So this post relates to two things that we’ve been discussing here recently. One is the discussion I had with Lorenzo in his post about using random personality traits in his game (here). Another is this comment from Ron in a previous Hantverksklubben discussion (here):
Sooner or later, with an eye toward actual concepts and play practices rather than mere terms, I’d like to dig into the differences or interrelations among:
- caring about a character (we may say “my” as a fleeting rather than permanent thing, it’s not important)
- striving for a best outcome where “best” may be thought of as a player-desired fictional situation
- playing the character as striving for his, her, or its desires, which themselves may or may not be “good” or “good for them”
- playing the character as vulnerable to situations or interactions that may turn out poorly for them, for any definition of “poorly”
These are clearly different things, which I think is easy. The harder topic concerns when one or more of them is compatible with one or more of the others, and when one or more of them is incompatible with one or more of the others. Not as a principled abstract comparison, but asinstances of play which we actually do and experience.
So here is an anecdote from an old game that I think it quite interesting and relates a bit to these things. Since we didn’t have a Hantverksklubben game this weekend, I’ll post this instead.
So the game is Det sjätte inseglet, an anachronistic swashbuckling game of tragic heroes falling prey to their character weaknesses and becoming assholes, or maybe dying. Sometimes both. I play Eduardo, a hot-blooded Spanish army captain fighting to take back Spain from the moorish armies of Saladin (I told you it was anachronistic). He’s a stereotypical passionate soldier, butrning with nationalistic fervor. And he learns that Saladin is camped nearby to where his general is located, he storms in and demands that they attack. The general says that Saladin’s army is far too well positioned and it would not be wise to attack them at that position. Angry, Eduardo runs out among the soldiers, holds a fiery speech and whips them up into a frenzy. They are going to attack!
So in the battle, there is a conflict, of course, and I lose. However, there is a rule that my character cannot die unless I as a player give my consent, which I do not. Kim is playing Saladin here, so I tell him he has to give me another out. Eduardo’s story doesn’t end here. And here’s what Kim gives me:
He narrates how we fight valiantly, but it’s a losing battle. My comrades fall around me and finally it’s just Eduardo, on a mountain of bodies, both friend and foe, surrounded by moorish soldiers. But as they get ready to finish him off, Saladin calls out for them to stop. He explains that Eduardo is an amazingly skillful soldier and how it is a pelasure to see him fight. He says that whe cannot bear to rid the world of such a great warrior, and the soldiers lift their swords in salute to let Eduardo go.
I’m speechless. This is not something Eduardo would agree to, surely. He’s a proud nationalist who would die for his country rather than accept the mercy of his enemies. So what do I do here? It seems I have to either break my character’s credibility “for the story”, or kill him off (which would be a pretty dull story, since the character had just been a stereotype so far). But surely you should never betray your character for the sake of story? I was tempted to tell Kim he needed to come up with something else, that this was the same thing as killing Eduardo.
Then I thought: But what if I go with it? What would it mean if Eduardo accepts the offer of mercy? So I describe how Eduardo is faced with the horrific realization that he doesn’t want to die. Running heedlessly into battle is one thing, at some level he always thought himself immortal. But right here, actively choosing death when he can just walk away? He can’t do it. He has led his brothers in arms into battle, into their deaths, and he is too cowardly to follow them. So Eduardo walks away, head hanging in shame, as the enemy soldiers salute him with their swords.
This was a hugely emotional moment and it was the turning point for Eduardo. It completely broke him. He started drinking and ended the game as the personal assassin of Saladin.
Obviously there was some conflict of interests here. Me, the game, Kim, Eduardo and Saladin had different authorities and motivations in this scene, that were incompatible. Something had to break, and it turned out that something was Eduardo. And it turned out to be a very powerful moment in the game because I grounded it in the fiction. I’ve always been skeptical of the people who say they know exactly how their character would act in any moment, who abhor rules which gives other players or the dice authority over their own character. Relinquishing control over your own chatacer’s behavior can mean that you discover something new about them, which is exciting! It can even mean, as in this case, thet the character discovers something about themself, which is great drama. People are full of contradictions.
This scene has lived with me ever since and it has played a big role in how I view roleplaying. I think what really made it so good was not that I accepted the surprising (one may even say illogical) outcome of the rules and authorities at play, but that I grounded it in the fiction. I said “Ok, if I accept this, what does that mean? Can I make it make sense?”. I think this is bounce at its greatest. The game gave me a surprising outcome and it was great. But had I just gone “Oh, ok, I guess I walk away from there and then plan to attack with some other army”, it would have been terrible. I would have broken the integrity of my character without making sense of it. His story would have been completely hollow.