Alleged Entertainment

Character Goals versus Player Goals

Written by Joshua "Steve" Rachlin
I want to talk briefly about a vocabulary term that I think a lot of players and GMs could do well to think more about. A common question on apps is "Are you ok with being screwed?" or "Will you have fun if you don't achieve your character's goals?" Those are useful questions, but they are attempting to determine something without a full understanding of the concept. The second question gets very close when it discusses character goals.
A better question would be, "Are you comfortable with your character goals being different from your player goals?" Because they are two different things. Imagine playing Claudius in a Hamlet LARP. Your character goals would be to either win Hamlet's trust or have him sent away, but depending on how the LARP was written, your most significant player goal might be to have a dramatic death. This would certainly not be listed among your character's goals, but the game might not be complete for you as a player unless that happened.
I tend to sort characters into three categories. One: Those whose character goals are exactly the same as their player goals. Most LARPers tend to treat all characters this way, so I don't think I need to discuss it much here.
Two: Those whose character goals are vastly different from their player goals. This is also a fairly common situation, and one where the questions as worded in the first paragraph do a pretty good job of what they're trying to do. The Claudius example above is a good example of this. Consider also the villain in a superhero LARP, who wants to Take Over The World Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!, but whose player knows the heroes are going to defeat him eventually.
Three: Occasionally there is a character whose player goals are not exactly the same as their character goals, but only slightly different. This is actually more common than one might think. It comes up often in characters whose image of their own personality isn't quite correct*: a "protective" spouse who's actually abusive; a "cautious" character who's actually paranoid; a guy who "gets women" but is actually sketchy. These are hard to play, hard to cast, and in fact hard to write well, but are much easier to work with (in at least the first two senses) once you have a clear concept of separation of player goals versus character goals.
*The one exception I can think of is a completely insane character, who clearly has an incorrect image of their own personality, but is more type 2 than type 3. Which I mention only because it's a character archetype that I really enjoy playing; it doesn't really add much to this discussion.

Comments imported from DISQUS

Nat Budin, on 1/14/2010 at 4:57 PM
That's an interesting way of thinking about things, but I'm not sure it actually gets to the heart of what the "do you mind being screwed" question is trying to ask. You could easily be okay with having your character goals be different from your player goals, but not be OK with being a "screwed" character.

I think "screwed" has more to do with the writers' estimation of how likely the character is to achieve their goals. A lot of players are perfectly fine playing just about anything, regardless of the metagame situation, but only if they have a realistic shot of the character goals being achievable in game. Thus, I might want to ask two (or more) separate questions to try and figure out which permutation of this they're actually okay playing.

bleemoo, on 1/14/2010 at 5:00 PM
That's a good point; "Are you ok with being screwed?" is kind of trying to figure out both things at once. Which is perhaps what a lot of people are missing.

Chad, on 1/15/2010 at 10:33 AM
Sounds to me like the all important difference between actor and role-player. We see these terms used a lot when describing different types of larpers, but a lot of people conflate the two. On the surface, the terms aren't very clear. But one important difference is that the role-player focuses on the character goals (taking them as the player goals) whereas the actor looks to make the best storyline experience (taking the pursuit of the storyline and the benefit for the game as the player goals).

Some players are better at one or the other, and knowing ones abilities and apping for those types of roles is a skill. But so is writing a good app. As you highlight, some of the questions above aren't clear enough in what they are asking, and may mean different things to the person asking and the person being asked. That's a no-no in apps, as far as I'm concerned.

Additionally, I think more GMs should be willing to write a 'meta' block at the end of their character sheets. A small paragraph or two that explains a bit about the GM intentions behind the character - you expect the character to fail, you want the character to be loud about their insanity, you want the character to be as nosy as possible, things like that. Especially in a case like the Claudius role, it might be a -really- good idea to write the character as totally sympathetic and with clear character goals, because that will help the player feel the character, but then have a meta block that notes that the character is hosed, or broken, or that you expect it to be smacked around, etc.

I think we as GMs are sometimes too afraid to give direction. We write characters where we clearly have a vision of internal motivations, and suspected results, and then we write those up, and try to cast players who will enjoy doing those things, but we don't want to restrict the players' freedoms. And sometimes we're pleasantly surprised by what the players do with our creations. But sometimes it will be a better game for -everyone- if our expectations are made clear to the players, and if our apps can better glean their expectations, and I'm not saying that GMs should be like theater directors, stepping in and telling players How It Is To Be, but that we shouldn't be afraid to talk to the players at the player level, and set some tone there.

Josh, how would you like to sit a panel with me on the topic? We should generalize a bit of what you're trying to talk about here (talking to the player versus talking to the character?), but I think it would be a good one.

bleemoo, on 1/15/2010 at 3:19 PM
This would be a good panel! That sounds like a good idea.

I'm not sure that I 100% agree that a 'meta' block is the best way to handle these sorts of situations; I think if you can clearly convey what you need to without dropping out of character, you'll end up with a stronger sheet. But that can be very difficult, and it's hard to tell when you do pull it off.

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