Story Games 101: Protagonist, Be Transparent

I talked about good antagonism a while back, so let’s talk about the flip side of the coin: good protagonism.

When you’re playing a protagonist in a story game, you have a very important job: want something. Have desires. Have needs.

But merely wanting something, deep down inside, isn’t enough. You have to *show us* what you want. You have to make it clear to everyone at the table what you want and what you care about. You need to be radiantly obvious and transparent.

If you conceal your characters’ desires — or worse yet simply can’t decide or refuse to care about anything — your game is dead on arrival. Dead, I say, dead! Why? Because if we don’t know what your character wants, we can’t make a story that fits you. We can’t make soil for your issues. We can’t give you hard choices that will interest you. How we even put you in a scene if we don’t understand you?

Do I mean transparent to other characters in the fiction? No, I mean transparent to the other players at the table. You can play an enigmatic avenger of the night who hides his feelings beneath an animal-themed cowl (because criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot) and who no one understands, in-character, so long as you tell the other players at the table what is going on inside that scary head. The players have to know what’s up, the characters don’t. Are you thinking “hey, but what about ‘show don’t tell’?!?” ‘Show don’t tell’ is a popular maxim of writing, but in gaming it is not your friend.

New players sometimes think that if they hide what they care about, the other players can’t mess with their precious, precious thing. Protect the precious thing! That is a total misunderstanding of what these games are all about. We’re not really adversaries and it’s not really a competition. Like I talked about in Antagonism 101, we’re working together to create a story that interests all of us by making the characters’ lives interesting and, yes, sometimes difficult. We’re collaborating, not competing, and you can’t collaborate without communication.

The benefit of being transparent doesn’t just apply to games that have distinct protagonist/antagonist roles. It’s a universal truth: to be an interesting character and an important part of the story, the other players (or GM) have to understand you.

“But what about the Maltese Falcon?!?”

Fine, throw The Maltese Falcon in my face! You’re right, Sam Spade spends the whole movie fooling the antagonists (and the audience) about what he really wants and cares about. And it’s a masterpiece for that very reason.

But there’s a huge difference between being an audience and being a player. Repeat after me: games are not movies or books. Players aren’t just audience, they’re authors and audience and actors all at once. Do you think Dashiell Hammett could have written the book if he didn’t know what Sam Spade wanted until the end? I think not.

If you catch a player hiding their character’s inner desires, pause the game and tell them. They might have a very solid desire but not realize they’re being too subtle. Or they might not realize that wanting something and then showing us what they want is their whole job.

    Ben Robbins | June 23rd, 2018 | how to play | leave a comment