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

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
You will never get a meaningful roleplaying experience worrying about rules. The moment you look at your sheet the roleplaying is over, so to achieve whatever character immersion you want, you have to go back to OD&D or D&D or a relaxed AD&D and just roleplay with a system that has next to no stats. It also helps if you have a DM that doesn't worry about rules either and just says "yes, and..." a lot and you say it right back to him. This is why 5e was such a letdown to me after 30 years away. I don't want to make a religious check to see if I know something. I want to approach an NPC and have a conversation with them and learn something, Keep on making tedious skill checks and you'll never have a character driven campaign. And throw away those backgrounds the books try to foist on you. I have to play a character four or five times, get the feel of him, and then I know what his background is. Yes I can act out playing whatever was randomly rolled for me, but it is certainly more immersive and natural to just play five sessions, realize my character detects magic a lot, and suddenly the answer comes to me and the character is fleshed out. Then I play accordingly.
This is a pretty narrow view of games, one that seems very entrenched in a specific form of play. As an entry into the topic, it really fails to address how this kind of play can create the type of experience the OP has requested. You specifically reference the, "yes, and..." improv advice, but this counters character driven play because it asks you to subsume character to the play by agreeing with the situtation as presented by others and building onto it, whereas character play requires pushback on things that are central to or important to the character.

Don't get me wrong, this is a perfectly fine way to play, and I'm happy that you enjoy it. It isn't, however, an actual solution to the OP except in the ad hoc, unpredictable way I've described previously. Sometimes lightning strikes doing this, but, like lightning, that's neither reliable or should be expected.
 

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Wolfpack48

Explorer
No, acting is orthogonal to exploring character growth. Orthogonal, in this sense, meaning 'not related to.'

I say this because I can look at acting and determine if it is either necessary to have character growth, meaning that acting must be present to have character growth, or if it is sufficient to have character growth, meaning that acting alone can cause character growth.

The necessary part you've already noted isn't true -- there are other ways to have character growth, so therefore it's not necessary to have acting be present to have character growth. I'll leave aside your attempt to limit other methods to writing for now.

That leave sufficiency. This is as easy to show because all I have to do is show that you can have acting while not having character growth. This is a trivial show -- there's a wealth of acted parts with no character growth in all forms of media, including at the table. I, personally, have acted the part of many NPCs that have had no growth, and not a few PCs that have likewise had no growth, in both 1-shots, short campaigns, and even in longer campaigns. So, therefore, acing is not sufficient to have character growth.

If acting is neither necessary nor sufficient for character growth, then it's not really part of the discussion of 'how do we do character growth.' It is a useful discussion for 'how to we connect to our characters in play?' This is because, while acting is not necessary to connect to character, it can be sufficient. It's just not terribly interesting in regards to the discussion on character arcs, as it's not an important component of having character arcs.
You seem preternaturally obsessed with acting and simultaneously wishing for frameworks, rules, systems and terminology to simulate playing a character. You’re obviously going to continue on that path and so nothing to help you. Ignoring you and moving on.
 

Sadras

Hero
Right, so the characters weren't being changed as a result of the events of play.
I once again provide the quote to which I objected (refer below). I never once mentioned that characters were being changed as a result of play. That is all you.

pemerton said:
There can't be dramatic character arcs if "the story" is already written (by the GM or the module author or whomever) and the GM already knows what is to come.

Doubly so if the GM has already decided what that story will be independently of the development by the players of their characters.
And these changes were so 'dramatic' that everyone else failed to notice them.
They also had such an impact on the events of play - what was going on in the game - that no-one else noticed.
I said they left bread crumbs, you interpreted that to mean dramatic changes. That is on you.

So the players finally resort to the only way they're allowed to impact the actual subject matter of the game by nuking the one thing they have control of - they're own characters.
How is it the only way? And how did they nuke control of their characters? Why do you not see this as an evolution of their characters?

This happened last week. These characters are still integral to the storyline but I would have to sit and discuss with the players how they see themselves going forward, will there be a downtime period - I have literally no idea.
Again you're jumping to conclusions. That is on you.

I wonder what effect that had... it must have completely changed everything...
That is where we ended it, with OOC conversation on the player's new character and the other character likely becoming a sorcerer. Again this is not nuking, perhaps they will change or add flaws, bonds and ideals - I have no idea as yet, but this is something the players wanted to explore, and that they did.

Join the others. On the main railroad 'story arc'.... to add some colour to your scripted plot with their 'unscripted dialogue'.
Don't forget my dramatic character arcs which funny enough you and I both seem to have at our tables despite you running your games so differently. That is on us. :p

Your example only demonstrates how powerless your players are.
In what way are they powerless and how has my example demonstrated that? You make bold statements and yet you back it up with :poop:. That is on you.

They can roll dice then they're told, and fight what they're told (but only win when you decide).
And yet again, none of that disputes my claim that dramatic story arcs occur within my railroad-y story arc games with my colourful unscripted player dialogue. ;) That is on you me, no you. I give up, it's on somebody.

Just don't bring that into a thread about character-driven play and expect plaudits from anyone other that railroaders also seeking to validate illusionism as a technique.
Thank you for clearing that up, because for a moment I was concerned that you were gonna offer me a plaudit, but you set me straight. Top man!

Echo on regardless.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It is important to note the OP is discussing a particular type of roleplaying experience which includes a risk of the foundation of the character. It is not about simple immersive play.
Hr. Hold on a second.

The OP talks about play that leads to a change in the foundation of the character.

In common RPG parlance, risk is... a chance of harm. The GM creates challenges with risks in them - if you don't find ways to deal with the challenges, the consequences imposed by the GM are things the PCs don't like.

That's not the same thing as play that leads a player to realize that their character, as a result of things that they have experienced, will experience change. There is no "risk" if the choice to change or not is entirely in the hands of the player. "I watched my best friend die - I used to be a happy-go-lucky bard, but now... I am driven by vengeance!" is character driven play that has nothing to do with "risk".
 

That's not the same thing as play that leads a player to realize that their character, as a result of things that they have experienced, will experience change. There is no "risk" if the choice to change or not is entirely in the hands of the player. "I watched my best friend die - I used to be a happy-go-lucky bard, but now... I am driven by vengeance!" is character driven play that has nothing to do with "risk".
So... In order for there to be a risk, there needs to be something in conflict. For character driven play, those things have to be related specifically to the character, and they have to be 'in play'.

For your example above, I might suggest that the character has two beliefs...

1. I will not be driven by vengeance.
2. I would do anything for my loved ones.

To put them into play, the bard friend says "Avenge me!" with his dying breath. Now, the two beliefs held by the character are in conflict. Does the player forgo vengeance, keeping to belief 1 and discarding belief 2? Or does he avenge his friend the bard, keeping to belief 2 and discarding belief 1?

For this type of character driven play to function, the players need to choose (some number of) beliefs for their characters, which can be placed into conflict during play. This is (more or less) what beliefs in Burning Wheel are for, they are cues from the player about what sort of things the game master should challenge the character with.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
This reason isn't very important to me. In 4e D&D - a rather tactical game - the fact that all the PCs have combat ability doesn't stop the best wargamer at the table shining in combat.

And the system has social skills, but the player still has to understand social dynamics at least to the extent of declaring relevant actions. So a player with more social imagination has more scope to do stuff here.

That's not to say that the reason should be irrelevant to everyone, and maybe I'm underestimating how weak some players' social skills are. But for me it's much more about what domains of activity are subject to finality in resolution as opposed to sheer negotiation/consensus/fiat.
In D&D terms (because it's the system in my head at the moment):

I think it's more along the lines of if you have a persuasive, talkative player whose fighter used Charisma as a dump stat, forcing the player and character to live with the consequences of dumping Charisma; or, if you have a quiet introvert playing a paladin, letting mechanics and dice enable the character to have a more forceful personality.

In practice, I use a lot of passive stat stuff for this, modified by ... how the players play the scene, I guess.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
So... In order for there to be a risk, there needs to be something in conflict. For character driven play, those things have to be related specifically to the character, and they have to be 'in play'.
You seem to be missing the point. I am not asking how one would introduce risk in this context. I am challenging the idea that risk is necessary at all.

Fundamentally - in character driven play, the player makes choices driven by who and what the character is. The OP wanted there to also be fundamental change to the character.

While you can play this as if the character was a list of fundamentals, and as if some of them were written on cards and put "in play" with some defined process for resolution of game events to change those cards, that's not actually necessary to reach the stated goal.

This rather hinges on a point - "play" is not limited to "interaction with the rule set".
 

You seem to be missing the point. I am not asking how one would introduce risk in this context. I am challenging the idea that risk is necessary at all.
I would say that risk is only a necessary component for the game to be "substantively character-driven."

Sure, you can play your character as having changed due to in-fiction events in any role-playing game, but for character change to be the point of the game (which is how I read the phrase, "substantively character-driven," used in the thread's title), the game itself must be able to drive character change.
 

You will never get a meaningful roleplaying experience worrying about rules. The moment you look at your sheet the roleplaying is over, so to achieve whatever character immersion you want, you have to go back to OD&D or D&D or a relaxed AD&D and just roleplay with a system that has next to no stats. It also helps if you have a DM that doesn't worry about rules either and just says "yes, and..." a lot and you say it right back to him.
The first sentence is true, the second is a massive oversimplification - and if the character sheet were entirely something that got in the way freeform would be objectively superior and we might as well just give up on D&D in favour of freeform and Improv. One reason to not worry about rules is you've already mastered them - and rules help bring you on the same page for complex interactions. "Yes-and" only takes you so farm

I've already mentioned Apocalypse World before in this thread to show how well the right rule system can encourage to the sort of character growth @innerdude wants (and a time it did with complete newbies) but there are a lot of things Apocalypse World does very right. This is partly because Vincent Baker's wife, Meguy Baker, is an experienced freeform RPer, and Vincent's goal therefore is always to create a game that provides her a better experience than freeform would be - and she's his collaborator and first playtester.

And there are several things he does in all his games that enable this. Some of which are:
  1. Keeps the stats few - I can't recall more than five stats/skills you actually roll in any of his games
  2. Keeps the rolls simple and consistent with not too many modifiers so working out the outcome is fast
  3. Keeps the abilities few and evocative so they are easy to remember (one of the Apocalypse World moves is literally called NOT TO BE FUCKED WITH and makes the single fighter equal to a small gang)
  4. Keeps the rhythm of the game the same as freform - so you roll in Apocalypse World at exactly the same points you'd hand over narration in freeform.
  5. Designs the rules so that they are in line with what you would actually do in freeform.
  6. Keeps the outcomes far richer than a simple pass-fail so rolling adds to the game.
Points 1-4 all minimise the disruption of looking at the character sheet - you look at it when you'd hand over narration anyway (point 4) and 1-3 all mean that there's not that much to remember. Point 5 again minimises the disruption. And point 6 is where it becomes actively better than freeform while having few downsides.

To illustrate how this works, Apocalypse World doesn't have any Perception skill. Instead when you want to look round the room to work out what's going on here you use the Apocalypse World "Read a Sitch" move.

Read a Sitch from Apocalypse World said:
When you read a charged situation, roll+sharp. On a hit, you can ask the MC questions. Whenever you act on one of the MC’s answers, take +1. On a 10+, ask 3. On a 7–9, ask 1:
  • Where’s my best escape route / way in / way past?
  • Which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
  • Which enemy is the biggest threat?
  • What should I be on the lookout for?
  • What’s my enemy’s true position?
  • Who’s in control here?
On a miss, ask 1 anyway, but be prepared for the worst.
Everyone knows how to Roll + Sharp (roll 2d6 and add the one of your five stats called Sharp) and you can do it proactively without being annoying by spamming perception checks because there should always be an interesting answer. Also "be prepared for the worst" on a failed roll means that the GM has an absolute right to say "Your enemy's true position is standing right behind you placing a pistol against the back of your head" or "you catch the flash of triumph in the eyes of the waiter and realise that your drink had a bitter aftertaste. The room starts spinning." so the roll isn't risk free - it's a legitimate answer to the question and a way you'd find out. Just an ... unfortunate ... way because you failed the roll.

But fundamentally all those questions are things that when looking round a character is likely to be looking out for - and a character is likely to want to know wtf is going on. It's both a much more active choice and a choice more in line with what players naturally do than just a simple "Roll perception" which is one of eighteen different skills (17 in 4e, 33+ in 3.X) on your skill list and doesn't provide anything remotely as defined in terms of what you are looking for as asking one to three of those six listed questions does. So it fits in line with what freeform RPers would be doing naturally when their character is worried about trouble.

Saying "Yes and" is all very well - and I've enough of an experience of improv to know where it can lead. But one of the things RPG rules and mechanics provides is that gritty extra "yes but" in ways that work and that build. However you need to do it carefully.
 

chaochou

Adventurer
Do you think this is likely to lead to a productive conversation? Do you think that this is particularly helpful?
The only way to talk about character-driven play is to seperate it clearly from GM-driven play, and that means highlighting where play is GM driven. The fact that a lot GM-driven play doesn't want to admit what it is, isn't my problem.

I consider it extremely helpful to bring such illusionism blinking and resentful into the cold hard light. Why can't players who are playing their own side-game of outcome-free emoting throughout the GMs plot can be discussed in those terms? To present such as a demonstration of a 'dramatic character arc' when no-one even noticed it was happening, is frankly laughable. To bring it into a thread about character-driven play is even more so.

Illusionism is about lying to people about how much agency the players have. Player agency is a valued currency - one playstyle features it and another doesn't but lies about it. Are you able to talk about that? Is it allowed (by you)? Apparently not.

But maybe you have an example of character-driven play to share? Or recommended systems for the OP? If not, why are you here?
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
You seem to be missing the point. I am not asking how one would introduce risk in this context. I am challenging the idea that risk is necessary at all.

...

This rather hinges on a point - "play" is not limited to "interaction with the rule set".
It's a very long time since I agreed with @Umbran on much but what's said here is bang on.

Playing through a character's arc - which may or may not involve significant changes to said character - might rarely if ever involve 'risk' and might never need to touch the game rules.

And to follow on: correct me if I'm misinterpreting, but it seems 'risk' in this context is being used as shorthand for 'potential for forced changes to a character's feelings or emotions that its player doesn't necessarily want'; which means I'm in effect risking my agency over my character.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not for a second suggesting my character's arc should always go smoothly and have everything neatly fall into place. There'll be failures along the way, possibly up to and including complete failure to reach or even get close to whatever end goal I've set, and that's just part of the game.

What I'm advocating for is the right to retain control over my character even in a failure situation - let me as its player determine how it reacts in-character to said failure, and-or determine what it does next, rather than having my reaction forced on me by the game system (or worse, the GM).

The same applies if I am the GM: what my NPCs do-say-think should as far as possible* not be system-forced but should come instead from what that character is and how it perecives the situation.

* - I throw this qualifier in to acknowledge that not every NPC the party meets is going to have a fully fleshed out characterization or personality. Those that do, however, should be able to ignore the forced-resolution mechanics just like a PC can.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I would say that risk is only a necessary component for the game to be "substantively character-driven."
With respect, I think that's backwards. The extent that the player puts the character at risk to the game mechanics, that is the game driving the character.

Character driven play is where the nature of the character determines what happens in play, not the other way around.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Player agency is a valued currency - one playstyle features it and another doesn't but lies about it.
Mod Note:

You probably want to be very careful about characterizing things as "lies". You should also probably take care in the challenging attitude. This is supposed to be a friendly discussion. If you become antagonistic and demanding, there's a problem.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I would say that risk is only a necessary component for the game to be "substantively character-driven."

Sure, you can play your character as having changed due to in-fiction events in any role-playing game, but for character change to be the point of the game (which is how I read the phrase, "substantively character-driven," used in the thread's title), the game itself must be able to drive character change.
"the game itself must be able to drive"...Drive as in force? Or drive as in elicit?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Character driven play is where the nature of the character determines what happens in play, not the other way around.
I suppose it's possible to have what happens in play alter the nature of a character, and then further events be determined by the character's nature. Seems a little like what has been said elsewhere in the thread about this not being a pure (clean? simple?) dichotomy. Doesn't make the definition wrong, just pointing out that the boundaries are porous and indistinct.
 

innerdude

Adventurer
....correct me if I'm misinterpreting, but it seems 'risk' in this context is being used as shorthand for 'potential for forced changes to a character's feelings or emotions that its player doesn't necessarily want'; which means I'm in effect risking my agency over my character.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not for a second suggesting my character's arc should always go smoothly and have everything neatly fall into place. There'll be failures along the way, possibly up to and including complete failure to reach or even get close to whatever end goal I've set, and that's just part of the game.

What I'm advocating for is the right to retain control over my character even in a failure situation - let me as its player determine how it reacts in-character to said failure, and-or determine what it does next, rather than having my reaction forced on me by the game system (or worse, the GM).
I'm not advocating for GM force to change a character. Nor am I asking for "forced change" from the system, if the player doesn't want it.

But that's the key phrase---if the player doesn't want it.

I'm suggesting that I'd actually like to play a game with players who DO want it. I want them to readily accept and embrace that their characters are actually going to change in ways more meaningful than leveling up. And if by accepting that as a core premise, the players come to find that the system is testing and stretching their characters in ways they didn't expect, then that's precisely the point.

If the default point of view is, "My character should only ever change in ways that I, the player, choose to allow them to change or at most by adhering to stated character building rules," then we've started off on the completely wrong foot for "character-driven" play in the first place.

From what I know of your background (long, long loooooooong time AD&D 1e player who expects to play a single campaign anywhere from 5-7 years), your perspective makes perfect sense.

And while it's a valid perspective for a certain style of play, it's not a style I'm particularly interested in.
 

pemerton

Legend
I once again provide the quote to which I objected (refer below). I never once mentioned that characters were being changed as a result of play. That is all you.
The quote you're objecting to is from me:

There can't be dramatic character arcs if "the story" is already written (by the GM or the module author or whomever) and the GM already knows what is to come.

Doubly so if the GM has already decided what that story will be independently of the development by the players of their characters.
I would have hoped it was fairly clear that by "dramatic character arcs" I meant what the OP referred to, that is, emotionally-affecting changes in the charcter(s) that are produced via application of the mechanics in play.

Here is your account of the events in your game:

Just this weekend I witnessed this - an incredible piece of invested roleplaying between two sibling PCs. This had all been pre-thought out by the players that at some point they would have an epic argument about their relationship and their "shared" beliefs that would effectively forever change them and their relationship.

I and the other player present did nothing but watched in awe as this all played out in a game of D&D. No rolls were needed, just an intense honest conversation that flowed naturally between two characters.

<snip>

I'm amazed how some players are able to weave invested storylines through the main arc.
this fallout was already pre-planned by the players upon character generation and although they had laid the bread crumbs for this story arc along the way (now evident), both myself and the other players had missed them. We had noticed the peculiarities but had not picked up that this was going to explode.

<snip>

All this played out through unscripted dialogue.

Needless to say, the player of the paladin is retiring her character (for now) - while the warlock now free from the burden of the lie, looked to continue on a different path (new class).

<snip>

Might we revisit these characters down the line, realistically yes since they play an integral roll - but that will require some discussion with the players about their characters, so that we may find an agreeable way to re-introduce them to each other and the story.
As I understand this, there occurred - parallel to the GM's "main story" - a distinct story that was collaboratively authored by two players which most of the rest of the group didn't really feel the force of until those two players, by agreement, brought it to a head. The result is that, at least for the moment, one of the PCs is being retired from play.

I don't see how that shows what I said to be wrong, because it's not an example of what the OP is talking about. The players don't seem to have put their characters at risk. There characters don't appear to either have driven, or to have been changed by, the actual play of the game as that unfolds via action declarations and their resolution. As you present it, it just looks like collaborative authorship of a subplot alongside what I take to be (given you presented it as contradicting my claim) your own GM-authored main plot.
 

pemerton

Legend
For this type of character driven play to function, the players need to choose (some number of) beliefs for their characters, which can be placed into conflict during play. This is (more or less) what beliefs in Burning Wheel are for, they are cues from the player about what sort of things the game master should challenge the character with.
I think that it can be done also if the beliefs (or similar) are presented implicitly rather than expressly on the sheet. For instance, they might be implied by a class or playbook selection. Or be manifested through the play of the character.

To give a simple (simplistic?) example: in a fairly light fantasy-ish game, you might have a kinght or paladin who, via class/playbook-type choice plus evident trope is all about honour, justice, upholding the right, etc. And that character might make a friend. And then it turns out that friend is a heathen, or assassin, or something similar that a knight or paladin would typically hate and oppose. Now the player, in playing their character, has to choose between abstract values and concrete friendship. That could produce the sort of thing the OP talks about.

I say all this because it lets me beat my drum again: more than formalised devices like Beliefs, Aspects etc, I think that the sort of play the OP describes depends upon robust action resolution, so that consequences can be bindingly established in the fiction in ways beyond table consensus or GM fiat. For instance, in the example I just gave we are going to need mechanics to adjudicate what happens when the PC confronts his/her friend, so that definite fallout of some form or other is generated that the player can't just ignore.

Sure, you can play your character as having changed due to in-fiction events in any role-playing game, but for character change to be the point of the game (which is how I read the phrase, "substantively character-driven," used in the thread's title), the game itself must be able to drive character change.
I agree, but for the reasons I've just given I don't think this has to be via direct mechanical operation upon mechanical elements like Beliefs.

Another example - better than my toy one - is the Apocalypse World actual play sketch that @Neonchameleon posted somewhere upthread. The key there was that the MC established situations and narrated consequences ("made moves" in AW parlance) that put the PCs' commitments under pressure, and then doubled down on initial outcomes to keep that pressure up and see what happened.

(You can see that I'm a bit obsessed by the centrality of establishing and building on consequences as the key to all this. Which is also where I see risk being a real thing.)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'm not advocating for GM force to change a character. Nor am I asking for "forced change" from the system, if the player doesn't want it.

But that's the key phrase---if the player doesn't want it.

I'm suggesting that I'd actually like to play a game with players who DO want it. I want them to readily accept and embrace that their characters are actually going to change in ways more meaningful than leveling up. And if by accepting that as a core premise, the players come to find that the system is testing and stretching their characters in ways they didn't expect, then that's precisely the point.

If the default point of view is, "My character should only ever change in ways that I, the player, choose to allow them to change or at most by adhering to stated character building rules," then we've started off on the completely wrong foot for "character-driven" play in the first place.
I wonder if our definitions of "character-driven play" are the least bit aligned.

I see "character-driven play" as meaning, at its root, play where the characters (or more precisely the players in character) rather than the GM set the context and tone and sequence of play, and thus to a large or complete extent drive whatever storyline the game generates along with much of the day-to-day play that gets it there. The GM is still responsible for the setting, and for enforcement of the system rules when-where appropriate, but the characters drive the game both in the short and long term.

They can and often will (but don't have to) still change in ways far more meaningful than simply levelling up or as reflected by any other number, but those changes and any results thereof or reactions thereto remain under the player's control. And yes, a character might find itself in a situation where it's being tested or stretched in ways unexpected.

Reading what you say here, it almost seems like you're looking for the game to in some ways drive the characters via more of a mandated* or expected set-up of emotional tests and trials, which seems a counterintuitive way to use the term 'character-driven play': the characters really aren't driving. Couple that with emotion-binding resolution mechanics that mean to some extent the players can't always drive either, and what have you got? It's character-focussed, absolutely, but doesn't seem very character-driven.

* - not exactly the term I want to use but I can't think of a better one right now...I don't want to say 'system-forced' or 'system-demanded'.

From what I know of your background (long, long loooooooong time AD&D 1e player who expects to play a single campaign anywhere from 5-7 years), your perspective makes perfect sense.
This does raise a few yet-unanswered questions:

What real-world time frame are you looking at for a campaign or story arc to unfold?
Are you intending a situation where it's the same characters all the way through?

I ask because both of these can and do make a huge difference to how play unfolds, regardless of anything else.
 

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