Situated characters

[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)

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11 responses to “Situated characters”

  1. I’ll share someting from a game that I am developing right now called Inquest.

    It involves a situation with a detective or a group of detectives that have to investigate some sort of crime or case. The detectives don’t have to be “detectives” in fiction, but they have to be wanting to do the detecting.

    There’s a few parts for this:
    – The game establishes a few initial constraint for who detectives are.
    – Particularly, detectives are not personally linked to the cases they investigate.
    – However, you do decide in advance a time period and a social backdrop in which your detectives operate.
    – Detectives want to investigate and at the start of a case have already agreed to work as a team (no constraint on this continuing)

    So, detectives and case are developed independently — in deed in our example scenario, I made up the detectives while another person made up the details of the case. However, some common constraints (time period and social backdrop) are set up in advance to make sure that they can fit together. At the beginning of play, detectives are situated appropriately to justify their involvement with the case.

    This is really not dissimilar to the average party of freebooter PCs from Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
    – PCs are some sort of vagrant degenerate, or societal reject
    – There are dangerous places (“dungeons”) with potential rewards in it
    – Only this kind of person is desperate enough to explore a place like this

    This gives enough context so that even if they’re developed independently, PCs and dungeon can reasonably be fitted into the same situation.

  2. I think it’s important to note that although preparation might happen independently, at some point — which is either at the beginning of play or shortly before — characters have to be integrated into the situation, which is incomplete and unplayable without them. They need not only be present and framed in it, but also the situation be actionable for them, and it should contain some uncertainty that the people playing are interested in resolving.

    • (in response to both comments above) For purposes of the topic, I’m taking these as a given, especially “Some uncertainty that the people playing are interested in resolving.” I agree with you but let’s get past it. It is not stupid or absurd that the characters are there, and whatever proactive response to whatever uncertainty is on: no matter when or how, about what, prepared or emergent, whatever. I feel like bringing these up as objections or ifs is moving backwards from what I’m trying to discuss.

      I struggle with how to say this or whether to keep trying: that “situation” does not mean scenario, adventure, setting, or anything like that. It means any and all the moving pieces which may affect anything, during play, as played entities, in or out of scenes. So even if the characters are strangers transported into this location via dimensional portal and they all have amnesia, they are in fact there. They can walk and talk and attack things and do things – so they are just as much part of the situation as the 1000-year-old statue which has eight pages of local backstory, maybe more.

    • Fully agreed.

      With “characters have to be integrated within the situation” I was taking as a given that “situation” includes more entities/characters.

      And fair enough about the teleporting — that’s a great point.

  3. What I think is probably an interesting case of Solipsist situating, though I have my own qualms with the game overall, is The Impossible Dream’s Dread (2005). There, character generation is through questionnaires developed from a basic premise prepared in advance (or copied out from the book’s samples). I think this would be a time-invariant Solipsist approach, because the situation and characters are still tightly integrated with one another, though the “order of operations” of situating is arranged differently. (With that said, it’s been years since I played it and when I did I was a much worse player.)

    • From your description, it looks to me more like a half-and-half method, especially if the questionnaire is focused on actionable-and-active entities in play, as opposed to backdrop content which merely establishes that the characters are eligible to play at all.

  4. The Whispering Vault seems to be a case of “Whoever”.

    The Stalkers (the player characters) receive a call from a different plane of existence — The Realm of Flesh or what we know as the real world. They don’t know what they are walking into. Whatever motivated the call has nothing to do with the player characters and theoretically *any* group of Stalkers might receive/answer the call. And as such, the situation can be prepared without knowing any details about the characters.

    • For this game, it migh be a case of the eye of the beholder. Since the text doesn’t say anything about this issue, the reader inserts or layers in whatever they think is the right way to do it, or perhaps whatever they think is the hobby-default.

      GM A says, “OK, I set up Hunts, they bring ‘whoever’ as Stalkers, and we see what the intersection of content does in play,” a lot like Circle of Hands. Whereas GM B says, “OK, we have these Stalkers full of backstory and Keys, so I’ll put a lot of primary content into these Hunts which is either directly or metaphorically relevant to them,” a lot more like Champions now.

      I see either as pretty reasonable for this game, including some half-and-half version, also including perhaps starting with one way and grading into the other over time. When I GMed the game over many Hunts, a long time ago, I graded into B over time, often for a given Stalker in a kind of Spotlight-session approach. I’m not sure I’d do that again, but I might, probably because I strongly associate the game with Champions.

  5. My experience with The Burning Wheel places it squarely into the Relevant category. The group comes together and agrees on a sketchy premise: usually a tone, some character ideas, fantasy concepts and situations. I like to think of this as building the palette for a campaign.

    Burning Wheel then breaks down a campaign into three components.

    The Big Picture: the overarching situation that contains many conflicts to explore.

    The GM needs to take all these concepts everyone is excited about and create an overarching situation that makes the “world” worth playing in.

    The Situation: the event that encompasses all the rough character concepts, and is why we are playing “here & now” versus another place and time.

    The GM takes all this raw material and creates a solid situation that is relevant to the character concepts within the constraints of the Big Picture – from this point the character’s are made.

    During character creation more detail is added, everything is a bit more fleshed out bringing the situation into a tighter focus.

    The Action, the immediate circumstances that kick off a session.

    Now we have a better idea of who the characters are, the GM can create the initial event that is going to kick off the campaign. All this provides the context for players to write their character’s Beliefs. You only need one belief directed at the immediate circumstances, The Action, and then it’s off to the races.

    • (sorry for this delayed reply; I’d mis-remembered that I had indeed done it)

      I agree in full, and some real-world backstory might interest you. Twenty years ago, almost exactly, I sat with a person who’d published his role-playing game some months prior and had brought it to GenCon via the Forge booth. I asked him about these things: who were the characters being played, what was happening around them, what was happening because of them, how did features of the game like Beliefs play into it as procedure. In other words, how did we, the people, begin to play? More specifically, how did these things for Burning Wheel operate in comparison with how they operated in Sorcerer (at that time the only readily-available text with instructions for it)?

      Luke told me about how he did those things, although, understandably, in bits and pieces, as no one then was well-equipped to talk about it. I held my copies (the game was composed of two books) and said, “It’s not in here.” I mentioned how things I did easily and clearly in play were not in my published games at that time either, and went on to discuss “situation” which at that moment had just begun to appear in my essays.

      I don’t have the version of Burning Wheel that you’re referencing here, but I recognize that conversation in Indianapolis, 2003, in what you’re describing.

    • The Revised/2nd Edition did some work in this direction, but written out until The Adventure Burner (2010) (later re-published in the Burning Wheel Codex). The latest edition has some tighter writing in the Character Creation chapters (the actual procedure beyond assigning numbers, which I sometimes forget to follow) but the Core Rulebook is still not as upfront as it could be.

      Whenever I found myself having a less-than-great Burning Wheel game, it’s because the GM ceded too much authority due to the expectations that Burning Wheel is a “narrative game”.

      One game, I was a player in, the Player’s beliefs were treated as more like “Scene Prompts”. The sessions were predictable, the events lacked tension and the game broke. There was a distinct lack of variety in tests, and conflicts. Due to this, there was an Artha bloat, so players could ensure success on important tests. The character’s soon became hyper-competent in one or two skills and would always write beliefs to favor their highest abilities. It was a very odd experience, so I excused myself from the group.

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