Holiday Blues, Chargen, and Contextualization

So, at the end of all of this vacation, still no post. I’m a dork.

The holidays have been very strange and draggy for me. I’ve spent the time dreading going back to work. This is, of course entirely fruitless, I know, but telling myself that hasn’t worked very well to correct the behaviour. I’ve been back into masking a little, which is a good thing. I think I needed to do some physical creation and creativity. It helps me avoid thinking myself into circles – which is something work keeps dragging me into – it’s not the funnest time in telco these days.

So, what of the immersion posts, the MBTI follow-up, an up-to-the-minute update that 1000 Stories has advanced and is ready for playtest? Nope, none of that, my gift to y’all this holiday season is bupkis, I’m afraid. The only game-related things Brand and I have been up to this season is to be playing – one superlong, ring in the new year marathon session of Unbreakable (a sorta Unknown Armies campaign that’s inspired by the movie Unbreakable) that went really quite well, even if I still have not mastered the art of GMing combat, and several sessions of T&J that were very good and hit me right in my gaming “F”, so to speak.

I do have a couple of notes, though. Brand’s got in his copy of Nine Worlds and convinced me to give it a solo run. The character I’ve created is a departure for me. After all the MBTI talk last month, I connected some dots about my characters and used the typing system and the revelations to go somewhere new. The character is more like a character that Brand would be likely to play. She’s an Aether Ship Captain of Saturn’s resistance who is coming to the end of her hope that the war can be won. She doesn’t have any kind of vision of how the world could be made right, and is despairing that it can’t be done. She doesn’t so much have a sense of duty as she has a sense of inertia. She’s a character with a pragmatic past who can’t see a place for her pragmatacism to take her, so she’s flailing at the world and those few people she has left to force the world to act so that she continues to react.

In short, she’s an ISFP where I usually play notorious ENTJ’s. We’ll see how it goes.

I think I came to a realization because I made the character after reading Meg’s thread over on Fair Game and Vincent’s thread at the Forge. It’s that I can now understand why some folks strongly think that immersion is mostly a Sim activity (Not that Vincent or Meg are saying this, the reference to those posts is not entirely germane, they are just all the points on which my brain started musing). As an immersionist, I require a certain amount of world contextualization that is very easily mistaken for a simulationist agenda. This was really clear in the chargen for Nine Worlds. I haven’t read the book – haven’t even skimmed it. Brand had, of course, and described it as “a graphic novelesque mystic science fantasy game with aether ships and greek gods and cool stuff”.

We ran into some trouble along the way because I did not have a contextual sense of the world. Brand used a technique to bring me to chargen that he had seen work very successfully before (in our T&J game) – he gave me a folder of images that *could* be integrated into the game – some characters I could play, some NPC’s that might exist, some cities, some buildings, some items. It didn’t work this time and we both got very frustrated. The difference between T&J’s chargen and this was that T&J came with a set of assumptions that I could make about the world: it was going to be classic comic book style game, the world would be based on a world just to the left of our modern day earth, my backstory could be compiled out of real-life situations, blah… blah… blah.

So when we looked at images, they promoted strong, fast, loose chargen because they evoked emotionality that drew strings across the assumptions to make stories – I could see backwards and forwards from the picture to where the character had come from, and to where the character could go. The result was a quick, painless chargen that created a character that was on the brink of action, could fulfill the premise of the game, and that was ripe for me to immerse into.

In Nine Worlds, all the technique gave me was possibility out of the blue. Without a set of assumptions to put it in context, nothing was evoked by the images but a general sense of aesthetic appreciation for the pictures themselves. I kept asking how the world worked and what the world had in it, and sounding very much like I was begging for a Sim game, all the while frustrating the hell out of Brand, who was all ready to bravely adventure off into Nar land and make choices that no one ever made before!

But the truth is, I wasn’t asking for a Sim game. I wasn’t resisting the system or the game or Brand’s agenda, I just had no context with which to arrive at a character. I needed enough information to inform me in chargen so that the character I created could have a sense of depth to me as a player and be defined enough to have an immersion seat I could climb into. My enjoyment of the game comes from my engagement with the character’s emotional involvement (or alienation as the case may be) with the world around her, and in order for that emotionality to have any relevence or power at all, I need to have a context to apply it in.

Eventually we got to this cool character by having Brand give me verbal “splats” about each of the nine worlds, letting me pick the most interesting to me, hearing a brief synopsis of the state of the world and how it’s come about, and then returning to the images to let the emotionality flow. Even then, before we started playing, I needed to ask a good two dozen questions about how the world worked before I could feel right about entering play with the character. Granted, he didn’t end up answering them all – many we decided jointly – I just needed them to be answered before we sat down to play.

I know that there are some Nar games that do (loosely) this same kind of process (world idea, character idea, world detail, character detail) as part of chargen (Brand assures me that Burning Wheel is a good example here) and some that don’t. Ones that don’t often have ways to get around this. Dogs and Dust Devils have western associations that readily provide a jumping off place that facilitate getting to the action. Where the worlds have less direct or less cliche (I’m meaning cliche in a very good way here) cultural associations, like Nine Worlds that strives to have a cool melding of different feels in order to create a dynamic universe – there isn’t a quick way to get into the action – you practically have to read the whole book, or have enough splatted at you to be able to start.

So I guess this is all just to say: if you want to jump right to the premise with folks like me (that might mean most immersionists, it might not) then you should be prepared to begin with a little cliche or build a common ground to grease the wheels. Chargen is a way to get down a set of co-ordinates which are intended to deliniate your way to interact with the system, but it is also a ritual designed to get you psychologically positioned to play the game. If you are reving towards game and someone is asking a lot of questions about the way the world works, you may not have an agenda clash on your hands, you may just have a player or three that have not received enough information to feel comfortable and positioned to start. Starting without acheiving that comfort will lead to their dysfunction in, or non-enjoyment of the game.

Hey wow, whaddya know… Maybe I did get a post done while still on vacation. 😉

11 thoughts on “Holiday Blues, Chargen, and Contextualization”

  1. Hi,

    I don’t know if it’s necessarily immersionists only- I think a lot of folks like to have a level of context to build characters with. I mean, a character is likely something you’re going to be using for at least a few sessions, if not a long time, so you tend to invest heavily in it.

    That being the case, as Vincent says, “Fit Character” also entails getting some context about how your character does fit with the rest of the world.

    I’ve noticed that you can give someone GURPS and they’ll be at a loss for what to do, while Tunnels & Trolls only gives 3 choices and people have no problem. I like to liken it to a restaurant- a menu with too many choices (or, worse yet, “We’ll cook anything you want, as long as you can name the ingredients”) can be overwhelming.

    A set group of choices also helps you “aim” the character from chargen for play. In D&D, all the characters are rated in HOW they go about affecting combat, so you need never worry about picking something completely irrelevant to play.

  2. Bankuei,

    I don’t know if it’s necessarily immersionists only

    Yeah, I think that’s where I was leaning too. I’m not convinced that there isn’t a link there at all, but I think I’m coming around to this:

    Most people need to be positioned at a contextualized point to comfortably begin a game. Some folks, particularly those who use “setting” or “character” as their primary socket of emotional/intellectual engagement in the game require a certain amount of contextualization in the world in order (either by set-up exposition or cliche adoption) to plug in in a satisfying way. Others, particularly those who use “system” or “choice” as their socket require contextualization only so far as it assures them that lack of the details of the world will not hamper the process of getting to the choice or the game.

  3. Oops…

    “only so far as it assures them that lack of the details of the world will not hamper the process of getting to the choice or the game…”

    or, natch, that they have been given/created whatever context is necessary to get to the choice or the game.

    Your D&D example is a good way of illustrating the system socket person. “I know I’m going to be effective in any class” is an assurance that says “I don’t need to worry about the details of the world” and facilitates me getting to the game.

    On a different note, Victor’s game Shades sounds like it is contextually ideal for play by person who’s socket is choice based. Any time he talks about the game, he elucidates first that there is nothing before play – no world, no setting, no character. The first choice is made out of context with the first words you throw in the ring, and every bit of the world, the setting, the character is based the choices made in vocalizing and in reaction to the statements of the other players at the table.

    In this way Shades appeals to me as an theory idea but not as a potential player. Because I plug in via character, and no character exists at the onset, I think the game would teach me to approach the game via non emotional engagement, which would lead me to treat my character like a pawn, and make me feel like I were playing a board game. This could well be fun, but would not satisfy the reason I’ve sought out an RPG specifically in the first place.

  4. Your D&D example is a good way of illustrating the system socket person.

    Ah, but it’s also a setting bit too! The choices say, “These types of characters are the movers & shakers of the setting”, “Clerics mean gods give direct magical power into the world”, etc.

    Luke Crane likes to say that system is setting- and when you constrain choices and give people structure through it- that’s exactly what it does. Consider the previous versions of D&D that never provided a full setting- yet people still came up with D&D mythology behind it- “Well, obviously Beholders exist in this world, since they’re in the book.”

    I believe the key is in giving folks enough context according to their tastes for them to run with.

  5. Chris,

    That works well enough for “D&D genre D&D” — but hits gaps when you get into specific settings. (And does weird stuff when you put other settings into D&D rules.) It also gaps when you get the common D&D as sim problems. When D&D is used as D&D it works very well. When it is used for other things it does not.

    (I’d even go so far as to argue that most published D&D settings are not very good as D&D settings. Look at some of the things Monte Cook talked about with his work and using the logic of the system to build the world, and the ways in which it is very different than most published D&D settings — which are based on sim assumptions and not the game system.)

    OTOH, Burning Wheel has a very good blend of system and setting — if you’re the kind of person that is comfortable taking that kind of context into account. The thing that it adds, I think, is that it also helps people with a character socket plug in. You get your lifepaths which give you all your backstory as well as all your stats, and the two build together very well.

    Thus people with a more character based focus will still be happy with Burning Wheel, while they may not get it out of D&D.

    System, we all know, can be setting. Or it can lead to setting. Or it can have nothing at all to do with setting — which we also know very well from the mass of Trady RPGs that have setting and system which have nothing to do with each other.

  6. Oh, and to bring this back to Nine Worlds: Nine Worlds system is very tied to the setting. The choice between Arete and Hubris is important, and the muses drive play.

    The problem is that Arete and Hubris and the choice are such low-context system bits that they do not inherently build setting so much as they imply it.

    Make a Burning Wheel character and you end up with a guy born a peasent in a village who was conscripted into an army but deserted in his first battle and then became a freebooter mercenary. This gives you lots of context.

    Make a Nine Worlds character and you get a guy who normally defies the Gods, but sometimes doesn’t, and who likes to destroy things, and then you hit muses and either 1) just assume that humans are the same wherever you go and make muses that are all about generic human concerns or 2) have to actually sit down and read the setting/kibitz the setting out in detail in order to be able to finish chargen.

    Nine Worlds does a really good job of supporting the setting with its system, but it does not have a system that generates setting (at least not in character generation).

  7. Oh hella yeah, providing enough material so that players can contextualize, especially combined with the realization that over half of your players will never actually read the entire book, is a big ol’ honkin pain in the butt. Combine this further with the understanding that most of your players are going to house rule and tweak with setting canon, and you are faced with conveying not only the specifics and particulars of the setting as you see it, but somehow conveying the broad thematic strokes and doing so strongly enough that players will latch onto it and be able to generate their own specifics in-line with those themes.

    There’s a reason why contextualization is an interaction in my model, and pretty much does exactly what you’re talking about — uses elements of the Fiction to give meaning to player Goals through supporting and qualifying details. I wonder if there are two flavors, during chargen and after resolution, or if they’re pretty much the same, continual process.

    Mo, have you played anything like Universalis or Primetime Adventures, where there is literally nothing except system determined before play begins, and setting and characters are both created by the playgroup in a relative vacuum? How do those games play for you?

    In a purely selfish bent, have you got to look at FLFS yet? I’d be curious to hear if you found it to give enough adequate context. It’s built off cliches, yeah, but they’re not exactly common cliches.

  8. Hi Mo,

    Though the character as pawn on a board metaphor is not a very apt one to describe Shades (board games always give the player a limited nomber of clearly defined possible moves, whereas Shades does nothing of the kind), I do think that you probably won’t like it for approximately the reason you give: it is quite non-immersive.

    Though it’s non-immersive in an entirely different way than Universalis, say, or Polaris – I have to ponder how I can express the difference.

    It has something to do with the fact that in those two games you explicitly act as a narrator, someone who looks down upon the characters from a great distance, whereas in Shades most of the narration is first person.

    Perhaps – perhaps it is something like this (using sloppy but hopefully evocative terminology). In immersive play, you make choices as the character and experience the world through the character. In Universalis and Polaris, both choices and experience are severed from the character. In Shades, the choices are severed from the character, but you still experience the world through his or her eyes and ears (and memories).

    (Anything that falls into the fourth category implied by those three? Where you make choices as the character, but experience the world from outside and at a distance?)


  9. Heya Josh,

    I wonder if there are two flavours, during chargen and after resolution, or if they’re pretty much the same, continual process.

    My sense is that they are related, but separate. The first builds a safe-passage bridge from the player’s individual imaginative space to the SIS, the second fosters active participation in the SIS by acknowledging the player’s contribution to it. The first is a collaborative negotiation, the second a process of feedback that is intrinsic to western communication process. It’s a “Roger Wilco” that assures the listener that they have been heard, that they have had an effect, and that transitions them from one place to another.

    No, I’ve not tried either Universalis or PTA yet (though Brand’s trying to get me to read the former and there may be plans in the works for the latter) but I’ve tried both Breaking the Ice and My Life with Master, They were both fun, but both were one shots and both had that board game appeal (non-immersive character pawning).

    I think that had more to do with the fact that they were one shots, some system bits, their relative newness to me and in particular, the group I played MLWM with than to problems with contextualization; There were cliches aplenty (romantic comedy and gothic horror) available for both games that made for good, quick contextualized worlds.

    From what I understand, BtI and MLWM are similar to PTA but not Universalis, which sounds more to me like Shades which I was talking about above. I think in the end, I’d probably do better creating a contextualized character if there was no setting at all than creating a character in a setting that wasn’t contextualized to me (because it would release me from feeling like I needed to find the right place, and push me to proceed with creating my own space) BUT that the character MUST be contextualized for me BEFORE beginning play.

    So I think I might be OK with PTA, but Universalis or Shades could cause me some serious difficulty.

    And no, I haven’t had a chance to look at FLFS yet… and to be honest, you probably don’t want me to, until we’re playing with it. If you introduce process to me cold then my business analyst brain will tear it up, and deconstruct it coldly, while if you give it to me warm, I can study it’s interaction and provide better grounded more constructive feedback…. Go fig, there’s that contextualization thing again. 😉 My MBTI “NT” needs several data points to contrast and compare, or else my analysis becomes destructive. Ask Brand about my introduction to Trollbabe sometime.

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