17 February, 2010

Vector Theory #6: Pulling on the strings

No matter what sort of roleplaying games you play, there are choices involved.

Do you fight, or do you negotiate?

Do you compromise your principles, or do you fight for your honour?

Every choice says something about a character (and whether we like it or not, every choice says something about the player of that character). But we need to know why those choices are important.

If you fight, why do you fight? If you stick by your principles, what are those principles?

Choices can be preloaded through a character backstory, or they can be revealed through the narrative.

Like I said earlier, vector theory is fractal; it works on a number of layers.

Consider the diagram for today's post.

If you consider the grey wavy arrow to be the journey of a specific character, then the black arrows might represent the various forces pulling at their lives. One could be a desire to please a certain someone, one could be a duty to fulfill a certain obligation, another arrow could represent a dark urge.

Each arrow pulls at the character in a different direction, yet it is a players choice to choice which of those desires they prioritise. But if enough arrows are pulling in a certain direction, then it becomes safer to assume that a player will take their character in that direction, or it becomes even more dramatic when they make choices to pull away from the forces that threaten to control their lives.

In recent roleplaying theory, the arrows a character starts a game with are considered "kickers". These are basically a preloaded impetus that drives a character's story in a certain direction from the start. But during the course of a story, the arrows change.

A twist in the story might render one option irrelevant, and thus the character's story direction alters. Player choices, GM plot introduction and mechanisms within the game may create new arrows to pull on a character.

In a good story, a character's destiny remains uncertain, there are always arrows pulling them in many directions, and in stories with real depth the arrows themselves are continually in flux. From moment to moment, the forces on a character vary. If the same choice is faced at two points in a story, the character will have gained new perspective, or a new insight when they meet it for a second time. Thus the decision remains relevant and still tells us something about the character.

In a bad story, a character only has a few arrows pulling on them. Every choice seems to be the same because the arrows don't vary in their direction or their intensity.

At a larger level, the grey wavy arrow isn't the story of a single character, it's the story of the group as a whole. Each arrow represents the pull of a specific character on the group's story.

Sometimes one character's pull on the story will be more influential, at other times, another character will probably take the dominant role. In most roleplaying games, the GM also has a pull on the story (in certain groups the GM often has more force than the combined weight of the players, and this is diagnosed as "railroading"...but more about that in a later post).

But how does this apply to game design at a system or scenario level?

I'm glad you asked.

There are a few games which have struggled to create a morality mechanism or system. This could be the old D&D alignment system, the Humanity system from White Wolf's vampire, the system found in Ron Edward's Sorceror...in fact I like the old D&D system best out of these because at least it has two axes of choice for characters to pursue. The Australian freeform really plays to this concept well, because the whole structure of the game is a relationship map and every player is constantly bombarded with choices that affect the arrows impacting on other characters. The whole game is in a state of flux. Numerous arrows pulling on each character, and numerous characters pulling on one another. The game has a natural draw toward a certain point, but it could end up heading in almost any direction depending on the choices made by the people involved.

So a system can really impact on the way a game is played. It can really provide important choices for a player to consider in the context of the story. A game like Dogs in the Vineyard gives players the ability to escalate a situation and push it in a new direction by raising the stakes. So this serves the concept of story because every choice actually makes a change in where things might head, rather than simply pushing upward toward success or downward toward failure on the way to a story's conclusion. Instead of a linear progression from start to finish, the story becomes more like charting an orienteering course, or an ocean voyage. (These two ideas will become more important later as well).

Specific design of a campaign or even a scenario can incorporate these notions as well.

Do you want your players to end up at a certain point? Provide a series of impetus arrows pulling in that direction.

Do you know that one player always likes to rebel? Provide an impetus directly against their rebellious urges and play to them with reverse psychology.

Some might call it "illusionism", but if you get enough of these arrows working together, then a story develops a motion and a sense of purpose/direction. If you keep enough arrows pulling toward a predestined finale (or keep choosing between two or three possible finales), then you can prepare for the big showdown. The characters might not approach the showdown from the direct you originally intended, but they'll get there in the end and they'll have made some important character decisions along the way.

It's a balancing act I've been trying to fine tune over the past decade or so.
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