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

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Imagine that that you are playing, and at random moments, a 7 year old kid in the room blats out horrendous noise from a trumpet. It's probably really distracting. It probably puts you off your game, brings you out of the moment. That's what an ill-fitting ruleset, or one ill-designed for this purpose, can do to a player - be a horrible distraction.
Sure, but it might that that system doesn't work for that player. Another player may be able to work in that system without problems, and the player may be able to work in another system without problems. That's not to say that some systems aren't better-designed than others, just that there are personal preferences at play as well.
 

lordabdul

Explorer
That's what an ill-fitting ruleset, or one ill-designed for this purpose, can do to a player - be a horrible distraction.
Not even counting the people who actually have a 7 year old kid running around the gaming table making horrendous noises from a trumpet :D (yes, many of us game with kids around at least occasionally)
 

uzirath

Adventurer
I know that some of my players for instance love systems with advantages/disadvantages (like GURPS or FATE and such), because they use these traits and rolls as a support for their roleplay, but I know that some of my other players see it totally the opposite way, as something that constrains and formalizes their roleplaying performance in a "crude" way, and that they feel gets in the way....
I've experienced this range with player preferences too. I once played in an innovative GURPS game with a bunch of hardcore method actor types that attempted to circumvent this to some degree. We developed characters with skills and advantages but left disadvantages and quirks blank for the first few sessions. Then, after experiencing the characters facing challenges (both internal and external), we added character elements that fit. It helped that the GM was completely willing to customize or invent new disads to fit the character concepts. This wouldn't work with every group, but it was a pretty fun way of going about it at this particular table.

In many ways, systems that formalize a character's traits ("who they are", as opposed to just "what they can do") actually help with character arcs because they almost always include mechanics for adding/removing traits during play (like "buying off" your drug addiction or kleptomania or selfishness or whatever), so they effectively promote character arcs, even if they do so in a way that some players will consider as clunky or as an "emotional barrier"...
I have also played at GURPS tables where official disadvantages were entirely optional. Players that found them cumbersome skipped them and roleplayed their characters as they saw fit. This worked well but required two things: a GM who was flexible about character point values, and players who were committed to roleplaying complex characters who didn't just choose system-optimal choices at every turn. While the latter would technically work in GURPS (no disads mean you have no mechanical limitations within the scope of your character's defined attributes and skills), it would depart from the culture of the table which was very much about flawed heroes.
 
Last edited:

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
Do remember that Critical Role is made up of professional actors - people who have specific talent, extensive training and experience in em6oting and acting in distracting situations. Saying, "Well, it can be done on Critical Role, so it can be done by anyone," simply is not true, and does a disservice to folks who are trying, but not succeeding, by blaming them for not being good enough.
That is not what was implied; that is what you inferred. Happens a lot around here, actually. It was meant to be a relatable point, but I see some people have different opinions about the show and what it represents, so apologies for bringing that up as an example.

My point still stands, however. It is quite possible, even if you're not a trained actor. That shouldn't even be a qualifier in this discussion, come to think of it. And my comment certainly wasn't intended that way. So again, inference just muddies the waters. :/
 

Sadras

Hero
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.
For a long time I would have agreed with this point of view, but my players have taught me otherwise. I cannot claim to be a great DM or player, I try as best to provide reasonable/logical twists that surprise the players and engage the characters using as much of their backgroud they allow me to mold but the best dramatic arcs and character development have occured between party members, and sometimes independent of the main story.

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.

At the end of it, I felt that I should have given them xps or some reward for this amazing piece of roleplaying. I'm still thinking about it...

It is not the system, but the players. I imagine some systems assist with this - but a good roleplayer, is a good roleplayer - despite any system.

EDIT: Not to labour too much on this point, but I'm amazed how some players are able to weave invested storylines through the main arc. Essentially I'm providing them material which I didn't even know I was. I'd be happy to provide examples of this in PM.
 
Last edited:
Yes, but I don't believe he (we) should limit ourselves by thinking that the mechanics of the game should inhibit our ability and imagination. A game like D&D, which is hard coded for combat and tactics, might not be the best system for deep, immersive, character-driven story telling. But that doesn't stop us from playing that way if we so choose. Like them or not, Critical Role has proven that the system is not a barrier.
Could you describe in 5 bullet points the way that you feel this show has (a) characters who have "dramatic arcs with teeth", (b) of which the consequence on play is that they change viscerally in such ways that both their outlook and the attendant suite of action declarations by the player playing them is fundamentally changed in terms of both availability and effectiveness (meaning their decision-tree is fundamentally changed due to physical/emotional/social/ethical alterations to their characters). And this means CONSISTENTLY; meaning, they can't just opt-out of this change in disposition. If they (the player) can opt out, its not fundamental...its just characterization. Nothing more.

I think that is a big difference between myself and you and others that agree with you.

The ability to opt-out through their own agency and/or the ability for the GM to curate the experience so either (a) they never have to opt-in and/or (b) they can eventually opt-out at GM discretion means that its not "visceral change with teeth." Its just characterization and emoting. Skillful, sure...but that isn't what @innerdude is looking for (I don't think).
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Sure, but it might that that system doesn't work for that player.
Yes. People are individuals. There is no system that wil be perfect for everyone. But, we can consider design elements that tend to work for more people ...

Not even counting the people who actually have a 7 year old kid running around the gaming table making horrendous noises from a trumpet :D (yes, many of us game with kids around at least occasionally)
Yep. And, honestly, rare indeed is the person who, on their leisure time, can just totoally ignore the real world. Like, if you have a headache, or work has been stressful this week, or what have you. It pays to check in with yourself before you begin play, and note how you are really feeling, so you can take it into account.

That is not what was implied; that is what you inferred. Happens a lot around here, actually.
With all due respect... it may not have been intended, but the inferred/implied thing is a dodge. You said a thing. This is how it came across. If you want to quibble over how far I have to stretch to get from, "Critical Role has proven system is not a barrier," to what I raised, we can do that. I don't think it would be constructive.

Critical Role demonstrates that some people may be able to overcome system barriers - not that system is no barrier at all to anyone.
 

chaochou

Adventurer
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.
So what was at stake then?

EDIT: Not to labour too much on this point, but I'm amazed how some players are able to weave invested storylines through the main arc.
If the characters being themselves isn't the main arc, then you're not describing character-driven play.

What you're describing is players adding thespian touches to GM-driven play.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
If the characters being themselves isn't the main arc, then you're not describing character-driven play.
Well, hold on there a minute...

What constitutes the "main arc"? I would take that to be roughly the same question as, "What is this novel about?"

Two people could see read/watch the same story - one takes it to be horror, the other takes it to be a teen-relationship drama. And, they can both be right.

What matters is what the participants think is the main arc. If they feel they have an arc of personal development going on in an action-adventure backdrop, and they drive the things that matters to them, that's perfectly reasonable character-driven play.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
So what was at stake then?



If the characters being themselves isn't the main arc, then you're not describing character-driven play.

What you're describing is players adding thespian touches to GM-driven play.
Who said there had to be exactly one main arc? There can be more than one arc happening in parallel. There can also be multiple arcs happening in sequence (which is probably more common, certainly more common in my games), with the possibility of overlap around the edges.

I think @Umbran has at least a portion of the right of things as well, in that "main arc" may well in in the eye of the beholder.
 

innerdude

Adventurer
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...

It is not the system, but the players. I imagine some systems assist with this - but a good roleplayer, is a good roleplayer - despite any system.
Had to comment here, as I've been following the thread closely since I wrote the OP, but haven't replied to anything in particular since.

At first glance, this would be the type of thing I'm talking about---a conscious decision made by the players to have some kind of internalized character stakes, and to make those internalized stakes become a real part of the narrative/fiction.

But part of me is feeling unsure if this is EXACTLY what I'm looking for. As I analyzed this, several thoughts came to mind:
  • It's very cool that this was purely player-driven . . . but would it have been better if the players and GM had been collaborating to have this kind of experience all along? Would the rest of the players at the table been as equally invested and enjoyed such a thing had they known it was an available avenue of player agency?
  • Is it even possible for this type of thing to be GM-led, or GM-guided? Or is this something that the GM cannot and should not try to artificially build or constrain?
  • While this type of interaction could happen in any system, there are definite constraints in the core conceits of stereotypical fantasy roleplaying that would make sustaining this kind of activity difficult.
    • The idea that you have to have a "party", and that the "party" is supposed to stick together will quickly become a sticking point. In real life, when we as people begin to have divergent worldviews, or changing allegiances due to new life perspectives, we tend to change who we spend our time with. Truly character-driven play is going to be nigh impossible if the primary goal of the game is for "the party to stick together, because without you we can't defeat the big baddie, and no, I don't really care if your character would actually be involved or not. Figure out a viable reason for your character to do what the party is doing!" For character driven play, you have to accept the reality that the party is going to have to focus on character-driven needs. Otherwise, just like real life, the most "realistic" thing for a character to do might be to leave the party.
    • This goes back to @Celebrim's assertion that this kind of play is exceedingly difficult with a large cast of PCs. I'm guessing the most PCs you could have in a party to come even close to doing this kind of thing long term would be 3.
    • To really accomplish this kind of thing consistently, you have to be willing to accept as players that there's going to be a lot more "split screen" / non-focus time on your character. You have to be willing to let other people's characters "go where their desires take them," and sometimes you're going to just be the tag-along.
  • For this kind of interplay to be more than just an incidental, one-off experience, the GM must be willing to let go of any notion of "where the game is supposed to go." It would require extreme flexibility and willingness on the part of the GM to truly go along with the player/character choices to their endpoint.
 

chaochou

Adventurer
What matters is what the participants think is the main arc.
Not if you're discussing the techniques to get somewhere, it isn't. If you want to learn the techniques of character-driven play it isn't enough to describe a game where the players are happy emoting their way along a GM railroad. That's a pure cop-out.

The OP asks for character-driven play techniques and what he's getting is advice for GM plots, 1,500 word backstory and conflict-less thespianiasm. None of which are even remotely good techniques for what he's requested.
 

innerdude

Adventurer
If you want to learn the techniques of character-driven play it isn't enough to describe a game where the players are happy emoting their way along a GM railroad. That's a pure cop-out.
Absolutely this. Flaffing about spouting Shakespearean witticisms in a faux-British accent (I'm American) isn't remotely the same as creating a substantive, character-driven arc. (No offence intended to any Brits or Shakespeare fans on the board! I'm a regular attendee of our state's renowned Shakespearean festival.)
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
You seem to be assuming D&D here. Sit around the table playing (say) Cthulhu Dark or Prince Valiant or even Classic Traveller and, at least in my experience, this won't happen.
But with Classic Traveller (or any of the Traveller iterations), it can often bog down in determining what systems to head to for speculative trade runs. So it's not like D&D is the only game that players can bog down into a mode of play that isn't conducive to character development driven play.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Absolutely this. Flaffing about spouting Shakespearean witticisms in a faux-British accent (I'm American) isn't remotely the same as creating a substantive, character-driven arc. (No offence intended to any Brits or Shakespeare fans on the board! I'm a regular attendee of our state's renowned Shakespearean festival.)
So, is the priority (or at least what's missing) character development? That's not the same thing as thespianism, no argument there.

It seems as though what you're looking for is something emergent from a collaboration between the GM and the players. Yes, you probably need a smallish table, but I've seen good character play at large ones. There are some systems that claim to encourage such play, but there are players who find they get in the way more than they help. Some people find that knowing what happened to the character/s before the game began is helpful, others don't, and there's a spectrum of preferences.

So, people matter more than game rules, I think. It doesn't seem there's much more to pull out of this in the way of anything like a consensus.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Absolutely this. Flaffing about spouting Shakespearean witticisms in a faux-British accent (I'm American) isn't remotely the same as creating a substantive, character-driven arc.
I wonder who said anything about Shakespeare and faux-British accents, other than you?

A main arc of a story could be about a friendship forming, an apparent betrayal, and the resulting reformation of that friendship.. or lack of same. Perfectly comulent arc... and it can happen within the context of virtually any action-adventure story ever written, without any input from the GM.

This is not to say that a GM cannot aid and abet character-driven play. But you absolutely cannot do so if you don't recognize the domain the players wish to have that arc within. The Players are driving this, by definition. You cannot support them along the road if you do not know what road they are on!

So, again - what matters first is what the players think or want the main arc to be.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Do remember that Critical Role is made up of professional actors - people who have specific talent, extensive training and experience in emoting and acting in distracting situations. Saying, "Well, it can be done on Critical Role, so it can be done by anyone," simply is not true, and does a disservice to folks who are trying, but not succeeding, by blaming them for not being good enough.
That seems to be putting the Critical Role players up on a pretty high pedestal, when what they do is far closer to being in reach than you imply. Aside from their skill with different voice characterizations, which really is dependent on their talent and training, there's really not that much they do that I haven't seen around various gaming tables for the last 40 years. They're just a bit better at it, but not in an unobtainable way if that's really the style of play you like to engage in.

Honestly, there are a lot of people around here who let their prejudices and assumptions about Critical Role and the people involved run away with them, for good and bad, which I think does the show a massive disservice.
 

Celebrim

Legend
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.
Siblings are the best, especially if both retain their inclination to play make believe with all the enthusiasm of children. One of the most fun I've ever had as a DM was watching a brother and sister just run with intraparty RP, basically knocking ten years off their life experience and be kids again.

I can barely imagine how great it would be for them to combine that authentic and natural interplay, with the cunning and skill of an experienced RPer taking cues from their fellow players.

It is not the system, but the players. I imagine some systems assist with this - but a good roleplayer, is a good roleplayer - despite any system.
I often feel that attempts to put a system around this just get in the way, so that counter-intuitively, some of the best RP comes out of systems that don't mechanically support it at all. I mean, really, we are talking about an experience that doesn't have much to do with the "game" part of RPG.

Right now there is a lot of buzz around Laura Bailey's carefully constructed con with the cupcake on Critical Role, and how solid that scene is from an RP/story moment. What does it really have to do with system?

I still insist that the aesthetic of play a table has in a given moment has vastly more to do with how they think about playing a game and the processes of play that they are using (for example, the first person dialogue between Laura and Matt as the primary scene resolution), than it has to do with mere rules.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
What you describe here won't deliver the sort of play the OP is talking about.

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.
Depends on how you approach it. If the GM has written various story threads, including what would happen if the PCs do not interact with them, but leaves it up to the PCs how or even whether they will engage with them and has the various threads react to the actions and choices of the PCs, then I don't see how this makes delivering the sort of play the OP is talking about impossible... or even harder for that matter.

One of the GMs I play with maintains a number of small notebooks. Each one covers various story threads in his campaign setting - some involving the overall politics of the empire and succession, some the prominent arcane guilds, some the relations between the human empire and the humanoid nations, etc. In the course of a campaign with a new set of players and PCs, some of those notebooks and their story threads will be active in an area and may form initial hooks bringing the PCs together for an initial story, but the introduction of new notebooks or alternative notebooks will depend on what the PCs are doing, where they're going, how they're getting involved (or not getting involved) in the stories inherent to those notebooks. And he's constantly updating them with the implications of events the PCs trigger. It seems to me that the players have plenty of options to really explore their PCs' inner motivations, adapt them, and change them based on how the game is developing - if that's what they choose to do.
And it's all using the D&D rules - with version in 3e and 5e.
 
L

lowkey13

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

And so I begin to wonder if the desire to have those kinds of emotionally resonant experiences during RPG play are somehow a fool's errand on my part. That I'm looking for a "character-driven" experience that simply isn't there and never really can be, and so should just accept RPG play for what it is, rather than trying to somehow keep reaching for this illusory experience that it's never once provided before.
Hey- so I'd thought I'd mostly ignore the comments (despite having read them) and concentrate on the issues you were raising, which I think are interesting.

As a threshhold issue, I'm going to address the issue of system fundamentalists (aka, function following form). RPGs, unlike CRPGs, are not burdened or helped by being run by a computer. As such, the boundaries between the rules as written, the game as payed, and various and sundry house rules, interpretations, and styles of play in any given RPG tend to matter a great deal. I do think that there has been an increasing reliance on RAW purity in the last couple of decades (as compared to the much more DIY nature of the hobby in the early days) that, depending on your outlook, can either be viewed as an mature codification of prior understandings, or an unnecessary stultifying of a vibrant hobby ... but regardless, it has always been my observation that while rules can (to a small degree) help or hinder you, largely the rules will be bent, broken, or discarded in service of a better game. So to look at any particular rule, or ruleset, isn't very helpful.

Next, I think that you have to separate what is successful (in terms of satisfying character-driven play) when considering an authored work (film, book) in comparison to an RPG. By way of analogy; a book might be funny, a play might be funny, a movie might be funny, a written and performed sketch might be funny, and an improv comedy act might be funny; but these are often funny in different ways, and the comedy in an improv comedy act is usually of a different nature than that of a movie. Not better, or worse, but different.

Same here. At its best, the RPG provides the ability to get emergent, and unexpected, emotionally resonant experiences. The emergent aspect of play- the interaction you have with other players, and the DM's world, over time, can create the opportunity for unexpected growth and, eventually, true moments of resonance that you could never have expected at the beginning.

IMO, one obstacle to this happening is the unfortunate trend of some people to "over design" their character from the beginning. Again, this isn't a book. If you have a good understanding of what your character is at the beginning, then you will understand how your character will react, change, and deepen in time.

And, tbh, sometimes it doesn't happen. Sometimes the magic doesn't take place. I think that's what you're getting to in the last, excerpted part. And that gets to a more ... personal and idiosyncratic take. How much of a thumb do you want on the scale? That's ... different from table to table. IME, you don't really need one. But others prefer a little Deus ex Machina to ensure those emotional beats get fulfilled. YMMV.
 

Advertisement

Top