Saturday, April 14, 2012

Infinite Earths Preview: No Story on the Character Sheet

Today we're going to talk a little more about the ramifications of our approach to keeping setting and the rules separate.

GMs want to tell the stories they want to tell; and Players want to be the characters they want to be.  By keeping setting and ruleset separate, we can develop a ruleset that GMs can use no matter what setting they prefer to tell their stories in; they are not restricted, by the rules, to being in a world they don't care for.
 
Similarly, we want the players to be able to play the characters that interest them without running the risk of being told, "you're playing your character incorrectly."  The character sheet, to our minds, should contain the information required to numerically arbitrate contentious situations:  did you hit, or not?  Does the NPC agree with you, or not?  Have you accomplished what you set out to do, or did you fail to do so through some combination of circumstance and chance?
 
So we've gotten rid of, on the character sheet, all "story" information.  That includes such old standbys as alignment, social advantages and disadvantages, and the like.  By doing so, we tighten the character sheet so that it is merely a set of statistics, devoid of life or personality.
 
Well, you're saying to yourself.  That doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun.
 
But this approach is actually designed to ensure that players can play their characters as they see fit.  There is no danger of the GM saying, "I don't think your Lawful Good Paladin would behave that way."  That allows for flexibility on the part of the player.

This also enables character evolution.  A character who's locked into a certain set of personality traits at character creation often never grows or develops past them--and while this can (and has) been argued as a problem with the player, a problem with the GM, and a problem with the system, the fact of the matter is that it is, to a degree, a problem.  If all the adventures a character goes on do not change him or her in some way, then they have had no impact--no import.

And as developers of a system designed to aid in storytelling, we want every action a character takes to have importance, and to have consequences.

And that's where the GM fits in.  By not having story information on the character sheet, the GM is freed from having to arbitrate whether or not a player is playing his character correctly, and can instead focus on the story being told.  By focusing on the story, the GM can develop the actions and reactions of the NPCs around the actions of the players, and evolve the story through that interaction.

For example, let's say a character who is always portrayed as a nice guy, loving and caring and sweet, by the player is, once combat roles around, is a brutal fighter who takes every advantage and doesn't hesitate to murder whoever fights back.  No talking, no surrender.

That character might be perceived by NPCs as a loose cannon or a person who must be placated, because he's kind of a berserker.  Which, the NPCs may wonder, is the facade:  the smiling sweetheart, or the bloody monster?

The NPCs' reactions might then, in turn, invoke different kinds of roleplaying on the part of the character.  Perhaps, seeing fear in their eyes, the player decides that perhaps he's going too far, and reins in his bloodthirst.  Or perhaps, seeing that same fear, he decides he likes that effect, it makes him feel like he's getting things done more easily than with smiles and politeness, and pushes aside the nice-guy persona.

With character traits such as "nice guy" and "caring" or "neutral good" on the character sheet, the GM may feel he needs to step in and say, from a rules-perspective, that the character isn't really demonstrating those traits, thereby instructing the player how to play.  But without those on the character sheet, the player is free to make his own choices, and the GM can frame the story around those choices, ultimately making for a richer and more collaborative experience.

And that's what Infinite Earths is all about.

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