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

Celebrim

Legend
So, it occurs to me that we might not be talking about exactly the same things.

When I talk about "character driven" play, what I imagine is play that revolves around exploration of a characters feelings and beliefs. "Character driven" play usually involves low melodrama and is focused on intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts. It mostly involves a whole lot of talking and involves play that is what Forge calls "actor stance" and often involves players using method acting techniques to get inside the head of a character and experience that characters emotions. It involves the fantasy of being an alternate self. You barely need any rules for it. Your average four year old engaged in make believe has some amount of character driven play going on, and often has more real character driven play going on that your average table of adult RPG players.

To successfully engage in "character driven" play you need a table of players that all consent to it. The most important thing in character driven play is to be willing to be a sounding board for another player and to not be trying to win. Most attempts at character driven play I observe at tables fail either because the players lack the skills to respond to character driven hooks offered up by another player, or if they do respond the respond in a stance of trying to win as if a challenge has been offered up, often very obviously from a stance of real life annoyance because they feel the player is distracting from the "real game". Basically, if you have anyone at the table that has a 0% in how much value they perceive in character driven play, then you really aren't going to be successful with it as a player, or in fostering it as a GM.

This is one of two reasons why "character driven" play as an aesthetic of play favors small groups. The other reason is that character driven play is slow and inherently puts spot light on a few players at once. If you have more than three or so persons engaged in low melodrama at a time, you have cacophony. Think about how a soap opera tends to put characters in two and threes, and allows the story to develop through interactions between individuals. This means that everyone has to be willing to wait there turn while people are involved in scenes, and the more people you have the harder that is. If you do have a large group that wants to play low melodrama, the most functional arrangement is little or no GM moderation and engaging in some sort of LARP where people can break into smaller groups to perform scenes.

On the other hand, "narrative driven" play is any sort of play that focuses on the production of a story. Such play may or may not be "character driven" just as some stories aren't really character driven. Most often in RPGs you see narrative driven play in high melodrama, that is, involving contests between groups and ideological forces of which the characters are representatives or even archetypes. Where "character driven" play depends explicitly on the skill of the players, "narrative driven" play often depends explicitly on the skill of the GM to both lay out appropriate conflicts, and also to improvise creatively and opaquely to the players actions so that regardless of what the PCs do, it feels like the story is continuing in a meaningful manner. The common campaign format of "Adventure Paths" is designed to produce narrative driven play. In my experience though, it usually fails at this by offering too rigid of a framework, and most GMs simply fail to have the improvisational skills to keep the story going in a naturalistic way where the actions of the players seem to matter. This is the real failing of for example, the "Chronicles of the Dragon Lance". The possibility of a grand epic narrative is certainly there, but most players probably only experienced a railroad because it's entirely improbable that a DM wouldn't have to play the story out differently than it was laid out.

I've certainly experienced really great narrative play in a wide variety of systems, and I really feel that it is - like character driven play - independent of the system because the things that make it work work just as well without a system, playing make believe. One thing though that bothers me is the difference between creation of story through play and creation of story through meta-play. Just as @Lanefan suggested that one way to get character driven play is to do it in the downtime, many independent or modern game systems seem to throw up their hands at the idea of creating narrative through actual play, and instead try a variety of techniques for creating narrative through meta-play. For example, they may encourage you to retroactively and collectively craft a story explaining what just happened. They may encourage the group to brainstorm about what the events of play meant, and to come to conclusions about how their character would respond to those events and mark some mechanical change in their character sheet. And that annoys me to distraction, because we are no longer focused on creating good play, but on creating good transcripts of play. Instead of experiencing a story through play, it seems like so many designers expect you to just produce the record of a story. I consider this the difference in experience of being a character in a story, and being a member of a script writing team collectively producing a screenplay. Both end up with a story, but the production of story wasn't in and of itself the experience I was going for.
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Only if you make it so. Downtime doesn't at all have to happen "offstage", or be handwaved.

If either the players are cool with taking turns with the DM during a session, or the DM is cool with doing some off-cycle work with individual players between sessions, all this character develpment stuff can occur side-along with adventuring play, and inform some events that might happen there along with whatever roleplay takes place.

But if it's all "cut" then of course it won't be seen as important.
 

pemerton

Legend
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.

<snip>

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 minute

<snip>

Answer: more downtime.
I think this is proving @innerdude's point more than explaining how to get more dramatic arcs.

Dramatic arcs aren't playing based on background or long-term goals. You can have dramatic arcs for characters who are spontaneous, or reckless, or careless with their lives.

And "downtime" isn't a solution to the mechanics of play aren't producing dramatic arcs. It's a concession of the point!

Anyway, your post is a really good illustration of why I say that, in order to get what the OP wants, one has to ditch the notion of "the adventure".
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
So, it occurs to me that we might not be talking about exactly the same things.
I think we kinda might be, but coming at it from different angles.

When I talk about "character driven" play, what I imagine is play that revolves around exploration of a characters feelings and beliefs. "Character driven" play usually involves low melodrama and is focused on intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts. It mostly involves a whole lot of talking and involves play that is what Forge calls "actor stance" and often involves players using method acting techniques to get inside the head of a character and experience that characters emotions. It involves the fantasy of being an alternate self.
All agreed, and this is often informed and aided by a character's long-term and-or short-term goals that don't involve adventuring. That said, long-term goals often go far beyond the confines of the party (e.g. a long-term goal of a character of mine is to become Empress of [Rome]), but this can still inform in-party play as I try to form alliances, gain other PCs' trust and aid, and so on.

To successfully engage in "character driven" play you need a table of players that all consent to it.
True, though I assume that consent always exists because otherwise why are you playing an RPG?

This is one of two reasons why "character driven" play as an aesthetic of play favors small groups. The other reason is that character driven play is slow and inherently puts spot light on a few players at once.
I'll agree it's slow, and add that to me this is not a problem.
If you have more than three or so persons engaged in low melodrama at a time, you have cacophony.
And hilarity, IME. :)

On the other hand, "narrative driven" play is any sort of play that focuses on the production of a story. Such play may or may not be "character driven" just as some stories aren't really character driven. Most often in RPGs you see narrative driven play in high melodrama, that is, involving contests between groups and ideological forces of which the characters are representatives or even archetypes. Where "character driven" play depends explicitly on the skill of the players, "narrative driven" play often depends explicitly on the skill of the GM to both lay out appropriate conflicts, and also to improvise creatively and opaquely to the players actions so that regardless of what the PCs do, it feels like the story is continuing in a meaningful manner. The common campaign format of "Adventure Paths" is designed to produce narrative driven play. In my experience though, it usually fails at this by offering too rigid of a framework, and most GMs simply fail to have the improvisational skills to keep the story going in a naturalistic way where the actions of the players seem to matter. This is the real failing of for example, the "Chronicles of the Dragon Lance". The possibility of a grand epic narrative is certainly there, but most players probably only experienced a railroad because it's entirely improbable that a DM wouldn't have to play the story out differently than it was laid out.
There's a third type of play - which I also commonly refer to as "character-driven" but defined differently than above - where instead of the DM choosing the adventures that get played the characters (via their players) choose, for in-character reasons likely related to their own goals.

One thing though that bothers me is the difference between creation of story through play and creation of story through meta-play. Just as @Lanefan suggested that one way to get character driven play is to do it in the downtime, many independent or modern game systems seem to throw up their hands at the idea of creating narrative through actual play, and instead try a variety of techniques for creating narrative through meta-play. For example, they may encourage you to retroactively and collectively craft a story explaining what just happened. They may encourage the group to brainstorm about what the events of play meant, and to come to conclusions about how their character would respond to those events and mark some mechanical change in their character sheet. And that annoys me to distraction, because we are no longer focused on creating good play, but on creating good transcripts of play. Instead of experiencing a story through play, it seems like so many designers expect you to just produce the record of a story. I consider this the difference in experience of being a character in a story, and being a member of a script writing team collectively producing a screenplay. Both end up with a story, but the production of story wasn't in and of itself the experience I was going for.
Yeah, that doesn't sound great. (actually it sounds like one of those hideous team-building exercises HR departments like to spring on employees at corporate conventions - bleah!)

That said, someone has to gather all the threads and try to string 'em together. Usually that's the DM, going back over the game logs and seeing what might link into anything rsembling a story.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
I think something people often miss is that their character is not the protagonist. They are the member of an ensemble cast.

They are also not the author, everyone at the table is and usually chance also plays a major role in determining the story.

This is going to provide a different experience than reading a novel.

RPGs are first and foremost social activities. It is important to not lose sight of that.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I think this is proving @innerdude's point more than explaining how to get more dramatic arcs.

Dramatic arcs aren't playing based on background or long-term goals. You can have dramatic arcs for characters who are spontaneous, or reckless, or careless with their lives.
Of course; but even a spontaneous or reckless or careless character is going to have some sort of goal(s), however off-the-farm those goals might be (says he, most of the characters of whom fall in to one or more of these categories!).

And "downtime" isn't a solution to the mechanics of play aren't producing dramatic arcs. It's a concession of the point!
Yes it is a solution: if the downtime is played through at length rather than handwaved it then becomes the (or one of the) missing mechanical framework.

Anyway, your post is a really good illustration of why I say that, in order to get what the OP wants, one has to ditch the notion of "the adventure".
From past and present experience I disagree. One can have all kinds of character-driven play and still be running on an adventure-based framework - either that, or I've dreamed these last few hundred Saturday evenings instead of having been there. :)

I suspect a lot of the problem might stem from some tables (or DMs) not allowing time for the melodrama and character interactions to play out, and then wondering why it doesn't happen.
 

aramis erak

Adventurer
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.
No, it can be there. I've experienced it both as player and as GM...
But it requires...
  • A GM willing to work with the hooks the player provides
  • multiple players invested in it
  • players willing to let other players have story moments.
I've experienced it as a player, but only very rarely. Then again, I only play rarely.
I've experienced it most often in Ars Magica - 90% of the adventures were triggered by needing elements for player determined goals. The other 10% were added as "something big is happening"... but who responded was entirely player determined.

I've run Traveller games where everything was either player chosen or random rolled. Even the patron encounters were randomly selected from 76 Patrons. The players were free to explore the setting, or work on player determined elements, and because I backported TNE's Contacts to MT, the ability to add backstory people to the current fiction.

the thing is, if I hadn't been willing to let them define their contacts... or go with their setting decisions, or player set group goal, it wouldn't have worked.

Burning Wheel is better suited, but again, if the GM isn't on board, it's going to fail.
 

Celebrim

Legend
There's a third type of play - which I also commonly refer to as "character-driven" but defined differently than above - where instead of the DM choosing the adventures that get played the characters (via their players) choose, for in-character reasons likely related to their own goals.
It's hard to know exactly what you are describing though with this sort of play though, and I feel it would cover basically any sort of game where the players have agency.

For example, it could be a traditional mega-dungeon with a haven/delve format, where the players decide each session which unexplored portion of the dungeon they wish to push based on their preferences.

Or you could have a sandbox of some sort, perhaps a hex crawl, where the players are exploring and evolving their own goals within the setting.

None of that need be particularly driven by the personality of the characters. For example, a wizard that is seeking a certain spell books, or a fighter seeking a famed magic sword, has a goal driven by the characters needs, but there is in this scenario no deep "emotional resonance" that the OP finds missing in his games. There may be great enjoyment, and feelings of accomplishment, and moments of awesomeness that earn one high fives that are latter reminisced about when recounting the good times of the campaign, but all of that really has more to do with the emotion of the player than the player connecting with the emotions of his character.

So what I feel is that what you are more often discussing is actually "player driven play" than it is "character driven play". Player driven play is a great thing, but to me it feels rather tangential to what the OP is talking about. Character driven play tends to produce deep emotional connections with NPCs and sometimes even with the characters of other players. It gives you "the feels".
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
It's hard to know exactly what you are describing though with this sort of play though, and I feel it would cover basically any sort of game where the players have agency.

For example, it could be a traditional mega-dungeon with a haven/delve format, where the players decide each session which unexplored portion of the dungeon they wish to push based on their preferences.

Or you could have a sandbox of some sort, perhaps a hex crawl, where the players are exploring and evolving their own goals within the setting.

None of that need be particularly driven by the personality of the characters. For example, a wizard that is seeking a certain spell books, or a fighter seeking a famed magic sword, has a goal driven by the characters needs, but there is in this scenario no deep "emotional resonance" that the OP finds missing in his games. There may be great enjoyment, and feelings of accomplishment, and moments of awesomeness that earn one high fives that are latter reminisced about when recounting the good times of the campaign, but all of that really has more to do with the emotion of the player than the player connecting with the emotions of his character.

So what I feel is that what you are more often discussing is actually "player driven play" than it is "character driven play". Player driven play is a great thing, but to me it feels rather tangential to what the OP is talking about. Character driven play tends to produce deep emotional connections with NPCs and sometimes even with the characters of other players. It gives you "the feels".
I can't speak for @Lanefan exactly, but I've gotten the feeling he's talking about something not unlike my campaigns, where there are goals the characters want to pursue, and they choose the order in which to pursue them. This is not exactly like choosing which door to kick open in a dungeon, or which hex to explore next in a wilderness. They come out of the characters' stories--sometimes backstories from before the beginning of the campaign, sometimes from things that have happened since--and there are frequently "feels" connected to them. Vengeance is common-ish, but there are mysteries to be solved and favors to be repaid; all of those can (and I'd say probably should) have emotional resonance.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I have a feeling that a lot of these posts are due to various systems that play differently.

In the trav pbp I run, the players do most of the heavy lifting in game, though I did a lot roughing out the near future setting. Some of the characters have been so good that random people reading the game have written me how much they appreciate it. Other games, not so much, though it is often one or two players driving the game, and others (like me) go along in their direction.
 

lordabdul

Explorer
I'm not quite sure what the OP is looking for... of course a bunch of random nerds semi-improvising a story where there's no clear main protagonist and half the time they're busy looking up rules is not going to come remotely close to a carefully and professionally crafted novel, at least in terms of thematic significance and character arcs. But it can be as satisfying and fun, or even more, because RPGs are way more than telling a story about a bunch of characters -- they're also a board game and an improv' show and a social gathering and so on. They're as much related to reading a novel as they are to playing in a free-style jazz band.

The thing about character arcs is that you tend to design them. Knowing where you want your character to be at the end of the campaign isn't so much what I envision roleplaying to be -- I see it more as playing your character and seeing where he ends up. It's like throwing a pebble without knowing which way gravity points or whether there's wind, and watching what happens. You know the starting point and starting parameters, but you don't know quite what happens next. If you did, or if you were trying to force the end point (to get the arc you wanted) then it's... I don't know what it is. A kind of RPG equivalent to the "Once Upon A Time" card game (an awesome storytelling game where each player is trying to twist the tale to their ending card... try it!). For me on of the joys of RPG is that there's no character arc -- or only in retrospect, maybe.
 

I think you just need the right DM and the right group of players. I happen to be blessed with a fantastic group of players. The amount of character growth I've seen in the last few sessions is incredible. They can fill a whole session with nothing but roleplaying. Just characters interacting with each other.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
As a very recent example: in the game I just got home from we have in the party a Necromancer and two undead-hating Clerics (of which I play one). We're in the adventure we're in largely because we're (we hope!) tying off some loose ends from a long DM plot; but most of the character development is coming from these three arguing about undead and-or trying to understand the uses and viewpoints of the other side.

My rp-ing in this case is largely informed by my backstory: to beat the setting's very long history down to 40 words, the game world MIRVed into four a while* back**; my character is from one world-version but adventuring on another, and the version I'm from is almost overrun with undead.

* - just how long ago depends on which world-version you're on, as time passed differently in each one.
** - and to add to the fun, the four world-versions just got mushed back into one a mere few weeks ago in game time.
 

In my pirate campaign, one of my players has decided to follow the path to sainthood (a 3.5 prestige class). I made an agreement with the player that he would obtain sainthood as soon as his character performed a grand important accomplishment that was of religious significance. Unknown to the player in question, they were coming up to a quest that would do just that if they succeeded: To liberate a group of dwarven pirates from their ancient curse and restore their holy temple.

After they succeeded I gave him the prestige class of saint, but with all the crazy extras that come with being one. I had the player be heralded as some sort of prophet. Many people from around the coast had had a prophetic vision of him, and they all traveled in huge numbers to meet with him. People wanted his blessing, and wanted to touch him. A local nun came to verify his holyness, and wanted to wash his feet. Countless pilgrims brought small wooden statues of him. Others just came to ask him to heal their illnesses. The entire session was dedicated just to playing out this whole event, and the reactions of his companions.
 

Raduin711

Adventurer
I am a fan of the Mage: The Ascension rpg, and in my experience, it is an example of a game that only works as a character driven campaign. The scope of what a character can do is so broad in this game, that trying to come up with a D&D style challenge for the players is kind of a fool's errand. You might get a little mileage out of it, but the vast scope of what a Mage can do means that whatever web you weave will have the strings cut rather quickly.

Mysteries are difficult to keep secret when your players can read minds and look into the past. Things are hard to keep out of the player's reach when they can scry and teleport. Combat? If you know you are headed into a fight, most battles are over before they began. Supplies? You can manipulate fate and bet it all on roulette and win, or turn garbage into gold.

I have seen Mage GM's try to run games like this, and their plots just fall apart at the seams. It's very similar to the problems of high-level D&D games.

So the game has to shift to the other foot; rather than asking the GM "what are we doing today, boss?" it becomes "Alright, so you can look through time/go wherever you want/bend fate to your will/turn trash into gold/etc... what are you going to DO with this power?" So now instead of the players reacting to whatever scenario you've cooked up, you are reacting to the players.

I think character-driven play is difficult for low-power characters because they lack the sort of power needed to influence the game world.
 

pemerton

Legend
The OP includes the following key passages:

I have found it to be nigh impossible to drift into what I would consider a true "character-driven" style of play.

<snip>

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

<snip>

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.
Examples of players inventing and pursuing goals for their PCs, or engaging in mechanically unmediated intraparty roleplay, aren't showing that the OP is wrong. They're evidence in favour of the points made.
 

pemerton

Legend
I've run Traveller games where everything was either player chosen or random rolled. Even the patron encounters were randomly selected from 76 Patrons.
My current Traveller campaign resembles this - though the random patron rolls are just on the main table, with me as GM using contemporary GMing techniques (standard scene-framey stuff) to decide what exactly the patrons want.

But the campaign is one of the less character-driven I've run in the past couple of decades. It's much more "procedural" than "dramatic". I haven't found that the system brings out much in terms of character inner lives.

Burning Wheel is better suited
Absolutely - doing character-driven play in the OP's sense is more-or-less its schtick.
 

@innerdude

As I’ve suggested before, try Dogs and try Blades.

They don’t produce GM-curated, Player Power Fantasies or insipid, ensemble cast wandering through thematic murk. The mechanics and GMing produce people that struggle, often fail, may/likely break, and maybe redeem/recover (though often not).

You have to put in WORK to not derive what you’re looking for in the lead post in those two games. Simply playing the actual game does the trick.
 

lordabdul

Explorer
Examples of players inventing and pursuing goals for their PCs, or engaging in mechanically unmediated intraparty roleplay, aren't showing that the OP is wrong. They're evidence in favour of the points made.
But surely, even if it's "mechanically unmediated" (because the impulse is entirely player driven[1]), the mechanics play a role in both the ongoing events, and in their outcome? As the player pursue their character goals, they do so, by definition, by using the mechanics of the game. And every step of the way, their character sheet is modified by the choices they've made: they gain experience and levels, they lose sanity, they acquire new mental or physical disadvantages/traits/whatever they're called in your system, etc.... no?

[1] note that for some system, the impulse might be semi-rules-driven, like a character trait that the system incentivizes you to pursue.
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
<snippage>
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.
I was about to say something similar to this. In contrast to the chorus of "mechanics can't do it". You need mechanics to encourage it. The big carrot for players tends to be XP. So, you need to build an XP system that rewards going through a character arc of some sort. I think The Shadow of Yesterday was perhaps the precursor for this sort of thing. Most of the ones I've seen follow suit. Swap the XP system out of D&D for some sort of character arc system and voila, you'll have it. The only problem you'll have (from experience) is players not taking it seriously, and just "popping" their arc-conclusions. A really good system will work them into the rest of the mechanics as well. I think Fate is (by default) mediocre at this, but there are some additional rules hacks that let it work okay.
 

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