A Penny for Your Thoughts

Ben Lehman:

P.S. I also want to talk about your "what makes a character a protagonist" bit. I think you're missing something.
First I remind us what's a protagonist: a protagonist is a passionate character locked into conflict across a moral line with fit opposition. A protagonist begins at a turning point (creating a dynamic, unstable situation) proceeds as the situation escalates to crisis and resolution (through the opposed actions of the protagonist and the opposition), and ends when the situation resolves at last to stability.

Now, there are three ways to relate to a character.

Way one: as player. The character is yours, your creation. You dedicate yourself to getting the character, in order to best have her do what she'd do, in order to show her best to your fellow players, in order to say what you have to say.

Way two: as fellow player. You're a fan of the character but you don't own her. You groove on the character and dig her and hold your breath when she comes on screen because she's SO COOL. You want to get her but you rely on the player to show you what's what.

Way three: as GM. Like the player, you're dedicated to getting the character, but your goal is totally different. You want to make her face everything she doesn't want to face. You want to test her, provoke her, push her as far as she'll go.

The player is dedicated to her integrity as a character. The GM depends on her integrity as a character. They both have the same desire - to see her shine - which is only possible when they work together. (The fellow players have the same desire too, and serve as backup and cheering section for both sides.)

The GM is the person who identifies what decisions the character needs - needs! - to confront, and who puts them in her way. The player is the person who decides what the character does. A player and a GM, working together, create a protagonist. If either fails to do the job, the character's just a made-up person, not a protagonist at all.

This can be quite subtly arranged! What I'm suggesting is that you look at your gaming group and say to yourself, "who's really my character's GM?" Maybe it's you yourself.

The Czege Principle says that when one person is the author of both the character's adversity and its resolution, play isn't fun. My experience concurs. I'd go so far as to say that the GM/player split (in this new narrow sense) is the reason I roleplay instead of writing fiction.

On 2-3-05, Vincent wrote:

Allow me one followup first:

This is totally not to say that the GM of your character must be, for instance, the person who always says what's in a room when you come into it, or the person who always makes you roll for things, or the person who says the weather, or the person who plays all the supporting cast, or the person who sets and cuts from all the scenes.

There are, I think, good reasons to give the GM of your character some power over the world, pacing, and supporting cast. Other than that, wide open, as far as I can tell.

Are there good reasons to set one player apart as the GM to all the other players' characters, and to play no character herself? Could be. Wide open!

On 2-3-05, Vincent wrote:

...Or, come to think of it, that it must be only one person. Maybe everybody you play with is your character's GM at one time or another! Wide open too.

On 2-3-05, Chris wrote:

"The Czege Principle says that when one person is the author of both the character's adversity and its resolution, play isn't fun. My experience concurs. I'd go so far as to say that the GM/player split (in this new narrow sense) is the reason I roleplay instead of writing fiction"

I have to agree with you on that. In terms of group dynamics, I think it is possible to have temporary or partial authorship of both adversity and resolution, but not complete and unchanging authorship and have interesting play. Universalis is a good example of this in action.

On 2-3-05, Ben Lehman wrote:

Okay, now that you've outlined this, I'm going to offer up what I had to say on the topic. I think we're saying the same thing, it's just that mine outlines an important point.

There is a story by Rosemary Sutcliff, can't remember the title off the top of my head, where these Anglo warriors are totally surrounded by Saxons, stuck in a city. They're doomed, and they know it, and they are preparing for their last stand. Their leader turns to one of them, who is a poet, and says "You: go."

The poet says: "No, you are like my brothers. I swore to die together with you, and there is nothing more I want in the world."

The leader says: "If you do not go, who will know what we have done here? Who will make us heroes?"

The poet goes.

There is something that is really really important about the act of witnessing, the act of being an audience. Since, in most modern media consumption, we are the audience and since, in the modern world, we are taught that our contribution to art is meaningless and worthless, it is really easy to overlook these when we are talking about what makes a character a protagonist. i.e. what makes a game good.

So the requisites for a protagonist:
1) There is an intense conflict
2) She makes a decision, and acts on it
3) A witness must see and understand

When you said to me, in the Forge PM, that the GM was "What makes your character a protagonist," I was confused, because I thought that the most important part was #2, and the #1 was pretty easy.

But, really, there isn't a "most important part." All of these things are necessary for a protagonist. Without any one of them, there will not be a story.

Interestingly, the first time I thought about audience wasn't about Narrativist play at all, but rather about Comedy play. Because, you see, in a comedy game, it isn't enough to do something that makes you laugh. You need to make the other players laugh. The other players are totally the key to that.

I keep bringing things back to Polaris, but here is something I wrote as part of a larger essay called "Judge your character:"

[i]In Polaris, you must see the Ice Maiden as prosecuting lawyer and executioner, the Moons as judge and council, and the Heart as both the jury and the accused.[/i]

I didn't realize what the heck I was saying at the time. But now I do. All of these roles are vital. Without them, blah.

I think we're just saying the same thing, here.

On 2-3-05, Vincent wrote:

Hm, that's interesting, a witness. I bet that's right.

On 2-3-05, Ben Lehman wrote:

This begs the question: Can the player who is the Antagonist also be the witness? Can the player who is the Actor also be the witness?

The answer to 1, I think, is yes, but only for a very particular type of tragedy.

The answer to 2 is no, definitely.


On 2-3-05, LordSmerf wrote:


This raises a very interesting question in my mind. Is the role of audience fluid? Can a third (not Actor, not Antagonist) player be audience sometimes and other times not?

I guess what I'm asking is: what, precisely, does it mean to be the audience?


On 2-3-05, Ben Lehman wrote:

Thomas, those are good questions.

On 2-3-05, Ninja Hunter J wrote:

I'm not sure I see where this is important. Are you saying that this is an aspect to add to role-playing, or are you saying that it's something that's there already, and you're recognizing it?

I know that my concern when I'm playing is rarely what others will think of my actions. It seems like a violation of character, and when it happens, I suppress it; if I'm brilliant and discussion-worthy, great, but I'm probably not, and trying to add performance to my character development will only make it less so.

On 2-3-05, Matt wrote:

I sort of assumed that in Primetime Adventures, the other players at the table are always playing the part of the audience (or witnesses), and that's why they give out fan mail.

I'm thinking that the easier you make it for the GM to find those conflict hooks, the easier you make it for the audience players to be the audience.

In PTA, if I have "guilt" as my issue, the GM knows what to do, and the other players know when to lean forward in their seats. Same thing in Dogs if I have a 2d8 relationship with Brother Jackson.

I think those big red flags are at the heart of it. A game's gotta have that stuff nice and visible for everyone at the table to see, player, other players, and GM. I sorta took the easy way out and made it like the only thing on the char sheet, but Vincent and Clinton, to name a couple, are doing it in cool but still highly visible ways.

On 2-3-05, Phil Levis wrote:

Ben -- with regards to question 2, I agree the player cannot be the audience, but would argue the GM certainly can.


On 2-4-05, Vincent wrote:

Under what circumstances - what social circumstances, right, what must their relationship be - under what circumstances is one-on-one play good?

It seems likely to me that having a different person play each role is most reliable, but that having one person double up roles can work ... sometimes. If the relationships are right for it.

On 2-4-05, Brennan wrote:

Vincent: Under what circumstances - what social circumstances, right, what must their relationship be - under what circumstances is one-on-one play good?

The few times this has really worked for me, the relationship has always been very close outside of the game: wife, cousin, and best friend, respectively. Most of the time this fails. I think there is an element of deep trust that exists in these close relationships which is required for the one-on-one interaction to be truly meaningful in context of the game. The GM is the audience in this situation, the Actor cannot be his own audience.

On 2-4-05, Emily Care wrote:

Great points, Ben. Beautiful.

Minority opinion here. Whoever is applying adversity is always witnessing. Think about playing puppies at cons, Vincent. Witnessing the players' reviling acts and showing how sqicked you were by them was _part of_ your protagonization of them. It's completely possible. Whether it occurs in all situations is another thing.

In every situation, what is the witnessing that is required? In a comedy, someone to laugh. In a sick fest like puppies, someone to be grossed out. In a tragedy, someone to gasp. And further, there are different places for the attention/witnessing to manifest: through fictional channels (character/world reaction), through social channels (player saying "Eeew!! That's so gross!"). Oog points in Great Ork Gods formalizes the player witnessing into mechanical cues. Fan mail does the same. Hey--trust too? Has Ben lit on what these types of mechanics are doing? : ) Feedback.

And as for the actor being hir own audience, it depends on what's needed. I think. Reading your own tarot cards can be a solo act of narration, experiencing/catharsis and witnessing. And one on one: Psychotherapy is powerful dyad play. High levels of trust. Brennan, it sounds like depth in one-on-one play may take the place of the social frission in multi party play.

Anyway. Minority here. You know.

On 2-4-05, Ben Lehman wrote:

Em -- Like I said, I think "yes, in rarified circumstances." The reasons that it is hard for the Antagonist to also be the Witness/Judge are plentiful, but it doesn't mean that they can't be overcome.

I think that the "standard" GM role of "being the world" doesn't work for this, though. The world is, by definitely, non-judgmental. It cannot see, it certainly cannot understand, and it cannot sympathetically judge.

I'm thinking about those times in literature where we get the Antagonist also being the witness require a few things:

1) The antagonist wins.
2) The antagonist and the protagonist have enough shared cultural mores that the antagonist can recognize the nobility of their protagonist opponent.
3) The antagonist tells someone else about this moment of intimacy.

Now, in the context of an RPG, things are different. I don't know if this can be directly mapped.

But, oddly, this type of story is not something you often come across in an RPG. I think that, maybe, the antagonist here is more likely to be a player, who might tell a story of, say, "the greatest orc they've ever fought."


P.S. Come to think of it, look at how we talk about good rolls in RPGs. "I rolled two natural 20s in a row! Ted saw!"

On 2-4-05, Vincent wrote:

Ben, let's nail down players and characters. Does the protagonist (a character) need a player to witness, or a character to witness?

On 2-4-05, Paul Czege wrote:

The Czege Principle says that when one person is the author of both the character's adversity and its resolution, play isn't fun.

That is not the Czege Principle. That is "The Lesson of Chalk Outlines." The Czege Principle is that all principles other than the Czege Principle are named after Lumpley or one of his games or play experiences.

On 2-4-05, Ben Lehman wrote:

Vincent --

The player of the protagonist needs another live human being to witness. Yup.

The reason I go off about stories is that a lot of stories are, in fact, about telling and making stories, and so they are a really good source when we are looking at what stories are about.

I am still convinced that the GM in an impartial role cannot do this. I think that a witness needs to be sympathetic. Hence the "See and understand."

I think that, if the GM does do it, it might be through the mechanism of an NPC character.

I think that, when this is fulfulled in normal gaming, it is fulfilled by the fellow players.

I also think that it is not always fulfilled, which can result in really cool play that is nonetheless deeply unsatisfying at some level.


On 2-4-05, Eric Finley wrote:

Hang on, here. I think we have a subtle textual disconnect going on, which we should try to catch before it propagates.

Ben - excellent points, dude - is, I think, actually talking about in-character witnessing, at least with some of his points. This last post in particular makes me suspect this. I don't have a lot to say on the topic of IC witnessing; I agree that in a lot of cases it's important, but I think it's genre-dependent and expectation-driven, such that I'm not sure how much we can generalize.

On the other hand I'm pretty sure others above are taking the issue to be one of player-to-player witnessing, typically showing up as actor stance feedback mechanisms. Those rock, and I think we've got a lot of room to pump those for drama juice. This is, I think, part of why Polaris excites me as a design.

The topic of player-to-player witnessing brings us back to Vincent's original notes about asking who's the character's GM. I think we have to all agree, per the above, that one of the tasks of the "GM" - I use the term loosely - is that of witness, validating the protagonism by appreciating it, and showing the player that appreciation. Think MLwM's, or Sorcerer's, bonus dice rules... those are cases where it is, actually, the GM doing this job. Think PTA, and you get a case where everybody's sharing this job, via fan-mail dice.

Certes that's not the only job being done, though. And it's in the redistribution of those GM tasks that I think we're on the verge of something really amazing. More on this on my blog, I think; I'll post the link when I'm done writing the content.

On 2-4-05, Eric Finley wrote:

(The above should be considered crossposted with ALL THREE of the preceding comments. Yoicks.)

On 2-4-05, Vincent wrote:

Hey Paul. We don't get to name our own principles! So there.

On 2-4-05, Emily Care wrote:

[quote]I am still convinced that the GM in an impartial role cannot do this. I think that a witness needs to be sympathetic. Hence the "See and understand."

I think that, if the GM does do it, it might be through the mechanism of an NPC character.[/quote]
Fascinating. So, it's not that the GM is unable to do it, but if the antagonizing agent (a character, perceived as the gm) observes sympathetically, it then undermines the protagonization. Yet if a second agent of witnessing is created by the same person--that could fulfill the need at hand.

So, I think we agree, Ben. The way I'm looking at it is that, of course the gm can and is sympathetic. That's why, in fact, we antagonize eachother. To help eachother express what the character was created to express. It busts up a whole lot of unspoken social contract stuff to have a co-player do that. But it's part of the package deal of the GM role.

Good call about Sorcerer & MLwM bonus dice. There it's coming through mechanical elements again. (This is really getting to the "taking off the kid gloves" thang.) Another channel to use.

As I see it, we shift back and forth between stances all the time, there's no reason why we wouldn't also shift between roles of providing adversity and witnessing. As long as the channel the adversity is coming from remains constant. Bonus dice from the gm in sorcerer support a players' response to adversity provided by the gm. Simultaneous and compatible. That's the challenge. Making it all line up.

On 2-4-05, anon. wrote:

grrr. Vincent can you fix that quote?

On 2-4-05, Vincent wrote:

Nope! Too much work, plus I think it's cute when people use Forge markup here. (In the future, if you want to deny me the bunny-heart cuteness feeling, you can use <blockquote> and </blockquote>.)

I'm ready to take this topic to actual play for testing. Who's with me?

On 2-4-05, Emily Care wrote:

grrr. :P

actual play Whatcha got in mind?

On 2-4-05, Ben Lehman wrote:

I'm with you! Give me a couple of weeks (and forgive me the essay I just posted in my LJ.


On 2-4-05, Eric Finley wrote:

I'll echo Emily. I'm there... what/how?

On 2-4-05, Vincent wrote:

Eric, if you can be in Western Mass a couple weekends from now, or ever really, email me ("a Penny for Your Thoughts") and let's play games.

Otherwise, all I'm really saying is to watch closely what happens in your regular play and if you spot anything interesting, report it back here.

On 2-4-05, Eric Finley wrote:

Pity - I thought you were proposing something electronic. Must remember that some of those here are actually local to you. No, it's really not likely I'll be able to make anywhere in the States (I'm up in Edmonton) before GenCon, not randomly like that. I'm a daddy too.

On my own stuff, of course; I'll be watching for this effect in my own gaming. I think I already see it in past tense, clearly.

On-topic, though, my followup to this is on my own blog, and I invite y'all to come check it out here.

On 3-9-05, online poker wrote:

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