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The Contract

Dibs on the Horse: Character as an OS

by J.S. Majer (editor, Drew Meger)
May 15, 2001  
Ah, character. The long-awaited discussion is arrived at. Is not the most important development made by role playing games, (oh, a cliffhanger in the third sentence. For shame, for shame) but character is vital. Character is easily the most contentious discussion that will ever be had here. It is so because it is so personal. Character, after all, is who you are. It is highly distinctive in role playing games, almost defining. Character is how you play, not stylistically but functionally. It is overburdened with psychological implications.

I will not start with such a heavy take on the topic, as it is something that must be built up to. As character is a massive concept, I will focus on each part of that massive concept in its own right. This column will deal with character as interface, as the operating system of gaming if you will. Don't worry; it will still be contentious for all you feisty forum posters who will, of course, pick it apart like a downed gazelle.

To prove how important that character is I must start by trying to prove that it is not. What does having a character enable? Well, to play a game of course. A game. A thing that bunches of people participate in that has rules and goals. The nebulous bits like theme and character, well, that's just like uniforms for the players; things that add a little spirit yet also serve some mild purposes.

Now, when I wrote these words for an article in Places to Go, People to Be, I was faced with strong opposition. "Are you saying then," one of the Steves wrote back to me, "that playing a character is like being the shoe to Monopoly?" In a word, yes.

So, what does it mean to be the shoe? It means nothing. The shoe is only a token, a representation. But a representation of what you may ask. Yourself of course. The shoe is the way that you involve yourself in the game. But, someone is arguing, that representation is mechanical. It only exists to further the possibility of your playing the game, of you having a space on the board. At the finest point, this is all that character is, an interface to allow you to play.

Note how some people have been known to engage in fistfights to be the shoe. We get attached to our interfaces, even when they mean absolutely nothing. It is important that we get attached, but it is equally important that, on some level, it is an utterly trivial connection.

How that trivial connection functions is fascinating. What makes it so fascinating is how universal it is. The attempt to define role playing games well, it is a heavy task, and one that I feel unsuited for. Yet consider an interesting take on the issue. Every game, by virtue of it being a game, is a role playing game. Every game? Yes, every single one. Now there are many ways to define what a game is. One of them is that a game has rules.

Rules are one of the critical ways that we differentiate one sort of game from another. The most mechanistic way that we can tell one game from another is the rules of it: these rules for baseball, these for hockey, and these for chess. The rules tell us what conditions that the game is to be played under; they define just what the game is.

Or, to look at it another way, the rules tell us what our role is supposed to be. Be it point guard or battleship commander, the rules allow us to put on a game face, and operate under the context of those rules for the set of time and space that is dictated by the rules. When I play chess or run a marathon I am no longer acting like a normal human being, I am acting like someone in the role of participant, acting and thinking like someone who does that sort of thing. p> So then we are back to what character is on the most basic of levels: a mechanical representation of self. Not self in any fancy and psychological sort of way, self just in the sense of a game-consciousness. Unsurprisingly, this definition of characters is found reflected in role playing games in the most basic of ways. Character is numbers. It is the representation of self through a complex numerical system, which allows you to actually play. It allows interface with the game world through this numerical representation, and is vitally important for that reason.

Wait a second, what about all those things in games that do not require the rules to be referenced? After all, most Referees do not require a roll for every bit of communication, nor every action. First, I would argue that the mechanical side still provides the contextual interface. For instance, the rules of football do not include how one must run, though clearly such a matter is important, but they do imply that one must run from time to time, as the all-skipping teams of the early 60s clearly proved.

Likewise, it is the mechanics of character that inform you what sort of character that you have. Attributes, skills, class, advantages and disadvantages, all these things that exist in a numerical sense speak to just what you do and do not have to roll for, as well as when the rules apply and just how you are supposed to be speaking.

What about those games with no mechanical representations of character? Well, they are few and far between for one. In essence, they have completely refuted a notion of character mechanism, but still have one because there would be no way to play the game otherwise. The mechanism is just nearly invisible from the more fuzzy definitions of character. All the rules of the game are infinitely diverse and involve no specific mechanics other than common sense or the applied judgment of the Referee; there is no need for a specific sort of interface.

Pawn to e4. A simple and brief opening for a simple topic. Character has a very important straightforward meaning to it. It enables play, because it allows the placement of consciousness in a game sense. It allows mind to partake of rules, is the crossroads where mind and rules meet.

We go upward from here. It is an important note to make. Sometimes it is easy to just get overburdened by the many fancy facts about games. A column such as this one exists because there are such fancy facts to be pointed out. Still, sometimes a rose is a rose and a cigar is a cigar. Character as interface allows so many other manifestations of character, but at some point, that is all that it is.

(Parting Note: Under this definition of "game," both society and physics could be defined as a game. Furthermore, I just sort of write off consciousness. I recognize these faults, but the focus is on character, and the column had enough complex matters at stake as is. I do not consider either of these two glosses as detrimental to the main theme of the argument. In other words, don't post a message that my concepts of being or gaming are naive, unless you think that it seriously hurts my argument). TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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