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You Can't Choose Your Family

I am a big proponent of letting players take a strong hand in creating the world as they create their characters. If a player wants his character to have been trained by ninjas and asks if there are ninjas in the setting, the answer is almost always "There are now!" Insert whatever you like in place of ninjas, and the net result is a world where the players are invested from the getgo, and as a GM I'm more excited because I am given new ideas to work with that usually make my ideas better. This is great stuff, and I love it, and I love tricks to help get even more of it out of the players.

But sometimes it goes wrong. Not in any kind of painful way, but in a way that I have failed to really put my finger on in the past. For all that player investment and interest (which is genuine) the end result can fall flat, producing a tepid, technical response where I would expect passion and engagement. When I initially noticed this, my instinct was that I was not drawing players out enough, and that they needed more authority, and I tried games like Primetime Adventures and others with even more player power and it simply didn't help. I know a lot of people enjoy that play, and while I've had a good time with it, something about the way it mixes with my expectations produces weak sauce.

(Now, this is all known stuff. I think PTA is a great, useful game, and the fact that it does not hit my notes is not a criticism of the game by any stretch, it's simply a taste thing, so please do not take this as busting on PTA).

So I'm back at loose ends, trying to figure this out. Brain alchemy is strange, and a combination of the use of Placebo's cover of "Running Up That Hill" on Bones and a conversation with adamantineangel about tangential matters a few days back really ended up crystalizing something that is, I think, going to profoundly change the way I do character generation in the future, and it comes down to what may be an essential difference in the handling of NPCs, and the player's distinction between internal and external material.

I believe a lot of this comes down to the question of the role that your character's father plays in the game. I'm using the father for ease of reference, but it could really be any other important relationship - mother, spouse, child, sibling, boss, employee - with the qualifier that familial bonds are probably the most useful in general.

There are a number of possible answers, but I see the core break down as follows:
  1. He matters only where he intersects with the character. At best, he is an extension of the character's story, and his role is to serve that story. At worst, his role is dictated by narrative convenience.
  2. He is a fully motivated character in his own right.

There are other ways to handle it, but that pair is at the heart of my issues, or so I perceive.

So, when I started gaming, my assumption was that it was #2. NPCs were characters with motives and interests and whatnot, and the logic of their play shaped the world. There were techniques and tricks you could use to make managing them much simpler, but that underlying logic was the only thing that made sense. When I started running into bits an pieces of what eventually crystallized into #1, they were eye-opening revelations. Shifting emphasis to the players and their characters did not happen overnight, but it was an incredibly powerful transition in a lot of ways, and a lot of really good things came with it. It's a realization that goes hand in hand with an awareness of the fiction of the game as a thing that can be manipulated. Stepping away from NPCs, the best example I can think of for this transition is inventory. It is the shift from keeping character inventory to the assumption that characters have what they should have (or abstract mechanics to determine if they have a thing at the time they need it).

The problem is, I think I've taken it too far without realizing it. As more and more things become defined in terms of the character, more and more things start becoming internal to the player, and that's where my problem begins. If your character's father is an extension of the character or the character's story, then interplay with him is not far removed from having a conversation with yourself, even if the GM is playing that character. You as a player know this NPC, and while an individual scene might be well played, it is more likely to be an exercise than a true engagement.

This comes back to one of my perpetual conundrums in gaming - The Amber DRPG. Even when I moved away from the DRPG system and took it in strange directions, there was an essential core of enjoyment there that always came back to the NPCs for me. Amber that dropped the elders always ended up with that same flatness, but if the game kept them and otherwise gave vast player authority, bounded only by those NPCs, things popped.

Today, I'm convinced that the secret is in the externality. The elders are external, independently motivated and opaque and players, yet tied to them, and that contradiction is essential to making powerful bonds meaningful. It would be nice to be able to boil down all fathers into a handful of archetypical roles, but it is all the complications, nuances and gaps that give that weight. Tidy relationships are boring relationships, and even if you've built a complex R-Map to create multiple axes of interest, those don't carry weight f the NPCs doesn't pursue an agenda - they simply become a more colorful description of something definable and measurable.* Put another way, it is only when the NPC goes off in his own direction does it really start mattering to me when he interacts with a character.

This ends up holding up well with the post-amber games I have felt went very well: Deus ex Magica, A Thorn of Experience and it's follow-up, First Fifty. In each case, the players had a lot of freedom, but there was still a cast of NPCs that were external to their characters who served as opposition, reference and sounding board. Games where I failed to establish those strong externalities felt much more limp to me.

This also plays into the mantra of the past few years - 'Constraints breed creativity'. Bounds on player authority are the things that keep that authority meaningful. Unlimited player authority can produce interesting results, but they're not the results I'm that interested in playing. Making those bounds into NPCs (or vice versa) guarantees that things will stay more dynamic because the role for NPCs can shift from moment to moment.

None of which is to say that the split between #1 and #2 need be crystal clear. A lot of the techniques for making NPCs work better combine the two ideas to good effect. But what's important, and what I think I have sometimes forgotten, is that in combining them, neither approach is discarded. Which means next time I run a game, there will explicitly be people who are important to the characters who are not under the player's authority, and I will see what comes of that.

(It may seem I'm obsessing on NPCs here as a stand in for setting, but to my mind they are the only element of setting that really matters, so perhaps I am, but I can live with that.)

Amber remains something of a perfect storm of gaming, so it is strange to me that I tripped over secret for capturing that lightning in a bottle in console RPGs, but that one will wait until I've let this percolate a bit.

* - Now, here's a curious aside. A lot of people want people and interactions to make sense. It is such a compelling idea that there are whole fields of study dedicated to it. As such, it is entirely reasonable for someone to want the behavior of people in their games to make sense for the same reason that someone else might want to play out fights he would never be able to engage in. This is gaming, after all, and there's reason we're not just going out an doing this stuff, so let me take an extra moment here to underscore that I'm talking about what jazzes _me_. These ideas about the role of NPCs may be utter crap at your table, and that's as it should be.



( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 27th, 2008 07:17 pm (UTC)
You kind of lost me around the elders since I've never played Amber. But it sounds like you're heading towards a blend of 1 & 2, which is exactly what I would say. NPCs as apparently fully motivated characters, but their primary motivations are ones that intersect with the characters' stories and own motivations. Even if the "father" character was created out of one character's background, they should intersect at least one other character as well. Although it doesn't need to be apparent out of the gate, their path should be such that it's bound to produce more complications/conflict/choices.

Is that the track you're on?
Oct. 27th, 2008 07:25 pm (UTC)
I don't know if that's his track or not, but the thing about Amber is that it has some very strong NPCs built- in, all of whom generally are related to the PCs out the gate - as aunts, uncles, fathers, mothers - and all of whom have extremely strong, universally understood archetypes. Amber games are often, on some fundamental level, about family, sibling rivalries, and the ties that bind.
Oct. 27th, 2008 07:32 pm (UTC)
Amber's big relevance here is that the setting is almost entirely composed of a handful of strongly characterized NPCs who are also the character's family.

As to the track, I think the one missing element in that is noise to muddy the signal, so to speak. If I can purely define an NPC's presence in the game in terms of a character (or even several characters) that is going to fall flat for me. Part of it is that I'm hyper-sensitized to the metalogic of things, and that's on my head, but the other part is that it ends up feeling fake. People are weird, muddy, confusing creatures, and some of that uncertainty must make it into play for things to feel genuine to me.

Which is to say, even if what you describe constitutes, say, 80% of what's going on with a given NPC, I want another 20% of stuff that's not about the players (exactly percentages subject to haggling). The players should never be reduced to mere observers of a story, because that's unfun, but by the same token, if everything revolves around them, it will _feel_ like everything revolves around them, and that leads to my dissatisfaction.

(Curiously, I also think this highlights a key difference between fiction and games. That noise can muddy fiction, while I think it can improve play.)
Oct. 27th, 2008 07:52 pm (UTC)
Cool, that matches my thoughts too (even the percentages) in a much more crystal clear way of putting it. I said "important" motivations for that very reason. Which in my mind is code for "what I think the player(s) would be interested in based on character history and goals" and the 20%-noise being "unimportant" which is code for "what I think would be cool and help flesh out the NPC and unrelated to any character".

I think the haggling works out in play more than anything. If the ninja family conspiracy gets ignored for the flying monkey experiment, hey cool, so long as they get to make the choices and have fun.
Oct. 27th, 2008 08:32 pm (UTC)
Very helpful post. I'm starting up an Aces & Eights sandbox campaign and am mulling over this very question. I was leaning towards road #2, but realize more and more that I need to hook these in NPCs into the PCs pretty early.

If you are designing the NPCs from the ground up, what are some specific techniques you can use to get some #1's in there? Can you do this before the PCs have been generated?

(sorry about the anonymous: walkerp speaking here. Is it worth it to get one of those OpenId things?
Oct. 28th, 2008 12:45 am (UTC)
This is, I think, going to make for its own post. (And enh, it's probably worth grabbing an openid on principle, but signing a post works too.)
Oct. 27th, 2008 08:39 pm (UTC)
This idea of "noise in the R-Map" is very interesting!

Do you mind if i ask if you can explicate that a bit?

Say, if i have two PCs tied to mage who is one character's master/teacher/surrogate-father and the other PC's drug supplier & co-conspirator we can see the sort of conflicts between the PCs that engenders, as well as the direct conflicts with that NPC the relationships drive. But what sort of thing would give a fun level of "noise" to the play?

Perhaps something like having the master mage have begun work on his "great spell" in the background, eg. something that puts stress (redefining the setting) into R-Map without directly activating the ties to either PC?
Oct. 28th, 2008 12:45 am (UTC)
That is, in fact, exactly the right sort of thing. But that said, there's definitely a follow up post coming.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 27th, 2008 11:38 pm (UTC)
As usual, I agree with Brand, and I use a similar technique. It seems to have worked well, because in our NPC-heavy, political games, the players have a tendency to do something and then say, "Man, So-and-so is not going to like that!"
Oct. 28th, 2008 12:23 am (UTC)
I love the term!

The other thing that struck me as I was driving home is that the idea that relationships exist to drive an issue overlooks the fact that a relationship _is_ an issue.
Oct. 28th, 2008 12:30 am (UTC)
Brain Alchemy is Strange
I read: combination of the use of Placebo's cover of "Running Up That Hill" on Bones and a conversation...

My brain said, "Huh. 'Running Up That Hill.' The Kate Bush tune? My absolute favorite Kate Bush tune ever? The one that freaking Itunes does not have because the freaking record company would not release the rights to Hounds of Love, because apparently they were still earning enough money off CD sales, even though it's been ... gawd, twe...twenty years? More? Erh. But, does this mean that the rights have been released? If so, why didn't the ITUNES NOTIFER WORK TO ... screw it, check Itunes to see if the original's in the catalog now. Now. NOW. NOWNOWNOWNOW."

I check Itunes, find the original of "Running Up that Hill," and proceed to spin around in the office in my rolling chair like a crazy person.

Thanks, Rob.

Oct. 28th, 2008 12:43 am (UTC)
Re: Brain Alchemy is Strange
Musical Victory!
Oct. 28th, 2008 01:24 am (UTC)
Re: Brain Alchemy is Strange
"Running Up That Hill" is my favorite Kate song, but it is followed very close behind by "Experiment IV" (from The Whole Story) and "Lily" from The Red Shoes.
Oct. 31st, 2008 04:19 am (UTC)
It's an interesting topic you bring up. I alway erred on the side of #2, to a fault. In a way, it's my nature. Well, hell, these days, it's my career. I make clockwork snow globes full of Neat Stuff. Though, as a GM, I have certain advantages over an autonomous clockwork world. I can make sure you never hit the edge of the world (in both the literal and metaphorical sense). Of course, the downside to that is that one or two of your players will always decide to test that. Yes, I'm talking about you. :P

I've been thinking that maybe I should run a game inspired by "Lost," because it fits my style so very well. The island is like one of my crazy clockwork mystery snow globes, but it has very small boundaries, so I don't have to get exhausted trying to fit ALL OF SPACE AND TIME into my little glass ball. And the number of NPCs is really rather small, to boot.

I'm not sure I'll ever be able to take on the #1 approach. I certainly appreciate its advantages (and have enjoyed games that were run this way, in the past), but it's just not the way I think about characters, I guess. It's like the moment I dream up a character, he suddenly becomes this riotous explosion of personality, history, opinions, motivations, secrets, and plans. I'm not even sure how to get that under control. Oy!
Oct. 31st, 2008 12:34 pm (UTC)
*Looks innocent*

This actually raises a tangential point that's a real winner - limits on space and time are incredibly useful. If one game can go anywhere but another is limited to what happens ina manor house one afternoon, the latter game is going to generally have a lot more pop. Clearly, it doesn't have to be as extreme as that, but the general idea has held up really well for me (especially for shorter games).
Oct. 31st, 2008 05:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah, Iago's experiments with pulling things down into smaller spaces tended to work really well, too, in my opinion. As a GM, it really provides an opportunity to polish things up to a nice shine, because you have a much better idea of where your players are going to be, from one minute to the next, and don't have to be constantly prepared for some wildly unexpected turn of events.
Dec. 6th, 2008 10:19 pm (UTC)
The value of non-control
There are several systems out there that strongly encourage the players to actually create backgrounds with people in them, be they people looking for them for ill, looking for them for reasons unknown, family and/or friends they feel responsible for, or "friendly" opponants - rivals of personal or professional natures. I require at least 1 warm body in each character's background (running Hero System/Champions), and they may define that character as much as they like, down to personality tags, but....it's My character. It's a GMPC with ties to the player, and those GMPCs have thier own life and goals, but are crossing paths with the PCs on a regular basis. It has allowed for many non-combat nights at my table, and the tension between the PCs and GMPCs has created some of the best games we've ever had.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )


Robert Donoghue

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