The clash of character and context

I was prompted by a post over on Department V to go furtling through some old Forge articles, and I stumbled upon this bit of text tucked away behind some musings about coherence.

“In most Narrativist designs, Premise is based on one of the following models.

A pre-play developed setting, in which case the characters develop into protagonists in the setting’s conflicts over time. Examples include Castle Falkenstein and Hero Wars. Pre-play developed characters (protagonists), in which case the setting develops into a suitable framework for them over time. Examples include Sorcerer, Everway, Zero (in an interesting way), Cyberpunk 1st edition, Orkworld, and The Whispering Vault.

I have observed that when people bring a Narrativist approach to Vampire, Legend of the Five Rings, or other game systems which include both detailed pre-play character creation and a detailed, conflict-rich settting, they must discard one or the other in order to play enjoyably.”

This is interesting to me. It makes a kind of sense: if you set up an immutable (or at least, relatively fixed) setting and an immutable (or at least, relatively fixed) set of characters at the start of a game, chances are good that these are not going to work well together. The players don’t know all of what was in the GM’s mind when writing the setting, the GM doesn’t know all of what was in the player’s minds when writing their characters, and if everyone insists on staying faithful to what they pre-decided, chances are you’re going to get some friction.

In fact, I have observed this in many games. The GM writes an awesome, detailed setting that they just can’t wait to set the characters lose in. The players read a light summary of the setting, this triggers a cool idea for a character and they go wild writing up a history for them. All too often, one or t’other ends up feeling their vision is being compromised, or that what they have created doesn’t quite “fit” with the rest.

Certainly from a narrativist point of view it seems relatively high risk – is this going to create interesting issues to resolve in play?

It seems to me that the design of Apocalypse World very much plays on this observation. The players create their characters and then, collaboratively, seed the world. The GM adaptively brings the world to life and introduces elements of conflict, reacting to the characters the players have created. The exhortation to the GM not to plan anything out seems like it must have at least partly had this thought in mind.

Anyway, interesting. I’m pretty sure a lot of my campaign design has totally broken the above advice. I’m not saying this has ruined my campaigns, far from it. But I and my players have certainly had to be ready to adapt things over time to avoid disappointment.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

3 thoughts to “The clash of character and context”

  1. How do games like Fate and Spirit of the Century fit in this scale? The players can contribute to the setting, so it’s not a pre-play developed setting, and the GM can bring elements of a character’s history forward, which can change elements of a pre-play developed character.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Sewicked. I have limited experience with Fate, but from what I’ve seen I’d characterise it as “anarchic”. The various traits (aspects, I think they’re called?) form a set of cues to the GM and players, suggesting courses of action. Example: I played with a guy who had “boastful” as an aspect, and more or less every time we encountered a threat someone would say “I bet you can’t fight that guy” or similar, tagging his aspect and incentivising him to fight. The result was highly flexible, which I guess reduces the risk of a clash between character and setting of the kind discussed above; on the other hand, it risked a lack of focus, because any player could easily push the game in a given direction by using aspects. Then again, if that happened maybe we would eventually have started declining opportunities to earn fate points.

      …is that what you meant when you said the GM can bring elements of a character’s history forward?

      Regarding collaboratively generated setting, I suspect this would help to avoid the pitfalls of a “pre generated setting”, but if it’s set in stone once you’ve finished the initial development of the setting then I guess it would need players to retain flexibility in-play for their characters to fit the setting. They are more likely to be able to do this though, because they had a hand in writing it.

      In general: the more involved players are in deciding the parameters of the game, the less likely there will be a mismatch of expectations.

  2. Good find!

    I’m certainly guilty of over-writing setting and character for one-off games, though maybe less for campaigns–less pressure to present a large, coherent world all at once.

    Looking back when I ran VtM 20 years ago we did a lot of prelude, but my game world was pretty loose (written on a side of A4). Live-Action Vampire, however–that was a classic example of GM competing with player plot, for each player having a good time in the spotlight there were two more just sidelined.

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