Part 2 of ? In the Cultivating a Storytelling Mindset series
I used to work as a tour guide. The guy who owned the company was a Marine and an aspiring novelist. He had some amazing stories, as many thoughtful military folks do. On a multi-day through-hike gig, he was explaining how he was going to write his next story: “The hero is gonna be like me but, you know, way cooler and more competent.” Literally everyone on the trip, from the other guides to the guests, all shook our heads. Gritted teeth and everything.
Nah, brah. That’s not storytelling. That’s…something else. Charitably, I think he was just ignorant about why we’re drawn to narratives.
Everyone knows this, right? At least I had assumed everyone knew. This aspiring novelist friend just didn’t. Going forward (this was about 15 years ago) I no longer make that assumption, particularly among gamers. Especially among gamers whose play training has taught them to prioritize winning, even if that was never their play goal.
Part 1 of the series was an essay for GMs/facilitators/MCs to think about narrative tension: how to find, apply, build and resolve it. So I’m going to talk to players next about how to cultivate a storytelling mindset on their side of the game.
But First: Games Are Not Stories, Stories Are Not Games
Here’s a big one I want to get out of the way, something I should have covered in in part 1. There are some important differences between conventional storytelling, and cultivating the mindset of storytelling to enrich or direct roleplaying.
The big one, for me, is that stories are written by authors, who have a whole range of tools at their disposal that we (conventionally) don’t at a table. The most important tool in my mind is that stories – short stories, novels, screenplays, theatrical work – are written from start to finish, revised, and delivered complete to an uninvolved audience. An audience has a very different relationship with the work, right?
By contrast, players have a very different relationship to gameplay than an audience does to a story. Not quite author, not quite audience, kind of both. There’s uncertainty in the outcomes, and alchemy in how this particular table of players’ inputs will combine.
Okay. That’s out of the way.
Characterization Is About Transformation
Okay, so you’re a player and you want to cultivate a storytelling mindset. I would propose this means thinking about characters as being in perpetual transformation. Characterization is about transformation. That’s my assertion and I’m sticking to it.
I’ve seen advice over the years to come up with a catchphrase or mannerism but that seem like the bare minimum, a quick coat of paint over your character’s stats and abilities. It’s garbage advice that has nothing to do with storytelling.
The reason I want to talk first about stories ≠ games ≠ stories is that authored stories have a beginning and an end. They end eventually, at which point a character’s transformation is over. But since games ≠ stories, we need to think about transformation a little differently. We need to build in ways to make transformation durable. Hell, we need to make transformation perpetual if we go with the default RPG assumption that campaigns proceed “forever.”
(NB: “Play forever” is a terrible assumption and I would argue the reason players treat a character as a tactical asset: this is my playing piece, and it gets more effective over time as the challenge escalates. And it speaks in a funny voice.)
But what about comics and sitcoms? Yup, definitely, there are genres and forms where characters essentially remain unchanged. Everything they do is an expression of essentially unchanging character rules: Wolverine is a cynical smartass with a heart of gold, Seinfeld and Newman are frenemies bound by fate. I would contend that their characterizations are still about transformation! But only within the scope of an episode. Their transformations are temporary, and we return to the familiar starting positions at the end. That’s fine, and I would propose that intentionally leaning into that is a fine approach. It is, in fact, probably the default “how to roleplay” approach when all you have or want is mannerisms.
Still with me? Storytelling mindset characterization in an RPG means having the capacity for ongoing transformation, ideally (but not necessarily) arriving at a clear finale.
Internal vs External Characterization
Here are a couple ideas to think through:
- Internal characterization is about the attitudes, beliefs, goals and emotions of the character. Everything inside their skull.
- External characterization is about how the character acts on those internal elements to change their world.
Internal characterization is super interesting to me because there’s a necessarily blurry zone between the invented headspace of a character and the actual headspace of the player. Where’s the line? Is there one? Do you wind up your character and then let them toddle off on their own, playing in as principled way as possible? Are you ever really capable of being hands-off? Is every character really just a funhouse projection of the player?
I don’t have answers for these questions and I suspect it’s different for everyone. Some folks are more able to hold multiple conflicting ideas in their minds, or being dispassionate observers, or strong advocates.
External characterization is where the rubber meets the road. Your character believes in something just plain wrong (by design, so they can transform their beliefs), so what happens when they act on it? What about pursuing their goals, or bringing their values into conflict? How will they change the world, and how is the world changing them? (A topic for another day!)
This is all pure storytelling mindset play and flies in the face of tactical play, so make darned sure the other players understand where you’re coming from.
A Few Techniques
Now that you’re sold on the power and purpose of storytelling-mindset character play, how do you do it? Here are a few approaches.
A Litany of Flaws
If you’re trying to characterize with a storytelling mindset, start by thinking about the ways in which the character is flawed. If you’re looking to bolster the character’s strengths, you’re coming at it from a winning mindset. A storytelling mindset can, I think, be described as playing to lose. But in the losing, the character is transformed and their flaws are transformed. Maybe not cured! But transformed flaws will certainly look different.
First off, think through their internal flaws. Make sure however you’ve built your character’s internal landscape, it’s capable of transformation through play:
- Let them believe things that are wrong, like, factually incorrect.
- Put them in conflict with other characters’ values.
- Embed your character in their world: how do they feel about current events? What goals do they have relative to how their world impacts them?
Next, think about the flawed ways characters can act in service to their internal flaws. Incorrect beliefs, conflicting values and setting-grounded characteristics will probably prompt you to play your character in a way that might look irrational, so make sure the players at the table understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. If everyone’s on board with a storytelling mindset, “it’s what my character would do” shouldn’t be a problem.
One of my favorite characterization tricks comes from GMful games like Montsegur 1244 and Inheritance. In those games, the player is directed to work toward answering several questions about the character’s underlying motives and values. You don’t just, you know, answer them though. You spend time exploring the questions, by showing rather than telling.
For example, in Montsegur 1244, the lord of the castle, Raimond, has three questions that direct his play: “Do you regret offering Montsegur as home for the Cathars?” and “Why is your left leg stiff?” (intended to bring his history into play) and “Who of your beloved ones is most dear to you?” (so you’re forced to think about how you relate to your family, and choose a favorite).
In Inheritance, the priestess Gefjon has beliefs and goals (because it’s a distant relative to Burning Wheel): “My daughter will marry whom I choose” (to force action against another character), “I laugh at any fool who defies the Norns/Odin” (because someone else in the setting is gonna do that) and “I will punish the kinslayer” (putting her at odds with the patriarch of the scenario). Different approach, more goal-oriented, but still results in her transformation through play.
You can do this in a plain old tabletop rpg as well. After character creation and situation/setting setup, most games (at least informally) have the players introduce their characters, right? I mean, that’s at least good practice. During that step, ask the other players what questions they have about how your character thinks, what they believe in, or what their goals might be. Don’t answer those things right away! Write them down, and come back to them through your play. Write them down not only to remember, but to solidify and commit to answering them.
In those example games, the questions are carefully designed to generate maximum friction. That won’t happen at your table but it’s still a good exercise.
If you’ve got a good sense of your game’s narrative arcs, or if your facilitator has identified that you’re ending or starting an arc, revisit your questions. Maybe you’ve answered them to your satisfaction? This is an internal thing that ideally you’ll express at the table (either through verbalized internal monologue or through your character’s actions).
Some games are built with character transformation already baked into gameplay.
Burning Wheel is still, to my mind, best in class for transformative play. The interaction of Beliefs, Instincts and Traits (BITs) is incentivized with an elaborate currency: for being influenced by the BIT, or when BITs come into conflict, or when a BIT is resolved. The table regularly votes to give one another Traits (not always flattering ones!) based on how they’ve been played. Those Traits evolve into better, more mechanically toothsome benefits. And the GM is tasked specifically with challenging the characters’ Beliefs, which is a terrific, organic way to accrete a situation around the characters.
Tenra Bansho Zero has an economic incentive for players to address and resolve Fates throughout a session. Fates are a lot like Beliefs, but in TBZ the goal is to churn through them fast fast fast. The vibe is melodramatic and occasionally chaotic, much like anime.
Legacy and other games that derive from it are tuned to show off character transformation. The game is played both at a very high level to show the passage of time, and up close and personal to highlight moments of the characters’ lives. But they advance by taking on new “roles,” and after they’ve taken four of them it’s time to move on. So there’s both a structure and an incentive to come at the character in terms of transformation.
Keys-based games like The Shadow of Yesterday, Lady Blackbird or Cartel offer a direct advancement incentive for playing toward the “Key” (basically a lengthy pre-created Belief), or a one-time larger incentive to refute/cash in the Key and choose something else.
Other games come with clear end-points, allowing the player to charge hard toward a particular transformation with a satisfying ending.
Apocalypse World was the first game I ran into that offered “retire in peace” as an advancement. It’s a direct refutation of the “play forever”/”play until the PC is killed” mold, and is surprisingly powerful in the hands of players who want to complete an arc for their character.
Burning Empires has all the same good transformative stuff as Burning Wheel, plus a couple options for a clear endgame: either at the end of one of the three phases, or after playing all three. The game will end, and however the character ended up is how they ended up. You can play that intentionally or just step back and watch what happens when you’re principled about playing toward your character’s BITs.
And still others are actively bad for this kind of transformative character play.
Band of Blades I found hard to play with transformation in mind. The bulk of play is about getting through the campaign, and you explicitly don’t play the same characters from session to session. Each mission in the campaign is tuned with one or two playbooks in mind, and you’re as likely as not to be playing a recruit rather than your own character. Probably if you slowed down play and didn’t try to push a mission every session, there may be more time to explore character transformation.
I find the overall mechanical vibe of Forged in the Dark games – the mission/downtime split, the emphasis on competency as the main advancement goal – to be not-conducive to characterization, much less transformative characterization, but I think that’s on me. The Stress mechanic of many of these games, in which your character is permanently damaged when they’ve gained too much of it, is transformative but also uniformly negative and itself immune to further transformation. Your character’s “reckless” or “unstable” or whatever becomes a mannerism, a shtick.
In Circle of Hands, the players create a shared pool of characters and are prohibited from playing the same character twice. Formally it’s an interesting exercise in seeing what different “writers” do with the same character, but since there’s not much to go on other than directly observed play, we found it hard to create any sense of continuity from player to player. The internal tensions weren’t conveyed between plays.
Read The Table
Last thought: not all games work well with players trying to bring a storytelling mindset to their play. A game focused on tactics and overcoming obstacles is probably not improved by players working on their characters’ transformative journeys. I mean, maybe it can be! But that’s a table-culture thing. I would definitely not push an internal transformative journey at a table that didn’t agree to it.
As with all storytelling mindset play, you can’t pre-play the outcome. That’s the main space between writing a story and playing a game. Playing to find out introduces risk and uncertainty, to both external and internal narratives. Lean into that uncertainty and let your characters surprise and dismay you.
Part 3 of the series will be about how players decide what to care about. Because caring about things is central to cultivating a storytelling mindset.