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Transneptune

beyond the Kuiper Belt, over the sea

Character and Situation

January 21st, 2011 by Kit

This is not a fully-formed thought yet, but here goes.

I’ve been reading and playing and thinking about a lot of story games lately, of course. And in particular, one game: Burning Wheel. I played this game years ago (“classic”) and found it not quite to my liking; there were some good things about it, but it really needed and editor and some constructive criticism and someone who knew math. Many of my friends have been enthusing about this game since it got those things (and is now revised). So, I sat down and carefully read it.

The juxtaposition of reading one game (or book) around the same time as another game (or book) can often lead to particular insights one might not have, were the two readings not so close. In this case, what I’d read just before Burning Wheel (revised) was Fiasco, from Bully Pulpit games. While Burning Wheel is a game of medieval fantasy in the vein of Tolkien or Le Guin, Fiasco is described as a game at the intersection of powerful ambition and poor impulse control. It reads like a recipe for a Coen brothers movie, or a Guy Ritchie movie.

So, what I realized in reading Burning Wheel was that what it does really well, what drives the game, is character development. (Particularly, it seems, character advancement, but that’s another matter.) What Fiasco does is situation development. And I think I find the latter much more interesting. Both are hopelessly intertwined, of course: any situation is meaningful only as it evokes responses from characters, and any character is interesting only because of their situation*. But you can shift the focus between them.

I feel a lot better now that I have a handle not just on what Burning Wheel seems to do, but on the nature of this distinction. There’s a lot of talk in the community about things like author/director/actor stance, etc., but I think that this distinction is not one I’ve heard often talked about, and it’s quite helpful to my thinking. It’s opened up my eyes to similar design in other games: part of what I love about Lumpley’s Dogs in the Vineyard is that there is a procedure in it for creating a situation, and then throwing the characters into it. What I’ve learned from this thinking is that the procedure in Dogs in the Vineyard doesn’t at any point explicitly call for tying the main characters in, but if I’m to get the most out of it, I need to.

So that’s the takeaway for me: I prefer situation-focus to character-focus. Maybe this is why I generally prefer GMing games, when that’s an applicable role? Regardless, I think it’s something to incorporate into future designs.


* From a conversation almost a year ago: “Alex Psh.: Rather, it is a universal truth: protagonists are cool because of their situation.”

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  • The difference between BW and Fiasco, in terms of these elements, is where we start to get what we end up with. In Burning Wheel we start with characters and cross them like axes, and the points where they intersect give us situations, plotted in sequence into a story. In Fiasco we have an ongoing situation with characters reacting to it, and the sum total of their reactions tells us who they are. The question is, as you say, while you’ll ultimately have to have both, where do you like to start and where do you like to end? To the exclusion of the other kind?

  • kit

    This is what I mean by “which is in focus”. As Griffin points out, in an Aristotlian Drama, you express character through situation, and drive situation through character. They’re intertwined, but one can be more in focus than the other in a game. And now that I know what Burning Wheel does (character development), I see why people like it. It’s still not my preferred flavor, but I can see what to like about it, and why to try it.

  • Griffin

    Well TECHNICALLY in Aristotelean Drama you express Character through Action, but Action arises as a response to the Given Circumstances (i.e. Situation: Plague in Thebes => Oedipus Finding Murderer), and usually results in the revelation of new Circumstances that become Given Circumstances and prompt new Actions (i.e. Plague in Thebes => Find The Murderer => I’m the Murderer! And I Slept With My Mom! => Stabby Stabby Banish Myself and Start the Next Play About Finding Somewhere to Die With Honor While My Sons and Creon Fuck The City Up In My Absence.)

    Information causes Action. Action causes Choices. Choices create the Illusion of a Mind, which generates Empathy. Then the Action climaxes revealing New Information, which causes the Protagonist to adjust his/her Action based on the new situation (which often involves suffering but at least dealing with the consequences of their choice). Then you write the sequel.