(This is pretty much solely concerned with Narrativist games.)
Player Commitment to Character Commitment
What makes a good story? We are care about (are invested in, interested in the outcomes of) the characters and the situations at end. We, the audience. In media which we simply consume, part of it is that the movie, tv show, book, comic, etc. in question has to win us over as an audience. They have to give us characters and events that are interesting, and then we begin to care about the outcomes.
However, in roleplaying games, we are not just audience – we are also creators. And the relationship of creators to the characters and the fiction is a bit different. You have to commit towards trying to make interesting characters/situations on some creative level to do it well.
The questions of character commitment are what fuel interest – Can they succeed? How will they succeed? What prices will they pay? What choices will they make? etc. And not all of these questions actually matter – we might all know this is the genre where the good guys win… but what kind of people they will be at the end of it is the question we’re asking. Or, perhaps this is a superhero story and we know the characters will be true to their original concepts regardless of events, because that’s the kind of genre we’re doing.
So as a player, you have to think about what kind of character you are creating and what they are willing to fight for (and, in some way, make it clear to the rest of the group what that is, whether that’s a discussion ahead of time or good Flag mechanics).
Status Quo – that which fulfills/kills you?
There’s basically two things that drive characters into action – either protecting the status quo or trying to change it. It’s either something that fulfills them and should be protected, or else it’s something that is harming them, and become unbearable, whether the conditions have worsened or the character is just fed up with it all.
Identifying that when you make your character is a great thing – because it tells the GM and the other players how to interact with your character and where there is space for conflict and growth.
You’ll notice that in other media, it’s the character’s commitment to this protection/change that plays a part of what wins us over as an audience. If the characters’ don’t care, why should we? If the characters make a big deal of it, we at least are put to the space to consider how important it is for us as audience members.
Momentum in play
If the players commit to the characters’ beliefs, goals, and so on, and drive towards seeing those fulfilled in play, it becomes very easy to keep things moving. The players push it forward. And you’ll notice that it doesn’t necessarily require a clue-train or trying to nudge players into action.
1. The players’ commitment creates the characters’ commitment.
2.. The characters’ commitment creates ongoing events in play as improvised by the players.
3. The ongoing events create chances for expressing the characters and consequences.
4. The expresssion of characters and consequences creates player investment.
This requires the players’ to buy in before play begins and commit, but in doing so, this is how you get good play coordinated. Constrast this to the games that take several sessions to get any investment at all – most of the time it’s fumbling around to get character goals, or any expression of the characters in a way that matters, and of course, whether player input (via characters) gets to matter at all, or is blocked from play as a matter of course.
You can think of events in play like rowing a boat – if everyone’s rowing, the boat moves very easily. If there’s a group of people in the boat but only one person is rowing, it is very tiring, quickly.
What’s key here is the commitment to FIND something your character cares about, and to have your character PUSH to see it protected/changed/fulfilled, etc. and not so much about the specifics of what that thing is. As long as there’s some kind of established plausiblility you can follow, the motivations can change, or be revealed to be about something else, and so on.
You’ll notice that this is a different sort of spending a few sessions “finding your feet” than the traditional method. In this method, it’s “let me find a better way to show you what my character cares about” that’s the change, whereas, the traditional method is “let me figure out if my character cares about any of this to begin with, then figure out if it’s worth fighting for”
This is not the same as the reluctant hero, which can work in static media simply because the creators know that the hero will be pushed into her destiny or moment of conflict. The reluctant hero only works in roleplaying games if you are clear about the difference between reluctance as a trope vs. reluctance as a thing that shapes the story and drags yoru character away from the conflict you’re interested in exploring.