Thursday, 23 February 2017

Role With It

Most of the time, I write here in my capacity as a GM, an occasional game designer, and fan with his nose in a lot of games (specifically, with an intention to steal anything that isn't nailed down for his own games). Lately, I haven't spent as much time in the Big Chair as usual, so I thought I'd talk about what's going on in my life as a player. My last post was about the formative (pre-formative) moments I go through as a GM when I'm getting ready for a new game, so this is kind of a companion piece about getting ready to play a new game from the player side.

We play a lot of games at our table that are focused on character, so there is always an extra level of pressure on players when a new game starts to come to the table with some character ideas in hand. Sometimes we play games like APOCALYPSE WORLD or its many cousins, which really demand that you generate a character and decide on details on the fly (which is fair enough, because it asks the same commitment from the GM), but often we will go into a game with a lot more ability to create the character we want to play. I think both methods have their virtues, but since HTHD play demands a certain level of commitment and creative investment from the player, it makes sense that they should have the maximum level of freedom to put their stamp on the game. If you're going to be playing a game for 8-12 sessions and reaching for deep emotional places, you need to want it.

Often, a GM will provide a rough sketch of what they're thinking of for a given game, something that talks about the tone and themes that they're interested in, inspirational media, and laying out some things about the setting so that players know where to start. Tone is especially important at this stage of the game, because players have to imagine characters for a story that doesn't exist yet. With no common frame of reference, it's very easy for players and GM to set off on different courses and have difficulty reconciling their ideas into a common narrative. For my immortals game, NOT FADE AWAY, I wrote a short 2.5 page "setting Bible" that captured the most important things about the story mythology -- how reincarnation worked, what the Enemy was like, etc. This wasn't to stifle player contributions about the game so much as to make sure that the basics of the idea were understood the same way by everyone at the table, so that when people make their contributions they won't be proceeding from a false foundation. (To be fair, players still had a hard time coming up with characters for that game, because of its scope. But still, you try.)

So how do I approach all that as a player?

It pretty much varies every time. Sometimes I will have a very strong, very specific idea right off the mark that I'll invest in heavily. Sometimes I come to the table with no particular concepts I'm married to, and listen to what the other players have in mind before I make my decisions, so that I can work with the ensemble well. I think the best way to do it is to come to the table with some loose ideas I think have some "juice" in them, and do my best to be flexible when I share them with others. Once in a while, when we've got a heavy rotation of games, I will deliberately aim my character away from types that I've been playing a lot of recently, to mix it up. Sometimes, a game system will be built in such a way that it suggests a certain way to approach it will be the most effective or interesting way to build a character.

A starting character concept for me might be an idea of a type of person that would fit into the fiction well, or an emotional arc I'd like to play, or an idea I'd like to pull into the fiction. For Megan's 1920s urban fantasy noir 'ROUND MIDNIGHT, I really wanted to play a drug addicted musician, and decided early on that I wanted to be a trumpeter who had a (mostly imagined) rivalry with Louis Armstrong. The downward spiral of addiction appealed to me, and I was inspired by the stories and images of jazz musicians like Count Basie and Duke Ellington in Ken Burns's documentary Jazz. I wanted someone who had the hard-living life of Miles Davis and the style of Ellington. So by my standards, I came to the table with a lot of ideas, but -- and this is important -- I didn't fully understand my character "Silk" until I started to speak in his voice. His slightly nasal drawl and fussy stroking of his pencil-thin moustache cemented that character. Physicality and voice are really important to me in making a deep connection to a character, and I find they often can't be planned ahead of time - they just "happen" in the moment, or they don't.

In another game, SOUTHERN ROCK OPERA, I drew my character Cole from a mental image of Kurt Cobain put through a southern rock lens, and took inspiration from a biography of Bruce Springsteen I'd recently read.

Sometimes bouncing ideas around with other players helps. I recently went on a long road trip with Megan where she talked about her character concept for Rob's upcoming TIMEWATCH game STRANGE ATTRACTORS. I had been struggling a bit to know what to play, but talking my way through some ideas helped a lot. In this case, the initial game pitch had set me down a path of ideas that didn't quite match up with the more developed discussions of the game as Rob shared his starting materials. My initial idea was very punk rock -- a character who wanted to time travel so that he could destroy the status quo, because the status quo propped up the power of horrible people and kept the working man down. That is still a fine idea, I reckon, but because we're going to be starting out as agents of Timewatch, that won't quite jibe. I knew I had to be a character that somehow operated within that environment, even if he wasn't a true believer in policing the timeline.

Our discussion led me toward a character concept I think of as emerging from the world of war movies in general and M*A*S*H in particular. I'm thinking of wheeling-dealing quartermaster characters who can get what you want, for a price. My character is going to be a hustler type, a fast-talking wheeler-dealer who's great at baffling people in any timeline with bullshit. The hook is that he's making good coin on the side by stealing "artifacts" from the various timelines he visits, and selling them on the black market as historical items. I thought it would be great fun to make a running gag out of repeatedly stealing George Washington's teeth. This concept gives me a way to connect with the lighter tone of this game, giving me comedy scenes to play, and also room to grow if we decide we don't want to be Timewatch agents any more as the game goes on. My black marketeer could become more of my initial anarchist idea very easily, if the wind blows a certain direction.

Of course, all of this could change again when we sit down at the table on Sunday to make characters and play the first session.

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