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Ways to Play

Protagonist Play

by Chris Chinn
Mar 25,2003


Protagonist Play

by Chris Chinn

Welcome to the first installment of Ways to Play. I hope to share tools, techniques and ideas that you can use in play. Nothing I'm going to cover is the "One True Way" of gaming, but all of it is stuff that is little known and little covered. Everything I cover is something that I've used in play, and I'll not only go over the ideas, but also share examples and techniques you can use to make it work in play. Remember, the proof is in the play!

Where does story come from?

One of the biggest issues regarding roleplaying comes forth in the basic idea of "Who gets to decide where the game will go?" in the sense of being able to introduce interesting events and action. Traditionally, a story is a combination of the actions and decisions of characters and the events that occur to them, both of which are under the control of a single author.

Predetermined and Protagonist Play

Again, coming back to the question of "What happens?" in a story sense of the word, two major styles of play have come up as a way of answering that issue. Both styles are fun when the game group understands (implicitly or explicitly) that it is the form of play that's happening, but a lot of problems crop up when the group is divided, and many times are unaware of the issue itself.

Predetermined Play

Predetermined play is the standard style of play espoused in most games and used by most groups, where the GM predetermines events to happen in play beforehand. This might be a plot or adventure created before play, or a flowchart of possible events. The choices of the players are limited to fit within the constraints of the predetermined plot. This sort of play is well covered, and generally well understood.

Protagonist Play

Protagonist play is when the question of "What happens?" in a story sense is created by the actions and reactions of the players as much as the GM's characters. The players are not constrained in any fashion, the outcome and potential events are unknown for the players and the GM alike.

This sort of play can be used with almost any game without any form of modification. It does not involve playing without rules, giving the players "extra" power, "winging everything" from scratch, waiting around for the players to "do something", or meandering without anything interesting happening.

All it requires is a different approach towards preparing for play, and having a different attitude towards the events in play. If you have enough ability to play as a player, you have most of the skill to play protagonist style play. Since this style of play is little known, I wanted to delve a bit into it and share some techniques and tools that I use for it in play, and that others have found work well also.

How does it work?

Protagonist play is founded on a single, basic, principle: Prepare tools that can be adapted or used for any situation or occurance in play. How is that possible? Simple, the answer lies in looking at the difference between how players play and how GMs play traditionally.

Players set up characters with personalities, motivations, and traits. But nowhere is the "exact" choices or actions of a character dictated for a player. A player is free to use his or her character to adapt to, and react to anything the GM throws his or her way. In other words, the character is a flexible tool, able to react in any fashion the player sees fit, restricted only by the rules or plausibility of the game.

GMs traditionally set up exact events, which are not flexible or able to change on the spot. While a character has a wide choice of actions or decisions, a predetermined event is just that, an singular event, requiring certain conditions to occur. Instead of relying on these inflexible events and limiting player actions to "fit" so that they can occur, protagonist play focuses on giving the GM more flexible tools that can also adapt and change with the situations that the players through back through their choices.

Conflict and Characters

Conflict and Character are the two major tools that the GM uses in protagonist play. Conflict keeps the game focused, and from meandering, and Character gives you tools to kick up the action and keep things moving while adapting to any actions the players make. The most work you need to do is preparation before a campaign, but you'll save hours of prep time before sessions and during play itself.


Conflict is your cheat sheet for "What happens next?"

Conflict is the GM's tool to keep things focused and to spring forth ideas on the spot. The GM isn't "winging" things, because the GM always looks to the Conflict to say, "What's the next interesting thing that could happen because of this?" Notice that conflict sets up a problem, but the GM does not set up an answer for it. The conflict serves to introduce interesting events, but not specific ones that cannot be altered. So everyone could fight for the throne, but who will do what, or who will succeed is not determined.

The key here isn't a complex conflict, but a solid one. What makes a good conflict? One that isn't easily resolved that creates more problems by its existance alone. A solid conflict should be able to give the GM at least three subconflicts or interesting problems that could spring up at any time based on it. A good conflict will constantly serve as inspiration for cool things to happen, while at the same time keeping the game focused, and not simply a wander-fest for the players.

So, the important bits about conflict are to figure out what folks are fighting over, literally or figuratively, what the stakes are if one side wins or another, and who's involved, and why? The last part leads directly into our next tool, Characters.


Characters are your tools for making conflict happen.

So now you have a conflict, but just as fire doesn't exist without fuel, conflict doesn't exist without characters. Just as the players use their characters to give them ideas on ways to act or react based on their characters' personalities and motivations, you do the same thing with your characters.

The key point to this is to change your attitude about characters. Instead of creating events, and then creating characters to carry out the events, just create characters the same way you would if you were a player. Each character may have a goal they're trying to achieve, but you do not dictate specific actions or responses they "must" undertake, instead, you react with a character just as the players react with theirs.

Motivations and Goals

These two tools allow you to roleplay the NPCs and figure out strategies, tactics and specific actions they might undertake on their own, or in response to the player characters. Motivations are abstract ideals or emotions, such as Loyalty, Justice, Love, Duty, Freedom, Survival, Revenge, Hatred, Fear, Greed, Pride, etc. Motivations tell you about a character and why they are doing what they are doing. Goals are speciic concrete objectives or plans that a character hopes to achieve or complete.

Consider it a pyramid scheme, with Motivations underlying it all, being the most fundamental. A character's Goals may change, but always support their Motivations. Finally, at the top, is the character's actions, which will change, and aren't set in stone, but simply the different ways they go about achieving the other two.

Making it work

The key idea to making this work is to set up a strong scene, but to never force or favor an ending. By making the actions and the reactions of the NPCs strong, the players decide where things are going to go by their own actions and reactions. No pre planned plot, no railroading, just you act and react, they act and react. Strong set up, then let go. Just like when you play the Sims, set up for interesting stuff to happen.

Setting up scenes

The easiest way to set up scenes is to first look at the Conflict, then look down your list of NPCs. Then play what I call the Matching game. Pick an NPC who is going to act or react regarding the conflict, and put them in a scene with one of the PCs. Think of it like you're playing the Sims or picking folks for a reality TV show. You put people together who are going to interact in interesting ways. Most of the time that is fighting, but sometimes its deception, alliance, friendship, or something else. Just mix n' match, mix n' match each scene.

How do you just "come up" with scenes?

It's not any harder than searching through your notes or looking up a rule, the more you do it, the quicker you become, and the better. But, until that happens, you have the right as a GM, to occassionally say, "Grab some soda, gimme a minute...", after all, these are the same players who will spend fifteen minutes arguing about tactics in the midst of a combat scene, they owe it to you.

Next time...

Well, that covers the basic overview of protagonist play. Next time we go indepth into Conflict, and after that, Character. Both articles will cover details that will help both players and GMs in predetermined and protagonist play alike.

Go Play!


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