    Yeah, I definitely abstracted things a little too far from actual play. I'm only used to discussing role-playing games with a select few people, who also only discuss role-playing with each other, so I wasn't sure how easily I'd find common ground with the wider world. Looks like it's a lot easier than I made it for myself.
    I love the technique of taking a mysterious catchphrase or concept and then making the character a mystery to yourself, as the player.
    I have a complimentary technique that you might also find interesting. When playing a character that is a mystery to me, I like to make a pool of real life and artistic sources to base the character around: historical figures, people you know, fictional characters, song lyrics, sculptures, paintings, etc. A friend of mine made an interesting character using Tom Waits' lyrics as one of his primary sources. These sources are all connected by intuition, one thing reminds me of another thing which reminds me of yet another thing, but there isn't any one thing they all have in common, just many interconnected themes. (Of course, they all remind me in some way of the vague image I have of the character.)

    The character gene pool has two purposes. First, it helps give you that sense of discovery when you add something new to your character. You see that the new thing connects back to one or more things in your pool and you feel like your choice was inevitable. Second, when you don't know how your character should react to a situation, you can quickly reach into your pool and grab inspiration. What might this person do? What about this one? Or this one?

    Maybe this is common practice.
    That's very fruitful, I think (so long as the game has other ways to generate material for play - presumably, in the Pathfinder game, they were things entirely outside of the character, right? The juxtaposition of one type of material - perhaps D&D adventure material - with the internal mystery of the character was what was fruitful, not the mysterious character by himself).
    Exactly, and our campaigns were probably pretty unusual for Pathfinder/D&D adventures. They were set up to be a little more introspective/exploratory. The most glaring example from my GMing was a mountain of self-discovery the players had to climb to continue their quest. The first floor was a large game of snakes and ladders, where landing on ladder meant the PC had to name a virtue of theirs and snakes meant having to name a vice. There was a floor of riddles, of personal questions, a floor where each PC faces one of their specific fears, and a floor where each PC is offered something they desire but in exchange for accepting it, no one is allowed to ascend the mountain. I also made the players play me at Connect Four, because I hated combat and was only really playing Pathfinder because I didn't know anything else existed.

    Additionally, while the GM usually drove the campaigns, it was expected that PCs would sometimes venture off course to do something important to them (or mess around) and possibly resolve one of their dramatic arcs. Sort of in the way that companions in cRPGs might have a personal side quest that temporarily derails the main one. I should probably try doing the reverse in Burning Wheel, let the GM derail the PCs every once in a while.
    Paul, much of what you wrote in that post could almost be taken word for word from the Adventure Burner, Luke's book of Best Practices to get the most out of BW!
    Ha ha, yeah. And I've actually read the Adventure Burner, but I appreciate those suggestions nonetheless! And there was plenty in that reply not from the Adventure Burner. Paul, I especially appreciated your thoughts regarding your own struggles to find balance. It gives me some hope for my future with these new systems. Also, this:
    So, spending as much time fooling around with any game, I think, can lead to great depths and to finding new things. (Or, at least, I'd like to think so!)
    I hope so too.

  • The option to dial 'focus' up and down by players might be valuable!
  • I should probably try doing the reverse in Burning Wheel, let the GM derail the PCs every once in a while.
    I mean, that's pretty much "the GM's Big Thing" from the Adventure Burner, right?

    But I think some of what you're looking for here could be described as wanting more "slice of life" moments: the character's hobbies, non-conflict-y family life, etc. I've definitely enjoyed that kind of play when I encountered it, and there are some games that are really all about it. I know what you mean about characters feeling more human when you have those moments.

    I found the Color and, to a lesser extent, Interstitial scene idea from Burning Empires helpful in this regard. Since you couldn't directly use them to advance your goals, they were a great opportunity to just showcase your character's personality in sometimes-smaller ways.
  • Personally, I found your examples of play from your Pathfinder game (and particular in that last post!) to be really illuminating. First of all - very unusual and very interesting! Sounds like a really fun game and a pretty unique experience.

    Coming from THAT, it’s not hard to see how Burning Wheel play might feel so much more directed and constrained. Wow! What a contrast.

    But, of course, what you’re describing is completely different from just about any other D&D game, as well.

    I encourage you to look for those moments and openings in your Burning Wheel game, too, and make space for more exploratory role playing. No reason not to apply some of the same tools and techniques here!
  • One other thought on this: I think a very understandable reason why many gamers shy away from slice-of-life play, that is, displaying characters' non-conflict-oriented real human personalities, is that many of us have experienced games where that was the only fun part... and it wasn't what we really wanted out of the game. If you dream of battles, heroic rescues, chases, treasures, etc., but all that stuff is really dull or nonexistent, and then the only interesting part of the game is narrating your character attending their child's ballet recital, well... the ballet recital may actually have been a good scene, but it still leaves the overall game feeling unsatisfying.

    That's why I'm so in favor of specific, structured opportunities to showcase the more well-rounded aspects of a character's life, à la BE mentioned above.
  • I've always felt like the ballet recital or whatever is the far more interesting than the conflict stuff could ever be, but I'm also an extremely outlier in terms of what I like in fiction. Slice-of-life is my favorite, and conflict is pretty much dead space to me, so I by and large eliminate conflict unless a studio story really needs for it (and even then, it's massively decentralized).
  • I've always felt like the ballet recital or whatever is the far more interesting than the conflict stuff could ever be
    It can definitely be, yes, but the point here is that as fun as the chit-chat while waiting in line for the big space opera blockbuster can be, it's fun that you make with no real help from the game or from the GM.

    A game that's set up to explore a slice of life experience in a rewarding way (like AW or Chuubo's [one of the few times I'll say both of those games in the same breath♥]) is different from a game where the slice-of-life is a comfort, tightly-clinged to, as a compensation for the main event being dysfunctional zilchplay.

    I have an example. I was playing in a Call of Cthulhu London 1890s multi-session LARP and the men of the house were durdling around upstairs being stumped at a mystery (that they eventually gave up on and the campaign died out after that session) while we ladies were having slice-of-life downstairs. Those downstairs moments were some of the most beautiful memories I have ever made in gaming but I still have that session marked down as a session that totally sucked! It's like being stuck on broken train in a snowstorm; you can think the book you're reading is absolutely great and a classic book that you'll always cherish, but still think it's messed up that the train didn't take you to your appointment in time.
  • edited May 20
    Some nice slice of life is to be had in Reve, a RPG many french people worship. It had too much mechanics, but let me highlight a few points : each sense has its stat, each craft its skill, and a strong emphasis on the culinary art and of course, sleeping.
    Slice of life is not something you easily bolt on an engine. It is too soft and fluid.
  • Slice of life totally needs its own engine, especially given how different the purpose and goals of the genre are from more traditional Western-style conflict-driven cause-and-effect stuff.
    For instance, something a lot of people miss when trying to map the genre into ttrpg is that the genre is actively harmed by attempts to map conflict/task resolution and other causality-mapping mechanics onto it.
  • A game that's set up to explore a slice of life experience in a rewarding way... is different from a game where the slice-of-life is a comfort, tightly-clinged to, as a compensation for the main event being dysfunctional zilchplay.
    Emphasis added. Oh my, yes. Exactly that.

    I do agree with the OP that the conventions of conflict-heavy genre can often get in the way of a story feeling realistic. Not every scene needs to be freighted with meaning.

    All the people on TV are starving to death because they literally never a finish a meal: it's always interrupted by an urgent phone call, an argument, or ninjas. Poor TV-land people.
  • They also never finish a cigarette, or say goodbye on the phone. Such stress without end they endure!
  • That's why Claremont is the best author of all time, you'd often see his characters do the dishes or play baseball or just hang out♥
  • edited May 21
    I've found that there's been a lot of slice of life in my 5e / 2097e game since my players discovered the life-changing magic of chilling out with music and good food [Song of Rest and Cook's Utensils both giving you extra HP during a rest—which I don't count as magical healing for the purps of healing up cracked ribs & such, just literally good rest]. Also their various soap operas and their characters having affairs with each other & breaking up engagements etc etc that I pretend to pay attention to while I prep the next death trap. Alice and Bob breaking up their engagement and Alice dying thereafter was one of the tragic highlights of the campaign :bawling: Should I be worried that the main event is dysfunctional zilchplay? :bawling:

    Edit: not only do we have rules for eating & listening to music but also for various sleeping arrangements and how comfortable your bed is (sleeping comfortably: regain half of max HD min one, sleeping uncomfortably: regain ¼ of spent HD min one; since this is rules relevant we then ofc have a bunch of rules for exactly how "comfortable" is "comfortable")
  • Also maybe they are using the polymorph spell for marital purposes :bawling: well anything that costs them slots & resources right?
  • Slice of life totally needs its own engine, especially given how different the purpose and goals of the genre are from more traditional Western-style conflict-driven cause-and-effect stuff.
    I kinda see slice of life as exploration, though, so there is hope for those out there looking for a good rules set for it. If the system also has drama then you're golden♥
  • I wouldn't really say that slice-of-life is exploration though, or at least not the genre as I think of it. It's worth noting that as far as slice-of-life, I'm most knowledgeable on the iyashikei subgenre. It's not about exploration. It's about involved character portrayal without plot to get in the way.
  • Yes! The last 10 posts or so really nail it, in my opinion.

    Exceptionally well said, Sandra, with the train in a snowstorm analogy!
  • I wouldn't really say that slice-of-life is exploration though, or at least not the genre as I think of it. It's worth noting that as far as slice-of-life, I'm most knowledgeable on the iyashikei subgenre. It's not about exploration. It's about involved character portrayal without plot to get in the way.
    For me my fave way of doing 癒し系 (soothing depictions of everyday life) storytelling is to show the character's daily life, like here is the creek by the way to school, here is that time they went fishing, here they are at the department store etc. Sorta like Yotsuba&, almost every story is "about" something and that is usually exploration/discovery rather than conflict or interaction.

    My fave comic of all time (I know I said Claremont earlier in the thread, and I do love his stuff, but I forgot that I like the one I'm about to say even more) is Kimitodo (君に届け) which mixes elements of 癒し系–style exploration (here is their favorite noodle shop, here is their garden that they are growing) etc with Hillfolk style drama. Ayane teeters between outward competence and internal self-doubt etc.
  • That's the way I like my slice-of-life storytelling too. I think I'm just a little hung up on the "exploration/discovery" bit because of the way I approach fiction, and the stances that I play in.
    I very much go for in-character exploration/discovery, but out-of-character, it's a very technical and calculated process of revealing and developing characterization, you know?
  • Yeah we're on the same page
  • Okay, cool!
  • edited May 21
    Our debates are always so boring ♥
    Because there's like no disagreement
  • Haha, that's true, yeah. The most conflict there is typically is just a misunderstanding of terms that then gets explained away immediately. :)
  • (Quick, Emma! Say "BIFTs" to Sandra and get the fight going again!)
  • Paul did you think I was fighting with you in our PMs?
  • (Not at all! They were almost as boring. ;) )
  • I don't know what "BIFTs" is. I'll have to go look at the thread. I didn't look at it before because it said 5e, and I generally don't bother reading 5e-specific stuff.
  • Which is a good philosophy & the whole reason for tagging posts♥
  • So, derailing the focus on situation by creating and renewing a disjunction within the character (personality, beliefs and goals). Rpg

    Giving tools and rewards for ordinary-life exploration. rpG

    are general answers to "how to develop a character a la Tony Soprano".
  • You may also find discussions like this one interesting:

    http://www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/20894/rickard-forge-games-focused-only-on-conflict-scenes

    As you can see, it's a topic that comes up now and again.
  • edited May 21
    Here is an article I read today about a sociological and psychological point of view in storytelling:

    https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-real-reason-fans-hate-the-last-season-of-game-of-thrones/?redirect=1&fbclid=IwAR2o7ODI6Bhlet17yQjr-cNe8jyrAgTcpFQvFwmhzX9hzwQimN3LZyPBkT0

    "One clue is clearly the show’s willingness to kill off major characters, early and often, without losing the thread of the story. TV shows that travel in the psychological lane rarely do that because they depend on viewers identifying with the characters and becoming invested in them to carry the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the society, institutions and norms that we interact with and which shape us. They can’t just kill major characters because those are the key tools with which they’re building the story and using as hooks to hold viewers. /.../

    In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life. /.../

    The hallmark of sociological storytelling is if it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices. 'Yeah, I can see myself doing that under such circumstances' is a way into a broader, deeper understanding. /.../

    Another example of sociological TV drama with a similarly enthusiastic fan following is David Simon’s The Wire, which followed the trajectory of a variety of actors in Baltimore, ranging from African-Americans in the impoverished and neglected inner city trying to survive, to police officers to journalists to unionized dock workers to city officials and teachers. That show, too, killed off its main characters regularly, without losing its audience. Interestingly, the star of each season was an institution more than a person."

    ---

    I'm not into thriller, mystery and cop shows (because they are too predictable) but now I really want to watch The Wire. I've been playing slow games, like Psychodrame; I've been playing games created around plot without conflict (kishotenketshu); I played sandboxy and fishtanky scenarios; I wonder if I ever played any game like this. It's possible that Montsegur 1244 could be a fit for this.
  • The Wire is the best series if you're older (than 30) and like roman noir.
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