Tag Archives: examining play

Character Diversity Classification System

So, like we do many weekend mornings (which usually take place in the afternoon), a few weeks ago Brand and I end up in a long discussion about life, the universe and gaming. In this particular discussion, we ended up building a rather nifty (if I do say so myself) character diversity classification system. Like Myers Briggs, it uses a set of four dyads to create sixteen archetypes. Unlike MBTI, it also uses an activity gauge and an influence scale which I’ll probably tackle in a later post. I’m also not likely to get into each individual archetypes in this post (we’ll see if I ever bother to go that deep).

So first: the point.

The point is that I love heuristic systems that help you look at play and play structure from different angles and learn something new from it. The point is that I love rich diverse worlds full of rich diverse people – especially NPC’s. The point is that I love shorthands that carry a punch in the middle of play. Lastly, the point is that it would be handy to have a system with which to evaluate your games for diversity and simultaneously help you expand it.

This is a system built out of our current game, which is the new novella of our pseudo historical swashbuckling bodice ripper. We ran it through superheroes and sword and sorcery and horror and other action genres in general and it seems to work for many. There are probably other dyads which work better for other genres specifically.

So second: The four dyads.

Disclaimer: There’s no good or bad of any pair. Neither path is more effective. If you have good or bad associations with any word, or find yourself wanting to privilege one word over its pair, get over it. If you hate classification systems or personality tests or archetypal processing, it’s also a good idea to either get over it or go read something else on the wide world of the interwebs that will be interesting or compelling to you. That said… we’re off!

Strategic / Tactical

Strategic characters are long range, systemic thinkers. They look well ahead, prepare resources, plan for the use of those resources before, during, and after an action. Their strategies may be, and often are, contextually complex and based on investigation – that is to say that their stratagems need not be simple nor rigid, but they are based on forethought and planning.

Tactical characters are people who excel at dealing with problems encountered in the middle of action. they don’t waste their time planning things out ahead of time, because they’ll do best just dealing with it as they arrive. They don’t design and smuggle in a plastic gun to kill the enemy spy, they know that there’ll always be a handy beer bottle or ballpoint pen that’ll do.

Offensive / Defensive

Offensive characters are, well, offensive. They don’t sit back and wait for their nemesi to come
to them, they go after them (and whatever else they want) head first. They’re ambitious; where there is no apparent opportunity they make or force an opportunity.

Defensive characters are then, defensive. They look for ways to protect their fortunes, their loved ones, their duty or themselves. Spider man is a defensive character. He responds to trouble and tries to keep the world secure in it’s present state. He goes after the bad guy because the bad guy has MJ, or because the bad guy’s dangling a bus full of school children off a bridge, not because he’s known to be bad and is out there somewhere.

Physical / Social

Physical characters respond first in a physical way. they punch their opponents or order their deaths. They favour war over diplomacy. To console their loved ones, they hug them, to seduce they brush up or go in for the kiss. They consider the body or physical arena as the first and best course of action.

Social characters respond first in a social way. They try to talk their way out of trouble. They undermine their opponents by starting rumours about them, or having their debts called in. They cajole or incite through social manipulation. They seduce with a classic line, a killer smile and impromptu poetry. The first instinct is to talk, and they often talk a lot even when a confrontation turns physical.

Rational / Intuitive

Rational characters do things for reasons. The reason doesn’t have to be a sane reason, it just has to come from a rationale. If you stop them and ask them why they are doing what they are doing, they’d generally be able to articulate it. They are often self-reflective, and can tell you what and why they feel the way they do.

Intuitive characters do things because they do things. The things that they do may well be (and often are) the most logical things to be done if you were to sit down and analyze it, but the intuitive character wouldn’t necessarily be interested in or able to tell you why. They follow their gut without evidence or a reason to back it up – it is what will happen.

So pick a character that you’ve played, PC or NPC and identify their preferences among the dyads.

Olivia, my character in the swashy bodice ripper is a Tactical Offensive Social Intuitive. She swings into action with her sword and a plan and the iron clad belief that she’ll succeed. As soon as she has enough information to know who she’s up against or where the thing she wants is, she goes after it head on, asap. She tries to talk, taunt or seduce her way in or out of any trouble she comes across; even though she is a sword master, her school is based on tagging and seductive distraction. She feels powerful things, very powerfully, but couldn’t ever really identify or articulate why she’s feeling that way and is about as reflective as a rock. I might know exactly why she does the things she does, but she most often doesn’t have a clue.

Try it out.

Suggestions for you out there who might be grooving on this, some of which I might dig into later:

  • Have a look at the kinds of archetypes the combinations produce.
  • Type out all the NPCs in a game you’re running and use the empty slots for new characters to expand the breadth of the cast
  • Type out the NPC’s against gender, race, or other criteria and see what your game is inadvertently saying by concentration or absence
  • Type out your past PC’s and look for ones you’ve never tried for a future adventure.

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.

Intimacy and the Impassioned Other

So here I’m going to talk only about the upper right block, the domain of the Impassioned Other, where I spend the most and best of my play.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a strong masker. I maintain a distinct identity within the characters I play, but I have a powerful empathic connection with the character. I funnel my influence over the game through the agency of the character. I am influenced and informed by the character as a conceptual model, but because I can still maintain a sense of the character as a conceptual model, I can also assert influence over its development (with time and context) without denying my payoff. I willfully give the character a measure of transformative power over me as a goal of play, and for me, that transformation equals my cathartic goal.

All of these things are only fueled forward by my strong preference for impassioned play. Funneling decisions and actions holistically and intuitively via the character within the emotional milieu of the story and the character’s context in it optimizes the cathartic connection (open the floodgates!) and works to constrain any cognitive dissonance that might interfere with the empathic connection to character.

So, as you might imagine, out here where I play can be a really vulnerable place to be. There is a direct conduit between my emotional centre and the experience of the character, and I heavily invest in that empathic conduit. I feel things that my character feels as emotionally acutely as if I was the character, and although I maintain some degree of distinctive identity from the character, I am deeply affected by her plight even in situations where I personally do not agree or sympathize with her. When the games I play are the best that I can ask for, I have not just invited the game into my emotional centre to mess around, I have in fact, demanded that it do so.

Like Brand mentioned in his article on danger, some people would call this behavior in a game “dangerous play” or “edge play” because it is a willfully vulnerable state, and could possibly end up in the player getting hurt (I.e. psychologically or emotionally damaged, not “hurt feelings”). This is not what I consider “dangerous play” nor “edge play”; for the most part, it’s just “play”. I rarely get hurt in a game, but if I do it’s not because of this process, but because I’ve chosen to play in dangerous territory, with issues that I know are triggers or grey zones for me. Even then, because of the way I set up games, I don’t ever really get hurt, I just get shaken, and need a period of recovery (If people want, I can talk about this in a separate post, but I don’t want to go any farther here for fear of getting off topic).

However, the point is, that it is a vulnerable place to play, and that the structure that is required to support that vulnerability never happens incidentally. It requires a considerable amount of personal and emotional intimacy, both with the other players in the game and with the character & the story to make work. So I’m going unpack each of these individually for a bit.

In the post before last, I gave you an overview of My Gaming Census. The reason I needed that was to help explore how my gaming environment contributes the level of intimacy required to play where I play. I don’t think it’s necessary to go through each of the following and expedite how they might foster the kind emotionally intimate environment that would help somebody feel supported in being vulnerable in a group activity. So I’ll just repeat some key census data here:

  • I’ve known the people I play with for, on average, 10 years.
  • One of the people I play with most often is my husband.
  • I socialize with almost all of them more frequently than I game with them
  • I’ve been to all of their weddings, took care of their property, pets and/or kids. (and vice versa).
  • I know them all well enough to list that data off the top of my head.
  • We’ve played in intensive, high emotional, epic games with each other for years.

And a few more that might be suggested by the ones above but that I want to make explicit:

  • We’ve adjusted our play groups, meeting times and locations for game around, vacations, pregnancies, life events and baby raising.
  • We have had a thousand discussions on what we like and what we don’t like.
  • We’ve had a thousand wicked play experiences, and some really big play disasters.
  • We cook together, eat together, mind babies together, and clean up together, usually all in and around a game session.

And there are three things that I didn’t go into on the census. The first is that the more we play, the better, and more intentional our social contracts have become. Most of my games these days are based on IWNAY. Some are NGH with lines as clearly defined as possible. These clear policies help to define the boundaries at the table, or to mandate the expectation of support when things go badly, and strengthens the trust around the table.

The second, is that we make common use of ritual in our games. Each long running game has its own soundtrack, often has a theme song, has repeated key lead-in phrases, and environmental cues like incense or candles to help transition into and out of a protected space.

The third is that the majority of people that I play with are also Impassioned players, and a good chunk of those are Impassioned Others (notably, I believe, all of the women). While we are all not following precisely the same process or seeking precisely the same payoff, our shared preferences help us understand each other’s needs in the game, and so, for the most part, things in this area are pretty well protected (I by no means intend to say that my gaming group does not ever face obstacles or challenges, it’s just that in general we’ve done these pretty well, IMHO).

The second kind of intimacy that is (mostly) required to play where I play is an emotional intimacy with the character and the story. The answer to securing this one is usually just time, energy, and focus. For me and the majority of people I game with, emotional investment into the character and/or story compounds over the time played. It’s very rare for me to be able to plug in to a character immediately and have enough investment to seat in an emotional context and achieve the cathartic payoff I’m looking for. Sometimes it takes whole sessions to find, sometimes I get glimpses of it, sometimes it stutters in and out (Vincent, if you’re reading this, I’ve had more success in seating out the gate with Dogs than with any other game I’ve played).

However, in a long-run campaign, it’s rare that I don’t slide right into the emotional context of a character as soon as we start, even if it’s been a while since we’ve played a game. This is also a reason why “time lapsing” is disruptive to me in games. By that, I’m not implying any particular lapse of time, but instead a lapse over a critical period of time, whether that is 1 day or 100 years. In Exalted, if we just finished a plotline in which a sense of closure was achieved, skipping 100 years probably wouldn’t be a problem. However, if we skipped a day or week in the life of the same character where no closure had been achieved, I might have trouble with engaging the emotional context of the character. The same goes for the story.

And since this has turned into a really long post, I’m going to start to wrap up. The whole article is meant to say that playing where I play takes certain support parameters (as I am sure do many areas on the grid, especially along any given perimeter) and to explore the kinds of support my group employs. Also, this post has been meant to say that if you don’t recognize my play style, one possible reason could be that you just don’t encounter it. If your main source of gaming is pick-up play, convention play, or (tabletop) play in a public space, it’s possible that the environment is not conducive to people who play like me.

Putting it all Together

So, if you noticed than in talking about Cognitive / Impassioned play and I / Other that I plotted one horizontally and one vertically and sussed that I might one day be working them together, it’s here that you get a cookie. πŸ™‚

Why would I put them together? Because I think that there’s a link between these two dynamics that might help us talk about the way we engage with games. Also, I think it might help to illustrate that when we were talking about immersion, that we were covering a lot of exploratory ground. All of the components of the grid are related because they deal with the emotional matrix of how we get the fun out of our fun, but they vary (unsurprisingly) widely in goal and execution. Perhaps immersion isn’t this one thing that you are or aren’t, that you do or don’t, but is instead this big body of investment, response and technique that we all are and do to varying degrees.

I think it’s revelatory that so many people who are so obviously doing radically different things from each other have a decided commitment to the word immersion, and an invested stake in maintaining claim on it. It speaks to an alignment with a personal core value of play. For, despite the fact that there is most often little agreement as to what immersion is or is not, there is one thing that everyone who says they are doing it seems to agree on: it’s necessary to my enjoyment of the game.

So when we can identify that our investment is comprised of several different components, and that those components vary in ratio and degree from one another but work towards each individual player’s personal enjoyment in the game, then we can come closer to understanding what we each mean when we assert what we do and what we need to get our groove on. Once we have a look of at the field the components provide we can start to identify play areas where patterns develop into genres of investment response and technique, and come to a deeper understanding of our play.

p.s. I do realize that I put that grid up there and didn’t actually delve into it. That’s because this post is just meant to explain why I am going where I am going. In the future, I’m going to be talking about how things besides our Purple Mo and Red Brand fit into the grid. For now, just understand me when I say: This is a heuristic model.

Abandoning Immersion

So I’ve been out of the country for four months, and there’s nothing like being thrown into the unfamiliar for a prolonged time to clear the head. While I was away I had very little time to keep up with the sundry blogs and forums that I normally follow. When I could find some precious time to look around, I found that with distance, my brain was becoming more and more frustrated with the discourse of gaming in general, and in particular, with immersion. It’s a word I’ve been using for a long time now, and a word I really was rather fond of once, but I think it’s long lost any semblance of meaning.

So I’m letting it go.

Since last fall when I started shifting my focus towards specifics and away from some nebulous idea of the body immersive, I’ve found it more and more helpful in actually establishing some kind of communal understanding and explorative progress with the people who I’m talking to. So from here on in, (on SA and wherever possible) I will be using words like goal and socket and payoff as a kind of matrix to point to specific things rather than try and situate things that are clearly different in a catch all word like immersion. Rather than saying You are immersive or I am not immersive, which really tells you nothing because too many people assert too many conflicting qualities to immersion, I will talk about the means of play, the motivations of play, and the path of play, which hopefully can allow me to talk to the three of you quite clearly, at least for the next ten minutes.

This also means that if I get general questions about “what this means to immersion” in the comments, I’ll likely be ignoring them.

While I’m on the topic of comments, I’d like to note that going forward I may or may not respond to any or all who comment. I’m doing this on my blog rather than on a forum for a reason which has little to do with you and a lot to do with me. If I wasn’t doing it here, I wouldn’t likely be doing it anywhere, and I’ve found over the last year or so since I started Sin Aesthetics that engaging in response is very powerful to me. It historically has the power to fuel or destroy my enthusiasm or my momentum and that I’ve given it the unmitigated power to do that pisses me off.

So, from here on in I will be attempting to engage with it selectively to feed my energy and momentum when it can and to let it go when it can’t. When I will and when I won’t probably has little correlation to the value of your response, so don’t take it personally. Please ask questions and comment where you see fit. Even if I don’t respond immediately, it doesn’t mean I won’t read it and let it influence me or that I won’t get back to you as a later date.

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. πŸ˜‰