Caring ABOUT versus caring FOR a character -- Fascinating critique of gaming principles from "The Last of Us"

innerdude

Legend
A salient difference is that a video game is ultimately a finished product unto itself (DLC jokes notwithstanding) that you partake in on terms that are set for you. While there might be many different styles of interactivity set out by the programmers/developers, you're ultimately bound by their vision of how things should work, short of modding the game or uncovering exploits. This limits the methods by which we can not only interact with the world, but sets up how the characters(s) ultimately grow and evolve. There might be some sort of "event tree" they can go through, but that tree was grown by someone else other than the player.

This is absolutely true, and one of the things that struck me about the difficulty of doing "deep critique" of RPGs generally, is that most RPG sessions aren't recorded or transcribed for future review. This is an enormous problem in being able to revisit the kind of "viewer critique" that can be done as the article does.


Tabletop RPGs aren't like that. Not only are there no hard-and-fast boundaries with regard to the nature of the game world (hence they endless tales of PCs going "off the map"), but even the game rules are essentially an agreed-upon framework that the players (and especially the GM) can change as they see fit. To that end, there's always an implicit understanding that it's not just about your character, since you have the potential to push the boundaries of both the setting and the mechanics which define how the entire world functions.

And that's not even getting into the collaborative aspect of the whole thing, with its inherent understanding that "I'm just playing my character" isn't an excuse for upsetting everyone else at the table. You can't just care about your character, you have to care about everyone else's, too.

All of which is to say, I'm not sure that the points raised in the OP can be translated 1:1 from video games to tabletop role-playing games.

Also true, if you look at any given campaign or session within a campaign. There's going to be friction between "narrative" and "game", and "PC psychology" and "needs of the group." But I think the broader point still stands, which is that those frictions are a natural outgrowth of the competition between the needs of developing the narrative and the needs of creating a playable game in the first place.

The larger the scope of the game --- rules, interactions, exceptions, combinations --- the greater the need to interact at the game level, and the greater the impulse, I think, to engage in the mindset of "caring FOR" the character --- "I just need to get the character through this next round of combat / next test."

I think it's also indicative of why most of the "narrative" driven TTRPGs of late lean dramatically toward the rules light end of the spectrum.
 

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Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
And that's not even getting into the collaborative aspect of the whole thing, with its inherent understanding that "I'm just playing my character" isn't an excuse for upsetting everyone else at the table. You can't just care about your character, you have to care about everyone else's, too.

Sure, but I think it can be all to easy to turn to caring about none of the characters, instead of all of the characters. What I look for most in the people I play with is the ability to feel empathy for all the player characters, to be interested in them all, feel for them all. Also a willingness to let them struggle a bit. For me personally it's important for a player to be able to step back from their character's internal perspective and simply enjoy the unfolding fiction as an audience member from time to time.

There are absolutely selfish players, but I don't think it is wise to assume that caring about the psychological needs of the characters is a selfish act.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
Great post, @innerdude . I've been enjoying the show, but have never actually played the game, so I've been thinking about how that lack of experience has influenced how I enjoy the show. Does it make it easier? Do I not enjoy it as much as someone who has played? Or more?

What would it take to elicit this same kind of critique of RPG play, at this level of thoughtfulness and respect for the medium? Clearly the author of the article has tremendous respect for the creators of both the video game and the television show, while bridging the two "performances" of the narrative with her analysis.

I think a few things need to happen with an RPG in order for what you're talking about to be possible.

I think most notably, as your example illustrates, you need to have or be given the opportunity to actually explore these things in play. If you create a character who has escaped slavery, and then the game is about going on a romp in the Feywild, then that opportunity is less likely to manifest. Obviously, this takes some level of collaboration between players and GM.

I think another element that should be present is some amount of risk. This is typically present in some capacity in an RPG.... character death is often a possibility. But I think something more than that needs to be present... some risk of failure to achieve the desired goal... that the character is not up to the task or that other competing priorities may win out.

I'm sure there are more we can come up with, but those are the two that immediately jump out at me.
 

Just for example, your character, Alex, has just gone through a heart-wrenching dangerous adventure where they ultimately saved the land. Suddenly, Alex is called onto to a new adventure. Does the player say yes or no?

If you're caring about the game, well, sure assuming you like the PC, you say "yes"!

If you're caring about the character, you might think something along the lines of "No!" because Alex is traumatized, scarred physically and emotionally, and really just needs a break and maybe settle down with a family and have a regular life and do some art. But now, you, the player, are excluded from the next adventure.
Sometimes I think caring about the character can get in the way not only of playing the game, but even of what makes the character worth playing, even of who they fundamentally are.

In one very intense campaign I was in, my character (who ironically was named Alex!) was just as you say - traumatized and scarred, yet still deeply driven.

Caring about him, if that meant retiring him, would have been to betray him - even if it's what a counselor would recommend.

That campaign sometimes felt like an extended attempt to find out what Alex could take without breaking - and he indeed flirted a bit with madness before the end.

Which isn't to say I was maintaining a dispassionate narrative distance! On the contrary, he's one of the most immersive characters I've ever played. Which is perhaps why I didn't care about him - he didn't care about himself.

(The Story Hour is right here on this site, if anyone's interested. "The Shadow Knows!" It's what first got me started posting here.)
 
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niklinna

satisfied?
I just stumbled across this in my Firefox "Pocket Articles" feed . . . and just . . . wow. My mind is now churning at 7,000 RPM.


What a fascinating, engrossing analysis of the true nature of "interactivity" vis-a-vis the creation of "narrative."

There's just so much here to unpack in relation to gaming generally, but this bit really caught my eye in relation to RPGs ---



Bold emphasis is mine.

Man, there's just something bubbling under the surface here about player approaches to character, especially how players fictionally position their characters into a given fictional "space," etc.

It makes me wonder --- is this same tension ever present in RPG play? Does the "gamification" of character through stat blocks, XP/progression, etc., create this same sort of dissonance? That the aesthetic experience must naturally and inherently suffer through the overarching needs of allowing the player to "game the game"?

And wow, it just occurred to me that if the creation of an "aesthetic experience" is a desire to be realized during RPG play, then if this sentiment is true, then the least likely way for that "aesthetic experience" to arise is to just let the "game play out". No wonder the impulse of plot-heavy GMs to be heavy-handed in forcing "narrative structure"; it's likely the only way to have an "aesthetic experience" at all.

One more fascinating quote, that further brings home why it's so dang hard to produce real emotional character growth / character arcs in RPG play ---



And just . . . Oh my goodness, yes! Of course that's why it's so hard! As players it's just so incredibly difficult to make that psychological distinction. The constant tug against just keeping your PC alive to fight another day, versus really delivering what would be viewed as an overwhelming psychological need for the character. To care about the character, you actually have to CARE ABOUT the character. You have to view the character's psychological need as something real, something tangible, to the point that you have to play the character in a way that does not defy those needs.
I think the difficulty of this depends very much on the game and the group. There are RPGs where you know your character is going to die at the end (that all of the PCs are going to die, as in 10 Candles), or where the whole point is whether you stick to your beliefs knowing that if you do, you will die (Montsegur 1244) and the whole point of the experience is to see how they handle that. There are games that are specifically about the PCs pursuing their short-term interests with little regard for consequences (Fiasco). These are at an extreme end of a (more than one-dimensional) spectrum. Another end is games where the whole point is to power up to endgame and win, and whatever story happens along the way is, or might as well be, incidental to that process. As you note immediately following!

Otherwise, you're just playing a game.

This completely explains the sense of character betrayal I felt during a 16-month Savage Worlds fantasy campaign as a player a few years ago. My character's pressing, urgent, deep need to rectify her past as an escaped slave went completely unaddressed during the entirety of the campaign. And so of course, I was always just caring for the character, never caring about her.
What were the circumstances of it being unaddressed? Did the GM ask for driving back stories and then ignore them? Did you present this back story as something you wanted to address during the campaign, or assume it would be? Did you actively pursue this goal as a player? If so, did the GM shut down, stonewall, or ignore your efforts to do so? Was this character's goal something the other players (could have) also had some interest in pursuing or assisting with? I've been bitten by issues such as those more than once, and learned that these matters need to be made quite explicit, whether by the game system, the scenario (if prewritten), or between the GM and players. I'm still not very good at doing that; it varies with the game system, campaign, and the character I create.

There's a natural tension in the typical party/team organization of play of long-term RPG games, where the PCs need to have some common goal or reason to stick together so that everybody can share time. You can't have your own character just do something completely unrelated to the others, else why play together? You can't have your character do something directly counter to the others, or you're being That Player who "does what my character would do" without regard for that dynamic. This often overshadows the rich possibility for people to be working together but for different purposes, or with different approaches toward the same goals, and other such things that need to be addressed at key moments. Working out those differences can feel like a distraction to "getting the adventure done", but it can also be a rich opportunity for exploring character. It depends on what the group as a whole prioritizes in gameplay.

A related, more practical issue, is that of "screen time". Games where everybody gets a turn in short sequence—usually in combat—have been a standard for quite a long time. Games where a subset of the PCs get whole scenes to themselves can be perceived as leaving the others with nothing to do for long stretches, especially if players aren't invested in each others' characters. It's important again that the individual characters' motivations matter to each other, so that seeing what somebody else's character does, even if yours is not there, nonetheless is consequential (or at least of interest) to your character, so you are rewarded for paying attention. I've also had GMs who are good at intercutting scenes so that everybody does get that round-robin feel (and doesn't check out, because they know they'll be in the spotlight again in at most a few minutes) even though they aren't in the same scene together.

There's much more, but those are just a few aspects that come to mind at the moment.

Final thought ---

What would it take to elicit this same kind of critique of RPG play, at this level of thoughtfulness and respect for the medium? Clearly the author of the article has tremendous respect for the creators of both the video game and the television show, while bridging the two "performances" of the narrative with her analysis.
I think you've initiated such a critique with your post! So let's explore.

An aside: I think the article missed the mark in saying that video/computer games can't allow for narrative through player choice. Video games in the sense of classic coin-op consoles, sure—those sessions last for minutes in general. But I think of a game like Geneforge, where the allies & enemies you make, and your decisions about what do to in the end, dramatically change the outcome, so it's possible to do narrative of some kind in a computer game, even if it's limited by such a game having to script the branches. That constraint becomes narrower with sequels, which often have to assume one of the major outcomes of the preceding game.
 

Celebrim

Legend
It makes me wonder --- is this same tension ever present in RPG play? Does the "gamification" of character through stat blocks, XP/progression, etc., create this same sort of dissonance? That the aesthetic experience must naturally and inherently suffer through the overarching needs of allowing the player to "game the game"?

Yes. Also, and this is even more mindblowing, I can often tell what RPGs modern writers of sci-fi and fantasy novels likely played just by how they gamify their characters and actions. I'm often able to recognize from the text an origin in RPG play before that gets disclosed. It's not just things like the obvious D&D origins of Feist's Riftwar saga, one of the first examples of novels being written after the impact of tabletop RPGs on the imagination of young writers, but things like I could tell 'The Expanse' had been an RPG before it was novel within the first few chapters of the first book.

There are ways that table RPG roleplayers treat PCness, NPCness, conflict bangs, world building, factions, quest givers, and so forth based on the need to keep the PCs engaged that just shine out of novel writing if you look for them. And since different RPG backgrounds give you subtly different takes on those things, you can tell, "Ok, this guy primarily played D&D/trad games" versus "This guy comes from an Indy gaming background."
 

Yora

Legend
It makes me wonder --- is this same tension ever present in RPG play? Does the "gamification" of character through stat blocks, XP/progression, etc., create this same sort of dissonance? That the aesthetic experience must naturally and inherently suffer through the overarching needs of allowing the player to "game the game"?
There's been a phrase I've encountered in such discussions over the years. "The solution is not on your character sheet."

The main reason why I've given up on the d20-lineage of games is that the amount of special abilities very quickly got out of hand. The D&D 3rd edition Player's Handbook by itself, when playing at lower levels, is the upper limit of what I consider workable. But it quickly bloated up into an ungodly mess when "dead levels" started to be perceived as a design flaw that needs fixing.

When characters keep getting more special abilities to be really good at various things, then the difficulty for these things quietly keeps going up to make them "not overpowered", which means everyone without the special ability gets bad at the activity. And then players without the special ability stop attempting the action and always let the character with the special ability do it. This creates a mindset that only the things for which you have a special ability are even worth trying. Players see an obstacle and think "This is an obstacle for ability X. Anyone has ability X?" If not, players think they hit a wall and don't even try to interact with the obstacle naturally.
Might be fun for a tactical skirmish game, but seems completely counterproductive for an RPG.

It's the reason why I'm almost exclusively playing OSE and PtbA games these days.
 

Yes. Also, and this is even more mindblowing, I can often tell what RPGs modern writers of sci-fi and fantasy novels likely played just by how they gamify their characters and actions. I'm often able to recognize from the text an origin in RPG play before that gets disclosed. It's not just things like the obvious D&D origins of Feist's Riftwar saga, one of the first examples of novels being written after the impact of tabletop RPGs on the imagination of young writers, but things like I could tell 'The Expanse' had been an RPG before it was novel within the first few chapters of the first book.

There are ways that table RPG roleplayers treat PCness, NPCness, conflict bangs, world building, factions, quest givers, and so forth based on the need to keep the PCs engaged that just shine out of novel writing if you look for them. And since different RPG backgrounds give you subtly different takes on those things, you can tell, "Ok, this guy primarily played D&D/trad games" versus "This guy comes from an Indy gaming background."
Yeah I can smell 'novelized campaign' a mile away. Or even 'milieu drawn from an RPG setting' even where the plot and characters are purely authored. It's super common nowadays.
 

pemerton

Legend
@innerdude, your post is an interesting one. I suspect I haven't picked up on everything that's going on in it.

there's just something bubbling under the surface here about player approaches to character, especially how players fictionally position their characters into a given fictional "space," etc.

It makes me wonder --- is this same tension ever present in RPG play? Does the "gamification" of character through stat blocks, XP/progression, etc., create this same sort of dissonance? That the aesthetic experience must naturally and inherently suffer through the overarching needs of allowing the player to "game the game"?

<snip>

As players it's just so incredibly difficult to make that psychological distinction. The constant tug against just keeping your PC alive to fight another day, versus really delivering what would be viewed as an overwhelming psychological need for the character. To care about the character, you actually have to CARE ABOUT the character. You have to view the character's psychological need as something real, something tangible, to the point that you have to play the character in a way that does not defy those needs.

Otherwise, you're just playing a game.
If I've understood this right, you're looking at the potential tension between (i) the "game" aspect of play, which generates player motivations that are not grounded in the PC, and (ii) the character as character, who has their own inner life and dramatic situation which (if it's going to be brought to life at all) must be brought to life by the player.

One solution in RPGs: there is no (ii). I give you Moldvay Basic and Gygax's AD&D as masterclasses in this.

A different solution in RPGs (maybe connected to your "rules light" comment that I didn't quote): there is no (i) - that is, there is no mechanical framework that generates non-PC-grounded player motivations. In my play (ie as a non-GM player), I think the closest I've come to this is one-on-one Burning Wheel. It's been facilitated by a GM who is prepared to bring home the necessary consequences, and who is willing to let his NPCs and "plot" conceptions be jettisoned if that's the way my action declarations for my PC take things.

As a GM of relatively long-running/open-ended games with multiple continuing PCs, I reckon the closest I've come to what you describe is in Prince Valiant and Classic Traveller. The multi-PC aspect does generate some contrivances - in Prince Valiant the PCs lead a military order that they founded, which is why they are together; in Traveller one of them is a ship owner, and the others - plus a whole bunch of NPCs - are the crew and tag-alongs.

It may not be a coincidence that Prince Valiant is one of the earliest "story now" RPGs, and is rather "lite"; and that I've run Classic Traveller as close as I can to PbtA in style.

I've found achieving the sort of thing you describe much easier in one-shots: Cthulhu Dark, Wuthering Heights and In A Wicked Age.
 

tomBitonti

Adventurer
A lot of games have simple play loops, where the PCs are simply vehicles for the players to engage in core mechanics: Enter a location. Encounter and overcome challenges. Discover loot and gain abilities. Repeat. No real PC motivation is there, it's entirely the player having fun with the game mechanics.

Other games focus more on character development. Character motivation and psychology are a much larger part of the game.

I think to have more care about a character, there has to be more to the character than a simple vehicle used to engage in mechanics: The game must include motivation and psychology.

If you think about what the players are doing with any realism, the simple mechanics core loop fails. What rational person would subject themselves to the dangers and horrors that lurk in a typical dungeon? Really, who would choose that kind of activity?

Then, how could anyone who was an adventurer not eventually succumb to any number of problems: Insensitivity to violence. Traumatic stress disorders. Extreme phobias. Any adventurer should end up, at best, an atypical person, at worst, a raving lunatic.

To each their own: Some are looking to defeat foes and discover loot. Others want to follow their character's psychological growth, which may be a descent into madness.

TomB
 

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