Steal My Freedom (Please)

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 

Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Started Loving Losing Control

by Fred Hicks

When I sit down at the table, I’m looking to feel.  I want my character’s triumphs to exhilarate me, and when he makes a bad decision, I want to squirm—and as an audience to his story, to feel my concern for him deepen (and, honestly, to enjoy how he’s sunk himself into yet another predicament).

While I wouldn’t call myself a full-bore immersionist in my play—I’m entirely comfortable spending some time outside of my character’s head—I do like to identify with my character.  At the very least, I’m best off when I feel empathy for him, even if I’m deciding that he’s going to kiss the wrong girl, let his greed lead him into a trap, or otherwise set himself up for some pretty awful consequences.  Heck, as a fan of TV shows like Farscape and Rescue Me, it could even be argued that bad decisions and nasty consequences are a need—even a craving—for my entertainment tastes.  If my hero isn’t in over his head and isn’t at least partly to blame for putting himself there, it’s just not good enough.  In the end, that’s how I build that sense of identification with my character—you and me, kid, we’re in this together.

When I’m playing “traditional” style games, achieving this can be a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition.  In these games, I usually don’t have a lot of choice in what sorts of things are going to get thrown at my character’s head, and the ability to get my character into deep doo-doo is dependent to a great extent on the ability of whoever’s running the game to step on up and douse me in sufficient amounts of predicament-juice.

So with that as my complaint (if it can really be called that), a number of folks I know would say, “Fred my man, you need yourself a story-game,” and to some extent they’re absolutely right.  A story-game (to the extent I’m familiar with the term) often gives players direct or strong authorial control over the circumstances of their characters.  If the players want their characters deeply embroiled in bitten-off-more-than-they-can-chew shenanigans, the players have enough control over the game to directly assert what those circumstances are.  In short, they have the power to author their own pain.

This is big mojo—and I’ve made plenty of use of it whenever I’ve played story-games.  But more often than not, the experience still feels a little hollow to me.  I can come up with a great character and jam his life up but good, producing a fun story, but it’s still missing that essential ingredient that I crave: identification.  All of this ability to author my own pain ends up falling flat, divorcing me from those emotional ties to my character.  It puts me into a stance where the character is a piece on a board to be moved around through a story.  As an audience, I may enjoy the stories that result, but it tends to come off as an action movie rather than a drama—a heavyweight on the explosions and cool effects, but light as a feather on the heartstrings.

A common thread I’ve found in many of these circumstances is that two things are going on.

The first problem: I’m retaining too much control over my character.  This means I lose the sense that the events of the story are happening to him; when I author my own pain, I’m both the guy making bad stuff happen and the guy that the bad stuff is happening to.  The problem, of course, is that I know what I’m doing to myself, so the surprises and twists and turns are few (or even nonexistent).

The second problem: Too often, the process of making decisions in the game is made outside of the character’s perspective.  It’s an odd thing, given that stories are anchored to characters, but in story-games I’m often seeing story trumping character—and for me at least it really ends up hollowing out the experience, leaving it all surface and no depth.

As I’ve come to realize this about my own play, I’ve started to analyze things more carefully, looking at the times when games have given me what I want, and trying to determine what’s made it work.  Commonly, I find myself identifying with my character when I don’t feel I have control over the things happening to him: my discovery (as a player) of what’s happening to my character does not precede my character’s discovery of it.  We’re going through the process of discovery together, and that’s how the story gets a chance to play close to my heart and, crucially, to make me feel.

So if I were so bold as to think I could request it of the design community, this is what I want: story-games that don’t put me in the driver’s seat.  For all the non-hippie sensibilities of traditional style games, I’ve come to feel they have something right by putting a lot of control over my circumstances into someone else’s hands (most often the GM).  Without that, even at a crowded table, I can end up feeling like I’m playing a solo adventure.

For a long while, I thought that this problem was just inherent to a lot of principles of story-games, but in some inextractable way that I couldn’t put my finger on.  Then I got a chance to play in Bill White’s superlative Ganakagok game at Dreamation 2007.  Ganakagok is “the bomb,” as they say in the old country, and despite being in a position where I was deciding (as a player) that some awful things would befall my character, despite having my hand deep in authoring events and circumstances befalling other characters, I still had a strong, strong sense of identification for my tribal truth-teller who, once trapped beneath the ice and drowned, became a cannibal ghoul and eventually sank into the depths to transform into the cancer that gnaws at the heart of the world.

Something special was going on there, and I think I figured out why.

Ganakagok does several things which, together, produce an amazing game-play experience that preserved my empathy for my character.  At the heart of all of those things is a common thread: everyone gets a chance to participate in every scene, but only in a way that happens through the “lens” of their characters.  Even when my character is not physically present in a scene, he can affect that scene through his possessions, others’ memories of him, and so on.  This is gold.  By making sure that I don’t ever step out of “my guy” to affect the larger story of the world, I remain identified with him without ever losing sight of the big picture.

This is a strange and magical kind of unity that Bill has crafted, here: a game where character and story interact and exist as peers, but where one cannot be affected at all without the use of the other.  My authorship of the story does not occur without the involvement of my own character.  And that is where my heart starts to beat with newfound warmth for the stories arising from play.

Ganakagok makes character and story into an inextricable pair, like a key and its lock, and it has already started to affect my designs—my 2007 Game Chef entry Schizonauts was among the first.  Much of that game follows Ganakagok‘s example, from its turn structure (which guarantees everyone participates in every scene), to the ways that absent characters can still be a part of scenes as they play out.

At the end of the day it might seem like Ganakagok is defying my “rules” for what I want—it sounds like I’m authoring my own pain here.  That raises the question: by forcing me to interact with the story through the lens of my character, has my control-concern been defused?  Well, a little, yes—but that’s not the whole of it.

Truth be told, I have much less control than it looks like—gloriously so, since that’s a fast track to joy for me. Here’s why: when everyone participates in every scene, there’s a ton of extra input to what’s going on besides my own (and besides the GM’s for that matter).  My voice, ultimately, can’t ever be the only one to speak as to what befalls my character.  In the end, the system enforces the idea that I don’t have total authority my circumstances—and I love my character (and the game) all the more because of it.

And that’s sort of a gaming full circle, isn’t it?  Traditional style role-playing games, it turns out, have been doing it the way I want it for ages.  But where they failed was in giving me too little control over guiding the story to the places I wanted it to go, leaving me without any authorship over the story I was in.  Rightly, they pushed me towards story-games and said “here is what you’ve been missing.”

But—at least in large part—much of what I’ve found in this previously undiscovered country was too much in the other direction.  Story-games fail (most correctly, story-games fail me) when they don’t limit my control effectively.  I want the game—through the system, through the efforts of the other players at the table—to steal my freedom, and in so doing, to give me the surprises that can only come as the result of random dice rolls and wacky, beautiful, unexpected ideas from my fellow players.

Perhaps this is why my own game designs—Don’t Rest Your Head and Spirit of the Century among others (though I can hardly take sole credit for the latter)—show signs of mixing traditional and story-game sensibilities, as do a few other games out there (such as Chad Underkoffler’s PDQ system games).  I want this combination because the tug-of-war between no-control and total-control (over the story) is best resolved (or at least most easily found) by fusing elements of both styles, allowing the player some control over the story to get the most of what he wants for his character, but still animating that story with strange and unexpected events, surprising and delighting him as his character descends further into peril.  By and large, that’s still pretty unexplored territory, though day by day it seems like the story-games and traditional sets are blending more and more together.  For a guy like me looking to feel something at the table, it’s an exciting time to be a gamer.

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