Finding the Cool

I had the edges of this idea stuck in my head, and rather than lose it, I sent it out by Twitter:

Thought on #rpg – The game is not the story of my character. It is the story of our characters. We need to help each other find the cool.

A few people seemed to think that was interesting enough to retweet, so I kept mulling it over, trying to articulate exactly what I mean by that.

First of all, even though I haven’t stated it overtly ((At least, I don’t think I have.)), my view of roleplaying games is that they are vehicles for creating moments of coolness – cool characters, cool scenes, cool situations, cool adventures, cool villains, cool… whatever. They are cooperative tools for collectively evoking that coolness in play. They are the frameworks we use to construct fantasies that generate the kinds and flavours of cools we find most compelling.

This leads to the thought that we all have the same job in a roleplaying game: looking for, evoking, and highlighting the cool. Whether as players or GMs, we should be trying to add as much cool to the game as we can.

Now, this is all neatly sidestepping the question of what is and is not cool. That’s because the value of cool changes with each group, with each game, with each session, with each person. The functional value of cool is collectively determined through the process of play, and is not easily predicted or repeated. Indeed, repetition of a single cool thing often depletes the cool, devaluing it. Such is the nature of a subjective judgment.

But cool is like pornography: we all know it when we see it. So, if I don’t define what it is, exactly, I still have faith that you all know exactly what I’m talking about, even if your idea of it is completely different from mine.

Now, where the characters come in. I’ve been looking back over the course of my roleplaying career, and I’ve noticed an interesting progression in my play. This is highlighted by the fact that, in my extended gaming group, there are players at pretty much every stage of roleplaying experience, and I see some of the things I went through in their play ((I want to stress at this point that the things I’m seeing aren’t bad. They are legitimate ways of approaching and enjoying roleplaying games. I have just found other ways of approaching and enjoying games that I find work better for me.)). Couple that with the interesting way that games like Fiasco really sell story over character, and I’ve been doing some real thinking about how I play games.

One of the common approaches we take to games is that they are the story of the character we happen to be playing. And, to a degree, they are. And, just as in real life, we are the heroes of our own stories. So, we focus on how the situation affects our characters, and choose our reactions and options to reflect our characters’ objectives and desires. We make use of our time in the spotlight to push forward our characters’ narrative. And this pushes forward the group narrative, as well.

Lately, though, I’ve been noticing the wonderful freedom that comes from playing a character that I’ve decided is a supporting character, rather than the main character. I know, it sounds like it runs counter to the entire point of playing in a roleplaying game, but it really doesn’t. In fact, I think it helps build more cool into the game.

In Fiasco, there usually comes a tipping point, where everyone figures out who the story is really about. I mean, sure, it’s an ensemble story, with everyone contributing to the overall plot, and everyone playing their character hard, going after what’s important, but one narrative thread usually presents itself as the most interesting and compelling out of the mess. When you spot that thread, the way to make Fiasco really work is to drive everything toward that thread and the characters it features. It makes the story cooler. When you don’t drive toward the obvious thread, when you instead keep pulling on your own character’s objectives without regard for that central emerging narrative, you wind up with several smaller, less cool stories.

Either way, Fiasco is fun, but one way produces a much cooler story than the other, and that produces more fun.

What this means in practice is that you sometimes must relegate your character to supporting character status if you want to bring out the coolest aspects of the game possible. So, for example, if it becomes clear that Frank, the dirty cop, is the main character, and the story becomes about his attempts to redeem himself, then I, playing his ex-wife Margaret, want to make that story as interesting, as cool as possible. That doesn’t mean that I play every scene with Frank, or always defer to him, or keep talking about him when he’s not there; but it does mean that, when my scene comes around, I want to do something that’s going to come up in the main storyline, something that will give Frank a little more to deal with, something that will give Frank an opportunity to do something cool. So, maybe I start dating the guy Frank just befriended.

See, that way, I’ve done something that fits with who Margaret is, and fits her narrative, but also adds a cool element to Frank’s narrative, because you know Frank’s going to find out and have to deal with it. The story becomes cooler for everyone ((And poor Margaret ends up with a broken heart and a black eye, while Frank winds up in the office of a movie producer with a gun.)).

But that’s Fiasco, right? It’s not like a normal roleplaying game ((Whatever those are.)). Sure, but does have a lot to teach us that is useful in a normal roleplaying game. Some big, valuable lessons about pacing, narrative control, scene structure, conflict, and dynamic tension.

And how to support another character’s storyline.

In a lot of roleplaying games, when it’s not your turn, or when the spotlight is firmly on someone else’s character, we tend to sit around, waiting for our turn. Sure, we pay attention, and maybe offer suggestions or commentary, and we enjoy the show, but really, we’re waiting for our moment to shine. When we come up to bat, it’s all about our character.

But it doesn’t have to be. Just because someone else has the spotlight doesn’t mean that we need to grab it back at the first opportunity. Or that we need to use it just to shine on us when we get it. We can take the opportunity to help another character be cool.

Because what I said earlier is true – the game is not the story of my character. Nor of yours. It is, collectively, the story of all our characters. In a good game, like in a good ensemble TV series ((Boston Legal was a great example of this, actually, and Leverage continues to be.)), each character is going to get some of the spotlight every session, but one or two – with their specific storyline(s) – are going to be singled out for the main focus. This allows each character to grow and develop as they move forward, and more to the point, allows the group as a whole to grow and develop. The dynamic and relationships will shift and change, deepening and broadening, making the entire thing feel more real. More cool.

See, this very interesting thing happened at the last New Centurions game. One of the players, introducing her character, told about how she was sent back to the past to help avoid a huge disaster. The disaster? Apparently, in her timeline, my character, a robot, fails catastrophically, blowing up Manhattan Island. Now, this was just something she had come up with, no input from me or the GM, and my initial reaction was… less than pleased ((I mean come on! She’s messing with my character!)).

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw what a gift she had given me ((So, thanks for that, Fera!)). I mean, she just added an entire layer of coolness to my character with that little idea. Suddenly, my character was not just an emergency rescue robot, he had this sword of Damocles hanging over him, and the relationship between our characters takes a strange turn into very complex – and interesting, and cool – territory.

It was part of her story, but it made her a strong supporting character in my story as well. It was something that she did that added to my cool.

So, I want to look for opportunities like that, now. In addition to focusing on my character’s story when I get my moments in the spotlight, I want to try and shine some of the spotlight on another player’s character, helping them to find something new and cool to add. I want to look for the cool in other PCs, in NPCs, in the situations and stories and environment ((Because GMs deserve some coolness, too.)). I’m not looking at turning my characters into incompetent fools just to make the other characters look good – I want to use the cool of my character to bolster the cool of others. Maybe this will mean some strange character choices – not always playing fully to my character’s strengths, giving in to my characters weaknesses a little more, maybe getting captured or hurt or whatever to give someone else a chance to be the hero – but I think it will allow more cool to be found in the story.

More to the point, I want to spend the time between my spotlight moments looking at ways that I can contribute to the cool things the other characters are doing, without stealing the spotlight from them. What support can I give that will make the other character cool? What can I say or do that will give them the opportunity or tools or ideas that let them take their characters to the next level of coolness?

Because the game is not the story of my character, although my character’s story is a part of it.

The game is the story of our characters.

And we all need to help each other find the cool.

Because wherever the cool is found, we all get to share in it.