Bad Deal, Great Characters

October 6, 2016

I’ve been a bit of sci-fi from author Yoon Ha Lee – Conservation of Shadows is an excellent set of short stories.  He has a penchant for characters in the trope of making the best of shitty deals – under pressure, forced to work for untrustworthy authorities, in treacherous situations.  It’s great in fiction, movies, comics, tv shows, etc.

I’ve seen this trope attempted many times in tabletop games, and rarely well.  I think it comes to two common pitfalls.

1. Real Protagonism vs. Illusionism

In fiction, these stories work best if it feels like the protagonist could go either way, all the way through the story.  If it’s too loaded in one direction, or the twists and turns don’t feel authentic, then you lose a bunch of the audience early on.

There’s effectively four outcomes:

  • True victory – the protagonist gets it all, and their freedom to boot
  • Costly victory – the protagonist gets the ONE thing that matters, but loses all else
  • Empty victory – the protagonist “wins” but loses the essential part of themselves along the way
  • Crushing failure – the protagonist loses everything of importance and they know they lost

So here’s the thing: in fiction we see the character try their best and depending on the craft of the storyteller to make the contrived feel natural, or not, we buy into the protagonism of the character.  The odds are up in the air – if they win, we don’t forget how close they were to losing, if they lose, we don’t forget how close they were to winning.  It could have gone the other way.

However, if you’re playing some form of Illusionism, you have two points where this falls down.  First, players can feel the rails locking them into limited directions, even if there’s “multiple outcomes” the players know it can’t have gone “any direction” because the constant pressure towards rails, even if it’s branching.  You don’t get to feel your character did it themselves if it’s success, and you wonder if there was ever a chance to win, if it’s failure.

Second, and deeper, is that the outcomes the GM or pre-generated adventure presents may or may not match up to the players’ ideas of what matters or counts as a success or a loss.  The players may be operating on one metric of values, and the presented outcomes are completely different.

2. Player Buy in and commitment

Usually these stories involve threatening something a character cares about – their status, their loved ones, their future opportunities, etc.   When you watch a movie and see that this is “the one chance” the protagonist will have to enter the world of magic, you care because you see how much the character cares and what it means to them.

However, if the game involves pressure and treachery that threatens things the players don’t care about (and also, the characters don’t care about), then you don’t have that tension at all.  This is the fundamental failure point in the classic “meet the stranger in the bar who offers you 50 gold to go into the dungeon” as a useful leverage point.  (This is also where the “I am a dark sorcerer who has made dark pacts, and have a dark fate, but none of that really impacts what I do in play” thing fails as well.)

The players have to agree to push their characters to fight for, to protect, and care about certain things, and the GM has to agree to base conflicts around those things.

Making it work

However, these kinds of stories work well when you have the right approach.  Notably if you have a way to coordinate as a group what values matter for the characters and to build conflicts around it, and allow play to produce spontaneous outcomes around those situations, those 4 outcomes are certainly possible.

This focus can be created in a few ways:

  • Situation – Set up the fictional situation and keep your conflicts and spotlight focused on those things (Sorcerer, Burning Wheel, most flag-based games)
  • Resolution Mechanics – the mechanics are set up to threaten the characters’ values as part of play (Polaris, Drifter’s Escape, With Great Power, Trollbabe)
  • Larger Pacing Mechanics – the mechanics serve as a countdown for a larger finale of the story (Primetime Adventures, Thou Art But a Warrior, Tenra Bansho Zero)
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