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RPG theory/design/philosophy journal
18th-Oct-2006 05:41 pm
chiang 2
Why don't I post to more threads, instead preferring to just snipe from my LJ?

I think it's partly because forum discussions have a way of getting out of hand as multiple people line up on each side of an issue. There are people I'd just as soon ignore which I can't, because their inane comments get picked up by the thread at large. And then there are people whom I'd just as soon not have on my side but I'd rather not waste time disowning.

On top of that, I often feel like the comments I have are, in a way, a threadjack. Not really on topic, but not worth starting a new thread over.

Anway, "So, what's deprotagonization anyway?" is indeed worth a look, at least at this moment, mainly because of the contributions of Marco, Brand Robins, and walkerp.

What I find especially interesting is the connection between "genre" and the subjective experience of deprotagonization. Marco basically steps into the conversation with a set of descriptive definitions--what the word means as various people use it--while walkerp and Brand offer prescriptive or normative definitions. Marco's first and third defintions jibe with how walkerp and Brand use the term: deprotagonization is when you think you're the protagonist of one kind of story only to find that "what you can do as your character" is nothing to do with that kind of story.

E.g. (stolen from the thread), if you know you're in a zombie horror flick, it's not deprotagonizing to have your brain eaten. That's what you're there for, arguably, the sense of creeping doom. OTOH, if you expect to kick ass with a shotgun, cut off some heads with chainsaws, and then save the town, getting turned into a zombie halfway through the game is deprotagonizing.

That's basically the argument. I'm probably not doing it full justice and in any case it's easier to understand in terms of the cool super spy or muscle-y barbarian who fumbles (as Brand offers in his example).

But the funny thing is (yes, here's my gotcha), the concept here depends on supporting genre expectations instead of challenging them. In those terms, is demanding protagonization a form of insisting on safe play? Possibly, although one could equally say that it's a form of focus, a way to get to interesting questions instead of being bogged down. E.g., if you are interested in playing out a PC's efforts to rescue his girlfriend from the villain, you could be honestly interested in whether he succeeds or not. Like, if you compare the comic-book and film versions of Spider-Man's conflict with the Green Goblin (comic book: Gwen Stacy dies; film: Mary Jane lives): you can see that both work. Neither is "deprotagonizing". But it would be if it was a game where the player had no input into the outcome. Suppose the GM had already determined the result--here, really, there's no way the GM could legitimately argue about "realism" if the kidnapping was itself a result of GM discretion. Or if the kidnapping had been something that the player was given a fair chance to prevent, would it be "good GMing" to subsequently play out the bridge scene knowing that Gwen was dead (or going to die from whiplash)? Or would it just be jerking the player around? And furthermore how worthwhile would it be if the hero doesn't even make it to the big fight because of a traffic jam, a flat tire or something?

(Please don't tell me that Spidey wouldn't have to worry about traffic. Look beyond the crappiness of the example if you can. Thanks.)

Personally I do not know where I stand on all of this. I find the idea of the spy spilling a drink on himself while trying to be suave to be somewhat liberating, actually, because it means the game isn't bound to genre conventions. On the other hand, genre may often be necessary just to get the game off the ground. Not many people would engage in the endeavors of the typical PC, if they expected to encounter the sorts of things that the player of that PC actually wants to have happen, and then experience the realistic consequences of those things. Consciousness of genre is one thing that helps bridge the gap.
19th-Oct-2006 03:55 am (UTC)
I think genre is part of the ground rules that people agree to -- the limiting expectations that allow for common ground.

This doesn't mean that any given genre, at any given time, has to be part of these ground rules -- the idea of genre-breaking is a core and key part of RPGing -- the feeling that you can make fun of, or, in fact, cast off genre silliness like, say, Star Trek characters only using insanely powerful magical transporter tricks as the plot allows. But by deciding on common ground -- whether it's genre, character stats/system, background, or whatever, your making it much less likely that any player will need to block any other player -- and avoiding unecessary backtracking is a key to having a coherent, engaging, and fun game.
19th-Oct-2006 11:42 am (UTC)
Not to deny any of that, the trick is connecting genre to "protagonization".

Maybe because I've been reading a lot of threads about Conflict Resolution, or maybe because Brand's examples in that thread are ones that are often used to show the benefits of "fortune in the middle" (FitM) type resolution systems, but I'm once against drawn to the division between simulative mechanics and thematic mechanics.

FitM is often advanced on the grounds that it allows the outcome of dicerolls to be narrated in such a way as to avoid "deprotagonization". Thus the superspy who fumbles in an attempt to use Seduction does not spill wine all over himself; instead, the intent behind the Seduction roll (say, getting some information) is thwarted in a way that doesn't violate the player's image of the spy. The target deflects the attempt with her own witty repartee, and then the villain's toughs rough up the spy in an alleyway. Or the target does sleep with the spy, but she gives him false information.

However, this approach also risks making an RPG more and more like a boardgame...

(continued later...I haven't really made my point yet)
19th-Oct-2006 08:45 pm (UTC)
Hm...did I have a point? Below, Marco's underlined the fact that as a Forge term of art, "deprotagonization" only applies to Narrativism. It makes perfect sense in that context, but the term is problematic if you try to find analogs in the other GNS "modes", let alone if you think that GNS is flawed, along with the concept of Addressing Premise that marks the border between Narrativism and other modes.

Therefore if I want to use the term at all I need to return to first principles. I think the essence of "deprotagonization" is "feeling like your character doesn't really matter to the narrative". Where "narrative" means "all the stuff that happens", and "matter" is, alas, a subjective value.

(Also, I'm assuming that we are working under the traditional GM/player split in RPGs. I think that "deprotagonization" ceases to be meaningful when the PC is no longer the player's primary interface with the game. At most we could talk about a related phenomenon where nothing the player does matters to the narrative.)

Then we hit "genre", and as Marco alludes we need to tread carefully here. I think the key is to connect "genre" (or some replacement concept on the social level) to "narrative" and "matters". I suspect what I'll end up doing is teasing apart the difference between "what my character does doesn't matter" and "my character can't do the cool stuff that I have in my mind's eye".

And then I'd like to look back at something that Paul Czege wrote some ways back on rpg.net where he described the skills of a character as being something like "the dimensions of protagonization" in a game.
25th-Oct-2006 09:23 pm (UTC)
(I found the Paul Czege thread...linked below.
19th-Oct-2006 11:41 am (UTC)
As for genre and subjectivity:

1. GNS dialog recognizes that genre is a fairly useless term. I do not think canonical GNS thought would agree that deprotagoinzation is based on the concept of genre. Rather, it is based (as stated) on a Narrativist context (i.e. removing the ability to address Premise).

2. I play many (most?) games that are off genre. I would have a hard time categorizing my AP examples with regards to genre ... does that mean I can't be deprotagonized? I doubt it. However, it does mean that where I draw the line will vary from game to game and character to character ... and that, without being very explicit about some very fuzzy concepts (what's the Premise for this character/scenario/campaign/... scene) it'll be impossible for the GM to line up.

How do we resolve this? Well Ron's recent thread about Bangs and Illusionism is interesting: by setting the context of GM-input (i.e. I know the GM can throw *anything* at me--but I know that once the GM has established the context that I can answer the question) then it's easier to understand whether or not the GM's input is negating my own.

On the downside, even in a game like Sorcerer or (even more constrained on the GM side) DitV the stated limits on what a GM can do may lead to very, very, very differently styled games.

Conclusion: the term is useful as the starting point for a complaint--but it isn't something the GM (or other players) will necessarily *know* they are doing before they do it.

19th-Oct-2006 07:09 pm (UTC)
Maybe genre is a subset of "stuff I think should/will/would be plausible to happen"? Likewise, maybe deprotagonisation ought to have some relation to that?

-Tommi Brander
(Deleted comment)
25th-Oct-2006 11:34 am (UTC)
I'm glad we agree. I'm fascianted that there is a discipline called "genre theory." I want to hear more about that! (seriously).

24th-Oct-2006 11:48 pm (UTC)
N.B. Some more thoughts over at RPG Theory Review
(Deleted comment)
2nd-Nov-2006 04:51 am (UTC)
Hey, Brand, I feel somewhat remiss at not acknowledging your comments here and over at Mendel's blog. Not for lack of appreciation, just not anything immediately to add.

Thanks for posting those links above.
25th-Oct-2006 09:15 pm (UTC)
Note similar thoughts by David R. in this rpg.net thread:
Now, for me the whole question of deprotagonism could occur in three situations.

1 - The GM is going on some power trip, and turning the game into his own personal sandbox, pissing on the players for his amusement.

2 - The player, is just being a whiny git whose does not like bad shit happening to his character .

3 - There is a genuine disconnect between the GM and players as to the nature of how the game is being run or played. In other words, there is no consensus between either parties as to the nature of the game.
Number 1 is the "bad storytelling GM who uses anything from outright cheating, to discretionary rulings that steer the narrative along the path of his story, to GM's pet-NPCs". Number 2 is the notional munchkin cloaked in Narrativism that Balbinus wrote about in PTGPTB. Number 3 is "finding out you're in a different kind of story than you thought you were".

Ah, and here is the link to the thread where Paul Czege made the comment about protagonization: compact skill lists in fantasy RPGs. Paul was especially interested in
games where the skill list is granular enough to not be general categories, but where the designers still worked to keep the skill list focused. These are games that I think more openly betray some of how their designers personally define fantasy (as apart from games where the designers leave more of that definition of protagonism in fantasy up to the individual game group, via large skill lists, "define your own" skills mechanics, or small lists of broadly defined skills largely left open to interpretation)
There's evidently a strong connection in Paul's mind between "what the character can do" and the "definition of fantasy" . Dare I say, without having reviewed Brand's links above, the boundaries of the fantasy genre?

Taking into account the "Narrativist" context of "protagonism"--that is, viewing the game as a story whose theme is genuinely affected by the player's input--then the idea here is that the character's impact on the story is shaped by mechanical attributes. Or another way of saying it, the type of story which the roleplaying group can collaboratively produce about a given character, via the mechanics, is shaped by the mechanical representation of that character.
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