Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Character's central conflict, decision and resolution

I seem to be a big fan of games that no one else has ever heard of. One such game is Visionary Entertainment Studio's Everlasting series. Don't get me wrong, Everlasting is not without its weaknesses: the mechanics seem a bit math heavy, some of the mechanics are unclear (e.g. reverie) or don't have any real impact on the game (e.g. persona qualities), the "this is more than just a game, it's Legendmaking" tirade gets a bit annoying, and I'm not sure how it will all work in play.

Having said that, the series presents a vast array of character types, each packed with lovely nuggets of story potential, so I'm eager to give it a try. To be honest, if I was given a chance to play, I'm not sure what sort of character I'd make. Dragons, fey, cool vampires, angels, sin-eating gargoyles--there are just too many cool options.

Recently, I completed my Everlasting collection, picking up the Book of the Sprits. Over the last few weeks, I've been making my way through it. And, much to my surprise, I made an unexpected discovery.

When you make an Everlasting character, you select something called the character's Ethos. This is a one-word attribute like child, gloryseeker or trickster.

Keep in mind. I've read the description of Ethos least four times--once for each of the four core rule books. And, until now, I've always dismissed it as a rip-off of the old White Wolf archetypes. This time, however, something clicked inside my brain, and I began to look at the Ethos in a new light.

Ethos, as defined in Everlasting, is not a functional description of how your character typically acts. Rather, it is a meta description of how you, the player, want your character's story to unfold.

If you select the child ethos, you're not just saying that your character will behave with childlike innocence. You're really telling the GM that you want to play out a story that focuses on the loss of innocence.

While not all Ethos are created equally, most of them do two very interesting things. First, they establish a personal conflict for your character. Second, they spell out how the character's story will likely end. A child will eventually grow up and learn to take care of themselves, a gloryseeker will either gain enough wisdom to put their pursuit of fame behind them, or they will achieve the glory they were seeking.

Some Ethos are particularly interesting, because they require an eventual choice by the character. Gloryseeker is an example of this. By choosing this Ethos, you are creating a story that will focus on the character's desire for fame, and the high cost of pursuing fame (the risk to life, limb and friends, as well as the social consequences of becoming famous). At some point, the character will be forced to decide if the cost is too great. Does he put aside the quest for fame? Or does he follow it through despite the damage it will cause?

I think there is real value in explicitly examining these three aspects of a character: the central conflict, the central decision and the potential resolutions. Too often, interesting sounding characters fall flat in actual games. I think that establishing these details during character creation can help ensure that the character will be part of an interesting, dynamic story.

Central Conflict



What is the central conflict our character will face? This is not as easy to describe as it seems. The conflict needs to be something that will make the story more interesting. It must be something the player cares about. Their character cannot trivially choose one side or the other, but must struggle with the issue. Most importantly, there must be real consequences (either good or bad) to both sides of the conflict.

Also, the conflict should not be destructive to the story as a whole. Often player's pick conflicts for their character that make it impossible for the character to realistically work with the others. They then defend their character's bad behavior as "just playing their character."

As far as I am concerned, this is unacceptable. As players, we are responsible for making sure our character fits into the overall structure of the story. Unless we're playing a solo game, that means we are trying to build a story with multiple protagonists. So, we must make sure our central conflicts are compatible with the other protagonists, otherwise the story is doomed.

Remember, conflicts generally start small and grow over the character arc. So pick a conflict that can develop and deepen over time.

Central Decision



The conflict should naturally increase over time. At some point, the conflict's natural progression will reach a climax, and the character will be forced to make an important decision. As before, this cannot be something the character treats lightly. To be interesting, it must be something the character will struggle with.

Most importantly, you should not know how the character will react when the moment comes. If you know the answer from the beginning, then you're just acting out a pre-scripted story. You're not actually creating the story at the table.

Take, for example, alcoholism. This is a central conflict that has a lot of potential for growth and development in the story. And it should naturally lead the character to a decision--do I give up the drink?

However, too often this is not a tough decision. There is no consequence for the character (or the player) in choosing to stop drinking. The other option (continue drinking) offers no real benefits. You can make this decision more interesting by adding a mechanics-based cost when the character stops drinking (modeling the physical and psychological effects of withdrawal). If this cost is high enough, the player may be reasonably hesitant to quit drinking.

For this to be a good central decision, there must be hard consequences on both sides. Again, these consequences can be good or bad, or (most likely) a mixture of both good and bad. Generally, I find bad consequences more powerful, but your milage may vary.

And remember, this represents the expected climax to your character's story. Give it the attention in deserves.

Conflict Resolution



Here, we define the expected successful resolutions for our conflict. There should be one resolution for each potential answer to the central decision.

Again, these are successful resolutions. Look at the gloryseeker. Either the character gains wisdom and abandons the destructive quest for glory, or he achieves the fame he has been seeking. Both of these are (more or less) positive. There is an obvious, third option: the character fails to achieve any fame and dies a small, anonymous death that goes unrecorded. But we're not interested in failure here.

Compare this with alcoholism. It's hard to imagine a positive ending where the character keeps drinking. You might succeed at other things, and if the gamemaster-presented conflict is sufficiently interesting, this may be enough. But there is only one positive solution to the character's central conflict.

I think that's my key point. Regardless of how the conflict is resolved, the character should have a chance at a positive resolution. If only one resolution can lead to a happy ending, then the central decision is a false choice. The character really has no option, sooner or later they will choose the role that leads to success.

Again, a lot of fiction succeeds by having a protagonist struggle with an inevitable decision. But these are passive forms of entertainment. We just watch the story unfold, but have no ability to influence it.

If you choose a conflict that has no meaningful decision, then you are reducing your character's story from a dynamic, participatory story to a largely passive one. You've already scripted out your character's major conflict, and from that point on, you're just watching it unfold.

Naturally, we cannot guarantee that our character's story will follow the arc we lay out. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and no character concept survives contact with the story. So, our conflict, expected decision and expected resolutions may change over time. But if we have thought about these issues and communicated them clearly to the GM, then we're more likely to play out a satisfying story. And that is, after all, the end goal.