Where and When to Define the Character


#1

I just discovered CoG about a week ago, and have been testing out a lot of games. I’ve played five to completion, and started many more including some WIP, and hosted games. I’m planning on putting my own game together. I’d like to hear people’s thoughts on this question.

Most of the games i’ve played starting with C.o. Dragon, start you in the story and then sort of sneak in character building (selecting gender, name, etc.) as part of the early narrative. It is a little goofy in Dragon with the narrator who is telling you the story of your life asking for your name, description and so on, but at least that works with the comedic tone.

However, in all the examples i’ve seen it is at least somewhat awkward, inserting these questions in unnaturally, and often breaking the 4th wall.

In contrast most RPGs have you design your character before the story starts, as far as gender, name, appearance, origin without the complication of trying to work it into the narrative. Does no one do any of it this way? Is there some horrible failing with it that i’m not aware of?

My impulse at this point is to have those few personal details that can’t naturally emerge from choices (name, gender, place of origin, etc) straightforwardly filled in near the start, while any other character defining traits get included in the narrative. Things like “are you violent or peaceful”, or “lawful or chaotic”, IMHO are best defined by giving the player violent or peaceful choices to make as part of the main action of the story (or as flashback choices)

Of course this is complicated by the desire to have an exciting start to the story. I totally understand why most CoG stories start *in media res*, at some tense or exciting moment, and it is tricky making the players choices right from the start significant if he hasn’t yet defined who he is playing. Some games resolve this by making the first few choices “fake”, but that seems to me a rather bad way to introduce a CoG story, and isn’t trilling for replays.


#2

If it’s modern it could be a job application and then for gender you choose what bathroom you go to.


#3

Nothing wrong at all with what you’re suggesting – give it a try and see how it reads! But I think you’ve already answered your question about what others see as the “horrible failing” to be avoided. Many authors fear that starting a story with a string of barefaced char-gen choices will be boring and less immersive than starting it as, well, a story. In the trade-off between boring and awkward, they go with the latter. (Sometimes nudged by CoG, who encourage in media res beginnings as editorial policy).

Between (a) an explicit character generation sequence before the fourth wall comes down and (b) some later mild fourth-wall breaking, which you consider more “awkward” might be influenced by whether you expect IF to be more like a computer RPG or a tabletop RPG. The CoG house style, in which the text is second-person but your “answers” to the choices are first-person, is explicitly intended to evoke a tabletop vibe – and the semi-active narrator who occasionally makes some side comment before continuing the story is consistent with that vibe, too.

I agree that there are some tortured char-gen choices out there – mainly from writers trying to find an original way to work the choice of gender into the story. (At this point if I saw one that’s both original and good, I’d be impressed and astonished in equal measure).

But do you really think none of them do it smoothly? I’ll see if I can find some examples where I think it was done well; I certainly don’t see any reason why choice of name, gender, etc. needs to be awkward in a story.


#4

@ Havenstone

Many authors fear that starting a story with a string of barefaced char-gen choices will be boring and less immersive than starting it as, well, a story.

Yeah, i get that. But that is also avoided if you have some sort of prologue, or if you have your hook scene and then go to a char gen to build your character.

…which you consider more “awkward” might be influenced by whether you expect IF to be more like a computer RPG or a tabletop RPG. The CoG house style, in which the text is second-person but your “answers” to the choices are first-person, is explicitly intended to evoke a tabletop vibe…

Thanks, that is very helpful to understand where they are coming from.

That hasn’t felt right to me, and i’ve been seriously considering writing in first person. The thing generally that feels awkward to me is anything increasing the distance between the narrator and the reader, emphasizing that they know different things whatever. Choice of Robots (if i recall correctly), downplayed the narrator as a distinct person more than any other CoG i’ve played, and i found that to be the most compelling and seamless reading experience yet.

But do you really think none of them do it smoothly?

I wouldn’t go that far, but most of what i read has seemed at least at one point awkward and contrived. But to flip the question around, i can’t think of a single example where the contrived narrative around these choices was a compelling and important part of the story, except possible in Dragon where they played it for laughs.

Also it kind of bugs me to be forced into making choices before i know who the protagonist is. That may just be me-- i’m the kind of table-top role-player who wants to have my basic backstory down before i do anything.

@Dark_Stalker

If it’s modern it could be a job application and then for gender you choose what bathroom you go to.

Yeah, i’m not saying that there’s never a way to work it into the narrative, but for the vast majority of stories, choosing which public restroom to use isn’t going to drive the plot forward.


#5

As far as I know, nobody’s tried to do something other than a diegetic character generation sequence. While CoG does indeed encourage authors to go for an in media res opening, there’s nothing stopping you from trying out a chargen sequence entirely removed from the main story in a hosted game.


#6

Yep – try it out, and let’s see how it feels. You might start a new trend.


#7

If I recall correctly, The Race starts right out with character creation.

Personally, though, I prefer having the creation mixed into the narrative so it doesn’t break my immersion. That, and it’s usually more clever that way, at least in my opinion.


#8

@ Havenstone, @Cataphrak

I’ll certainly start out that way-- it is more efficient.


#9

I am starting out with gen creation, mixing a bit of fun with. The story really does not start until the gen is complete.


#10

I find that while choices is what it’s all about, choice after choice after choice, just for the sake of entering names and personal details can be rather dulling. Which is why I’m including random pre-generated characters in addition to the normal intro.

But yeah I did try and get all that over with at the start rather than spacing them out throughout the story having to wait for an opportunity to make said choices as I wanted to establish the base identity of the mc from the start.


#11

@MutonElite
Oddly enough, I did the exact opposite thing with Mecha Ace: hell, you don’t even get to enter your character’s *name* until the beginning of the second act!

I’d like to see how people respond to these divergent schools of character development, if nothing else, so I can refine the process into a better one for future projects.


#12

I’ve also got a very spread-out process in Choice of Rebels, on the idea that a choice doesn’t matter until it matters – you don’t need to set orientation before the story gets to a potential love interest – and that a whole lot of up front chargen choices break the story rhythm. But I’m sure that won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and am interested to see people try different things.


#13

@Cataphrak

Oddly enough, I did the exact opposite thing with Mecha Ace: hell, you don’t even get to enter your character’s *name* until the beginning of the second act!

I’d like to see how people respond to these divergent schools of character development, if nothing else, so I can refine the process into a better one for future projects.

The way you handled it in Mecha Ace was pretty smooth. I didn’t really notice the protagonist hadn’t been named. The only moment that interrupted the narrative was choosing your gender, and that wasn’t bad. But on the other hand, you don’t have a lot of stats and background that you needed the player to define – which perhaps is just good planning.

@Havenstone

I’ve also got a very spread-out process in Choice of Rebels, on the idea that a choice doesn’t matter until it matters –

Sure. But the question is what kinds of stuff matter from the start? Perhaps it depends on the kind of story that’s being told and how much breadth to customize your character you have. I’ve played too many of these and had too busy of a week to remember which ones made me wish I knew who i was playing sooner.

Some bits of info are integral to the role that’s being played, while others can be added and improvised as the story progresses. If i’m playing the first couple scenes as a relatively normal person, then suddenly i’m given the choice define my character as an undercover cop or an informant for the mafia, i’d feel that was a violation. Keeping important secrets about the MC (that the MC would know) from the player seems like a cheap trick, and maybe all the previous choices i’ve made would have been different if i only knew who i was. Somebody could probably do that and make it good, but this is just an example.


#14

@eleazzaar
Good planning? More like the high volume of helpful feedback I got from my beta testers.

If I have any advice to give at all, it’d be to be prepared to modify character generation in response to feedback.


#15

I know i’m a new guy, and haven’t actually done anything to prove to anyone (or my self) that i have any idea of what i’m talking about.

Trying to explain thing is one of the main ways i test and try out ideas and opinions. So take all my statements with an implied:

“This is what makes the most sense to me right now. Feel free to point out holes in my reasoning, facts i haven’t considered, or contradict with the knowledge of experience.”


#16

@eleazzaar

I’d say that’s a very reasonable way to go about introducing yourself.

On topic, I can appreciate either option, but I slightly prefer COGs that invest you in the story before springing customization tweaks upon you.

In my own game I opted to open with a prologue that immerses you and lets you make a critical decision, but saves all char-gen questions for later during a flashback sequence – a tactic I “borrowed” from @Havenstone’s Choice of Rebels, which had my favorite approach to the issue.


#17

I agree that springing a surprise on the reader is a big deal – the CoG version of Fight Club would be even harder to do well than a non-interactive version – and that a reader should ideally never react, “oh, now that I know that bit of MC knowledge, I’d have made all those other choices differently.”

Thanks, St Nick – glad you liked it. :slight_smile:


#18

@Havenstone “oh, now that I know that bit of MC knowledge, I’d have made all those other choices differently.”

Exactly. That’s why I opted to establish the identity of the mc from the start, plus that it comes into play rather quickly in either rate. I’m a frequent user of the stats page, and when I don’t know who my character is, why would I care about said character? I would most likely be much more reckless in my choices for one thing. To ease it smoothly into the narrative is one thing but I would definately do it sooner than later.


#19

Personally, I was drawn to Choice of Games because I am more of a reader than a gamer (though I do play some RPGs), so I prefer when the character creation is built into the narrative, even if it is a little awkward. Most books don’t fully define the main character up front; they slowly reveal their identity and personality to the reader. It’s not just about tabletop RPGs versus computer RPGs, it’s also about whether the reader views CoGs as books or games. If you’re writing a CoG as a game and your target audience is gamers, then you should probably place a character creation sequence up front before starting the story. If you’re writing it as a story meant to be read by bookworms, you should probably integrate the character creation into the narrative.


#20

I have now played @Havenstone’s Choice of Rebels (at least far enough to start a rebellion then get bogged down in over-idealistic and bad choices) The player character defining was pretty smooth, and over all had pretty much a novel-like feel, but i admit to feeling a bit like i was floundering at first not really knowing who i was or my place in the world, which i didn’t at first understand. If i was just reading a story, i’d be perfectly happy with being thrown into such a world that’s not explained from the start, but i was less comfortable with that where i must be a decision-maker.

For the record i’m a gamer and reader to an approximately equal degree.

@Mirabella

It’s not just about tabletop RPGs versus computer RPGs, it’s also about whether the reader views CoGs as books or games. If you’re writing a CoG as a game and your target audience is gamers, then you should probably place a character creation sequence up front before starting the story. If you’re writing it as a story meant to be read by bookworms, you should probably integrate the character creation into the narrative.

While certainly some CoGs are more game-y, and some are more book-y, I think all CoG creations will have at least a little of both. For best results i don’t think you can ignore either aspect, though you may emphasize one or the other.