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

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
But you’re still pretending. Are all your players professional orators? For your players to replicate skilled court intrigue, all they need to be able to do is speak?

I can narrate my attack on the giant just as easily as I can narrate my attempt to persuade the guard to let me by. Both of these things could fail....why does one have rules to determine success or failure and the other does not?
It's rare, however, that a social interaction is going to have as direct and immediate influence on the health and-or functionality of your character as is combat.

I think that not having any social based mechanics at all leaves everything up to choice. The player decides how their character feels about everything. The GM decides how the NPCs react to the PCs.
Exactly. Stop here and we're all good. :)

But what about when someone feels something without choosing to?

We’ve all found ourselves provoked to anger. Or overcome by desire. Or stricken with fear.
And for the first two, it's very possible to put ourselves in such frames of mind while in character. The character is overcome by desire, and his rationality goes out the window. The character is provoked to anger and so she says things she shouldn't, and is likely to regret (or be made to regret) later.

For the third, 'fear' is in many systems a mechanical condition externally imposed by any number of possible sources.

Sometimes these things are not choices. Having a game mechanic that may help replicate that lack of total control over ourselves seems like a potentially powerful tool for a game.
There's already loads of mechanics that potentially take away control. Fear is one. Charm and all its associated offspring are others. Emotion-affecting spells and magic are yet others. Possession is another, and-or curse.

A game mechanic that allows Joe's character Halfdan to provoke my character to anger (or some other strong emotion), overriding any other in-character response I might have had to whatever Halfdan is doing or saying, is for many reasons probably a bad idea particularly for those who don't like PvP in their games. (hell, PCs charming other PCs is already bad enough!) :)

But here's the rub: if PC-PC relations are determined by their players then in the interest of consistency PC-NPC relations must as far as possible also work this way, and RAW be damned.
 

pemerton

Legend
There's been some discussion about rules. I've been talking about mechanics. I don't think it's the case that the D&D Thief class substituted mechanics for no mechanics. Classic D&D had a system, though it probably wasn't fully spelled out until Moldvay did it in his GM advice towards the back of his version of Basic D&D. (Moldvay - the great codifier and explainer!)

If something is otherwise not covered by the rules, the system directs the GM to set a required roll. The existing rules - for finding secret doors, making saving throws, etc - provide examples and set parameters for this, though I think obviously rather indeterminate and flexible ones. Moldvay gives two approaches - an ability check, and a % chance - without much advice as to how to choose between them. I can't find the links anymore to Luke Crane's Moldvay Basic actual play reports, but he describes making an adjudication of a fighter's attempt to sneak which, in retrospect, he feels probably didn't pay sufficient regard to the Thief class abilities. But to echo @hawkeyefan, this doesn't show the Thief class abilities cased problems because they were mechanics. Rather, it suggests they were bad mechanics because interacting poorly with other elements (express and implied) of the system - eg surely a "fighting man" who is very strong (say STR 16+) and agile (say DEX 15+) has a reasonably good prospect of climbing a wall, cliff etc.

Classic Traveller - which predates Moldvay Basic - has similar advice for the referee, although stated a bit more sparsely. Here is some text from Book 1 (p 20), and there is similar stuff found in the coda to Book 3:

It is impossible for any table of information to cover all aspects of every potential situation, and the above listing is by no means complete in its coverage of the effects of skills. This is where the referee becomes an important part of the game process. The above listing of skills and game effects must necessarily be taken as a guide, and followed, altered, or ignored as the actual situation dictates. . . .

[T]he referee may feel it necessary to create his own throws and DMs [= die modifiers] to govern action, and may or may not make such information generally available to the players. . . .

In order to be consistent (and a consistent universe makes the game both fun and interesting), the referee has a responsibility to record the throws and DMs he creates, and to note (perhaps by penciling in) any throws he alters from those given in these books.​

Despite this relative sparseness I think it's actually easier in Traveller because there are fewer important and complexly-interacting variables (classic D&D has ability scores which are not level-dependent, hp and saving throws which are, plus class special abilities including spells).

Relating this to @innerdude's concerns in the OP: for me, at least, the biggest reason that classic D&D and (in my experience) Classic Traveller aren't too-well suited for character-driven play is because the mechanics that the players have access to - whether codified rules or GM interpolation and extrapolation - are not sufficiently connected to the character. They don't express, or depend upon, the sorts of features of the character that are central to the sort of play the OP describes. They're too "external" and generic.

One way of "internalising" and degenericising mechanics is by eg allowing the PC's particular passions, foibles etc to inform the check. In a system like Fate this is further codified via Aspects; in Prince Valiant this is simply treated as a modifier to the roll (eg plus 1 die when a knight is jousting for the glory of his lady) - comparing the latter to classic D&D or Traveller the issue isn't degree of precisificaiton but rather than those two systems simply don't have much room for that particular sort of modification to a check. It would be a significant departure from their ethos as presented.

Another way of internalising and degenericising is to make character (and player) intent a central component of resolution. Burning Wheel takes this approach. So (albeit with difference in detail) does Apocalypse World. Whereas in classic D&D and Classic Traveller consequences of checks tend to be established by reference to the external situation rather than by reference to the nuances of a particular character's intent.
 

pemerton

Legend
Because when sitting around the table with the other players and GM we can live-action-roleplay the social interactions.

<snip>

But we don't need game mechanics to simulate that which we can in fact do ourselves: the talky bits.
But you’re still pretending. Are all your players professional orators? For your players to replicate skilled court intrigue, all they need to be able to do is speak?

<snip>

I think that not having any social based mechanics at all leaves everything up to choice. The player decides how their character feels about everything. The GM decides how the NPCs react to the PCs.

But what about when someone feels something without choosing to?

We’ve all found ourselves provoked to anger. Or overcome by desire. Or stricken with fear.

Sometimes these things are not choices. Having a game mechanic that may help replicate that lack of total control over ourselves seems like a potentially powerful tool for a game.
I want to build on hawkeyefan's points.

First, a "negative" or contradicting point: pretending to be someone isn't the same as, nor is it a simulation of, being someone. This is true in general, and it is especially true in a RPG, where most of the time most of the players are not using the sorts of techniques that some actors use some of the time to help increase the authenticity of their pretence of being someone who is not them.

An argument that is staged or "roleplayed" between a player and a GM doesn't in any real sense simulate an actual argument between actual people.

I take this point to be consistent with hawkeyefan's remarks about chosen and non-chosen social responses, though I think it goes further: even where response are chosen (eg I might choose or decline an invitation to go to dinner), I don't think that "roleplaying" that decision-making at the table (eg the GM deciding whether or not a NPC accepts a PC's invitation to dinner) is any sort of simulation of how such an interaction would actually unfold. It's authorship through-and-through.

Second, a "positive" point: essentially unconstrained authorship is not the only way, in the context of a RPG, to produce the fiction of authentic and compelling social interactions. In real life, for instance, some social interactions resolve because one party simply wears the other down. It may be desirable to have this occur from time-to-time in our gameworlds. But it strikes me as obviously undesirable, in the context of a social activity like RPGing, to have participants actually wear one another down. So if we want to produce that sort of fiction, we are going to need other methods.

One way is to rely on one participant (player or GM) to decide that a character s/he is controlling is worn down. In a lot of circumstances, it seems to me given me experiences of how RPGing happens, that will be essentially arbitrary.

Another way is to use a mechanical resolution method. Depending on what that method is it may also be arbitrary (eg if its a coin toss) though perhaps less exhausting than the first way. But a mechanical resolution method may also be non-arbitrary in the context of the fiction - eg in my Traveller game the method of resolving potentially interminable arguments by way of opposed checks modified by noble status and Leadership skill does not produce outcomes that are arbitrary given the fiction. It produces outcomes that we can easily locate within the fiction - eg that the Leader (Sir Glaxon) got his way, or that on this occasion Baron von Hallucida's attempt to assert the authority of his rank failed.

I think my second point can be generalised across quite a wide range of ingame circumstances, especially but not only social ones, but I'll leave that for the moment.

I don't think what I've described from my actual play of Traveller itself illustrates character-driven arcs where mechanics are producing changes to the place of the character in the fiction of the sort @innerdude refers to in the OP. It's a bit thin and transitory for that. But I do think it shows how you might start building a mechanical framework to produce what innerdude is looking for.
 

Bedrockgames

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

Let me explain what I mean by that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so I begin to wonder if the desire to have those kinds of emotionally resonant experiences during RPG play are somehow a fool's errand on my part. That I'm looking for a "character-driven" experience that simply isn't there and never really can be, and so should just accept RPG play for what it is, rather than trying to somehow keep reaching for this illusory experience that it's never once provided before.
I think the question of whether games can be character driven, and whether games can achieve the same thing as literature (like character arcs and the emotional resonance you mention) are separate issues. RPGs are a different medium, so if you are going to capture elements of literature, things might have to be done differently. I don't play enough games that attempt to capture that enough to weigh in (but I will say I have met enough people who are satisfied with games that do, to think there is something there). But in terms of character driven games, I think even if you don't have mechanics specifically toward that end, a typical RPG campaign can easily be character driven. You don't need an arc for that. You just need the direction of the campaign to be shaped by the characters, and not by story, events, etc. That isn't necessarily going to feel like a book (or at least it won't consistently produce the structures found in books) but it will be a campaign where the characters are what drive things.
 
And for the first two, it's very possible to put ourselves in such frames of mind while in character. The character is overcome by desire, and his rationality goes out the window. The character is provoked to anger and so she says things she shouldn't, and is likely to regret (or be made to regret) later.
Lanefan, the problem here is that you are not going to sell me, or @hawkeyefan , or certain others that this is true.

You might think that you can intimately inhabit the hugely complex system of your PC...but that is where it ends.

With respect, you're deluding yourself. You are doing exactly what @hawkeyefan has said you're doing...you're merely deciding, or the GM is deciding, to have thing x happen over things y and z (and any innumerable other possibilities) when it comes to social conflict.

Professional actors can do a great job of characterizing a suite of traits and then spitting out a portrait by way of preconceived lines. But they're just deluding themselves too if they think that they're actually, authentically modeling the extraordinarily complex interactions of endocrine and neurological systems of a social animal relating to other complex exogenous systems.

* You can't simulate and you can't incorporate the system-overwhelming response of extreme anxiety borne from trauma from horrific betrayals, brutal hardship/abuse during formative years, life-philosophy-upending instances in the past, the experience of knowing you're lower on the dominance hierarchy than someone and having that someone crush your social perception of yourself through callous bullying in front of others (either intellectually or physically), the pressure of having someone lean on you for hours and hours and hours (or years) and the burden of that collective weight. And dozens and dozens of other instances.

Humans do not have NEARLY the agency that their (mis)perceptions tell them they do. And also, neurological diversity (both hardware and software) is probably the most profound type of diversity in the social animal kingdom. We're just starting to peel back these distinctions.

You may think you have the ability to soundly model how behavioral suite a deals with endocrine response b while being unconsciously beholden to prefrontal cortex disposition c (and a myriad of other inputs)...but you cannot. You flatly...cannot.

You are deciding...you aren't experiencing and then channeling this complex system through the inputs of a TTRPG conversation to model a complex creature. You are deciding.

And I don't see how your decision (especially with all of this extreme agency in social animals that just doesn't exist in the wild) is more robust and better simulates social conflict, than conflict resolution mechanics that actually wrests some agency from us, imposes dispositions on us that we wish weren't present, and induces finality of resolution (as happens all_the_time in social conflict with other social animals).
 
It's rare, however, that a social interaction is going to have as direct and immediate influence on the health and-or functionality of your character as is combat.
So mechanics are only needed when health or functionality of character are at stake?

Are there never other stakes that come up in a game? Stakes where the difference between success and failure is as meaningful as those of combat?

I don't think this explanation you've offered does a lot to justify mechanics for combat but none for social interaction.

I mean, "if there's a risk of failure, roll the dice" is a pretty fundamental approach to RPGs.

Exactly. Stop here and we're all good. :)
Well, except in an instance where someone is actively asking for ways to go further with this, such as the OP and his follow up comments.

And for the first two, it's very possible to put ourselves in such frames of mind while in character. The character is overcome by desire, and his rationality goes out the window. The character is provoked to anger and so she says things she shouldn't, and is likely to regret (or be made to regret) later.
It is very possible. It's also fully at the players whim to do so. That doesn't seem all that meaningful, since the player could just as easily decide for his character not to get angry. And no one can question or chalenge that because "It's my character so I decide!!!!"

If there was some character trait that could com into play and be a potential trigger that could result in an undesirable action.....that by definition is more character driven play.

For the third, 'fear' is in many systems a mechanical condition externally imposed by any number of possible sources.

There's already loads of mechanics that potentially take away control. Fear is one. Charm and all its associated offspring are others. Emotion-affecting spells and magic are yet others. Possession is another, and-or curse.
Those are all widely accepted because magic. What about when a person charms someone in a totally mundane way? People can do that in real life.....it happens all the time.

Real people are not as in control of themselves as a Player is of his PC.

A game mechanic that allows Joe's character Halfdan to provoke my character to anger (or some other strong emotion), overriding any other in-character response I might have had to whatever Halfdan is doing or saying, is for many reasons probably a bad idea particularly for those who don't like PvP in their games. (hell, PCs charming other PCs is already bad enough!) :)

But here's the rub: if PC-PC relations are determined by their players then in the interest of consistency PC-NPC relations must as far as possible also work this way, and RAW be damned.
So if the players decided to, by fiat, have this kind of altercation break out, that's fine, but if a game had mechanics that allowed for this to happen, that's not fine? That's odd.

And I know that you ascribe to the idea that "no character is special" and I think the parity you're promoting here among PCs and NPCs relates to that, so I can understand your reasoning here.

However, don't you think that "character-driven" play as described in the OP and throughout the thread must by definition place an importance on character? If this is "Jack's Story" then how is Jack not more important than most of the characters that appear in the story?

I don't think that you can claim to promote character driven play while simultaneously dismissing the importance of character.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
So, I'm not trying to speak for @Lanefan here, just responding inline. I'm also going to be snipping for convenience and readability; I'll try not to change the meaning by changing the context.

So mechanics are only needed when health or functionality of character are at stake?

Are there never other stakes that come up in a game? Stakes where the difference between success and failure is as meaningful as those of combat?
Sure. Mechanics are necessary whenever anything important is at stake. While I understand the reasoning behind "roleplay all the interactions" I prefer for there to be mechanics, because there may be disparities between player competencies and character competencies.

It is very possible. It's also fully at the players whim to do so. That doesn't seem all that meaningful, since the player could just as easily decide for his character not to get angry. And no one can question or chalenge that because "It's my character so I decide!!!!"

If there was some character trait that could com into play and be a potential trigger that could result in an undesirable action.....that by definition is more character driven play.
I think some people don't see that a mechanic that (more or less) forces a character to behave a certain way is more character-driven than player choice is.

Real people are not as in control of themselves as a Player is of his PC.
I think this is exactly why some people react so strongly to mechanics that (more or less) force their character to behave in ways the player doesn't choose.

And I know that you ascribe to the idea that "no character is special" and I think the parity you're promoting here among PCs and NPCs relates to that, so I can understand your reasoning here.

However, don't you think that "character-driven" play as described in the OP and throughout the thread must by definition place an importance on character? If this is "Jack's Story" then how is Jack not more important than most of the characters that appear in the story?

I don't think that you can claim to promote character driven play while simultaneously dismissing the importance of character.
Jack might be very important to Jack's story, but neither Jack nor Jack's story is necessarily very important to the world.

I am not sure that rejecting mechanics that (more or less) remove control of characters from the players is the same thing as rejecting the importance of character.

A serious question: If the story of the game is something that emerges from play, how is player choice any different from authorial choice? If you say that a player cannot choose for his character, it seems as though you're saying an author cannot choose, either. Please try not to be too abstruse in answering; I managed to drop out of both high school and college.
 
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@prabe

Which is all fine. People can dislike control being wrested from their characters. I hate it when control is wrested from me in all phases of my actual life!

But the problem lies when someone makes the following claim:

(a) Social conflict mechanics are unnatural because they wrest a measure of control from players that (b) doesn't exist in real world exchanges between social animals and (c) the alternative doesn't manifest in play as "participant x (player in this case) decides."

If that is the working premise, then the disagreement is on all 3 of those claims (myself, and others, claiming that none of a - c are correct).
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
@prabe

Which is all fine. People can dislike control being wrested from their characters. I hate it when control is wrested from me in all phases of my actual life!

But the problem lies when someone makes the following claim:

(a) Social conflict mechanics are unnatural because they wrest a measure of control from players that (b) doesn't exist in real world exchanges between social animals and (c) the alternative doesn't manifest in play as "participant x (player in this case) decides."

If that is the working premise, then the disagreement is on all 3 of those claims (myself, and others, claiming that none of a - c are correct).
I don't entirely disagree with the premise, but I don't think "unnatural" is "wrongbadfun." I think the arguement is that they're unnecessary. Games aren't real life or natural, and I don't think there's necessarily a problem with "the player decides."
 
I don't entirely disagree with the premise, but I don't think "unnatural" is "wrongbadfun." I think the arguement is that they're unnecessary. Games aren't real life or natural, and I don't think there's necessarily a problem with "the player decides."
To be clear, “x is not natural so it’s not good” is not my claim.

What you’ve done about is accidentally inverted who is making that claim. I’m disputing the claim, not making it.

This is not a new claim to this thread. It predates it by many many years and includes the claim of “martial control of melee engagements is mind control and therefore unnatural nonsense” as well as this conversation of social conflict mechanics. I’ve been on this side of both of those conversations (disputing the claim that (a) the other side gets to claim “the natural” and (b) one approach is therefore bad based on “the natural.”)
 
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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
To be clear, “x is not natural so it’s not good” is not on my claim.

What you’ve done about is accidentally inverted who is making that claim. I’m disputing the claim, it making it.

This is not a new claim to this thread. It predates it by many many years and includes the claim of “martial control of melee engagements is mind control and therefore unnatural nonsense” as well as this conversation of social conflict mechanics. I’ve been on this side of both of those conversations (disputing the claim that (a) the other side gets to claim “the natural” and (b) one approach is therefore bad based on “the natural.”)
Apologies. I didn't mean to imply that you were saying "unnatural equals bad" by saying that "unnatural doesn't equal bad." Nor did I mean to ascribe to you the claim you were in fact disputing. Oops. I think I have to mostly agree with your position, on the facts, but I don't think anyone is necessarily doing it wrong. My own preference in games is mechanics to support inter-character interaction (deception, diplomacy, and the like) but nothing that forces a character to behave a certain way outside the player's control (or as close as possible to the last).
 
L

lowkey13

Guest
Very good questions. [Edit] Most of the above, in a sense (other than adding more GM force, which I really have no interest in). [/Edit]

I'm fairly aware of systems out there that shift the focus from "procedural" resolution to "scene-based" resolution (Burning Wheel, Cortex+, Fate, PbtA/BitD, etc.). And I've actually tried Fate Accelerated and Dungeon World, and personally enjoyed what they were doing . . . . but my group was less enthusiastic.

I own Burning Wheel Gold, and in a certain way think that it's probably the closest expression of what I would be trying to get at toward true character-driven/chracter arc-based play . . . but I also know there's almost no chance I'd ever be able to convince the group to try it. One in particular (the GURPS-loving powergamer) would be a hard "no."

I was definitely looking for perspectives and insights into what drives character-arc play, what kinds of expectations people have when they're looking for character-arc-driven play, whether the presence/absence of rules that promote character-arc-driven play is a help or hindrance, etc.

{SNIP}

This observation from @Ovinomancer was particularly striking for me, as I've heard this before in writing workshops for speculative fiction:

The goal for me is to find more tools, techniques, and opportunities to both generate and sustain character-arc-driven play instilled with the kinds of things @Ovinomancer alludes to.
First, thank you for replying and making this much more clear. So based on what you've said, I would do the following:

Take all the responses you've received so far, even mine, and throw them away. Look, there is nothing worse than those who would use your specific circumstances to advance their own agendas. You have particular needs, and particular circumstances, and generic comments about TTRPG theory (or the awesomeness of the Punk DIY aesthetic!) aren't going to help.

To be more specific, I could tell you that (for example) Amber Diceless RPG is a great, wonderful, amazing system that allows for lengthy character arcs and then other people could chime in with objections that, no, they don't think so, because they believe in X theory of RPGs, and still others would complain that (to paraphrase Mike Myers) if it's not Scottish dwarves in D&D it's cr**, but that's not really relevant.

Because (to continue this tortured example) this wouldn't be helpful to you. Since Amber is a distinctive system (learning curve of mechanics) that relies on a distinctive setting (you'd have to be Zelazny fans) and requires buy in from the DM and the table. In addition, like other games of this type, it also requires a certain type of DM (one that is skilled at table-setting) and players (that are enthusiastic about shared fiction) to function at the highest level.

So I think it would help to break this down into two separate issues to be helpful and remove it from the abstract realm of theory.

A. What is your table willing to play? You specifically reference the "GURPS-loving powergamer" as someone whose buy-in you would need, and who would be a "hard no" for a game like Burning Wheel Gold. So what do you think is the "universe of possibilities" that can be examined? Are we constrained at looking at various games that offer some variation of zero-to-hero and so-called procedural resolution?

B. Remember what I said, above, about taking all the response so far and throwing them away? Well, throw that sentence away because you should keep what @Ovinomancer wrote. Out of the responses you received so far, that one stood out. That one spoke to you in a way that none of the others did. That means that ... whether it's right or wrong, good in theory or bad in theory, or whatever ... it speaks to you. Go with that! Interrogate yourself further as to why it speaks to you. You allude to creative writing workshops, but it seems that the basis is the idea of risk to character - not in the sense of physical risk (oh no, zero hit points) but the more meaningful dramatic risk; the testing or reifying of, inter alia, character values. You know- drama!


Ideally, you could fuse the two together. Personally, I think it is somewhat hard to discuss (B) in the absence of (A), for the sole reason that that the type of satisfying character arc that you get through emergent play in, say, D&D will be different than (for example) BiTD. And the tools and techniques that are used to maintain character arcs in a scene-based system, or system that is explicitly character-based, will be different than those used in a system that is more explicitly zero-to-hero, and long-term. (Not that there aren't game systems that cover every gamut in between, or ones that are neither).

Hope this helps! :)
 
Apologies. I didn't mean to imply that you were saying "unnatural equals bad" by saying that "unnatural doesn't equal bad." Nor did I mean to ascribe to you the claim you were in fact disputing. Oops. I think I have to mostly agree with your position, on the facts, but I don't think anyone is necessarily doing it wrong. My own preference in games is mechanics to support inter-character interaction (deception, diplomacy, and the like) but nothing that forces a character to behave a certain way outside the player's control (or as close as possible to the last).
Thank you for the apology.

However, neither offense nor the apology are warranted and I'm not going to take the liberty of contriving unwarranted offense.

Simple mistake. Its easy to lose track of things in the course of these long conversations and its easy to misinterpret my obnoxious prose, doubly so when I'm posting from my phone and its trolling me/us by auto-correcting things in a nonsensical way.

I just wanted to clarify things. All good.
 
But here's the rub: if PC-PC relations are determined by their players then in the interest of consistency PC-NPC relations must as far as possible also work this way, and RAW be damned.
And this cuts to the root of a fundamental disagreement in game design philosophy. Are the rules intended as a physics model, where the world follows the logic of the rules - and almost you start with the rules to get the world? Or are the rules intended as a user interface where what is happening in the world is largely approximated by the rules.

If the rules are intended to be a user interface then the consistency doesn't have to hold water. If they are a physics model you get weird results.

I think that not having any social based mechanics at all leaves everything up to choice. The player decides how their character feels about everything. The GM decides how the NPCs react to the PCs.

But what about when someone feels something without choosing to?

We’ve all found ourselves provoked to anger. Or overcome by desire. Or stricken with fear.

Sometimes these things are not choices. Having a game mechanic that may help replicate that lack of total control over ourselves seems like a potentially powerful tool for a game.
It is potentially incredibly powerful for game design. On the other hand doing it badly can have very bad consequences and it's very hard to do well.
 
So, I'm not trying to speak for @Lanefan here, just responding inline. I'm also going to be snipping for convenience and readability; I'll try not to change the meaning by changing the context.

Sure. Mechanics are necessary whenever anything important is at stake. While I understand the reasoning behind "roleplay all the interactions" I prefer for there to be mechanics, because there may be disparities between player competencies and character competencies.
Yeah, that's part of it. A highly competent trial lawyer is likely going to be far more skilled at verbal persuasion and argument than the average person.

But beyond that is the idea that things that we know about our characters can change without our permission. They don't happen because I've decided that my character is now angsty because his family was killed, or any similar characterization element. Instead, they happen as the result of play.

When there are mechanics that involve aspects of the character such as their beliefs or goals or flaws, then those mechanics are kind of by default character driven game elements.


I think some people don't see that a mechanic that (more or less) forces a character to behave a certain way is more character-driven than player choice is.
I'm going to go with a loose example that doesn't use any specific system, just for the sake of discussion.

If I give my character a flaw that he struggles with deep and unfathomable anger, then having mechanics that pull that forth as a focus of play.....will he give in to his anger or can he overcome it.....means that the actual gameplay is determining the outcome. The gameplay is about whether my character succeeds or fails to control his anger.

This, to me, seems like the kind of play that is character driven, more so than a player simply deciding on characterization of his character based on the fictional elements of the game.

I think this is exactly why some people react so strongly to mechanics that (more or less) force their character to behave in ways the player doesn't choose.
Yes, for sure! I think there's strong resistance to this stuff because for a long time, many games have conditioned people to think that their character is their domain, and any decision for the character is to be made by the player.

And there is nothing wrong with that kind of play. I don't think people should play games where they don't enjoy the mechanics, and I don't think that all games need to have such mechanics.

Jack might be very important to Jack's story, but neither Jack nor Jack's story is necessarily very important to the world.

I am not sure that rejecting mechanics that (more or less) remove control of characters from the players is the same thing as rejecting the importance of character.
For the first, what world do you mean? The fictional world within the game? I get the idea of this, but really, nothing matters to the fictional world. It's fiction. I think what matters has to be more about the players. Their characters are the way they've chosen to interact with the fiction....so it's everything, in that sense. Sure, they may be disposable or easily replaced, but it's still the vital connection to the fiction.

For the second, I don't think it's a pure one or the other kind of situation. But I think that it's hard to not place importance on who the characters are specifically if you want character driven play. If the characters in the story can be easily swapped out for another, and little is changed about the course of play, then I don't think that it's strongly character driven play. I don't think that means that it is entirely absent of character driven elements, just that they are less central to play.

A serious question: If the story of the game is something that emerges from play, how is player choice any different from authorial choice? If you say that a player cannot choose for his character, it seems as though you're saying an author cannot choose, either. Please try not to be too abstruse in answering; I managed to drop out of both high school and college.
I think that in most cases there is definitely player choice. Usually in the form of some goal or belief or something that they've selected at character generation. To go back to my example, I create a character in the game and I give him a flaw of "struggling with deep and unfathomable anger" that means that I, as a player, am choosing for that to be a focus of play. I'm basically saying to the GM "here's one of the things I want to explore in this game". That flaw can be tested through play, and ultimately, it's the play that will determine success or failure for the character.

If the system instead allows me at any time to decide how my character behaves, then it may be a flaw that never comes up in play, or will only come up when I as a player decide it's convenient. The character's "struggle with deep and unfathomable anger" is anything but.

Now, there are players that maybe play with a strong sense of character, and who will allow such a flaw to meaningfully complicate play for them. There's nothing that really prevents this kind of play.

It's just that a game that has character traits and mechanics that promote this tend to do it more readily.
 
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lowkey13

Guest
There's been some discussion about rules. I've been talking about mechanics. I don't think it's the case that the D&D Thief class substituted mechanics for no mechanics. Classic D&D had a system, though it probably wasn't fully spelled out until Moldvay did it in his GM advice towards the back of his version of Basic D&D. (Moldvay - the great codifier and explainer!)

If something is otherwise not covered by the rules, the system directs the GM to set a required roll. The existing rules - for finding secret doors, making saving throws, etc - provide examples and set parameters for this, though I think obviously rather indeterminate and flexible ones. Moldvay gives two approaches - an ability check, and a % chance - without much advice as to how to choose between them.
This is not my full understanding. First, a quick primer, most recently here-


Briefly, Moldvay did not spell out "classic" D&D. Moldvay was released in 1981. Holmes was the codification/explanation of OD&D, released in 1977 (and paving the way for AD&D).

There was an issue re: the ongoing litigation and settlement between Arneson and Gygax. Basic D&D had a different royalty rate than AD&D (which had a core books royalty rate).

That said, you remember correctly. If you read all the way to the end, B60, you found the following paragraph in Moldvay:

"There's always a chance." The DM may want to base a character's chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing up a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll, depending on the difficulty of the action (-4 for a simple task to + 4 for a difficult one). A roll of 1 should always succeed, and a roll of 20 should always fail.
This is an "ability check." However, just prior to that Moldvay also mentions that a DM can also assign a percentile chance for something and rolling it. shrug But wait, where did that weird percentile thing come from? Oh yes, borrowed from the classic D&D- the DMG.

"There will be times in which the rules do not cover a specific action that a player will attempt. In such situations, instead of being forced to make a decision, take the option to allow the dice to control the situation. This can be done by assigning reasonable probability to an event and then letting the player dice to see if he or she can make that percentage." DMG p. 110.

But that was NOT the first appearance of ability checks. They were around since the beginning of OD&D.

In the very first issue of Dragon Magazine (1976), after the article by Fritz Leiber (!), you find an article by Wesley D. Ives titled How To Use Non-Prime-Requisite Character Attributes.

It's about using scores to determine if a character succeeds or not! Notably, the article (in 1976) specifically states, "Normally, the referee gives consideration to the player’s attributes and then more or less ‘wings it,’ attempting to be fair — usually giving the player a percentage chance of success."

That's the key; the reference to the standards and practices (the unwritten corpus) of OD&D that had already formed.

I would generally put it down into two categories at the time-

A. The Gygaxian model. As a situation came up, the DM would make a rule for the situation that "fits," while taking notes. As the situation repeats, the situation became codified. And this is how we got AD&D. Also how we got so ... many ... random .... percentile subsystems for no good reason.

B. The Arneson model. The DM largely "wings it."

That said, the true old school model (the "Classic" model) has no ability checks and is closer to the Arneson model.

Player declares action.

Referee determines the in-game effect of action.

No ability check. At most, assign a quick chance and roll. The key to this is that it always assumes competence on the part of the PC. No one would think to say, "Wait, does the fighting man have the SKILL to climb that rope or throw a grappling hook?"

Now, the Thief. The OD&D Thief first appeared in the Great Plains Game Players Newsletter #9, and then in OD&D (Greyhawk), after being "borrowed" from Gary Switzer and Aero Games. This was in 1974, sufficiently before Moldvay in 1981.

The main issue and the feedback for the Thief was always that it constrained other characters from "just doing stuff." Before the thief was introduced, the resolution of hiding in shadows was, "Ima hide in shadows." Now, you had to be a thief.
 
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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
@hawkeyefan Thanks for the serious answer. I think that where we are disagreeing, we are disagreeing around the edges, and probably around issues of personal taste/preference. While it's ... clarifying, I guess, to discuss things as though they are dichotomies, frequently they aren't. Seems to me as though we both realize that.
 
A serious question: If the story of the game is something that emerges from play, how is player choice any different from authorial choice? If you say that a player cannot choose for his character, it seems as though you're saying an author cannot choose, either.
This is a great question and a great way to focus conversation. Thanks for asking it.

Here is what I would say as it relates to systemization of the type we're discussing in this thread.

There are 3 types of possible agency here:

Type 1 - The GM has their say

Obstacle/adversity/threat interposes itself between player and goal.

Type 2 - Player has their say

My character thinks/feels/does x. This requires no mediation by GM or by rules. It is now true in the fiction. This can be either (a) GM says "yes" or (b) outright fiat (the player has a move/feature that binds the GM to oblige new relevant fiction based upon it; When you enter an important location (your call) you can ask the GM for one fact from the history of that location.).

However, there is another kind. (c) The GM presents the player with a difficult but interesting choice between outcome a or outcome b (both which have clear attendant fiction which changes the situation). Once the player chooses, the fiction emerges accordingly.

Type 3 - The system has its say

Sally the Druid has the move Elemental Mastery. She rolls 2d6 + Wis (2) to find out what happens when she calls on the primal spirits of fire, water, earth or air to perform a task for her. She outright fails with a 6 or less (and marks xp).

The GM now must make a hard move against the player bound by the rules/principles/play agenda (something that has an immediate cost, changes the situation dynamically for the worse, fills their lives with adventure, and follows from the preceding fiction). The move says on a miss, some catastrophe occurs as a result of your calling. That further constrains/binds the GM's new post-player-move fiction. There is no opting out by the player or GM and no massaging the situation for better or worse. There are specific constraints/parameters.




In the entirety of this context, lets sub "player" for "participant", including both GM and those running PCs.

How do you think "authorial choice" and "participant choice" relate to one another when you've got competing interests and rules/role constraints that bind or deny authorship rights?

Put another way, the GM can't do x because system or built-in constraint (a players move/feature says thing n happens; GM doesn't get to ignore it or erect a block that negates it) says so. The player can't do y because system or built-in constraint (the GM has erected an obstacle that requires overcoming a certain fictional positioning - say reach advantage by the obstacle - before the player can close to melee...the player doesn't just get to ignore that and close to melee).

I would say "participant choice" is different than "authorial choice" because when you're writing a book, you don't have competing interests and system architecture that both constrains possible fiction and mediates outcomes.
 
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I'm going to go with a loose example that doesn't use any specific system, just for the sake of discussion.

If I give my character a flaw that he struggles with deep and unfathomable anger, then having mechanics that pull that forth as a focus of play.....will he give in to his anger or can he overcome it.....means that the actual gameplay is determining the outcome. The gameplay is about whether my character succeeds or fails to control his anger.

This, to me, seems like the kind of play that is character driven, more so than a player simply deciding on characterization of his character based on the fictional elements of the game.
There are also three ways of handling this I'm aware of; the D&D way, the GURPS way, and the Fate way. That's the order they appeared in the gaming community in and the games I believe represent the styles. It's also IMO worst to best.

In D&D if I have a character who struggles with unfathomable anger that's entirely a player choice. And if I do something with this flaw it's because I the player have decided to, and have decided to do something that's inimical to the interests of the wider group. By roleplaying this I am being anti-social and sabotaging the rest of the group while showboating. (@Manbearcat would call this the player having their say, above)

In GURPS if I struggle with unfathomable anger I got points for taking that as a disadvantage. When it occurs it's because the dice told me it did - I'm not in control of my character while this happens (so I'm genuinely struggling) and it's the fault of the dice rather than something I've decided to do despite its impacts on group cohesion. So I'm not being anti-social out of character playing it. But it's not something I struggle with so much as am subject to. (@Manbearcat above called this the system having its say)

In Fate if I struggle with unfathomable anger this means I am tempted by it. I wrote that on my character sheet, probably as my Trouble aspect. And when it comes up the GM offers me a Fate Point. Which I may accept to get unfathomably angry, or I may spend a Fate Point of my own to turn it down by actually keeping my head, but I've used my willpower to struggle to do it (represented by the Fate point). Neither choice is anti-social by me as a player - either I have more Fate Points to spend when the rubber meets the road or I keep my head and don't cause trouble. I'm tempted - but can struggle to resist. The GM had their say by offering me the Fate Point, the system and setting tell me what it's worth (one Fate Point), but ultimately the decision is mine - and there is a cost and a benefit either way both for me and for the group as a whole. (This is probably the clearest example of @Manbearcat 's "Player has their say, option b" and I'd break it out into a category of its own like "Everyone has their say" - player, GM, and system alike feeding in but it's the player's decision)
 
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lowkey13

Guest
There are also three ways of handling this I'm aware of; the D&D way, the GURPS way, and the Fate way. That's the order they appeared in the gaming community in and the games I believe represent the styles. It's also IMO worst to best.
...

In Fate if I struggle with unfathomable anger this means I am tempted by it. I wrote that on my character sheet, probably as my Trouble aspect. And when it comes up the GM offers me a Fate Point. Which I may accept to get unfathomably angry, or I may spend a Fate Point of my own to turn it down by actually keeping my head, but I've used my willpower to struggle to do it (represented by the Fate point). Neither choice is anti-social by me as a player - either I have more Fate Points to spend when the rubber meets the road or I keep my head and don't cause trouble. I'm tempted - but can struggle to resist. The GM had their say by offering me the Fate Point, the system and setting tell me what it's worth (one Fate Point), but ultimately the decision is mine - and there is a cost and a benefit either way both for me and for the group as a whole. (This is probably the clearest example of @Manbearcat 's "Player has their say, option b" and I'd break it out into a category of its own like "Everyone has their say" - player, GM, and system alike feeding in but it's the player's decision)
You know, it's interesting that you just wrote this, because I was thinking about Fate. Morrus posted the sales rankings since 2004 of all the various RPGs.


I probably don't have to tell you this, but D&D + PF (aka, D&D + D&D) makes up more sales than everything else, combined. Easily.

And I was thinking, also, of this post by Angry DM here-


It has the not-at-all-controversial statement that Fate isn't an RPG. Okay, that's a pretty troll-y statement (and he admits it) but he makes the continuum comparison that I've often noted between, on the one hand, "traditional RPGs" (or as you call them, the worst :) ) and on the other hand, games like Fiasco.

It goes into more detail (perhaps not enough- it doesn't use enough big words for this thread!) but it very much discusses the difference between a traditional RPG where there is identification between character and player (PC as alter ego / protagonist) and a game like Fiasco, and where Fate is on that spectrum, in a way that fits into the idea of the character-arc that we are discussing but not veering into the whole side issue of authorial intent/system constraints that I think might get a little hung up.


Finally, can innedude even play Fate? I've known some powergamers, and they don't tend to play Fate. There is often a reason some games are more niche than others; the appeal may be more narrow, and it will require more more of a sale job by the OP to get others at the table to buy in.
 

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