Character Disposability

(or, variations on an old theme.)

So Brand and I have been playing Vincent Baker‘s new game In a Wicked Age. It’s a load of fun, very intuitive, fiction forward and non-fiddly for those of us who like the system to get out of the way in the moment of play. I might write up some AP of the game at some point, but for right now I want to talk about one specific rule.

In a Wicked Age has Forms of action (Covertly, Directly, For Myself, For Others, With Love, With Violence), that serve essentially as your character’s stats. Two of these Forms (Covertly and For Others) can be injured and two (Directly and with Violence) can be Exhausted. When your aims in game are thwarted in a final (final in the scene, not overall) way you get injured or exhausted, which means that the dice size of those Forms are reduced by one level (e.g. a d6 becomes a d4). When two of your Forms’ dice size are reduced to 0, that character is out of the adventure. (There is room in the game for the players on either side of the dice to negotiate a different outcome than being exhausted or injured, where both sides are willing to give a little).

The game also has something called a We Owe List, which stores names of characters that the game commits to coming back to include again in further stories. Players get on the We Owe List by being the underdog in a fight and managing to stay in it until the end of the first round. That how doesn’t really matter one way or another to this post; what’s important is that there is the possibility that you can come back at some point if A.) You have managed to get your name on that list and B.) you get knocked out of the game by being exhausted or injured.

For me, this all brings up an issue around character disposability: at what point can a character can be removed entirely from play, and by who’s agency is that removal performed? In A Wicked Age, the player can make a character choice to walk away or narrate their character’s death (though that choice might be contested by another player) but it can also be determined by the mechanical system alone (exhaust or injure a character sufficiently to remove the character who is not on the We Owe List from play. These mechanics bother me a great deal as a player.

As an impassioned, other kind of player who makes deep emotional connections to the characters I play and who prefers, for the most part, gestalt over emergent play, this can be very disorienting. This isn’t a criticism to In A Wicked Age, which Vincent Baker designed (and pretty elegantly from what I’ve seen so far) to do specific things that aren’t necessarily targeted at me or the kind of player I am. It also isn’t a phenomenon particular to IaWA. Clinton R. Nixon’s TSOY has a similar mechanic that is triggered whenever a character achieved a Transcendent success (rank 7) which can only really happen once the character has become a Grand Master in the skill being rolled. When transcendence happens, the character is not immediately removed from play, but must be retired within 24 game hours. Of course, all of the combat oriented traditional games, such as D&D can bring on the immediate end of a character by attacking it, preventing it’s escape, and killing it.

The crux of the matter for me is that the work of my playstyle focuses on the loopback between myself and my character which is formulated via an intense emotional investment that enables the cathartic play I seek out. Even if the character is not a real person, even if the character and I do not share a meatspace, or know each other as people, my relationship with (most of) my characters is one of deep emotional connection. She may not be an actual person to be available to be known but I do know her, understand her, feel her, am her.

While sudden, seemingly random (read mechanically mandated) death might emulate the world as it really is or “should be” or provide a more tangible sense of verisimilitude into the danger of the world, I’m not looking to emulate or experience the world as it is but to tell the story of my character or tell the story my character is part of. I don’t need tangibility in danger, or to feel like the game world has gravity, but I do need to feel like the game is robust enough for me to push hard and hurt my character dramatically and drastically without feeling like the game’s going to just take her out from under me because I rolled too well, or just didn’t roll well enough in this moment right here. Knowing that condition exists actually serves to make me more guarded and inhibited in play. When we play TSOY, we hack the rule (currently we’re playing Fortune’s Folly, 7th Sea source material using TSOY’s rules and where Transcendence normally happens we have put a “fate lash” – a mechanic that seriously complicates the character’s life, but leaves her living) if I can’t hack it (heh), I never ever take a Grand Master skill. In IaWA, I’m just not comfortable until I’m on the We Owe List, and if death were to come up, I’d do my best to negotiate a different outcome.

I can also totally see how more emergent players might find this to be a satisfying game driving contribution to their story. But for me, I need time and space to find the closure of a character. Partly that closure provides time and safety to come back to the I before character death (ritualistically important, I think, in high emotional, serious or dangerous play). Also, that closure helps me to retain my emotional investment in the story overall because it gives me a chance to refocus the conduit into my secondary story socket.

None of this to say that mechanically mandated character disposability should never exist, but just to write out the experience to offer it as a design data point of interest.

15 thoughts on “Character Disposability”

  1. Yay, more SA! Good things to think about, as always.

    Does it feel different in IAWA when characters just don’t make it on the We Owe list and never reoccur in the game? When they just walk off, without a sunset, just because they weren’t important enough to matter, does it still sometimes hurt or feel weird? Or do you not grow attached to them enough to need a real ending?

  2. I don’t know for sure, since we’re in game four and are only now about to finish the first story (and am not likely to know for a while as both of the characters I play are on the list several times). I don’t think it would be the same, because if they get to the end of the first story, then there *is* a real ending. It doesn’t matter that the end of their lives haven’t been told, there’s been work there to bring the character’s story to a closure point. However, before that closure point is achieved, I’d be distracted and/or reticent during the game after I’d taken exhaustion or injury for the first time. I can not play a character again without a problem. I don’t want to play a character halfway, if that makes sense.

  3. There’s a Secret that TSoY characters can buy (I think called Bodhissatva?) that makes them immune to the effect you’re referring to. Why hack the system to avoid something that, by design, each player can choose to opt out of?

    I’ll admit that I differ from you; I feel the complete power over the end of my character’s story TSoY gives me is, as they say, radical to the max. My perspective is that there is no character story whose ending cannot be narrated according to that rule. If the character had some Deal that they needed to eventually accomplish (become king, take revenge, rescue true love), then they do it (or we agree that they will very soon). If they didn’t have some deal, then they do whatever you want, whether it’s retiring in comfort or continuing to patrol the streets of Gotham. You can determine as much of their life as you can, including anything you like, except for yourself. I can certainly understand wanting to feel in control of when you stop being a part of your characters life: it’s almost like a close friend suddenly leaving. But isn’t that what the Secret I mentioned is for? Just play until that perfect moment arrives, when you say “This, for certain, I want to be the last roll my character makes.”

    The presumption already is that I will play more than one RPG in my life, and therefore that this particular character will not be played forever. Setting some kind of end for that character, and making me roll with it, control it, use it to create something amazing, is a mechanic I like.

    In Houses of the Blooded, characters age! As long as you keep playing, every single one will inevitably die (or something similar)! I love the idea of facing/overcoming/being changed by the difficulties that come with a ticking clock and aging body, but I’m interested in your opinion. The game is designed such that when I “tell the story of my character or tell the story my character is part of,” I include the issues of coming of age, marriage, and producing an heir, just as the stories of the dangerously sexy ancient barbarian-aristocrats of Houses necessarily require. Isn’t the same thing at work with the pulp sword-and-sorcery aesthetic of IaWA, TSoY, and others? Don’t those stories necessarily include characters eventually wandering off-stage and others wandering on?

    That’s an open question. That is, I could be very wrong, since (a) I haven’t played or even read In a Wicked Age, (b) I’ve read very little of the original S&S fiction, and (c) you might not think so! 🙂

    1. Hi Nicholas,

      What Brand says, below. 🙂

      I think that I don’t need TSoY to let me feel that complete power over my character’s death because I’m empowered with that feeling already. Now that said, the games I’m specifically referencing are solo games, so I’m not having to mitigate other PC’s desires as I play. I think in that case, I might like to *buy* a “Secret of Transcendence” to invoke that story when the time was right but still wouldn’t want it occurring “randomly” out of a dice roll.

      I just thought of another way to illustrate: I’m not fond of these mechanics because they feel like the game is asserting that it knows what makes a better (or “more correct”) kind of story than I do, even though Brand and I are the story’s (fully competent) co-authors. The mechanical system has no ability to actually evaluate the state of the fiction and no humanity to gauge how fulfilled a drama it is while Brand and I totally do.

  4. Nicholas,

    Part of the reason for the (minor) hack on the TSOY thing is that TSOYs rule exists for a reason as part of the setting and tone the game wants to set. The Secret of the Bodhisattva does let individual characters opt out of that, at a price. (You have to take Harm to roll dice to reduce your level of success.) That works well for TSOY.

    But when I was porting the system to the 7th Sea game Mo talks about, I wanted something different out of the system and for the setting. One of the things we deal with a lot in the game is fate and being, quite literally, “Fortune’s Fool.” So we made a new rule that, instead of ending the character’s story for a level 7 success, instead complicates and (perhaps) redirects it. You don’t hit level 7 and end your story, you hit level 7 and have some whack crazy shit happen because Fate has boned you.

    This applies, btw, to both PCs and NPCs. It also has a secret that lets you opt out of it if you like. (No one has taken it.) The rule was redesigned not just to keep PCs from being removed from game, but to invoke a different effect. That it kept PCs from being removed was a secondary concern.

    The other issue, with ending a character, is that certainly we all end characters eventually. No character lasts forever (save Batman). But there is a difference between crafting an end to a character and having a character ended by a random roll. Sometimes, and for some players, you can do both. For others you can’t. Or sometimes you could, but really might not want to.

    Mo, as it happens, can — but really doesn’t want to have to make up stuff to justify why her character is now done because of random rolls. She’d rather tell that part of the story with the other people at the table in a more gestalt manner.

    The object on the table, I think, is less “I don’t want characters to end” and more “I don’t want random dice to make my character end before I am ready for it to happen.”

  5. Hi Mo,

    I totally identify with what you’re talking about. Though sometimes I can just “fall into” a character really quickly, sometimes it takes a session or two to really get a handle on them.

    Aside from the “what would -really- happen” factor of gaming, as an argument for random character death, there’s also this funny backward thinking that sometimes is applied…

    “Well, in fiction, movies, tv shows, etc. sometimes characters are killed off without you getting to really know them”, which tends to ignore the factor that the writer(s) haven’t spent hours upon hours on this -one character- to have them pulled- they have a cast of characters they’re working with, and for the most part, know which characters will be focal and which ones will be supporting cast. Creators of fiction have multiple avenues of input, which are not cut off on random, like many game mechanics do.

    I think games like Primetime Adventures hits closest to the mark- there are no rules for character death. It is simply assumed that a primary protagonist is part of the story until the author (the player) decides they no longer want them there. The core conflict isn’t about survival, survival is a prerequisite to actually having the chance -to- explore the core conflict.

    For me, this kind of thinking was a big part of how I’m designing Emperor’s Heart. Character death is really hard to get if you really don’t want it. Though, it exists as sort of a temptation- risking your character for death makes you more effective in conflicts, which is classic to the genre- heroes burn brightest before dying.

    I think there’s lots of unexplored options to making character death, or removal, serves stories better, but it’s going to require a lot of shift in thinking about what rpgs are about, and how stories are structured.

    1. Chris,

      Good point about the intent-full quality of “random” or “premature” character death in media. Your core conflict observations too.

      Now, what you suggest, the system pulling you, tempting you to shove your character down the road towards death is also a very different thing for me. It underlines genre conventions or shapes the quality of the story without making that same assumption that it it knows better than you do when the time is right for that to happen.

      It can also serve excitingly the opposite way as a gating system, helping to calibrate the quality and depth of a dramatic situation before the road is taken.

      I think there’s lots of unexplored options to making character death, or removal, serves stories better, but it’s going to require a lot of shift in thinking about what rpgs are about, and how stories are structured.

      Absolutely. 🙂

      1. The big feature of roleplaying is the improv factor of the storytelling- you don’t know what’s going to happen, so you don’t know what aspects you’re going to really like- you can’t go back and rewrite during play. So a major portion of narrativist design is about building rules to help groups figure out those parts that click with them and constantly “aim” play at those parts.

        Random death is tagential to that- it can completely rip away the good/meaningful stuff the group was building.

        A backdoor trick to EH is that players often play multiple characters- if you find that you’re not as invested in your Hero as a supporting character- risk your Hero ASAP, get them killed, then take the supporting character as your Hero in the next scene… In other words, if you find your emotional investment lies elsewhere, character death is a step towards fulfilling that.

  6. So, for everyone else, cause this will not be news to Mo…

    I know exactly what Mo is talking about here, but I don’t always feel the same. Sometimes, in well designed games (say, Dogs) I find that the “random character death” isn’t actually random at all. Its an issue that comes as a result of choices with known risks, and shows something about the character in a very real way.

    However, it also often works best for shorter run games and games in which there is a story or theme, rather than character, focus. Its an emergent vs. gestalt thing as well, and Mo and I often split over that one.

  7. Mo;

    From curiosity – in the context of this stuff, how do you feel about mechanical mandates of *serious transformation*, as opposed to removal? As couple examples:

    1) Imagine if upon character death, you always became a ghost, but were not out of play.

    2) Imagine if, in DitV, all the fallout conditions were ways to radically *reverse* the meanings of traits.

    How would those hit you?

    1. Hi Levi…

      It’s really context dependant depending on the fit of the solution and the scope of it relative to the fiction. It might be better, but still, the mechanical mandate of it is not likely to be desirable for me. I’ve never met a mechanic that did emotional calibration in a game better than my group’s own skills do. This isn’t too surprising considering how delicate a nd personal thing emotional calibration is and how intimate our home group is. I’d be shocked (and delighted!) to come across one that did.

      There’s a TON of voluntary and spontaneous stuff like you’re talking about that goes on in our games. While we don’t play ghost stuff much, that situation in Dogs has happened in our games. Traits go dormant (or conflicted!) as new contradictory fallout traits are earned, and sometimes we’ll actually change a trait in reflection to do that (though the rules don’t support that, I know).

  8. Hi Mo, I’m Ryan, I’m a big fan of IAWA.

    From my read of the rules, 2 zero dice to mean out definitively dead or out of the story – just out of the chapter (too injured, too exhausted, or too humiliated to continue). Where the rules are slippery, IMO, is who gets to say which outcome happened. It’s either the winner or the loser of the final conflict, or an agreement between them. If you interpret it as the agreement, which is what we do, you get to decide when your character really goes down for the count.

    Would that help?

    1. Hi Ryan,

      Nope. I totally feel empowered in IAWA to describe how the down for the count goes down, but what I’m addressing here is more that I am forced out of play (for this game and possibly forever if I’m not on the WOL) due to an arbitrary mechanical process.

      It’s the unpleasant thing Vincent’s intentionally trying to impose. It makes it interesting to me from a design perspective and undesirable for me as a player. Where characters go out in my games, it’s via vigorous creative agreement.

  9. Interesting… so I can see that PTA would be a good fit for that preference, then.

    I’m wondering about what Vincent said about the rules providing the thing no one wants. Is there any other game where the game provides pressure on you without that pressure ultimately relating to removal from play?

  10. I’m of two minds about this whole phenomenon. On one hand, I don’t like having a character I’m fond of die in some meaningless way. I rarely like having one die meaningfully, come to that–to me situations where dying would be more productive than all the things you could do by continuing to live are amazingly sparse.
    However, I do appreciate the existence of the *risk* of dying or otherwise being obliterated. The lack of this risk would be a serious problem for me; it would rob tension from the story. And I think that’s true across a few different styles of play.

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