Beginning to Doubt That RPG Play Can Be Substantively "Character-Driven"

innerdude

Adventurer
I've been thinking a lot lately about how despite having a tremendous amount of fun with RPGs over the years, I continue have a sense of lack, or dissatisfaction with one particular aspect of my play experiences---namely, I have found it to be nigh impossible to drift into what I would consider a true "character-driven" style of play.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

I know that most new systems these days have specific focuses on character backstory, personality traits, motivations, and desires. Even D&D, the long-time standard bearer for keeping the game more focused on gameplay rather than character driven needs, added new character-oriented traits in 5e, to say nothing of Fate which goes out of its way to purposefully bring these elements to the forefront of play.

And yes, these new character design features are incredibly useful in helping us as players come to "see" our characters as more "real" within the fiction. But in my experience, even the best of these character "hooks" or inputs don't seem to make a difference in driving an in-play narrative of substantive character change---i.e., the experience of watching a character materially change in ways that are fundamental to their place in the fiction.

It's generally agreed that one of the vital, key elements of great literature is a character "arc"---the observed phenomenon of a character or characters fundamentally coming to view the world and their place in it in new ways. It is these character journeys that create some of the most powerful, compelling moments that cause as us reader-participants to feel emotional resonance---to feel as if we are experiencing something meaningful, even if we are only having the experience referentially.

Obviously not having this kind of emotional resonance in RPG play doesn't mean that our player-characters aren't making "meaningful" choices. Players are often faced with having their characters act out in response to moral choices, in multiple gradations---we choose to fight for the noble baron instead of the greedy viscount; choose to let the orc leader live rather than killing him; choose to steal, but from only the top 10% of most wealthy citizens; choose to kill the evil sorcerer now to prevent the deaths of thousands later.

But the actual mechanical interplay of rules in a typical roleplaying game experience does almost nothing to promote the kind of self-reflexivity that is necessary for the kind of deep-rooted emotional resonance found in literature. At no time during a roleplaying session have I ever come close to having the vivid, deep, emotional response I felt when reading the last 100 pages of Guy Gavriel Kay's novel Under Heaven---nor even upon reflection am I able to see how the act of tabletop roleplaying would provide the means to do so.

It's interesting, because though I find "Railroad GM-ing" to be highly distasteful and generally anathema to the types of RPG experiences I personally would enjoy, I can begin to glimpse why a GM might try to use specific GM Force©™ in a campaign---because they think that the application of force to the "story" is a means to getting to some of that emotional resonance. It's a recognition on the part of the GM that emotional resonance is possible through a "story focus" that leads to potential meaning. Unfortunately, it seems that the application of GM Force runs counter to both endpoints---it detracts from the aspects of player freedom and choice, while only minimally (if at all) leading to the resonance made possible through the act of "pure creation" of fiction whole cloth.

And so I begin to wonder if the desire to have those kinds of emotionally resonant experiences during RPG play are somehow a fool's errand on my part. That I'm looking for a "character-driven" experience that simply isn't there and never really can be, and so should just accept RPG play for what it is, rather than trying to somehow keep reaching for this illusory experience that it's never once provided before.
 
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prabe

Aspiring Lurker
I don't doubt your experiences, but I think some players can play that way, with some GMs. I don't think system really matters, here; as you say, there really isn't a rule that will change this. I know there are players in the longer-running of my two campaigns who are doing it. Now, at least one of them is a player who almost always manages to play her character, but the other is as capable of powergaming as just about anyone else I've gamed with.

I think there are some players and GMs who aren't interested in this kind of play, and I think there are some styles of play that aren't conducive to character arcs or other story-type concerns. My own campaigns are structured around the PCs choosing which goals to pursue, in which order, which seems to help some with this.

TRPGs have other pleasures though, and it sounds as though you're at least finding some of those.
 

John Dallman

Explorer
Well, I experience what you seem to be seeking, but it does not come easily. The two things that seem to be necessary for it, in my case, are:
  1. Playing the same character a lot. After something on the order of 100 hours of play, I start being able to think as the character very easily, and they start having a voice of their own in my head.
  2. Thinking about them, and as them, outside of a game session. This is a kind of daydreaming, thinking about what the character's desires, fears, situation and environment are.
This combination of activities gives me a much deeper sense of identification with the character, and produces a sense of what they want from their life and adventures. It's - quite naturally - naturally easier with characters who think somewhat like me, but it isn't impossible with characters who are more alien.
 

Arilyn

Hero
I'm not sure that it's something that can be forced. I have played in games that are very character driven, and games that are fun, but far from deep drama. Both are appealing. Sometimes, a group that seems it's made up of characters poised for lots of character driven stories fizzle. Other times, a group thrown together with little thought, end up having rich memorable stories.

Having said this, I find games that focus on character, like Fate, are more likely to deliver.
 
As a player, I wouldn't want that kind of deep emotional experience. I want to have a fun time with friends, play a game, grow in power, and explore a magical world. Deep emotional experience is better in different art forms: literature, music, theatre, etc. The main difference is that stories and plots and characters can all be developed in those art forms because there's a real constructed format. D&D is more like a jam band session.
 

S'mon

Legend
I've seen it occasionally; very rarely. Hakeem's dramatic arc in my Wilderlands online campaign, or my PC Zana Than in an old Midnight campaign. I don't think it can be forced.
 

Saelorn

Hero
But the actual mechanical interplay of rules in a typical roleplaying game experience does almost nothing to promote the kind of self-reflexivity that is necessary for the kind of deep-rooted emotional resonance found in literature.
RPGs are really much more like real life than they are like literature. You experience the world, and you make decisions based on those experiences, and things happen as a result of those decisions.

Overwhelmingly, the narrative formed by such a process will be lacking in much literary merit, because it wasn't a story that was artificially crafted to invoke a particular response. The narrative is one which is only meaningful to you, because you crafted it organically, based on your own decisions. Such is life.
 

Celebrim

Legend
And so I begin to wonder if the desire to have those kinds of emotionally resonant experiences during RPG play are somehow a fool's errand on my part. That I'm looking for a "character-driven" experience that simply isn't there and never really can be, and so should just accept RPG play for what it is, rather than trying to somehow keep reaching for this illusory experience that it's never once provided before.
How many players do you have?

There are two things you have to appreciate. First, the more players you have the less character driven the experience can be.

Secondly, Celebrim's Second Law of Roleplaying:

"How you think about playing a system is more important than the rules system itself."

No rules system can create a character driven experience. Only the participants working together can create a character driven experience. Conversely, every rules system can create emotionally resonant and literary experiences.

In my experience with emotionally resonant and literary experiences, they do not come cheaply and they cannot be forced. RP tends to be a very organic form of story telling characterized by its slow pace and its lack of structure. It takes a long while for story arcs to come to fruition in a meaningful manner, and when they do it is often rather unexpected by all the participants. A good GM can sometimes help it along by laying in place the right Chekov's Guns, and waiting for the right time to set them off, but it's never likely to be something were you get that emotional high all the time.

And the more players you have, the slower it goes, because the aesthetics of play that create that particular experience take a back seat to various sorts of group and individual challenges. Nothing in my experience quite matches the dramatic intensity of one on one RP or similarly small groups, and in my experience it's actually easier to accomplish that with text or other forms of communication that create emotional distance than it is face to face because face to face just gets awkward. I suspect that there are people that can pull it off, but they are probably a group that overlaps heavily with the group of people that are talented actors.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Having said this, I find games that focus on character, like Fate, are more likely to deliver.
If and only if, the participants in the game have narrative and introspective aesthetics of play when they sit down.

I'm convinced that FATE is only more likely to deliver narrative and introspective aesthetics of play, not because of its mechanics, but because it's players are more likely to think about what it means to play the game in that narrative fashion.
 

uzirath

Adventurer
Yeah, I rarely see the sort of character arc that you're talking about. Most of my campaigns these days are shorter runs and lighter than the sorts of games I used to play. In my big campaigns in the 1990s and early aughts, I did see it with a few characters. I agree with @Celebrim that this can be system independent, but I do think some systems features can nudge people toward different playstyles. In my GURPS campaigns, for example, players tend to create more characters with tragic flaws because of the disadvantage mechanic built into the system. While this doesn't necessarily lead to great roleplaying or character growth over time, it can lay some of the groundwork for that. I've definitely played with players in long-term games who actively use the system to craft an evolving character: buying down disadvantages over time, adding new disadvantages after traumatic experiences, etc. When done deftly, it has led to some extremely satisfying campaign arcs. And, while the mechanics are ultimately unnecessary because you could always just roleplay all of it freeform, they often help players to remain consistent.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Hamlet's Hit Points is an excellent book by Robin D. Laws that can help gamers create more narrative drama in their games. It lays out narrative beats, how characters swing between hope and fear in stories, and how this can be laid down in our GMing. These tools Laws discusses are very helpful to groups who want deeper character driven story. He breaks down Hamlet, Casablanca and Dr. No as examples in his analysis.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
namely, I have found it to be nigh impossible to drift into what I would consider a true "character-driven" style of play.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

...

But in my experience, even the best of these character "hooks" or inputs don't seem to make a difference in driving an in-play narrative of substantive character change---i.e., the experience of watching a character materially change in ways that are fundamental to their place in the fiction.
So, it seems to me that there's two things being mentioned here - character driven play, and narrative-driven development. I separate these because one is about play in the moment, the other is about long-term changes in the character. You literally cannot do these things at the same time.

Some games are horrible for narrative-driven development, simply because the system doesn't support it very well. D&D, for example, has rules structured such that there are choices which are highly effective, and those that are not highly effective, and if the narrative really says you want to do a thing that isn't effective... you are strongly discouraged from doing so.

If you start with a strong, not-too-bright not too charismatic fighter, if events in the narrative say you'd want to pick up some arcane spell casting... you're basically out of luck.

Fate, by comparison, is perfectly fine with this - character development is as much or more about change as it is power advancement. Swapping around skills and Aspects over time to react to what has happened in play is explicitly part of the system.

Meanwhile, considering character driven play, D&D is fairly rules-heavy, such that your options of what to do in a given moment is strongly influenced by what effective actions you have on your sheet - as a player, there's not a lot of incentive to do things that aren't among your most effective actions. So, you're a fighter. You fight, using the weapons and styles on the sheet. That's what you do - play is very much a tactical exercise, largely because the rules are very focused on tactical action (as opposes to, say, longer term strategic choices).

I'll compare this to... Mage: The Ascension. A character has extremely flexible areas of power. Even fairly early in play, there's a wide variety of things they can choose to try to do to react to a situation. If you have Matter 3, you are likely able to transform most of the basic physical items around you in any way you want. If a car is trying to run you down, maybe you'll throw up a physical wall in front of it, or maybe you'll make the engine seize up, exactly how you address a situation can become much more about how your character approaches the world than what their character sheet says...
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
If and only if, the participants in the game have narrative and introspective aesthetics of play when they sit down.

I'm convinced that FATE is only more likely to deliver narrative and introspective aesthetics of play, not because of its mechanics, but because it's players are more likely to think about what it means to play the game in that narrative fashion.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

No game system, be it Fate, D&D, Monopoly, or Diablo III on your Xbox, delivers any particular aesthetic or style of play if you aren't engaging with that style. The rules are a tool, and you have to use the tool appropriately to yield a given result. It cannot deliver a thing you aren't trying to get.

I am not really sure what "introspective" means in this context. One of the first games published using Fate as Spirit of the Century, which is intended to be pulpy action. You can engage in character navel-gazing... nor not.
 

pemerton

Legend
most new systems these days have specific focuses on character backstory, personality traits, motivations, and desires.

<snip>

in my experience, even the best of these character "hooks" or inputs don't seem to make a difference in driving an in-play narrative of substantive character change---i.e., the experience of watching a character materially change in ways that are fundamental to their place in the fiction.

It's generally agreed that one of the vital, key elements of great literature is a character "arc"---the observed phenomenon of a character or characters fundamentally coming to view the world and their place in it in new ways. It is these character journeys that create some of the most powerful, compelling moments that cause as us reader-participants to feel emotional resonance---to feel as if we are experiencing something meaningful, even if we are only having the experience referentially.

<snip>

the actual mechanical interplay of rules in a typical roleplaying game experience does almost nothing to promote the kind of self-reflexivity that is necessary for the kind of deep-rooted emotional resonance found in literature. At no time during a roleplaying session have I ever come close to having the vivid, deep, emotional response I felt when reading the last 100 pages of Guy Gavriel Kay's novel Under Heaven---nor even upon reflection am I able to see how the act of tabletop roleplaying would provide the means to do so.

<snip>

And so I begin to wonder if the desire to have those kinds of emotionally resonant experiences during RPG play are somehow a fool's errand on my part. That I'm looking for a "character-driven" experience that simply isn't there and never really can be, and so should just accept RPG play for what it is, rather than trying to somehow keep reaching for this illusory experience that it's never once provided before.
Deep emotional experience is better in different art forms: literature, music, theatre, etc. The main difference is that stories and plots and characters can all be developed in those art forms because there's a real constructed format. D&D is more like a jam band session.
I think what Retreater points to is part of this - most great artworks are conceived of and produced with more preparation and curation than a typical RPG session.

There's also the fact that probably most RPGers aren't as skilled in their artistry as prominent novelists. For my part, I tend to think of good superhero comics (eg Death of Phoenix; Life Death; Born Again) as something to which a really good RPG session might come close.

But as far as your comments about system are concerned, maybe you need to try some different systems and even moreso some different techniques! Especially different GMing techniques. Not every character in every campaign I've ever played has had a dramatic character arc, but it's something I've seen multiple times in multiple systems. What will tend to produce it, in my experience, is (i) a player who is willing to find out where his/her PC goes (ie without too much preconception) and (ii) a GM who is willing to push on the player's willingness and follow it where it leads.

In my experience, it can be done without dropping the conceit of a "party". I don't think it can be done without dropping the conceit of the "adventure". The bells-and-whistles of the hooks/inputs you refer to can help, both by (i) helping the GM know where to push, and (ii) helping support the player in following the fiction without being worried about being hosed too badly. But again, in my experience at least, they're not essential.

One example where they did work to produce a very clear one-session character arc was in a session of Marvel Heroic RP. The player of Nightcrawler noticed his "Romantic" milestone, which culminates in 10 XP "
when you either break off a romantic relationship, or seek to enter into a more permanent partnership and ask your love to marry you." Over the course of the session he met a woman in a bar (a supervillain, natch), teleported her to the top of the Capitol Dome to have some intimate time together, and then abandoned her to join the fight against her friends in the Smithsonian Institute. The XP earned were used to (among other things) pay for a change of one Distinction from Devout Catholic to (I think, going from memory) The Devil Within.

It's not great literature, but it was character development that did produce emotional responses at the table - at least from me as GM (I wasn't expecting it, and was taken aback by this far-from-cute-and-cuddly Nightcrawler).
 

pemerton

Legend
Hamlet's Hit Points is an excellent book by Robin D. Laws that can help gamers create more narrative drama in their games. It lays out narrative beats, how characters swing between hope and fear in stories, and how this can be laid down in our GMing. These tools Laws discusses are very helpful to groups who want deeper character driven story. He breaks down Hamlet, Casablanca and Dr. No as examples in his analysis.
I agree it's a good resource. But from memory doesn't he also suggest that, in RPGing, "procedural"/"external" beats are more common than internal/dramatic ones? Which seems to be @innerdude's concern.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I agree it's a good resource. But from memory doesn't he also suggest that, in RPGing, "procedural"/"external" beats are more common than internal/dramatic ones? Which seems to be @innerdude's concern.
Well, from a GM's point of view... internal beats are not something the GM has direct control over. The GM can only produce an internal beat by having an external influence that then resonates with the player.
 

Arilyn

Hero
I agree it's a good resource. But from memory doesn't he also suggest that, in RPGing, "procedural"/"external" beats are more common than internal/dramatic ones? Which seems to be @innerdude's concern.
For sure, the dramatic beats are a huge aid to the pacing of your game, which is external, but these beats are good to keep in mind with the tension arising between characters, both PCs and NPCs which drive drama and aid the GM in getting the players to examine and play out their characters' motivations.

I find the advice useful whether it's a light hearted action romp, or something more character driven.
 
I don't doubt your experiences, but I think some players can play that way, with some GMs. I don't think system really matters, here; as you say, there really isn't a rule that will change this.
I concur, but even then it takes a masterful interaction between the player and DM. It's uncommon IME, but amazingly worthwhile when it occurs. One of my favorite characters went from being an arrogant snob, to an unworthy wretch, and finally redeemed himself and his family name. It was awesome, but took the entirety of the campaign from levels 1-15, which is not something that most players/DMs are willing to do.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
To follow on from @Shiroiken 's point just above, IME while it's very possible to play a character based on its background and-or long-term goals, most (all?) of the time those long-term goals are going to span a much longer spread of time than the campaign can hope to cover.

As an example: in my current campaign a PC got lucky with a Deck and was granted a keep and title to a long-forgotten but very real Dwarven Duchy. However on investigating this with the local bureaucrats, royalty, etc. he found that the associated rebooting and resettlement of said Duchy - never mind all the bureaucracy! - would take years if not decades. As - barring something very unforeseen - there's no way in hell this campaign is going to span that much in-game time, the player kind of had to make a choice: long-term goals (sorting out the Duchy) vs adventuring (and largely ignoring the Duchy). He chose the Duchy, and now that PC is seen only in cameo appearances now and then when people stop by his keep.

Also, in the heat of a combat in the middle of a regular-season adventure 2/3 of the way through the campaign, any thoughts of long-term goals get punted aside in favour of thoughts of what's gonna keep you alive for the next five minutes...and as typical adventuring is what we tend to spend most of our time doing when at the table it's hardly surprising that working toward long-term goals isn't easy.

Answer: more downtime.

Two reasons for this: first, more downtime allows characters more opportunity to work on non-adventuring goals and projects. Second, more downtime means more time is passing in the game world, bringing the long-term - or at least the mid-term - more into play as the campaign goes on. Things can be done while still adventuring, rather than having to be put off until after one's adventuring career is done.

But, the downside of more downtime (sorry 'bout that!) is that most downtime activities involve just one player and the DM, making them not that well-suited to being done at the table while everyone else sits and waits.

EDIT to add: long-term goals are often what drives a character to adventure in the first place, and thus can lead to character-driven play even in such things as choice of adventures, reasons for going along, etc.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Answer: more downtime.
Downtime though is often what happens that is not in the story. It is the part of the movie that happens in the cut, or the part of the book that is off stage. If the character development is occurring in the downtime, then that is the same as saying that character development can't be a substantial part of play.
 

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