Here’s a brief version of the article, if you’re busy: get the other players, and the GM, to make some decisions about your character before play starts – who they are, what they want, what’s going to happen to them. It’s fantastic.
Now, a longer version of the above:
A BRIEF ASIDE ABOUT APOCALYPSE WORLD, BEFORE WE START
The first time I came across the concept of giving up control of your character to other players was during my first, and indeed only, game of Apocalypse World. One of the ways that it handles levelling up is through getting another player to mark off one of your stats that they want to see you use in the following game. If you use it, you mark XP, and you get more mechanically powerful and adaptable as a result.
So if you’re playing a big muscly dude, maybe that other player wants to see you do your thing – so they pick the stat you use to beat people up. But maybe they want to see you struggle to stay calm, so they pick the stat that you use to keep your cool, and it’s lower than all your other stats. Maybe they want to see you get involved with unnatural weirdness or try to seduce someone. By marking a particular stat, you get to communicate to the other player that you’re interested in a particular performance.
I didn’t realise you could do that! I didn’t realise you could ask another player to do something cool just because you wanted to see it. But it makes sense, right? This is a performative art form, this is us inhabiting characters and making exciting situations, we are audience and players both.
A FURTHER BRIEF ASIDE TO ANSWER ANY COMMENTS YOU MIGHT HAVE ABOUT IMPROV AND STORY-FOCUSED ROLEPLAYING NOT BEING THE “ONE TRUE WAY” OF ROLEPLAYING, AND WHY CAN’T YOU JUST PRETEND TO BE AN ELF AS HARD AS YOU CAN AND TO HELL WITH THE METANARRATIVE
Hey – you be you. You roleplay however you want to. I believe we have a duty to be entertaining, all of us, players and GMs alike, and part of being entertaining comes from treating roleplaying as a dramatic exercise and not as a character-focused simulation – because that leads to interesting choices, snappy stories, and, you know, fun.
Your opinion may differ! You should write a blog post about it.
Smash cut forward a year, and we’re knee-deep in writing Unbound. We’re trying to see what the hell we use instead of a skill system, because we aren’t fans of standard skill systems. We knock through a few ideas, and all of them focus on something crowdsourced. For a while, we had each player contribute two skills to the list, and then pick one of their own and one of someone else’s. It was okay, but it ended up limiting us more than we wanted. (Plus, while you might get snacky skills like “Coerce” and “Witchcraft” and “Hunt,” you often got stuff like “Extravagant Posing” and “Circular Logic” which are funny to begin with but end up really limiting the mechanical effectiveness of your characters.)
So we ended up using Foundations, which are – let’s be honest – backgrounds from 13th Age with the serial numbers filed off. They work really well. With backgrounds (and foundations) you create a skill set that’s not focused around the future, as in what characters can do, but around the past in that they say what the character has already done.
As in: Athletics 5 tells us that someone is pretty good at Athletics. But Champion Runner 5 does the same thing with the added bonus that it drops a little bit of history in there – the character was a competitive athlete at some point in their past. With a background-focused skill set, you define the world as you define your character.
(Which is the entire idea behind Unbound, anyway – to give everyone creative control over a communal world, because that’s loads of fun.)
At the same time we were trying to work out how levelling up worked in the game, and we settled on fates – basically, scenes you’d like to see your character involved in. These are pretty nifty because they give the players some control over the narrative flow of the game but also, more importantly, they mean that the GM has barely anything to do, ever. You sit down at the start of a game session and say “Okay, what are everyone’s fates?” and you sort of improvise a story out of that while veering towards the campaign goals you set out in the first session.
But the interesting thing about fates is that players only picked one of their own, and the group came up with their other one. Which means that you were pretty commonly thrown a curveball during character creation, and your character is taken in a direction that you weren’t expecting.
Which does two things: one, it means that you’re interested and excited about the path your character is taking because part of it is a surprise, and two, it takes some of your ownership and control away from the character.
We don’t live lives of control. (Most of us.) We are messy hairy fuck-ups, wobbling bags of electric meat that blunder through life until we die. We are not perfect logical machines and we don’t always makes the best choices.
In roleplaying games, especially old-school roleplaying games, there is often a desire to make the best, most efficient choice – because they’re often pitched as puzzles or resource management games. So while the best choice might result in the loss of the fewest hit points, it doesn’t always make for the best story.
Also, in a world where the GM has access to infinite resources and a cast of thousands, it can be difficult for a player to let go of an iron grip on their character, because their character is all they’ve got. And, again, this can make for some boring, disparate stories.
What giving away control over the base elements of your character does for your story, then, is that it distances the players slightly from their avatars. It reinforces the idea that none of this is really happening, and we can all have a better time if we think about story positioning and put our characters in weird, challenging and sub-optimal positions. I’ve written about this at length before.
(What I forgot to say is: it also shows a real regard for the other players and their characters. When people select your fate, it shows that they’re interested in seeing your character develop in a certain way and that they want to see you do that. And that’s cool, isn’t it? To have someone ask for a particular performance? That pushes you into a playful mode of thing, a back-and-forth challenge that reminds me of improv shows – can you do this? Can you play this character? Can you talk your way out of this situation? And so on.)
Eventually, we did the same with foundations. The group selects a core foundation that describes the group, each player creates one for themselves, and then the group as a whole comes up with a second foundation for each player.
SUDDENLY, I’M A SOCIALIST
Last night, we did world creation for a new game of Unbound. It’s set in the Regency period in England, and we are playing young ladies of marriageable age who must present themselves appropriately, find a suitable husband, and master the art of driving eight-foot tall war golems into battle.
It’s a good pitch. I’m playing Kitty, a girl from old money that’s so old it’s basically run out, and who’s being sent to Bath to summer and hopefully find a rich husband to help out her ailing family fortune. (And she’s a tomboy, and rough around the edges after mucking in on the farm since she was a kid, and she doesn’t want to get married, etc.) But then we came to foundations, and one of the other players suggests that she’s a revolutionary socialist, and shiiit. Now I’m interested. Now that’s a character.
Everyone got inversions and extra layers of depth. The hard northern girl is a closet romantic after reading too many novellas. The Indian girl is a spy, and she doesn’t even know it yet. The stable boy/mechanic got the foundation “Not Just A Pretty Face,” which gave him a pretty face and a lot more besides. The beautiful heiress picked up “too intelligent for her own good,” which throws a new light on her.
Suddenly, we shifted from one-note characters to things with depth and interest and avenues for growth and surprise, and all because we stepped away from the single idea we built our character around and let someone else into that sacred space. And we’ll have a better game for it. Every time Mary uses her “too intelligent” trait, I’ll be invested because I came up with it. Whenever I lapse into socialist rhetoric at a fancy ball, I’m sure Helen will be more interested in the outcome because it was her idea.
So it binds us as a group, it surprises us, it makes for a better game. And I reckon you should do it too, because stepping back from a white-knuckle grip on your character can make everything much more fun.