When I start a new game, I usually have a strong image of what I want my character to become. Unfortunately, this initial concept too-often gets destroyed shortly after contact with an actual game. Sometimes the game's rules and mechanics simply don't support my idea. Other times, my interests change and the character gets left behind. Still, all too often, my character gets sabotaged by the GM. In any case, disappointment and disillusionment are sure to follow.
Let me be clear here. This typically happens when I come to the first session with a fully formed idea. Starting with a fuzzy concept can help--but it does not get rid of the problem. At some point in the game, my mental image of the character will solidify, and inevitably that concept begins to conflict with the realities of the game. The conflict is inevitable.
Let me say that again, I don't think we can ever eliminate this conflict; we can only control it.
Look at it from a writer's point of view--when I'm writing a story I have complete control over my characters, right? Wait, not so fast, my choices are still limited. My character's behavior must follow some internal logic. Their actions must be believable. Where the rubber meets the road (or in my case, where the toner meets the paper), there is still conflict between the original character concept and the constraints placed on that character by the story. Even in the largely-controlled realm of writing, I never really escape this conflict. As a player, I surrender more control over the story to others. The conflict between character and game increases proportionally.
So, how do we manage this conflict? For now, lets put aside issues of unreasonable player expectations. These are cases where a given idea cannot be modeled by a particular game system, or ideas that seem more interesting on paper then they are at the table. These are real problems, but I don't think any in-game system can address them. They're more a matter of experience. Furthermore, I think their influence will fade as we can manage the other problems.
Instead, let's focus on the interactions between players and GMs. It's true, other players can do things that damage your character's integrity, but these often rise from subtile social interactions, which are much harder to address. The GM's ability to disrupt a character concept, on the other hand, is orders of magnitude greater. Arguably the game's rules exist to mediate between the players and the GM. From that point of view, it seems reasonable to engineer rules to help protect a character's integrity from heavy-handed GMs.
The GM/Player interface is a tricky landscape. Traditionally, RPG games describe player/GM roles as follows: players have absolute control over their character, while the GM controls everything else. While this sounds clear enough, the border between a character and his environment is somewhat fuzzy. GMs often do things that, in effect, take control of the characters. When he asks you to make a fear check, he's trying to take control. When he narrates the effect of your action, he is taking control. The GM also has considerable influence over the flow of the story--and the story will shape the characters. Finally, the GM sets the difficulty numbers, which directly determine how competent your character will appear.
Now, not all of this is bad. I'm actually a big fan of surrendering some control of my characters. The problem is, any time the GM takes control (or partial control), he can gravely damage the integrity of your character. Generally, these problems can be placed in two broad categories: Active Character Disruptions and Passive Character Disruptions.
Active Character Disruption:
This is where the GM hits your character with a blunt instrument. Let me set the scene: I'm playing a dashing romantic swashbuckler. At the Governor's Ball, I approach Lady Hastings and try to seduce her (she may have information about her husband's troop deployments--so I have selflessly volunteered to "question" her). I am midway through my witty repartee, when the GM asks me to make a roll. I fail. Badly.
The GM then smiles and says, "She leans in close and whispers, 'My good sir, whatever do you have in mind?' Just as you open your mouth to reply, you suddenly let rip a great fart. Really, it's like a trumpet fanfare. The lady turns red and bustles away in a swirl of skirts." Everyone around the table laughs. My character gets the nickname "Fartanion". And, the image I was trying so to build is (metaphorically) gone with the wind.
GMs often use failed die rolls as an opportunity to have fun at the character's expense. Heck, I do this when I GM, a lot. Many game books even recommend create "interesting" results when the character blunders a roll. It is a pervasive part of the gaming culture. Of course, a little embarrassment can be good. It helps keep the characters human. But there's a fine line between a character-building setback and a character-destroying pratfall.
How a character fails is as important (if not more important) than what a character does. As I have said elsewhere, failures should build conflict. This conflict can either strengthen the image you are trying to build, helping you explore your character's central issues, or it can cut across your character, knocking you off the rails. Unfortunately, much of the character concept lives entirely inside the player's head. The character may have goals and desires that the player never explicitly expressed. Even if the GM wants to introduce conflicts that build on your character concept, he often lacks the information he needs--except at the most superficial level.
What's the solution? Simple. Let the players determine the results when they fail. Obviously we need a few rules or guidelines here, but that's the basic concept. Note: this fits hand-in-gloveishly with the "evolve or resolve" issue from last week. In a nutshell, the player makes a single roll. If they fail the roll, they can either let the conflict resolve (and pass control back to the GM), or they can make the conflict evolve by introducing a complication.
Back to the swashbuckler example. I fail the roll. I can either surrender control to the fart-joke-loving GM, or I can introduce my own complicating elements--something that fits (or constructively opposes) my character. Here, I narrate the following complication, "As I slip my hand around the lady's waist, I feel a heavy hand drop on my shoulder. A low, gravely voice whispers in my ear, 'Sir, I must ask you to take your hand off my wife!'." This lets my character maintain his suave composure, and may lead to a new in-concept game element--a dual! Also, it leaves open the possibility of seducing Lady Hastings after we resolve the current interruption. So, I probably want to embarrass General Hastings without causing significant harm (murdering someone's spouse tends to be a put-off).
Passive Character Disruption:
As the name suggests, this is far more subtile--but can be even more disruptive in the long run. The typical scenario is as follows: I create a character with a strong central conflict. For example, my sister is missing and I'm trying to find her. I weave this theme through my character's stats and background. I come to the table ready to play this image, and from the moment the first die falls to the moment when the last slice of pizza is eaten, our party is off killing orks. Just orks. There's no mention of my sister. No clues, no hints. Nothing.
I strongly believe that GMs need to incorporate player-generated ideas (like the missing sister) into their story arc. Ideally, they should let the story-arc grow organically around the player-generated ideas, and these conflicts should become central to the larger story. But, even if it's just an unrelated subplot, it must make it into the game.
However, GMs are always overworked. There's always too much information to keep track of; too little time to prepare. GMs are only human, and it's all too easy for these details to fall between the cracks.
Players can help by communicating their priorities to the GM. This can be overt, "Hey, I want my character's sister to be part of the game!" It can also happen as a part of character creation. Don't just take disadvantages for the points--use them as a deliberate flag for the GM. If I take the "Enemy" disadvantage, I'm telling the GM (and everyone at the table) that I have this cool idea for a nemesis, and I want that nemesis to be part of the story. I hate to say this, because it should be obvious, but only take disadvantages that you actually want to play.
Secondly, players can help the GM by taking every opportunity to bring their disadvantages, goals, hopes and fears back into the game. Don't just wait for the GM to force you to make an "Alcoholic" roll, put yourself in positions where your alcoholic disadvantage will create problems. When you're trying to track down an NPC, decide to "just check" the bar. After all, one drink won't hurt anything...GMs should reinforce this behavior by giving out brownie points whenever the players introduce interesting complications.
Several games (particularly newer, independent games) use interesting positive reinforcements for playing out key character concepts. The Burning Wheel uses beliefs and instincts. Beliefs describe the character's core beliefs (also read as "the player's priorities"--you use beliefs to formally describe the in-game expectations for your character), and the player is rewarded for playing out these beliefs. Instincts represent hardcoded reactions. They tell the GM (and everyone at the table), how you will react to specific situations. You can override them, but you're rewarded for following your instincts (and sometimes they let you break the rules).
The Riddle of Steel uses spiritual attributes to represent a character's goals, wants, needs and beliefs. If a character has a three-die passion of "Loves Gwen, the bar wench at The Oak and Thistle," he will get +3 dice on any roll that relates to this attribute (for example, when protecting Gwen from bandits). Spiritual attributes also get tied into the game's experience systems--characters who follow their spiritual attributes will advance faster than those who don't. All in all, this encourages players to create a strong character concept, to actively bring that concept to the table and to do everything they can to keep it there.
Players also need to feel empowered to bring fresh conflicts into the games. Many systems let the players pay brownie points to take narrative control over the story--though most players will only use this to get themselves out of trouble, not to make more. I think there's a logical disconnect here. If we want the players to actively inject new conflict into the story, then we should reward them for doing so. Using brownie-points to create conflicts actually create a cost to the player (beyond the difficulty itself).
I haven't seen many good mechanics for encouraging player-generated conflicts. My "evolve or resolve" concept should fit the bill. I think a lot of GMless gaming is probably aimed in this direction. Donjon, however, probably takes the most novel approach. Players can make perception rolls at any time. If they succeed, they see something. The greater their success, the more they can control what they see. So, if you want to bring a subplot back into the game--it's only a perception roll away. Of course, Donjon is designed as a modern hack-and-slash system--so it's no poster child for story-based games. But the idea could be used in more-narrative games.
As always, let me know what you think. I'd love to hear your ideas on the topic.