Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Inner Lives of Player Characters

Trollsmyth has a really excellent piece up today about personality inventories, or "stress-testing the character concept." This is something that I've seen a lot of in his games; the solo game in particular almost entirely revolves around exploring these kinds of changes and personal re-evaluations now, and they're becoming ever more important in the group sessions. I haven't seen so much of it outside of those campaigns, though. I had one player in high school who really got into this kind of thing, but for the most part our campaigns were too short for it to ever come up.

Thus, this kind of character change is intimately connected with another thing that sets Trollsmyth's campaigns apart from the ones I've played in before: I spend a lot of time outside the game thinking about my character. The exact amount varies from week to week and month to month, depending on what's going on in the game and what else is going on in my life, but it's a lot more than any game I've played in before. I'm used to having my mind a lot on the game I'm running, but as a player, that kind of outside-the-session involvement is a new experience.

It can take a lot of time to work through the problems that these kinds of transformations and pressures present to my characters. Particularly since I'm building the cultures that they come from at the same time, and often in response to what's going on in-game, so that her actions and experiences create interesting conflicts with her backstories. And while a lot of times these personality conflicts come up naturally in-game, often in ways that (delightfully!) I don't expect in my between-session musings, I also try -- sometimes without success -- to come up with ways to express the ideas while I've had away from the table (or the keyboard, as the case may be) while I'm at it.

I'm being vague here because this process of character examination and consideration is one of the big reasons I haven't been writing much here lately. When I'm thinking about a game as a DM, I'm thinking a lot about technique. Not only is a lot of it much easier to abstract away from the particulars of the game into the realm of process, it's -- well, it's a lot less personal. I get deeply involved with some of my NPCs on occasion, but even when I do, there's always more going on to a game than just the inner lives of the characters. And I can write about that.

When most of my mental game-time goes into one or two individuals over a long period of time, there's a lot less I can talk about. And a lot less that I want to talk about, particularly on the internet. There are a lot of reasons for that. Some of it, in fact, is actively secret--the character in the group game in particular is a bit of a schemer, and the rest of the group still doesn't know what she's up to, relationship and otherwise. I don't want to tip her hand to the other players early, before I've had the opportunity to set up the reveals. This isn't as big of an issue in the solo game, but there are at least a few things about that character that I don't plan to discuss with Trollsmyth outside of game until they come up within it.

Still. Blog posts or no, the way my characters have changed and the time that I spend considering and shaping that change is one of my favorite things about these games, and one major reason why I'm even more interested now than when the first one started a year and a half ago. Situations that encourage character change, and allow the opportunity to explore it, is now the bar for what I expect from a campaign. And it's one of the major things I'm going to have my eye on the next time I run my own game.


  1. any chance of getting to read about those changes (and in what way they influenced the game) in the future? i (and i bet others too) would certainly be interested.

    after everything has been completely resolved in the game of course.

  2. There are a lot of indie games out there that focus on exactly the process you're describing---Dogs in the Vineyard springs to mind immediately.

    I have to say I like this kind of play most when the mechanics of the game itself really support it happening.

  3. Jeez...I don't know if anything I say these days is on the same level as you folks but let me try:

    Ya' know, Vampire came on the scene around 1990 and had this whole "prelude" thing one was supposed to do...kind of a "20 questions" about your character. As a Vamp GM from 1990-95 or so I never made anyone do was overkill (especially considering how lame the stories that particular system often ended up creating).

    But LONG BEFORE that, circa 1985-87, when I played AD&D, my friends and I made our own character sheets that included, in addition to the standard fare, things like "likes," "loves," "hates," "fears," "friends," "enemies," and "desires." I still have some of those old characters, and I can tell you those categories evolved just as much over time as did our "equipment list" or "magic items carried."

    In a game as simple as D&D (at least in the old days) you really did get out what you put in. My old gang didn't force anyone to play 20 could list as little or as much as you wanted in those funny named categories...but we sure found we CARED more about the characters when they had a little meat on their bones. Much moreso than knowing how they slung their sword, or the number of spells in their spellbook.

  4. :D

    That's always a very enjoyable process. It took me a long time to find a table where I got to experience it, but now I find it an essential part of any campaign. I think it's a very rewarding part of playing a character.



  5. @jb: i think the process described here is happening on a (much?) deeper level than you imply.

  6. Shlominus: Well... if you're still reading this blog in four years, maybe... The group game might not go that long, but the solo game is likely to continue until it reaches it's natural end (won't be for a while, at the rate we're going) or some kind of personal disaster interferes.

    kesher: Dogs in the Vineyard is still on my list of games to try. Maybe at GenCon. I suspect, though, that I'll go right back to barely-there Labyrinth Lord for my long-term gaming needs.

    JB: In a game as simple as D&D (at least in the old days) you really did get out what you put in.

    Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I actually find that this style of play works best when the character in question starts out fairly simply, and then builds up detail over time. Sometimes with the aid of conscious examination like that; I know who my first character's family is, for instance, because Trollsmyth demands that as part of character creation. And I'm a big fan of tossing out questions like that to my players when I'm running a game. No requirement that they answer them, but if they do, they're likely to find that the game gets more focused on them, just from my having more information about them and their characters.

    shlominus: Maybe? I worry I'm making this sound "deeper" than it really is. It's kinda just how the game works for me. Even if that's not the case, though, it does start out fairly simple.

  7. well, 4 years might be a bit much. :)

    what i'd really like to know doesn't need any ingame-specifics though.

    did those changes influence the whole game (in what way?) or only yourself/your character? do you feel this kind of focus has drawbacks as well as benefits?

  8. shlominus: Hmm...

    Since I'm mostly talking about the solo game here, yeah, "the whole game" and "just my character" are pretty much interchangeable. The group game is beginning to ramp up in the complexity in this area, but that's mostly in my character's interactions with Trollsmyths NPCs. One of the other PCs is brand new, and the other is mostly a "No consequences!" power/freedom fantasy for the player in question. So there's not a whole lot to work with at the moment. And no one's gotten hit with the race/class/gender stick real bad. (Yet.)

    The big drawbacks, as far as I can see, is that it's hard to pull this off at the table as opposed to text, it doesn't work as well in a really big group, and the mood that it requires can be really fragile. One of the reasons the solo campaign has gotten so focused on character exploration like this is that there's no other players around to crack wise at the wrong time. And we can stay in character about 95% of the time, whereas that group game has to drop back out of character fairly frequently to deal with administrative/planning issues. It's fun to deal with that kind of thing in-character, too, but much, much faster just to switch to narrative summary.

    Does that answer your question? Not sure if I can get much more detailed without delving into specific examples.

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