Literary and Performative Imaginaries – Where Characters Come From

Literary and Performative Imaginaries – Where Characters Come From

Dungeon Crawl Classics: Where Characters Are Made to DIE. Photo by Evan Torner.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: Where Characters Are Made to DIE. Photo by Evan Torner.

Character creation and character sheets are a favorite topic of mine. Hang around me long enough and you’ll hear me utter the phrase “Character creation is 50% of the role-playing experience.” I mean this statement in several senses. We underestimate how much enjoyment we get out of the simple pleasure of assembling a thinking being whom we will then inhabit. Furthermore, we are actually already playing the (or at least a) game when we create a character. Finally, we often underestimate exactly how much actual time and energy we must invest in each character (unless you’re playing a horde larp or Dungeon Crawl Classics, with its infamous “funnel” of death). We are imbuing inanimate words with life itself; of course there are complications! They represent significant creative investments.

Character sheet from 10 Bad Larps, by Alleged Entertainment. Photo by Evan Torner.

Character sheet from 10 Bad Larps, by Alleged Entertainment. Photo by Evan Torner.

Character sheet as promotional material for Knights of Badassdom (2013). Photo by Evan Torner.

Character sheet as promotional material for Knights of Badassdom (2013). Photo by Evan Torner.

Character sheets are the textual evidence of this investment and, if you think about it, constitute just as much of a role-playing game’s “text” as the session itself. In this respect, we can consider Eirik Fatland’s important observation that we use the same word “character” to describe both what’s on the sheet and its actual embodiment,[1]See Fatland, “What makes a character playable?” as well as J. Tuomas Harviainen’s assertion that the act of role-playing generates numerous “texts” in the form of meaningful actions that players then subject to their own individual form of hermeneutic analysis.[2]Harviainen 66–67.

Role-playing Games as a Medium

But it turns out that this fluidity between written and performed character text is, in fact, specific to role-playing games as a medium. Here I’d like to discuss the media-specific propositional quality of pre-generated character sheets to show that so-called “new media” – which larp is, to some extent – are where old media such as literature go to live an undead afterlife. We are still subjects shaped by the written page.

I argue that medium-specific assumptions about where “character” comes from underlie specific modes of character presentation which I have, for the sake of argument, subdivided into three different categories:

  • The Literary Mode
  • The Procedural-Performative Mode
  • The Explicitly Emergent Mode

The Literary Mode consists of providing an extensive character backstory. The Procedural-Performative Mode involves explicit commands given to the player. The Explicitly Emergent Mode relies on the player to supply significant content to “fill in” the character as described. Each of these modes carries with it a corresponding imaginary, which I define as the set of values it promotes, and of propositions made that we accept as “given.” What we consider to be “character” is contingent on both design principles as well as the epistemologies – theories of how we know what we know – that shape them. The character sheet determines in part what we can or cannot know about a specific larp.

A character from Lives, Births, Deaths by Martin Brodén & Tobias Wrigstad. Photo by Evan Torner.

A character from Lives, Births, Deaths by Martin Brodén & Tobias Wrigstad. Photo by Evan Torner.

“A ‘character’,” writes Markus Montola, “may indicate a group of quantitative attributes within the formal ruleset, a representation of the player in the game world or a fictitious person in the game world.”[3]Montola 32. How we present this fluid construct necessarily represents what we might see as our own specific system of knowledge creation.

My analysis here primarily focuses on what Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman call the “formal level” of a game: “the game considered as a set of rules … not the experience of the game [itself],”[4]Salen & Zimmerman 120. which would be what they call the “phenomenological level.” It would be interesting to see correspondences with my model in actual play, but that’s for others to attempt.

As a media scholar, I approach role-playing games as media, such that the games themselves mediate the cultural act of role-playing. What do I mean by this? Role-playing games frame our attention in specific ways, and construct subjectivities of “ideal” users much like newspapers or television. They have their own aesthetics, cultural authority, and political economy. They generate texts, and are texts themselves. Newspapers, for example, imply that the world’s events can be subdivided into digestible text morsels interspersed with glossy ads. The logics of television imply that content is irrelevant so long as it flows along. Role-playing games imply that a player is in a tense, co-dependent relationship with the rules of a given system, and only through the liberal interpretation of these rules can one appropriately explore alternative realities with one’s friends.

RPGs are structured not around the willing suspension of disbelief but the “willing activation of pretense,” as Michael Saler put it.[5]Saler 28. One creates – or is presented with – a character and then plays it within the diegetic world, bounded by certain rules which the players may have co-designed.

A slide from Eirik Fatland's talk. Photo by Evan Torner.

A slide from Eirik Fatland’s talk. Photo by Evan Torner.

At a (particularly good) presentation at Solmukohta 2012, Eirik Fatland called larp design “predicting player behavior,” but also notes how openness to player interpretation is, in fact, a primary design feature of good larp characters.

This poses us with a paradox familiar to most game designers: how do we predict and incentivize player behavior without sacrificing the very unpredictability of the larp experience, especially when the players are relying on the designer/organizers to provide a predictably unpredictable experience?

To deal with this inherent struggle within the larp medium, we must conceive of high-quality larp as both well-defined, immersive and immanent as well as fluid and elusive. If we frame larps as what Christoph Bode calls “nodal situations,”[6]Bode 1. then there is a predictable forking path of notable decision trees like in Interactive Fiction or a Choose Your Own Adventure novel that are predictable and actionable. In the world of larp, for example, Alleged Entertainment’s Garden of Forking Paths frames a series of nodal situations (see below).

Alleged Entertainment’s Garden of Forking Paths. Photo by Evan Torner.

Alleged Entertainment’s Garden of Forking Paths. Photo by Evan Torner.

But if we frame larps as mere frameworks for social alibi with no central narratives, as Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros have,[7]Montola and Stenros 10. then these “nodal” decision trees dissolve under the inherent complexity of human interaction within the medium. Larp is often too complex to be summarized in binary decision trees and other techniques.

Character Sheets Shaping the Medium

I conceive larp as a medium. As such, one can look at character sheets as an integral device in shaping its concept, much as the screenplay shapes a resultant film. Several recent perspectives on the character sheet have raised concerns about what exactly its role is in play. Daniel M. Perez sees the character sheet as a map,[8]See Perez. in that you can both use it as a reference to collect information about the game in one central place, and as a guide to what the game itself actually will prioritize during play. Reinforcing this point is Lars Konzack, whose article “Characterology in Tabletop Role-Playing Games” argues for the centrality of the character sheet in determining player experience (and here I quote him at length):

It is the central document from which the player relates to role-playing a character as regards to rules, setting, situation, and performance. In this view, the character sheet transgresses the boundaries of role-playing textuality. The text becomes vital to the role-playing experience as a textual machine in working progress.[9]Konzack 87.

Konzack’s point is in direct response to David Jara’s argument that character sheets constitute paratexts, in the vein of Gérard Genette’s literary theory.[10]See Jara. Here I side with Konzack, in that I see Jara overemphasizing actual play as the real text, with all other texts being relegated to secondary and tertiary status. But Konzack’s analysis itself primarily focuses on semiotics – that is, how a character sheet signals a system’s priorities – and exclusively on tabletop games, which often have more thoughtfully laid-out character sheets. This is where I’d like to intervene as a larpwright and media scholar, so as to interrogate the medial significance of the larp character sheet.

What Are Character Sheets?

What are character sheets? Documents that make numerous propositions. In my mind, they are often non-diegetic texts that exist to preserve the diegesis by helping a player perform as a character within it. They do so by providing select information about the character and make deliberate emotional propositions to pull the player into the role.

Character sheets are documents that seek instantiation and/or confirmation in the actual play. They often provide a combination of naming/binding the character, his/her approximate physical appearance, a short backstory – written in the 2nd or 3rd person – relationship to other characters in the larp, and mechanical leverage of certain abilities.

The actual utility of a character sheet in a larp is to identify a character and telegraph how other characters should respond to him/her, provide character impetus for story engagement, abilities for advancing the story, and imply costumes. But these sheets presumably also offer the player a vision of character “interiority,” or a rich inner life with conflicted thoughts and emotions. This interiority proves somewhat crucial in one of the larp medium’s requirements: the act of becoming a “first-person audience,” as Christopher Sandberg describes it.[11]Sandberg 274–279. Once the player is “activated” by the character sheet, they will then undergo the hermeneutic process of responding to events and characters in the larp through the lens of a complex persona construct.

Our main theoretical and design question remains: how do we form this interiority with a piece of paper? The general solutions the larp medium has offered include: having the players read some literature about the character and interpret him/her based on literary analysis; just telling the players what they should be thinking or feeling; or doing away with the data on the sheet and creating a character through workshops, masks, or whatever else. The rest of my article will address these three modes.

The Literary Mode

The only substitute for an experience we ourselves have never lived through is art, literature.Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1970 Nobel Prize speech
The first is the literary mode, in which the larpwright often writes 2–10 pages of fiction resembling fanfic about the character which contains information the player is intended to internalize as their backstory. These are usually told in the second-person or third-person mode of address, depending on whether or not the larpwrights are signaling that the player immediately immerse themselves in their character. The point of such texts is for the larp organizers to start in media res with the player already knowing that which is known about the character within the diegesis.

I call it “fanfic” because these texts are either generated by a larpwright passionate about this character set, or occasionally by the player him/herself in order to establish the character. (Based on past experience, having the player write the backstory is more effective, but usually produces characters less linked into social circles in the larp.) In addition, we as players are scarcely permitted to evaluate the text’s aesthetic values as fiction. (It’s sort of a bonus when larp fiction is good.) Now, seeing as these texts are, again, non-diegetic, the player is asked to do literary analysis to extract the necessary data. Kathleen Singles has noted that we take such analysis of the printed page as “natural and non-significant.”[12]Singles 217. I wish to demonstrate, however, that we have many Freudian assumptions underpinning our character assimilation process.

 

Madam Dragon. Character sheet provided by Sarah Lynne Bowman.

Madam Dragon. Character sheet provided by Sarah Lynne Bowman.

Here’s an example character sheet: Madam Dragon. We can see her abilities as in-game affordances at the top: Breath Weapon, Tough Skin, Claws… notably before any other data, such as what these figures even mean. Then we get to the part marked ‘Your Story’ which goes on for 4 pages. The narrative ostensibly is there to replicate Madam Dragon’s traumatic childhood, going into detail about numerous traumatic episodes, looking at the various nodal moments (of agency and choice) in her backstory that might suggest how the character might behave in the future. These also overload the player with pre-generated genre fiction that is then to be submerged in the player’s consciousness, only to manifest itself in later actions.

Here, the character sheet is like a corked bottle of champagne, ready to burst forth through the player, who is meanwhile stuck with the task of memorizing a large pile of data, while also parsing it for actionable goals and character relationships. Such literary character sheets also operate on an act of faith that the fictions of each character sheet all align well with each other (so that play becomes “interactive literature”) and that the player is literate in the right way to retain the data so that their play can continue what the fiction started. Needless to say, this form of character sheet presumes genre fiction as the basis for all larp.

The Performative-procedural Mode

The second mode is the performative-procedural, in which the game organizers give a brief text about the character in question and explicit instructions to the players as to what they should do. Lizzie Stark and Alessandro Canossa have articulated many of the different ways this can be done. In this model, it is the responsibility of the players to follow the instructions given them by the gamemasters, with the key signifier being the “if-then” statement. It is particularly typical of so-called “horde” larps, with just a few PCs and many NPCs.

Character descriptions from Babysteps by Tobias Wrigstad. Photo by Evan Torner.

Character descriptions from Babysteps by Tobias Wrigstad. Photo by Evan Torner.

Fatland has called this “fateplay,” in which players exchange agency over their characters’ every action for heightened dramatic stakes and what Greg Costikyan calls the “semiotic uncertainty” of the game.[13]Costikyan 102. So rather than writing down an extensive backstory and providing characters with abilities to act on that backstory, designers working in the procedural mode break the “character” into tasks achievable during the larp and command the player to act on them. The player’s options are constrained, their larp experience boiled down to a series of “if-then” statements.

A character sheet from All In by Chris Hall. Photo by Evan Torner.

A character sheet from All In by Chris Hall. Photo by Evan Torner.

Part of Akala’s objectives for Voyage to Venus, Planet of Death by Kat Jones & Evan Torner. Photo by Evan Torner.

Part of Akala’s objectives for Voyage to Venus, Planet of Death by Kat Jones & Evan Torner. Photo by Evan Torner.

Such play might be seen by some as disempowering, and also would in theory sacrifice the interiority created by the literary fiction of the first model.[14]In practice, however, perhaps not. Whereas such fiction is somewhat Freudian – giving your character a past history of trauma and so forth – the procedural methodology is decidedly Brechtian. Bertolt Brecht commanded all his proletarian actors to enact certain social gestes, gestures that would signify the alienating class structures of society. Larp does this apolitically, removing the agency of a player so that they then have the alibi that the alienating “system” forced them to do whatever it is that they did in the larp. I theorize this using an alchemical blend of Brechtian theory and Ian Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric, which is probably familiar to most of you.

Here’s a quote from Brecht collaborator Ernst Ottwalt: “It is not the duty of our literature to stabilize the reader’s consciousness but to alter it.”[15]Ottwalt 22. Again, the model presented indicates that the actor carrying out these commands will somehow experience an interior change, but Ottwalt is implying it to be at the level of the consumer/user. Ian Bogost says about procedural rhetoric: “It’s a theory or a design philosophy. It’s a way of making things. A way of thinking about the process of translating systems in the world into representations of those systems in the computer… It gives you a framework through which to ask questions about what a particular situation might demand.”[16]See Bogost, “Procedural Rhetoric.” Procedure can lead to character interiority, but such procedures also can directly enact specific ideologies through the characters too.

The Explicitly Emergent Mode

The third mode of character creation is to dispense with sheets entirely and just “workshop” a character, or perhaps build a character through a single sound uttered while wearing a trance mask. These techniques help build character interiority by relying primarily on the player’s own social and physical assets, which are then directly interfaced with a group. Importantly, these characters without character sheets would be dismissed by many larpers as part of a mere theater exercise. This mode has become popular within the blackbox movement, notably in games such as White Death.

White Death at Blackbox CPH. Photo by Nina Runa Essendrop.

White Death at Blackbox CPH. Photo by Nina Runa Essendrop.

White Death has no character sheets, but rather a physical condition and a core prejudice your character has. Such abandonment of the character sheet makes for an RPG text divorced from the written page, seeking instead emergence of character, storyline, and the world through emergent player interaction. Other games such as Helene Willer Piironen and Maria Ljung’s Stereo Hearts create characters from music playlists. This mode is possibly the least well-understood mode of character presentation, and one that is rapidly evolving as our medium develops.

But I stress the primacy of a medial understanding of larp here: role-playing games mediate the cultural act of role-playing. I don’t really want to get into the argument of then “what constitutes a game” here, but I would say that my cursory analysis also reinforces Emily Care Boss’ recent point that the “crunch/fluff” dichotomy in games – where we attempt to separate mechanical leverage in games (this is what my stats say I can do) from fictional positioning (this is what the situation dictates) – makes little sense.[17]Boss 50–54. There is equally little substance in stats as there is in backstory as there is in arbitrary orders as there is in on-the-spot social fictions.

In short: When you write a long backstory for a character, you are asking the player to perform literary analysis in order to understand the character. When you write out procedures and objectives for the character, the player has clear activities to engage in, but may be in some ways ensconced in ideological logics of power and control. When you provide no character sheet whatsoever, the design itself is likely relying on emergence to form the characters. There are so many ways for us to present characters to players; I encourage us to start reflecting on how we do so, and what are the hidden motives behind said designs.

Works Cited

  • Bode, Christoph. Future Narratives: Theory, poetics, and media-historical moment. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2013.
  • Bogost, Ian. “Procedural Rhetoric.” Media Systems 7. 23 September 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFaqguc_uNk
  • Boss, Emily Care. “Skin Deep.” WyrdCon Companion Book 2012: 50–54.
  • Carlson, Marvin. Theories of the Theatre. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.
  • Costikyan, Greg. Uncertainty in Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.
  • Fatland, Eirik. “What makes a character playable?” 2013.    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqGVD0W5dhM
  • Harviainen, J. Tuomas. “A Hermeneutical Approach to Role-Playing Analysis.” International Journal of Role-Playing 1 (2009): 66–78.
  • Jara, David. “A Closer Look at the (Rule-) Books: Framings and Paratexts in Tabletop Role-playing Games.” International Journal of Role-Playing 4 (2013): 39–54.
  • Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture. New York: New York UP, 2006.
  • Konzack, Lars. “Characterology in Tabletop Role-Playing Games: A Textual Analysis of Character Sheets.” WyrdCon Companion Book 2013. Sarah Lynne Bowman and Aaron Vanek, eds. Orange, CA: Wyrd Con, 2013: 86-93.
  • Montola, Markus. “The Invisible Rules of Role-Playing. The Social Framework of Role Playing Process.” International Journal of Role-Playing 1 (2009): 22–36.
  • ––– and Jaakko Stenros. Nordic Larp. Stockholm: Fea Livia, 2010.
  • Ottwalt, Ernst. “‘Tatsachenroman’ und Formexperiment: Eine Entgegnung an Georg Lukács.” Die Linkskurve 4.10 (October 1932): 22.
  • Perez, Daniel M. “A Character Sheet Is a Map.” 5 April, 2011. http://dmperez.com/2011/04/05/a-character-sheet-is-a-map/
  • Sandberg, Christopher. “Genesi. Larp Art, Basic Theories.” Beyond Role and Play. Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination. Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros, eds. Helsinki: Ropecon ry, 2004.
  • Salen, Katie & Eric Zimmerman. The Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.
  • Singles, Kathleen. Alternate History: Playing with Contingency and Necessity. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2013.
Cover photo: White Death, at Blackbox CPH (photo by Nina Runa Essendrop).

References   [ + ]

1. See Fatland, “What makes a character playable?”
2. Harviainen 66–67.
3. Montola 32.
4. Salen & Zimmerman 120.
5. Saler 28.
6. Bode 1.
7. Montola and Stenros 10.
8. See Perez.
9. Konzack 87.
10. See Jara.
11. Sandberg 274–279.
12. Singles 217.
13. Costikyan 102.
14. In practice, however, perhaps not.
15. Ottwalt 22.
16. See Bogost, “Procedural Rhetoric.”
17. Boss 50–54.

Authors

Evan Torner
Evan Torner (Ph.D. University of Massachusetts Amherst) is Assistant Professor of German Studies at the University of Cincinnati, where he also serves as Undergraduate Director of German Studies and the Director of the UC Game Lab. His fields of expertise include East German genre cinema, German film history, critical race theory, and science fiction. His secondary fields of expertise include role-playing game studies, Nordic larp, cultural criticism, electronic music and second-language pedagogy. He has written a variety of texts on RPGs, including his co-edited volume (with William J. White) Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media (McFarland, 2012) and articles related to post-larp depression, uncertainty, self-reflexivity, futurity, and combat in RPGs. He always wears a hat.
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