[This post is adapted from a Patreon post a couple of months ago. It’s relevant to the March Q&A so I’ve made it public here.]
I’ve been thinking about a practical aspect of preparation which feeds into qualities of play. It boils down to a simple question: does whoever’s making up important aspects of the situation and its backstory have to know anything about the characters who will be played?
Solipsist: the answer is yes, absolutely. The most active and relevant aspects of the situation are drawn from, actually created from, the details and qualities of the characters who will be played. You might think of the whole situation as being custom-made for the characters, literally integral with their rules-based creation. Examples from my games, or games-in-development are S/Lay w/Me, Champions Now, and Whimsical Ways.
Whoever: the answer is no, absolutely not. Obviously, we’ll take it as given that the characters are eligible in terms of the “first principles” for playing this game, but the most active and relevant features of the situation are generated without reference to anything specific about them. Think of these situational features “encountering” the characters unexpectedly from our real-world perspective, and vice versa. Examples from my games, or games-in-development: Circle of Hands, Dreams of Fire, and Trollbabe.
Relevant: the answer is in-between, or better, mixed. The situation is composed of both character-specific and non-specific elements, to varying degrees. This one might be iffy because play can veer toward one of the above categories, especially for a given character per unit of play. But I think in these games or games-in-development of mine, there’s an identifiable “equal meeting” between aspects of characters and things created/known quite apart from them as a necessary part of preparation: Sorcerer, Spione, Shahida, and Vigil.
Important: I’m drawing these distinctions from the real-world people’s point of view, not those of the characters in the fiction. For example, a hero in Champions Now may consider a Hunted Situation as quite external to themselves and may even know very little about it, but it’s in play only because it’s written on that hero’s sheet. As a contrasting example, the knights in Circle of Hands have arrived a venture’s location fully voluntarily, and on the basis of some knowledge, but what they find there has been generated without any reference at all to those specific characters.
To forestall any misunderstanding: simply put, any of the above in almost any way is “good.” Any degree of successful play is perfectly available among them. I’m thinking about this categorization as an identifiable feature of a given game, which we should recognize and know how to do as a skill, rather than some defining experiential phenomenon.
Also, if you want to think of it as a spectrum, perhaps with a wiggly middle, that’s fine by me. I’m not really wedded to the three concepts above as discrete options, although I do think “concentrated” forms are identifiable for many games.
At the Patreon, Jesse provided an example, the game Locus, that suggests the “middle” isn’t merely a graded spectrum:
The GM prepares a location that is haunted because of its own unique backstory. But then all the monsters that inhabit that haunted space are derived directly from stuff on the player character’s sheets.
I’ve deliberately focused on my own games for this post. Can you name other games which you think are easily identifiable in these terms?
(link for the leading image: AndrewRyanArt on DeviantArt)