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

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Well, this sure went a long way in the last 18-ish hours. :)

Without quoting a bunch of posts or going on at ridiculous length, I'll just sum up thusly:

To those who are speaking in favour of social mechanics being able to determine or force PC decisions/actions - that's all well and good, and no doubt such things enhance your games at your tables. All is good.

But if any of you ever start advocating for player agency (and some of you have in the past) I'll reserve the right to either take such advocation with a rather large grain of salt or outright call shenanigans; because the sort of mechanics you're favouring are completely antithetical to a player having agency over his/her character.
Is being beaten in combat in D&D antithetical to player agency? My answer to this rhetorical is no, of course not.

Same with social mechanics -- if the player is able to understand the risks and rewards possible with a given action, however adjudicated (mechanically or by fiat), then they have agency. If, as I think you incorrectly understand these mechanics to work, the GM is fiat imposing mechanics to take over the PC, that's bad in any system. One of the reasons I really don't like charm and dominate effects in D&D, either as a player or as a GM.
 

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Wolfpack48

Explorer
I dunno, all these rules systems, when time might just be better spent learning how to play a character in character. Seems like a little reading up on drama/acting, writing interesting characters, setting goals and getting a group who agree on approach could be done with any system or genre.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Is being beaten in combat in D&D antithetical to player agency? My answer to this rhetorical is no, of course not.

Same with social mechanics -- if the player is able to understand the risks and rewards possible with a given action, however adjudicated (mechanically or by fiat), then they have agency. If, as I think you incorrectly understand these mechanics to work, the GM is fiat imposing mechanics to take over the PC, that's bad in any system. One of the reasons I really don't like charm and dominate effects in D&D, either as a player or as a GM.
I concur with the first paragraph.

And, I concur with the second, though I tend to think, e.g., the approach in FATE is, exactly as you say, the GM imposing by fiat to take over the PC; also, enchantment-type magic--clearly such, to the relevant players--is one of a very few ways in which I'll take away a PC's agency (whether you think of it as character or player agency).
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I concur with the first paragraph.

And, I concur with the second, though I tend to think, e.g., the approach in FATE is, exactly as you say, the GM imposing by fiat to take over the PC; also, enchantment-type magic--clearly such, to the relevant players--is one of a very few ways in which I'll take away a PC's agency (whether you think of it as character or player agency).
Disagree. The player chose their trouble aforethought as something that they want to be an issue for their character as they play. Each time it's compelled is still a player choice: let my trouble be a problem or expend effort to tamp it down (ie, FATE point). The player is making the choice.
 

As it relates to agency, there are any number of games and mechanics that will, in specific instances of play, necessarily inhibit player agency. This is pretty much a fact of play.

Advocating for such an element....whether it's a charm spell or a compel or some other game mechanic....isn't the same as tossing player agency out the window.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I dunno, all these rules systems, when time might just be better spent learning how to play a character in character. Seems like a little reading up on drama/acting, writing interesting characters, setting goals and getting a group who agree on approach could be done with any system or genre.
"Playing in character" sounds like acting? If so, that's one way to roleplay, for sure, but not the only or even best way, although it seems widely preferred (and is one of my preferences, largely). However, the topic isn't 'how to act at the table like I imagine my character being' but rather how to enjoy a game that focuses, at least largely, on characters growing and changing. Acting isn't necessary for this, nor does acting cause this -- it's orthogonal to the issue. So, no, I don't really see how your argument actually encourages character arcs. I mean, you can successfully act a flat, unchanging character with great skill and aplomb as much as you can terribly act or even third person a dynamic, evolving character. Acting doesn't mean much in the context of the discussion.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Disagree. The player chose their trouble aforethought as something that they want to be an issue for their character as they play. Each time it's compelled is still a player choice: let my trouble be a problem or expend effort to tamp it down (ie, FATE point). The player is making the choice.
Except it's not always the player's choice to compel it, is it? The differential is two FATE points, which is a pretty big deal mechanically, and if you're out of FATE points there's no choice at all, unless you as a player are willing to make a big enough deal at the table, during the game, to try to talk the GM out of the compel.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
As it relates to agency, there are any number of games and mechanics that will, in specific instances of play, necessarily inhibit player agency. This is pretty much a fact of play.

Advocating for such an element....whether it's a charm spell or a compel or some other game mechanic....isn't the same as tossing player agency out the window.
This is absolutely true. Which ones you like are going to be a matter of taste and preference, neither of which is likely to be entirely rational.
 

To be clear. I like the system, but I know that it is for a particular style of game, and that's not a style I want all the time, much less expect everyone to want.
Likewise. Fate does what it does really well and I also think a lot of people benefit from understanding how and why it works. But that doesn't mean it's what I want for anything even approaching every game.

Hold on. Someone said FATE .... Fate .... FATE .... darn it, is it supposed to all-caps because of the acronym? Or is that just annoying?
Evil Hat have been calling it Fate rather than FATE for over thirteen years - but aren't that fussed. I find all caps simply looks ugly.
 

Well, this sure went a long way in the last 18-ish hours. :)

Without quoting a bunch of posts or going on at ridiculous length, I'll just sum up thusly:

To those who are speaking in favour of social mechanics being able to determine or force PC decisions/actions - that's all well and good, and no doubt such things enhance your games at your tables. All is good.

But if any of you ever start advocating for player agency (and some of you have in the past) I'll reserve the right to either take such advocation with a rather large grain of salt or outright call shenanigans; because the sort of mechanics you're favouring are completely antithetical to a player having agency over his/her character.
Alright, before the proverbial horse that you're setting up to get out the gate wreaks its havoc, let me correct your misunderstanding (at least with respect to me...I'll let others speak for themselves or they can agree with me as they like):

When I use the term GM Force, its associated with a very specific type of player agency that is being subordinated to the whim of the GM. Now some systems promote this "GM Force subordinating player agency" as a "feature", the most famous being White Wolf with its Golden Rule, of which AD&D 2e co-opted (and spawned an orthodoxy henceforth). In that case its not "extra-system" GM Force. Accordingly, I won't decry it for being a game that is deceitful about what is happening behind the curtain, because it is honest that Illusionism (covert GM Force) is fundamental to play because the apex priority is about something else (typically "the GM tells a good story and controls the trajectory of play, while the players participate in the GM's story and everyone has a good time.").

But, regardless of the systemitized GM Force/Illusionism...its still there.

So here is my issue as it pertains to GM Force (covert or overt) and player agency.

GM Force is the subordination by fiat of a player's thematic, strategic, tactical (any/all) decision-making to the whim/will of the GM, for the sake of controlling the gamestate and the overall trajectory of play.

The games I'm talking about in this thread (a) don't have subordination by GM fiat and (b) they don't condone (in fact they do the opposite) GMs controlling the gamestate and the trajectory of play.

Social Conflict mechanics imposing states-of-being on PCs and creating finality of resolution are neither principally nor definitionally the same thing as GM Force (whether the system condones it as a feature or not).

Hopefully that makes sense and clears that all up.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
@lowkey13, @Manbearcat, @pemerton

I wanted to weigh in on the use of mechanics to drive character play. Each of you said something on this, but it's been a few pages and I'm not up to digging up specific quotes. However, I wanted to engage you on the topic, so here's my take:

Mechanics are not necessary for character driven play, but they help, a lot. You don't need them, and can have deep and meaningful character arcs without them, but, at that point, you're doing so ad hoc, as an unstructured (and often unspoken) agreement between player and GM. This is difficult, because it's very easy to cross a line using ad hoc approaches that one side or the other does not appreciate, but you can do it. I've been in a D&D campaign that had, absent any mechanics, surprisingly deep character arcs, but that was, as I recognize it, a combination of the right game, right players, right GM, and right stories. It was a pretty good run. I played in other games with those same players, and the ad hoc character arcs didn't work as well or sometimes at all. So, while I agree ad hoc character arcs can occur, they're a challenge to do, and nearly impossible to do on command.

That said, mechanical systems, with constraints, can often do a lot of the heavy lifting for character arcs, but need to be understood by all involved and play goals need to be aligned. This puts a bit of an artificial spin on play, where everyone's trying to do the arc and using the mechanics to do so, that it can be jarring for some that are wanting a more organic experience. Depending on the mechanics, game genre expectations, and player goals, this artificiality can vary greatly by system, so it can sometimes be reduced by finding the right setup, gamewise and genrewise. However, there's no doubt that mechanics can push character arcs, but the feel of that pushing can be offputting.

Long and short, I suppose, is that I don't see system as being necessary for character arcs, but it's still important. Sometimes, system can be sufficient. I think system goes a great way towards defining play, but is not definitive of play, if that makes any sense.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Except it's not always the player's choice to compel it, is it? The differential is two FATE points, which is a pretty big deal mechanically, and if you're out of FATE points there's no choice at all, unless you as a player are willing to make a big enough deal at the table, during the game, to try to talk the GM out of the compel.
I'm not going to agree, here. The player chose for this trouble to be what can be compelled, knowing full well the ramifications of that. If, at the moment of a compel, the player believes that they're being forced into a choice, I'd say they've forgotten that they agreed to that choice at the start of the game.

And, if you're out of FATE points when compelled, it occurs to me that you maybe made choices to spend your FATE points and that's why you're in this position? I mean, this seems akin to complaining that the orc just hit you but you don't have enough hit points due to all the fights you've picked up til now and so it's not fair that you don't have a choice about going unconscious. I'm unclear as to why compels are so often presented absent the larger context of the game, where the player has made many choices to end up there, but not in terms of being out of hitpoints or spell slots or what-have-you.

Well, that's not entirely, true, I do think I see some rationales, but those mostly go to not fully accepting the concept of play for FATE and retaining some of the expectations of other games, like D&D, where character is the sole realm of the player. In that context, I get the problem that compels create. I can't say that's your conception, though, but, if it is, I'd say groovy. It's not always easy to drop a concept, especially when it's long ingrained, and accept a new paradigm. I'm not sure it's really valuable to do so, either, if you are having fun one way, to do the work of accepting a different paradigm.
 

pemerton

Legend
If the story of the game is something that emerges from play, how is player choice any different from authorial choice? If you say that a player cannot choose for his character, it seems as though you're saying an author cannot choose, either. Please try not to be too abstruse in answering; I managed to drop out of both high school and college.
You've had some replies to this. Here's mine - it has some similarities to @hawkeyefan's and more, I think to @Manbearcat's, but also hopefully is interesting in itself.

My response to this has two parts.

The first goes back to the fundamentals of RPGing: there is more than one author of the fiction. Which means we may have to resolve disagreements between them. The need to do so can become particularly pressing when the structure of the game gives one partiuclar participant - the player - a special interest in respect of one particular component of the ficiton - his/her character.

The best statement of this point I know of is here, from Vincent Baker: RPGing is negotiated imagination, and mechanics exist to ease and constrain real-world social negotiation between the players at the table.

The second part of my response goes to what is particular about the OP in this thread: @innerdude wants character-driven play. And as @Ovinomancer said, this means that the character has to be at risk. The player deciding without constraint what happens to his/her PC eliminates that element of risk.

That doesn't mean there have to be PC-impacting social mechanics to have character-driven play: you can do it where all the risk to the character is external - losing money, losing status, losing friends etc. I've done this in Rolemaster, and to a lesser extent in 4e D&D. But PC-impacing social/emotional mechanics open up new dramatic possibiities.

I do think that it is almost impossible to have character-driven play if there are no mechanics that allow the players, through resolution of their PCs' actions, to impose social/emotional consequences on NPCs. Without those, whether a PC loses or keeps his/her friends, or his/her status, is purely a matter of GM decision.

I think the arguement is that they're unnecessary.
Well there's probably nothing in RPGing that's necessary as such. It's all relative to goals of play. For the reasons I've just given, I think it's virtually impossible to have characterdriven play if the outcome for NPCs of their social interactions with PCs is entirely the GM's choice. And I think there are reasons why games that are aimed at this sort of play often allow the outcome for PCs of their social interactions with other characters to be determined by means other than player choice.
 

pemerton

Legend
if any of you ever start advocating for player agency (and some of you have in the past) I'll reserve the right to either take such advocation with a rather large grain of salt or outright call shenanigans; because the sort of mechanics you're favouring are completely antithetical to a player having agency over his/her character.
The two bolded phrases are not synonyms. I have never seen anyone argue that players should have unlimited agency (ie be the sole authors of the shared fiction). What I mostly see disputes about is whether players should have any agency in respect of the shared fiction.

I think that character-driven play of the sort @innerdude describes can't take place of players don't have some agancy in respect of the shared fiction, including in respect of the emotional states and social responses of NPCs. (Eg it has to be possible for a PC to befriend a NPC without the GM being the one who decides it.)

If player agency is confined to fighting and climbing and other feats of physical prowess, it will be very hard to get character-driven arcs because those things on their own tend not to reveal enough about the character.
 

@Ovinomancer

I would say that almost completely unstructured Free-form gaming where dispute mediation is table consensus and a simple coin flip to break ties can yield character-driven play if Force (as I've outlined above) doesn't emerge to co-opt thematic/tactical/strategic decision-making to control the gamestate and trajectory of play.

Force (be it for or against the player's interests) is absolutely anathema to character-driven play. Its kryptonite.
My opinion is just that table consensus will move towards play that is degenerate with respect to the goal of authentic, emergent character-driven play (because peoples' biases, unconscious or acknowledged, and then the propensity to assemble into tribes based on common aims).

Consequently, a system that:

(a) constrains GMing such that Force isn't on the table
(b) makes it easy for awesome character-driven play to emerge as a byproduct of simply playing the game (c) has clear thematic PC build flags and incentive structures + feedback loops in place that press upon the players to coherently advocate for their PCs
(d) while ensuring compelling, relevant opposition will consistently emerge to interpose itself between the PCs and their goals in conflict-charged scenes

...that has the best chance of consistently achieving the goal of emergent fiction and character-driven play.

Can you do so without b and c? Yes. But (a) and (d) are pretty much mandatory in my opinion. And (b) and (c) makes the whole operation easier/more reproducible.
 

Well, that's not entirely, true, I do think I see some rationales, but those mostly go to not fully accepting the concept of play for FATE and retaining some of the expectations of other games, like D&D, where character is the sole realm of the player. In that context, I get the problem that compels create. I can't say that's your conception, though, but, if it is, I'd say groovy. It's not always easy to drop a concept, especially when it's long ingrained, and accept a new paradigm. I'm not sure it's really valuable to do so, either, if you are having fun one way, to do the work of accepting a different paradigm.
This gets down to a different relationship between a D&D DM, a Fate GM, and an Apocalypse World MC and their players. In D&D the DM is the sole and absolute authority over the world, and the players are the sole and absolute authorities over their characters. In Fate the lines on both sides of the table are blurrier, and in Apocalypse World the MC is called the Master of Ceremonies because their role is distinct from everyone else to the point they never pick up a dice, and the players helped create significant parts of the setting. All are valid and using the wrong one is tricky.

I do think that it is almost impossible to have character-driven play if there are no mechanics that allow the players, through resolution of their PCs' actions, to impose social/emotional consequences on NPCs. Without those, whether a PC loses or keeps his/her friends, or his/her status, is purely a matter of GM decision.
As I said in my first post in this thread measure what you value or you end up valuing what you measure :)
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I do think I see some rationales, but those mostly go to not fully accepting the concept of play for FATE and retaining some of the expectations of other games, like D&D, where character is the sole realm of the player. In that context, I get the problem that compels create. I can't say that's your conception, though, but, if it is, I'd say groovy. It's not always easy to drop a concept, especially when it's long ingrained, and accept a new paradigm. I'm not sure it's really valuable to do so, either, if you are having fun one way, to do the work of accepting a different paradigm.
Sorry to snip; this is what I'm responding to.

I'd like to think I gave FATE a fair try, over a year-ish of play. I'm not sure how much of my gradual-then-abrupt frustration with the system was about the other players at the table, and how much of it was me, and how much of it was ... shrinkological badness that doesn't seem particularly relevant to this conversation. At this point, I think what I'd start with is that it seems to me to call for a more adversarial approach to GMing than I'm happy with, from either side of the (metaphorical) screen, which doesn't seem to me as though it'd be conducive to the trust I think is necessary between player and GM. I don't see how you can pick an aspect (let alone a trouble) if you don't trust the GM not to hose you with it.
 

pemerton

Legend
In D&D the DM is the sole and absolute authority over the world, and the players are the sole and absolute authorities over their characters.
I don't think this is true for all of D&D. Which is why in this thread Ive (at least tried to, and hopefully succeeded) to be careful in referring to versions.

In 4e D&D the GM does not have sole and absolute authority over the world. Results of skill challenges, for instance, are binding on the GM as much as on the players.

And in 4e D&D the players do not have absolute authority over their characrters. PCs can suffer psychic damage, and/or associated conditions, that establish facts about their PCs' psychological states. I think the most sophisticated example of this is the MMIII Chained Cambion, because it imposes psychic damage and a condition which, in play, produce in the players a lived experience of suffering torment and hating one another! (Because if one PC saves but the other doesn't, then the first PC can't act freely without burning the second, which sets up exactly the social dynamic at the table that the Chained Cambion is establishing in the fiction.)

In classic D&D I think it is taken for granted - based on the wargaming ethos - that the players can declare actions the resolution of which is binding on the GM. As well as combat, obviously, there are mechanical systems like the one for wilderness evasion.

I think your description is accurate for 2nd ed AD&D, probably 5e and perhaps (least sure here) 3E.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
You've had some replies to this. Here's mine - it has some similarities to @hawkeyefan's and more, I think to @Manbearcat's, but also hopefully is interesting in itself.
It is interesting. Thanks for responding, and (apparently) intentionally toning down some of the high-end theory with which I'm unfamiliar (and which therefore wouldn't have been helpful on any axis).

The first goes back to the fundamentals of RPGing: there is more than one author of the fiction. Which means we may have to resolve disagreements between them. The need to do so can become particularly pressing when the structure of the game gives one partiuclar participant - the player - a special interest in respect of one particular component of the ficiton - his/her character.

The best statement of this point I know of is here, from Vincent Baker: RPGing is negotiated imagination, and mechanics exist to ease and constrain real-world social negotiation between the players at the table.
The idea of negotiation and constraint puts me in mind of playing in a band. Working out a song feels like being part of a gestalt, which also happens when a TRPG table is at its best.

The second part of my response goes to what is particular about the OP in this thread: @innerdude wants character-driven play. And as @Ovinomancer said, this means that the character has to be at risk. The player deciding without constraint what happens to his/her PC eliminates that element of risk.

That doesn't mean there have to be PC-impacting social mechanics to have character-driven play: you can do it where all the risk to the character is external - losing money, losing status, losing friends etc. I've done this in Rolemaster, and to a lesser extent in 4e D&D. But PC-impacing social/emotional mechanics open up new dramatic possibiities.
This sounds as though you could put what the characters want at risk and get somewhere similar.

I do think that it is almost impossible to have character-driven play if there are no mechanics that allow the players, through resolution of their PCs' actions, to impose social/emotional consequences on NPCs. Without those, whether a PC loses or keeps his/her friends, or his/her status, is purely a matter of GM decision.
Maybe you could unpack why character-driven play necessitates imposing those sorts of consequences on NPCs? I'm not sure I understand the relationship.

Well there's probably nothing in RPGing that's necessary as such. It's all relative to goals of play. For the reasons I've just given, I think it's virtually impossible to have characterdriven play if the outcome for NPCs of their social interactions with PCs is entirely the GM's choice. And I think there are reasons why games that are aimed at this sort of play often allow the outcome for PCs of their social interactions with other characters to be determined by means other than player choice.
Well, I meant necessary to play. I'm not sure the barriers are so steep as you seem to believe. OTOH, as I've said, I'm a believer in social skills (or whatever the equivalent is in a given system) to account for differences in competencies between player and character.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I don't think this is true for all of D&D. Which is why in this thread Ive (at least tried to, and hopefully succeeded) to be careful in referring to versions.

In 4e D&D the GM does not have sole and absolute authority over the world. Results of skill challenges, for instance, are binding on the GM as much as on the players.

And in 4e D&D the players do not have absolute authority over their characrters. PCs can suffer psychic damage, and/or associated conditions, that establish facts about their PCs' psychological states. I think the most sophisticated example of this is the MMIII Chained Cambion, because it imposes psychic damage and a condition which, in play, produce in the players a lived experience of suffering torment and hating one another! (Because if one PC saves but the other doesn't, then the first PC can't act freely without burning the second, which sets up exactly the social dynamic at the table that the Chained Cambion is establishing in the fiction.)

In classic D&D I think it is taken for granted - based on the wargaming ethos - that the players can declare actions the resolution of which is binding on the GM. As well as combat, obviously, there are mechanical systems like the one for wilderness evasion.

I think your description is accurate for 2nd ed AD&D, probably 5e and perhaps (least sure here) 3E.
I missed 4E, mostly because I never knew anyone who played it (and was never interested enough to seek it out).

That said, in my 5E games, I don't have absolute authority over the world. Players have established facts about it, which I have incorporated (or occasionally altered slightly). The PCs can change the world in the course of their adventures (which may not be exactly what you're talking about). Nor do the players have absolute authority over their characters. It's nothing so extreme as the Chained Cambion you mention (which sounds appropriately nasty), but there has been at least one instance of being charmed (which has been called out above as a means of negating agency).

So, I guess I'm not disagreeing with you about D&D other than around the edges (and mostly about the specifics of my own games).
 

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