A Thought Experiment

For the past couple of years grandexperiment has been pondering a problem simply expressed: how do you run character-focused campaign?

Between us, I hate to think how many words we’ve spilled on this topic in various forums. Our blogs, gametime, NZRaG? And yet, at the end of the day, some people still don’t “get” what it is we’re on about when we talk about a character focused game – the “New School”. Mike Sands (et al) argue that it’s all just part of the game, an undifferentiated experience where IC/OOC is all the same. This seems to be a matter of intuition – no explanation I’ve ever proferred has seemed to “get through” to people who didn’t already understand what I was on about.

I don’t propose to go over those arguments again, let me just summarize the design objective:
– Players must be able to direct the story from an entirely IC perspective

This includes several portions:
– An initial character trajectory
– The ability to signal story direction changes over time
– Defining a “comfort zone” where the material presented by the GM is palatable to the player

Some GMs, near psychics, can do this in any game without particular system or “theory” assistance. Kudos. I’m not one of them: so I’ll need to develop a framework to think and communicate, which must be rooted in IC qualities.

We’ve talked a lot over the years about this from the GM’s perspective – what tools can they use to anticipate player needs. But there needs to be a quid pro quo: the players must be active in alerting the GM to their needs and must also be alert to the GM’s needs. The GM isn’t merely a passive facilitator: they have stories which interest them too.

There must be a dynamic give-and-take, where the GM takes an active role in PC stories, and PCs take an active interest in the GM’s stories.

To match with my personal preferences, there should also be a certain minimal level of group cohesion. They must be connected.

Add all that up, and you have a kind of Platonic Ideal for a “Character Focused” game. Perhaps imperfectly expressed, but perfect in conception. What I propose to do is go through all the steps for setting-up this game from when I would decided that I wanted to run a game, through the player-briefing, up to where I’d be when gathering players together for the character generation session.

Obviously this isn’t a real game – it’s a thought exercise about how I should be building the world and briefing the players. I’ll be doing this on my GMing blog gm_planescape, so if you’re interested, check in there. I would greatly value your input.

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4 Responses to A Thought Experiment

  1. Consider me subscribed.

  2. exiledinpn says:

    I’ve played exactly this sort of game: a long-running VtM campaign built around the Giovanni Chronicles. We started with GC1, then went on to explore what happened to the characters next, and built up their lives and relationships. Most of the game was troupe style, and the characters only occasionally impinged on one another before being drawn back together by GC2. After which, it kind of petered out as people went overseas and lost interest.

    One thing you need (and this goes for all long-term games) is extremely active players – people who are entirely comfortable with controlling their own story. People who sit around and wait for the plot to happen to them are not going to have fun, and will undermine the game for others. A tool like a wiki can help here, if its lets people play while they’re not playing (this has been very useful for our Ars Magica game)

  3. Anonymous says:


    Mash, I think this was what I meant by the preference for a game where all your interaction with the world tries to maintain a verisimilitude by being things that the character would experience.

    I’m still going to claim it is all a continuum. Surely you can admit that every time the mechanics intervene – rolling a die to see if you succeed, for example – you break out of the verisimilitude for a moment.

    I think that perhaps you feel there is a difference in kind between the following cases:
    – You have marked something on your character sheet, which the GM takes note of and weaves into the game.
    – You mention, in-character, what your character plans to do, and the GM takes note of this and weaves it into the game.
    – You ask the GM directly to include something for your character in the game, and this is done.
    – You ask the GM directly to include something generally in the game, and this is done.
    – The game rules empower you to directly include something for your character in the game, and you do so.
    – The game rules empower you to include something generally in the game, and you do so.

    As I see it, these differences will lead to differences in the style and feel of the game, but you are still engaged in the same activity.

    Now, your motive – to have strong character driven stories while avoiding any explicit discussion of it – that seems to be a hard goal to me. I think it can be done, but I think you require a system that has very strong flags built in (more on this further down) and a really good knowledge and trust in the group.

    By flags here, I mean that the system has to provide a way for players to signal, in game, what they want play to be about. This can be things such as:
    – Character traits that imply certain types of play
    – Character goals
    – Relationship mechanics, to signal which NPCs are important

    The knowledge and trust in the group is required so that the GM can read the unspoken things that the players are implying and work with them, and vice versa.

    Good luck!


    • mashugenah says:

      Re: Hmm

      I’m still going to claim it is all a continuum.

      TBH, I can buy that. 🙂 I’m interested in the functional differences between an informal chat over a beer at a separate time compared to scene-framing powers – these can easily result in the same situation inside the game reality.

      A range of games provide a range of player empowerment. Traveller has none (down to characters determined aribtarily by the system!), AD&D has none – but at least you can choose your own character, Buffy has Drama Points, TORG has drama points and the Possibility Deck, Spirit of the Century has drama points and the same effective power as the possibility deck where the results are not random… and so on. Where do these games become “shared narrative”? Where is the line? It’s all a matter of personal preference and intuition as to where you think it crosses, if it ever does.


      Now, your motive – to have strong character driven stories while avoiding any explicit discussion of it – that seems to be a hard goal to me.

      I ran my Mage game for the first part on a “no explicit discussion” framework – complete disaster. My thinking here is not to deny players a voice, but to focus that voice in an In-Character mode.

      Let me illustrate with a couple of example?
      In one of my campaigns, a player came to me and said “I’d like my character to learn this skill” and I said “sure: what will your character do about learning this skill?” and nothing ever happened. – they were trying to play without playing. It’s explicit, but not in character.

      In another game, there was the situation where I setup a character with a goal of becoming a master theif. I spent ages roleplaying out honing my skills, trying to find underworld contacts, trying to scout out big scores… and it never really went anywhere. The GM either didn’t pick up on it, or decided it wasn’t the kind of thing they liked or something. It went wrong because it was IC, but not explicit.

      I am happy with explicit in some form, provided its based IC, and executed at their end IC.

      For example: a player wants to have a historical nemesis enter the game environment. Their options are to come to me completely OOC and say “Mash, I’d like this villain to appear in the game, I’d like him to try and kidnap my daughter.” I’d say “no way – I’m the GM buddy! – you just play your character.” Or, they can work it from an IC perspective and come to me with a line more like “My character hides a GPS tracker in my daughter’s school bag” and I’ll be like “okay?” “yes”, he responds, “I’m worried about Villain kidnapping her and I’d like to be able to track any unusual movements.” Voila: same result, of a Villain introduced to the game that has an agenda.

      As a GM, I’m extremely unlikely to actually play into the player’s plan and have the daughter kidnapped – but I am absolutely going to hang onto the Villain for my own uses.

      It’s explicit, and focused through IC means. What’s the advantage?

      Well – I’m not alone in commenting that the first way there breaks immersion by pulling you out of the character (not for everyone. I played with one person who easily popped in and out of character, making jokes etc while still being 100% there IC when needed… the problem was that the rest of the group couldn’t interchange so easily). The second way seems to me to be the opposite: forcing you deeper into details of the character and understanding how they interact with the world.

      So… when I say “- Players must be able to direct the story from an entirely IC perspective” I don’t mean I want to exclude all direct communication between me and the player, I mean I want such communications to be focused on the character’s responses and interactions with the world.

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