The Experience of Protagonism

I have been experiencing something pretty great in play lately, across two games. I want to talk about it.

The Play

I’m playing in a one-on-one Burning Wheel game. I’m not GMing. The GM was inspired by the Morrowind video game (which I’m unfamiliar with), and we have a political-religious war going on where the traditionalist side is trying to quash a heretical sect that worships saints of the religion. Then there’s an ultra-heretical sect within that sect that uses the bones of saints for enchantments and demon summoning. My character, Amparo, a 19-year-old former slave and bannerman, has become embroiled with the demon-summoning crew. 

The game is pretty focused and I experience it intensely, since it’s almost always my turn to talk and because of the nature of the scenario and some of the rules of Burning Wheel, when it is my turn to talk I really have to drive the action. I’m a bit of a hesitant player by nature and it has been a powerful experience to have to rise to the occasion. My past play of Burning Wheel has pretty rigidly focused on Beliefs and either hitting them hard as the GM or going after them in a fairly narrow (and often unsatisfying) manner.

In this game, in contrast to how I have typically played Burning Wheel, I have been cavalier about my Beliefs, changing them often—after most sessions I’ve changed a Belief or two. This hasn’t been jarring or made Amparo feel fickle; it’s actually been simply the byproduct of driving play, being willing to go where I want to go in the moment (which requires paying attention to what we’re actually doing as opposed to staring at my Beliefs and planning what I could be doing). The GM has also taken the Beliefs with a light hand, not trying to ham-fistedly smash at them at every opportunity. As a result the characters in the game have felt more real and honest than they have usually felt in my Burning Wheel games.

Okay, an example: Amparo has recovered the bones of Bolast of Brinehark, a saint, and lied to Grakkos, a somewhat shifty sage who wants to use the bones to potentially nefarious purposes. Amparo has told Grakkos that totally, he can use the bones. However, he intends to follow Grakkos down this rabbit hole until Grakkos incriminates himself, at which point he’s going to bring Grakkos to the saint-worshipping army encampment so he can face justice (Amparo has an instinct about trusting priests and a belief about the saint-worshippers being on the right side of the war and how he’s going to have to take Grakkos out to help the right side). 

As Grakkos is taking him to see his master, there’s a discussion about what Grakkos actually intends. Grakkos knows that Amparo has lied to him (failed roll earlier in the game), and so he lays it all out: I’m going to bring you to my master and we’re going to use those bones to summon a demon. And you’ll get whatever reward you want. 

I have a Belief about ending the war, and Grakkos just promised me that I can get whatever I want in exchange for these bones. Amparo asks him if this means even the power to end the war, and Grakkos says yes. So, of course Amparo gives him the bones.

It was a beautiful moment in play, because it didn’t involve obvious conflict, and it was a quiet moment, but it absolutely changed the situation immediately and ongoing. It’s weird to say but it felt empowering. No hemming and hawing with other PCs about what to do, not getting stuck in approaching the moment tactically (which can be fine but can be a tic), just making a decision and seeing the game change.

Along those lines, I’m also playing Sorcerer. I’m not GMing. There are three PCs, all of whom are Adept Play posters, so it’s likely we’ll see more discussion of this game at some point. The Two Statements:

Environment: Silicon Valley, the heart of technocracy. Year: Now.

Sorcery/Demons: Sentient AIs, cybernetics, secret tech that should not exist. Integration of human and machine.

We have a burned-out tech CEO whose demon is a bouncy-happy AI who just wants to make things (for the Pentagon), and a slick up-and-comer whose entire life is regulated by his smart glasses.

My character is Paulina, a Mexican-Russian-American who has a metallic-wafer-demon named Lud in her blood that gives her the knowledge of how to hack into banking systems and skim money off the top (among other things). She’s on the pushed-out working-class side of the San Francisco divide, and the Kicker was her parents and younger brother coming to live with her because they can’t make rent anymore. This is a problem because even as she has become more than financially secure with the help of her demon, she’s become damaged through the relationship (-2 Price: spooky) and has basically withdrawn from society. The family’s gonna worry, they’re gonna pry, and maybe she’s not going to be able to handle this all while keeping her cover. 

Which is kinda what the first couple sessions were about—seeing this new situation develop, scaring her brother, then placating him, trying to keep her family from getting entangled with nosy neighbors…

And I realized that I was trying to manage the Kicker. I thought back to the previous game of Sorcerer I played, where I just kinda got pinballed all around because I never stood up and made my character drive toward something. Paulina is Mad and Spooky and she’s NOT going to fucking let that happen. The Kicker has occurred. The family is here. 

I called a scene where she brings them out to dinner just lays it out straightforwardly—everything except the demon. She’s been able to afford her digs because she works illegally. Dad is worried it’s dangerous but she assures him its not. She says they can stay with her indefinitely, but they have to know this and they have to not pry. She will take care of them. They’re a family. They agree. As the scene ends Paulina has a nosebleed (thanks, GM), revealing Lud’s Telltale of glittery blood to the family.

Again, empowering as a player. I took charge of the situation instead of playing to it, if that makes sense. The situation not simply as something to be navigated but raw material to DO something with.

Things to notice: I’m not GMing either game. I’m playing in two ongoing games at once, which is a very rare occurrence for me, and this may be the first time I’ve ever played in two or more games at once and not been a GM in at least one of them. 

What’s the connection here? The experience of real protagonism in play. It’s not as if I’ve never experienced this before, but lately it has come naturally, with little anxiety and no fraught management of my own play (“What SHOULD I do here? What does X want me to do? If I do Y will it throw people off?”).


7 responses to “The Experience of Protagonism”

  1. Regarding the family dinner scene you called:

    For other readers: I’m playing the GM in the Sorcerer campaign. I really liked that scene, and it was one of the most engaging ones we’ve played yet, despite being a quiet dinner table scene, there was lots at stake, and it felt intense.

    Using the telltale like that felt just natural in the moment in a “of course that would happen” kind of way. I remembered reading a paragraph in the game-text saying that the GM can manifest a telltale at any moment. And when the time came, I just did it.

    I think the one you called in the last session is a good comparison, which still makes me think of protagonism all around. You (apparently needlessly) involved Paulina’s little brother in the horrific blood ritual necessary for Containment. This family is getting more and more mixed up with Paulina’s dangerous pursuits. There is really no turning back, now.

  2. I love that description of Burning Wheel play there. It is far more in-line with my successful/fun games I’ve played over the years.

    I’ve found that approach, where the Situation is what is engaged with via Beliefs and not solely shaped by Beliefs add more texture to a campaign. Characters gain a lot of little quirks and unexpected skills playing this way that creates a unique, and unplanned persona. Cutting from Belief Challenge to Belief Challenge tends to hyper-focus play in ways that undermine other parts of the rules text.

    Gosh! Its a fun game and far less daunting when played that way.

    • I think this is a similar thing to what we were discussing in this post, related to engagement with Solar System Keys.

      I’ve definitely learned my lesson since then.

      You can’t play “hot” all the time, or you don’t allow characters to breathe and be real people and they just become cardboard cutouts to push around. Sometimes you need to play “cold”, not necessarily push for conflict, and just see where the characters go.

      I’ve been calling this “constructive meandering”, although it’s not really meandering at all.

    • Ya, that post mirrors some experiences I had with The Shadow of Yesterday! There is that conception of Flags, which are tentatively connected mechanics like Key, Aspects and Beliefs, that encourages the GM to use these mechanics as a guide for scripting out an adventure.

      This notion was a response to the “railroads of the 90s” but rather addressing the core of the phenomenon “controlling of play” it just democratized it.
      It makes any creative meandering, or playing cold difficult to do. There is little to explore that isn’t explicitly agreed upon which hampers expressive exploration of characters, setting or situation.

    • “This notion was a response to the “railroads of the 90s” but rather addressing the core of the phenomenon “controlling of play” it just democratized it.”

      ‘My GM’s not gonna control me! I’m gonna control *her* because if it’s not on my character sheet I’m not gonna do it!’

      A little overstated but I think that’s kind of what’s going on in the background. An assumption that control of the experience is in the wrong hands, not that control of the experience is the wrong idea entirely.

    • I’m interested in how the choice to play “hot” or “cold” is made, and how much the system and idiom of play has to do with it. My instinct is that in some cases, the decision to do one or the other feels like a stylistic choice, while in other cases, it doesn’t even feel like a decision. For example, while GMing Circle of Hands, playing hot rarely (maybe never?) felt like a choice for me. I always started by playing cold, and playing hot would suddenly happen because of certain events of play. I was never fully satisfied with how I GMed Circle of Hands (I think I need to play it again, with lessons from other play)–but I don’t think this aspect would change.

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