Roleplaying Character Arcs: The Blade Runner Challenge (Part Two)
Last time, I laid down the challenge of trying to describe in roleplaying game terms what’s actually going on in the rooftop scene between Deckard and Batty at the end of Blade Runner. Most RPGs are capable of describing the physical externalities of that scene in mechanical terms, but few (there are some) can reasonably attempt to describe what’s actually happening in ways which make for an exciting and satisfying game experience.
So, what are we really talking about with Deckard and Batty?
Essentially, we’re talking about internalized narratives. The whole point is not so much the externalities of the plot (the jumping around on that rooftop, ramming nails through wrists, breaking fingers), but what’s going on inside the characters – their “character development”, in literary terms. I was watching Seth Bullock in the “Deadwood” series last week, and how his thwarted relationship with Alma Garrett is both superficially unsatisfying for the viewer, and yet has a profound significance for Bullock’s internal character development – how he chooses to adopt a moral stance, even if it runs counter to his instincts. I wondered how this could work in an RPG.
In order to emulate this in a roleplaying game, we first have to have some sense of a character arc – that a character will change and develop as part of his experiences. Most RPGs do this in “external” ways – by measuring skills, levels, hit points, etc – and then letting the character improve in those. Because, ultimately, character development is what we want to see in a roleplaying game, even if it’s as simple as someone getting better at killing things.
In the old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons days, DMs often kept “alignment graphs” for characters. This was an attempt to chart how much a character’s actual behaviour matched his or her nominal alignment – and it was something which was tracked over time. If the alignment graph swayed too much to one side – from Lawful Good, say, to Neutral Good, then the DM could actually change the character’s alignment – with possibly wide-reaching effects.
Now, alignment graphs were good for tracking a character’s moral worldview, but character development is about so much more than that. In Batty’s case in Blade Runner, his initial greed for “I want more life, fucker” transforms from a purely selfish wish not to die, into an overarching love for life – not just his own life, but all life. There’s an alignment graph-type phenomenon happening there, but how could you track it in roleplaying terms?
Let’s start with a simple descriptor: “I want more life, fucker”. That could be an aspect, in FATE terms; an ability, in HeroQuest terms; a distinction in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying / Cortex+ terms. But, in “real world” terms, “I want more life, fucker” could morph in a number of ways – it could turn inwards, turn into psychopathy, an “if I can’t have more life, no one can”; it could turn into despair – “I can’t have more life, so I give up”; it could overcome itself, and transcend into something almost religious, like “I love all life – even yours”.
In other words, such descriptors are not simply linear – you can’t simply have a single score for “I want more life, fucker”, and expect it to cover all the possible parameters for character development. Instead, descriptors have multiple axes – stronger, weaker, better, worse, sideways, inwards, outwards. And a single person may have a descriptor moving along multiple axes simultaneously – that’s the stuff great character conflict is made from.
So – maybe there’s a paradigm here. Characters have multiple descriptors – let’s call them Traits, as it’s a nice neutral word. We can improve on that later if necessary. Maybe we can group Traits by category – Moral Traits, Belief Traits, Relationship Traits, and so on. Maybe they have a strength – that’s where an RPG “score” might come in. Let’s use a score from 1-10 for now. So, let’s say a character has the Trait “I want more life, fucker: 10”.
Now, a character can have an experience which directly challenges that Trait. Somehow, in that rooftop scene with Deckard, Batty is so impressed with Deckard’s struggle for life – and his own – that his “I want more life, fucker” Trait is irrevocably changed. That could be something which happens gradually – one “point” of “damage” at a time – or something which happens suddenly, in an instant. Let’s call each moment when such “damage” is done an Inflexion Point. It’s a crap term, but it will do for now. Deckard isn’t consciously attempting to do damage to Batty’s “I want more life, fucker” Trait at each of these Inflexion Points, but from a character development perspective, that’s what’s happening.
This means each Trait can conceivably have a number of Inflexions, each of which pulls the Trait in different directions. So, you could have the annotation “I want more life, fucker: 10 (Kill everyone 2, Love of Life 5)”. Now you’ve got a mechanic where you can track the meaning of a trait in character development terms, along different axes. There are questions to be answered: how many traits can you have, how many inflexions can a trait have, and so on. But there’s the nub of a mechanic there.
Lastly, we need to bring in the character development bit. That’s a bit genre dependent; in a more literary genre, you might phrase the Trait in a way which incorporates an assumed future development – “I’ll do anything I can to get more life”, etc. In other genres, it might be more punchy: “The whole world will bow before me!” In some ways, this is the continuum from pure aspects in Legends of Anglerre through to the “future aspects” we brought in for those rules.
So, there’s a suggestion. Next up, I want to look at the types of traits you can have (combat traits, belief traits, moral traits, etc), and the ways in which you can generate Inflexion Points and Inflexions for Traits – and how they change.
What does everyone think?