So recently, I've been playing a lot of games that are, to put it diplomatically, exploring the borderlands between Role Playing Games and Story Games and the other territories round about RPGs. I am increasingly coming across a phenomenon where the mechanics and procedures forward some engaging stories or provoke intriguing moral dilemmas but seem to do this at the expense of the "role playing" experience where one gets inside the character. Some leap right into the story without fleshing out the character with much detail. Others don't seem to have much, as Judson calls it, "mechano-fictional coupling" where the mechanics actually engage the characters in a meaningful way -- most of these games' resources are player resources (Fanmail) instead of character resources (big fat Badassery die pool).
To some extent -- and an extent that varies player to player -- the appreciation of the stories and moral dilemmas of any game depend on identifying or empathizing with the characters involved in them. I'm beginning to find the edge of my preferences, since more than a few times I've felt let down by a game that is banging away on what would be an awesome story but I don't feel any engagement with it because I don't especially care about my character.
So both as a player and as a designer, I am starting to think about techniques to prioritize character, to either support and extend my own engagement with character, or to identify procedures which can be incorporated into games to support and extend other players' engagement with their characters. Here are three that leap immediately to mind:
Draw a Picture! Write a Background! This is a really traditional approach, but not one that I think is useless. Writing up a (short) background or drawing a picture (regardless of one's artistic skills) seems effective in establishing the player-character connection. Physicality is very important to me in my characters, so creating an image (in lines or in words) goes a long way to helping me 'get' my character.
Challenge Player Understanding of Character This is an in-game rather than pre-game thing, one that is probably best displayed in Capes, and that I stole for FLFS. There is a sort of school of roleplaying that tries to treat PC identities as sacrosanct things that only the owning player gets to control, and that works fine when there's other means to support characterization. However, I personally get a lot of mileage out of games which challenge, if not threaten, my understanding of my character's identity. In responding to any such challenge, I am forced to articulate and elaborate on who my character is. Not only does this help me reinforce the character's identity, but it allows me to develop and change it through play. So I like games where you might, for instance, set stakes like "and if you lose, you turn tail and run from the battlefield" and then I get to allocate my resources (character and player) to respond to it one way or another. In doing so, I strengthen my understanding and connection to the character.
Ties to the Setting and Situation I do this thing when I run Dogs in the Vineyard at conventions. I have six half-gen characters that I always use, and they already have their relationships written in (but not the dice assigned). I let the players pick which half-gens they want to play and then I pull the names off of their relationships and swap those names into the names I have on the Town Creation sheet. This works like freaking magic to strongly bind their characters to the situation they are presented with. In a sense, the situation becomes more about the characters, and that means that play that addresses the situation also addresses character. I could easily see a game where characters are at least partially defined by their connections to the setting, and the situations they address are always created from those connections.
What else is there out in the big wide role playing world? What techniques do you use? What mechanics have you found useful?