Do you know what your character is thinking?

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Do you know what your character is thinking?
« on: July 01, 2010, 03:43:13 PM »
Is this a thing that you can have authority about?

Like, if you say "my character George is gonna pull out his gun. He's pissed off because you stole his lady-friend" is that second part true, or is it just your interpretation?

If you say to me after the game "I think Greta only stole George's lady-friend to get him mad, she doesn't really care about Linda at all" can I say back "No, you're wrong"? Or can I only say "That's not how I see it?"

I'm not sure of this has a lot of implications for design, but it seems pretty relevant to how the game gets played. I just finished a Bliss stage game where the players were coming from pretty different directions on this question, and it definitely affected how they played the game.

Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #1 on: July 02, 2010, 02:29:51 AM »

Sometimes?

But in terms of authority, yes, if there needs to be authority on the topic of my character's thoughts, then I am the one who has that authority. In most cases, though, that sort of authority is not necessary or part of the fiction. But if I decide at some point to say what my character is thinking, then it seems to me that this should stand to the same degree my describing any of his other actions does.

Are actions fundamentally different from thoughts, in terms of leeway for multiple interpretations? I don't think so, though they might seem that way at first. But if I say 'Kim feels guilty about not marrying Peppering' that seems simultaneously as definite as 'Kim pulls out her gun and shoots Jiminez in the back of the head' and yet not really all that definite in terms of what it says about my character in the fiction. So while I appear to have authority over 'what Kim is thinking' I only really had authority over one very small moment -- because I only needed it for that long -- and Kim's thoughts (and the context for that particular thought) remain as opaque as ever.

I'm curious to hear about this Bliss Stage game -- there are probably dimensions to this question well beyond what I am talking about.

Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #2 on: July 02, 2010, 04:52:20 AM »
Yeah, "Sometimes" makes sense to me. I think it's probably different for different people too, like, I think the way I tend to play characters is pretty intuitive, I just have them do whatever seems right at the time and I don't really think much about the characters' internal life. Other people I've played with though do a lot more thinking about their character, what they're thinking and such, and they plan what their character is going to do next.

It's also something that can change based on the game design though right? We could imagine a game text that says "You, Bob, get to say what this character is doing, how they act, what they say and stuff. You, Linda, get to say what the character is thinking, feeling, hoping and planning for." In fact I think there are some LARPy games that actually do stuff like this.

Also the game can just never require anyone to know what the characters are thinking. I think most rpgs are like this, but maybe some games more than others? The mechanics of most games require you at the most to know the intent of characters so you know what they'll get out of conflict resolution.

I think that one of the reasons that this came up in Bliss Stage was that that game, which doesn't have explicit conflict resolution in most scenes, really lets you just play out the actions of the characters without thinking about their internal motivations. For me and some of the other players, this meant that a lot of the enjoyment of play was about thinking about what the characters might be thinking, about trying to understand them. We'd be like "Aaron isn't an asshole, he's just scared and kinda taking it out on Rachel" or "Nella is really the most mature of the lot, and that's why she's not involved in their petty shit." And we'd have these conversations with the players of the characters we're talking about, and they'd be like "Maybe you're right! I don't know!" Or at least, some of us would be like that. Some of the other players would be like "I'll tell you if you were right after we've finished the game."

Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #3 on: July 02, 2010, 12:07:32 PM »
This is an interesting topic to me, because until recently I didn't even know there were people who thought anybody but a character's player could or should have authority of what that character is thinking. But it is a potentially interesting space to consider. I'd say that just like any other authority, it's one that can be manipulated by the game rules as needed, it's not some 'law of roleplaying' that it can only be one way, just as "This one guy has authority over all characters not controlled by players, interprets the rules, and sets up adversity" used to be thought of as "how you do it" and is now looked at as one way to divvy up responsibility.

Now, that being said, I can't really think of any games I've seen that consciously address this particular slice of authority, and I'd say that the default assumption seems to be "that belongs to the player of the character, since it's 'his guy' and all". But I may just be projecting what *my* default assumption was until I encountered this kind of thinking :)

I'm gonna go out on a limb and speculate that sharing that responsibility creates more of a "this is our thing, collaboratively" vibe, and stresses the character's role in the whole fiction. On the other hand, I would imagine that making that strictly the property of the character's player probably deepens that player's connection to (and possibly immersion in) his particular character. But this is baseless speculation on my part! Let me know if you have play experience that says differently.

Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #4 on: July 03, 2010, 09:15:24 PM »
Personally, I think Jeff is right on the money when he says that giving players sole authority over their characters deepens the connection/immersion. I dig that, I feel it.

On the other hand, not every game has to be about a deep and immersive connection to your character. Polaris, for example, seems not to play towards that goal. The Heart is in control of the narrative elements of his character, but other people can totally speculate and have conversations about the character's motives and inner thoughts and junk, because that is rarely expounded upon in a scene. In Polaris, you have complete authority over the narration of your Heart, but not over his inner thoughts and feelings. Those are governed by his Ice, Light, and Zeal/Weariness scores, I think.

That's just my interpretation though. I've yet to play a full game of Polaris.

Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #5 on: July 04, 2010, 03:47:55 PM »
I guess I maybe don't believe in immersion or something.

Here's the thing I'm thinking: When a game text says "Think about what the character would do and have them do that" or "Your job is to realistically play your character" or whatever other phrase it uses (in Apocalypse World it's "your job is to play your characters as though they were real people, in whatever circumstances they find themselves — cool, competent, dangerous people, but real.") - when a game text says that, it's a handy metaphor, a shorthand. What it really means is something like:

"think about what we already know about what this character has done, and then say something that you think is compelling and cool for you and the other players, taking into account the themes of the game, rules for how things get established in the fiction, reward mechanics, and not stepping on too many people's toes unless it's really worth it." (actually I drew a diagram of this: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1164498/A%20thing.jpg)

Characters don't exist. They don't have a "self", and you can't refer to them for advice on what they'd do. They only have thoughts and feelings in as much as those are established in the fiction, and few systems have ways of establishing thoughts and feelings. When you think you're "immersing" in the game, and are "connected to your character", I think you're actually connected to the other players, and the system, and are intuitively making decisions based on what you all at the table are interested in - not anything about what the character "wants".

Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #6 on: July 04, 2010, 04:05:24 PM »
Simon, that's an interesting and thought provoking stance, and I need to think about it some more to know if I agree or not.

I'm hesitant to talk too much about 'immersion' because a) I've gathered in a short time at Story Games that it's a pretty heated topic at times, and b) it's never been a goal of mine or my fellow players that I know about. So, with those caveats out there, and using my limited experience with acting, I have the gut feeling that something identifiable as "immersion" as separate from "what I and the other players are interested in" exists. Let me expand, but I have a big "but" coming up, so bear with me a moment. Actors and some would say some roleplayers, imagine a fictional person, try to come up with what their inner state would be, and then try to simulate that inner state in their own minds. The degree to which they lose track of it being a contrivance is what I assume "immersion" as it relates to a character is. Again, though, I've gathered that defining immersion is a touchy topic, but for the purposes of what I'm talking about here, that's the definition I have going.

So, that big "but" I mentioned. Arguably, you wouldn't invest in contriving that artificial inner state for a character or situation you and/or the other players are not interested in. And that one-step-removed way of looking at it jives with what you said, Simon, and that's why I very well might agree with you. Again, immersion isn't something I've ever pursued or experienced very vividly as its own thing in an RPG, so my viewpoints here could be way off, but at a minimum, be assured I'm not some immersion crusader :)

Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #7 on: July 05, 2010, 03:15:36 AM »
I see what you're saying, Simon. I think I agree. Although I also think that means you definitely know what your character is thinking, since the only possible things they can be thinking are the result of fiction that you had a part in, right? You might not be able to like, dictate what your character is thinking, but I think you're probably the only one who KNOWS what they're thinking, yeah?

Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #8 on: July 05, 2010, 03:56:15 AM »
Kind of. What I'm saying is that no one knows what they're thinking, because they're not thinking anything. We see a collection of actions, expressions, conversations, and we give that collection an identity, we assign it agency, we imagine it as a human being.

As an aside, I kinda think this is true of real people too, but maybe that's too spicy for the internet.

The rules of the game CAN refer to thoughts and feelings, and therefore make those things known (just like in a TV show, sometimes we get a voiceover or something telling us what a character is thinking), but they don't have to (and they usually don't).

So in Apocalypse World, the bit that says "your job is to play your characters as though they were real people, in whatever circumstances they find themselves — cool, competent, dangerous people, but real." what that's really communicating is an aesthetic, right? It's saying in this game, when you're thinking about what to say next, make it something that helps us think of these characters as real (cool, competent, dangerous) people.

Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #9 on: July 05, 2010, 04:55:29 AM »
So in Apocalypse World, the bit that says "your job is to play your characters as though they were real people, in whatever circumstances they find themselves — cool, competent, dangerous people, but real." what that's really communicating is an aesthetic, right? It's saying in this game, when you're thinking about what to say next, make it something that helps us think of these characters as real (cool, competent, dangerous) people.

No arguments here

*

lumpley

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Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #10 on: July 06, 2010, 11:44:05 AM »
I'm for spiciness. If you ask me, everything hinges on Simon's aside, and I think it points the other way.

When we interact with a person for a little while, our brains draw conclusions about their emotions, thoughts, motives, things internal to them which we can't see or interact with directly, but which we suppose must be there. If somebody said to me "Vincent, approach this problem the way Shreyas would," for instance, I could do it. I may be right or wrong, case by case, but it's not a nonsensical thing for me to undertake, right?

The same thing happens when we interact with a fictional person, though, too: our brains just do their thing, drawing conclusions about the person's internal state utterly absent any direct observation or interaction. It's an illusion, but it's a reliable and compelling one.

For some creators -- ask Steven King or Ursula LeGuin, or ask me -- this trick of the brain creates a pretty much irresistible creative momentum. As we create a character, we feel that we're coming to know her instead. Sometimes she does something that surprises us, but we find upon reflection that from her point of view it was the only sensible thing. "Vincent, approach this problem the way Roark would" -- sure! No problem. I've seen Roark in action enough that my brain has drawn conclusions about what must be going on inside his head. It's not true, but it's not nonsense.

Now, sit me down and say to me, "Vincent, when Roark did xyz, what was he thinking?" Sometimes it's obvious what he was thinking, just because it's obvious. I'm like "he was thinking about Mother Superior, of course" and you're like "oh! Oh of course he was, duh." Sometimes it's not obvious, and we can both speculate. Other times, I can tell you what he was thinking because I remember what I was thinking as him, plain as that.

-Vincent
« Last Edit: July 06, 2010, 11:46:39 AM by lumpley »

Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #11 on: July 06, 2010, 05:17:38 PM »
That sounds sensible, which means I probably disagree. Let me tease out some ideas.

So, you're approaching things the way Shreyas approaches things. But you're not, like, thinking as Shreyas would think, right? You're thinking "what should I do to give people the impression of Shreyas?" You're "performing" Shreyas. And everyone's Shreyas is different, right? Some people will perform him one way, and some will perform him slightly differently. None of you actually know what Shreyas is thinking when you do that though right?

Now, I'd argue that this is true for Shreyas as well. He's thinking "what can I do to give people the impression of Shreyas?" and then he performs himself. "Selves" are performed, and they tend to be performed differently around differnet people and in different context. We turn all those different aspects of what someone does into a construct, an imagined personality. But that's kind of an aside to my point. Performing someone doesn't give you access to their thoughts.

But maybe that's just semantics and pedantry.

Here's another way to look at it.

Imagine a scene in a game. You're playing Roark. I'm playing Marie, Steve is playing Vonk. Marie used to be Roark's lady-friend, but that was a while ago, and now she's sweet on Vonk. In this scene, Marie is all coming on to Vonk, and Vonk is pretty happy about it. Roark is keeping his feelings to himself. We don't see him do anything that would give his feelings away.

Now, after the session is over, we get to wondering what Roark thought during that scene. You could be thinking "Oh man, Roark was super steamed!" But at this stage, that's just a plan, right? You're planning to introduce to the fiction that Roark was steamed, and you'll do that by having him do something to demonstrate that. But until you do that, it's not in the fiction.

Now, what I don't know about is what happens if during our post-game chat you say "Oh man, Roark was super steamed". As I see it, most games, most times, that goes straight into the fiction. That's how it was, no questions asked. But that's an element of the system, I think. It doesn't have to be that way. I could be like "Says you!" and then if it never comes up again, we'll never know.

On the other hand:

That "trick of the brain" thing? I totally get what you mean. I mean, I think that's pretty much how I play a lot of the time. Sometimes it's easier to find that connection to the character than others (and it would be interesting to think about why that is), but yeah, that intuitive sense of what's right for the character in the moment of play? I understand that.

I guess what I'm saying is that it might be interesting to think of that not as an intuitive connection to the character (because the character doesn't exist), but as an intuitive connection to the other players and to the themes and conventions of play. You "know" what to say next because you're intimately in tune with what you want to express with the character, what the other players will accept and appreciate, and what will fit into the scope, themes, and system of the game you're playing.

Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #12 on: July 06, 2010, 07:41:02 PM »

Well first off, if I don't even know what I am thinking then it seems the conversation has gone completely off the rails, because what are we even talking about? The goalposts have moved so far that I don't really see how anyone can be said to know what thinking is.

But returning to the example, or maybe the conclusion, it still seems to me like there is a difference between trying to play according to what my character is thinking and trying to play according to the expectations of my fellow players. The most obvious difference is that one allows for me to surprise my fellow players by concealing a narrative (the story of my character's thoughts) and then later revealing it. If I am only thinking 'what would everyone expect this character to do next' then my choices have a fairly limited scope.

If your response to this is that the character being duplicitous (or initially opaque) is part of standard expectations -- that part of what everyone realises is possible about the character is that they don't actually understand them yet -- then I am starting to wonder what it is you are saying at all. Is it possible to imagine a way of playing a character that would not fit your 'play to the players' model? While still looking like a coherent character to any of the players involved?

It doesn't seem difficult to play a character whose actions and motives remain concealed from most players for most of the story. How does your model describe this? Is it simply that, because the character's actions are hard to read, nobody forms any expectations of How Bob Would Act? But if that's the case then how are Bob's actions determined by the player? If I'm playing a character who is difficult to read in the fiction, where am I getting my cues if not from some private store of information over which I have authority?

Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #13 on: July 06, 2010, 08:31:17 PM »
Hi Daniel,

I think what you're talking about is the difference between secrets and plans. Here's something a very clever person once said about that: http://www.lumpley.com/comment.php?entry=459

In fact that post covers most of what I'm trying to get at here.

*

lumpley

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Re: Do you know what your character is thinking?
« Reply #14 on: July 06, 2010, 09:00:41 PM »
Here's another thing I wrote on the subject -- well, this subject is where these two subjects intersect. Notice the relationship between setting up for a reveal and the affirmed rightness of your vision + permission to act with passion:  2005-06-06 : Immersion, Rewrite (following the much more contentious 2005-06-02 : Immersion).

-Vincent