Sandbox Theorycrafting 1 - Game v. Art

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Sandbox Theorycrafting 1 - Game v. Art

Post by Total Experience » Mon Apr 20, 2020 11:13 pm

Thread One - Game v. Art
As I work on wrapping up one character and generating new ones, something that's come to my mind is different versions of RPG "playstyle" that different users in the sandbox may have. I think these playstyles are in competition to a certain degree, and nobody falls strictly into either category; I find myself torn between the two and find that leaning too hard into either can cause an RPG to go totally off the rails and turn into a bad time. This is compounded by the fact that there are other people involved in the experience, and if they have different expectations for what an RP will consist of, then there can be tension that springs from the conflict.

I think there is a profound and interesting tension between the "game" playstyle of RP and "art" playstyle of RP. All characters have components in them which lend themselves more or less to both playstyles. I don't think that one is superior to the other, though I think that most people do have a preference between the two. I don't consider either of them as having more merit or signifying anything about the writer / player themselves, as both have positives and negatives attached. These are my opinions and are based on personal observations of how RPs develop.

First, I'll give some examples below of when I lean into the "game" playstyle and the effects this has on writing.


The "Game" Playstyle

The game aspect of RP centers around making cool stuff and seeing interactions between cool things play out IC. I think this is best exemplified by intricate bios with advanced powersets, weapons blogs that get referenced in-canon, having fortified locations which amplify a character's IC strengths, and a sort of "grand strategy" that seeks to change something about how the universe itself works. While winning and losing isn't a necessary or essential attribute to the game playstyle, I think that it is often a component, such that if a character loses a fight, the player running that character will want the loss to feel earned.

I think the best examples of the game playstyle are those concepts which put the emphasis on combat and combat-related interactions. Conflict is essential to most stories, and is in fact a staple of the superhero genre. Furthermore, most serious players don't expect this conflict to resolve in one RP, so they'll equip their characters with the abilities or resources to enter into campaigns against other characters or concepts. Combat-oriented RPs that purposefully offer less in the way of backstory for the purpose of facilitating conflict are good examples of RPs which cater more to the game playstyle.

Another aspect of the game playstyle is openness. Players who conform more to this approach don't like to see the outcome of an RP before it starts, because if it's "on-rails," there's no room to test one's skills, as it were, against another player. Because of the rules which surround selling (effectively promising a roughly equal playing ground) people who get really into "winning the game" might be expected to try to outwit other writers in various ways or back their characters into a corner in which they must either sell or look cheap. There's openness in terms of how a plot will go at the outset, but people who lean heavily into this playstyle will make efforts to give their characters an advantage. After a number of RPs, there may be an expectation for how a plot will go, but this is usually based on the "moves" that have been made before. Players want consistency, not a railroaded ending, though it may be easy to confuse the two. The game playstyle shows up more often in Open RPs.

I think that a great example of an RP which exemplifies the game playstyle is Flower on the Tracks. This RP includes a collection of characters with interesting abilities and creates a situation in which fun interactions can occur. It's not necessary to have backstory with the Lotus Clan to get involved. The RP is open to all comers; pretty much anything can happen. The plot is fight-oriented, too, and you see characters debuting or intervening who have interesting powersets.

Another example that comes to my mind of the game playstyle is any time a character runs for office IC or stories about reputation in general. A player might want to make their superteam the most popular superteam IC, which naturally involves making it the most popular OOC so that others will sell it as such. Likewise, the victor of a campaign for office IC is whoever is voted for OOC, and so the writing becomes more competitive to try and garner votes. Deterrence was a political concept of mine, for example, that was about winning fights against invasion-type characters and concepts. It was effectively a campaign to change something IC that also expected a competitive response from other writers.


Strengths of the "Game" Playstyle
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First, winning is satisfying. This is especially the case if you're writing an intelligent character who manages to outwit another character in a way that hasn't been pre-arranged OOC. It can also be enjoyable to make appeals to the logic of the universe in which we operate and use real-world knowledge to back someone into a corner. If you succeed in presenting your interpretation of events to a group (i.e. saying "this is how X government would react to an alien invasion) then you've "won" in another sense. It can be extremely gratifying to plan for certain outcomes and have your characters benefit from this foresight.

Second, players who take the "game" approach are usually less concerned about abrupt tonal shifts, lapses in logic, contrivances, etc. - all things which are a natural part of a collaborative writing experience. Things are a little less serious because there's an "it's for fun" aspect to this mindset. The same goes for grammatical mistakes or lore inconsistencies. Unless it matters to whether or not a person can achieve their goals (or it breaks the rules), interacting with strange or goofy characters is usually not a problem for players who have this mindset.

Third, "game" characters are more adaptive. They usually have no fixed arc and so are more malleable. People like to see their creations affecting other characters, and because there's usually no big arc planned with a game character, there's an opportunity for people to sell harder, undergo personality or alignment changes, and evolve along with the setting. If there's nothing planned out for a game character's benefit, you might see them take on an important role in another character's story, or find themselves unexpectedly transformed into a protagonist or antagonist.

Fourth, "game" characters are usually (from what I have observed) less serious than "art" characters. They are usually (though not always) more exaggerated in terms of their personalities and powers. We are also usually introduced to them in medias res, meaning we don't have to worry about an origin story for them. They are also usually built to last; with no fixed arcs in mind, one doesn't have to worry about the character ending unless they die. This is mostly a matter of personal preference. I count this as a strength, though it can also be a weakness, as I'll go over in the next section.


Weaknesses of the "Game" Playstyle
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The greatest weakness of the game mindset is that it is at risk of turning corrosively competitive instead of constructively competitive. There are certainly times when I have no-sold someone because I was wrapped up in a competitive mindset and thought that they didn't earn a hit on one of my characters. Nobody no-sells intentionally; it's either an accident when you're new, or an error in judgment when you're experienced. If people have different expectations for what ought to "work" as a combat move, then there's going to be friction when you have to sell an enemy attack. Naturally, having a highly competitive mindset can lead to higher standards for what ought to count.

Likewise, a person might be more inclined to make moves which interfere with the natural flow of a story in order to secure a future advantage in an RP. I find that these two problems are more common with game characters who carry a serious tone. Game characters may prolong conflicts in a story because it is in line with their character to do so (the "originalist" view of RPing) or because it is fun for their player. While this may be more organic, it can also sometimes be inconvenient for other writers who had a different resolution to the story in mind (more emblematic of the art playstyle).

On the opposite end of the spectrum from serious game characters, game characters who are designed purely for fun might not even hold the attention of their own creators for very long. I have made countless bios and even started RPs for characters that I thought would be cool or funny to make - characters made effectively for their own sake - only to abandon them in a short bit of time.


The "Art" Playstyle

Opposite the theoretical "game" mindset is the "art" mindset, which I think is mostly defined by a focus on thematic development. These are RPers who are more likely to refer to themselves as writers than players. This is best exemplified by writers who make concepts with very intricate backstories, deep connections and relationships to other characters, complex divs / sharpened aesthetics, and usually a preplanned arc of some sort. These writers, if not interested in saying something through a character, may be interested in what a character says, which I feel is an important distinction.

Writers with this mindset become very invested in their own characters and the characters of others. They often make use of literary techniques like foreshadowing, symbolism, and dramatic irony. In sum, they identify more with cooperatively creating a text than playing a game with or against others. They may want a character to triumph over another character, but they'd appeal to the fact that it might be narratively satisfying for that to be the case.

Writers with this mindset will usually go to efforts to introduce other characters to themes or dilemmas that they find interesting, inviting them to either resolve them or help the art writer's character resolve them. Art characters are usually way more serious than game characters. They're more likely to appear in expositions, because they are typically more emotionally fleshed out. You wouldn't, for instance, see Squid Man (a character of mine that I consider a "game" character) star in a psychologically ruthless blog unless it were played for laughs. For this reason, art characters typically turn into "main" characters.

I think that a good example of the "art" playstyle is the Volksgeist saga. All of the characters involved have detailed personalities and endure huge personal challenges. Being involved with the plot feels more like contributing to an epic than playing a game. I think this is the definitive difference between the two mindsets, and while the descriptor may be different for everyone, that's what it is for me.

Strengths of the "Art" Playstyle
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First, creating a coherent and compelling story is satisfying. This is especially the case if you're working with others to do it. Grand reveals which reward long-time readers or participants or cluing your friends into an upcoming twist ending is a lot of fun. These stories also often present morals or themes which can be emotionally compelling and engaging. This is particularly the case if you begin to empathize with certain characters and want to see a certain outcome occur for them, be it punishment for a crime or reward for a good deed.

Second, characters made with the art playstyle in mind naturally become main characters. Their level of polish and magnetism draw the spotlight to them in some way, shape, or form. This is also usually a consequence of them being part of a greater arc or story outside of an individual RP. This can provide their writers with more material to draw on. As I mentioned before, I can hardly put Squid Man in a solo exposition, but with characters who experience personal drama or internal tribulation, it's easy to just sit down and write.

Third, these characters lend themselves well to interpretation. People enjoy being described, and this often extends to the characters they write. It is personally rewarding to see others writing about your narrative or finding ways to integrate themselves into it, especially when the narratives run for a long time.


Weaknesses of the "Art" Playstyle
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First: the art mindset, when taken too far, can be utterly inflexible. This is often referred to as "railroading" a plot, in which the actions of characters are given less impact because they are perceived as thematically unsatisfying. When this happens, there can be great tension between the character and the universe surrounding them (i.e. other writers / players). One example is this: it's common for characters to receive an injury that traumatizes them or is otherwise symbolic of their progression (or decay). Alternatively, a character might have a debilitating illness, which is the source of drama and drives an art character's plot. If this is the case, then a writer with the art mindset must consciously avoid a character with the power to heal them, because that would reduce the impact of the drama.

Alternatively, writers in the art mindset may be less inclined to sell others if they feel it'd be thematically unsatisfying to do so. This is similar to how characters with the game mindset may be less inclined to sell an attack that they feel hasn't met their standard of combat proficiency. It is natural to sell certain attacks harder than others when it fits the story - for instance, it is far more compelling for a character's longtime rival to score a severe injury on them (or even kill them) than it is a stranger. This is amplified if the stranger character doesn't share the same tone as the art mindset writer's character.

Naturally, this can lead to art writers isolating themselves from certain plots and stories, lest they encounter something that disrupts their chosen themes. Likewise, if they are running an RP, they may have certain expectations of how it will go - and if it doesn't go that way, they may wind up being deeply unsatisfied. Art writers can be deeply inconvenienced by random occurrences, such as alien invasions, because they disrupt the story they're seeking to tell. Likewise, they may find themselves deeply dependent on other writers' characters to continue their own stories.

Finally, I know that when I'm in the art mindset and not the game mindset, I begin to take things more seriously than I would otherwise. This is a natural consequence of being more invested in the story I'm trying to tell. Art writers are usually more sensitive to criticism and may have less fun in Open RPs because of their unpredictable nature.


Closing thoughts

Nobody writes purely in one mindset that I've described. I know that I alternate between the two. I think that a truly satisfying story needs elements of both to succeed, and that success comes from tempering the extremes of both. This is why selling is the most important thing a person can do in an RP - it's universal and naturally draws a person back towards the center of the spectrum between the two. Characters that exist purely for fun but don't come with emotional weight rarely last; characters who belong better in their own novel than a collaborative writing site can be infuriating to write with (eg. some of mine for sure).

The best approach, I feel, is to balance the two mindsets. I think that most problems between users come from a clash between these two styles. This is especially the case when there's a large-scale art story that another RPer doesn't like - they might respond with a game type character that allows minimal investment in the plot but (theoretically) enough impact to defuse the effects of a story. Likewise, the art writer might be frustrated by the game writer's attempt to interfere or compete with their intended plot.

As I flip-flop between the two, I don't think that any one is better than the other - only that balancing them is the key to a successful shared universe.

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