Character Advocacy: Part I
Tension in fiction is created when two characters come into conflict. That tension arises from the uncertainty of the outcome. All we know is that something is about to change. In order to bring that same tension into role-playing that uncertainty must be present and it must be legitimate.
That means that something within the game must be representing the fictional interests of the characters in conflict. That representation is what I call Character Advocacy. In simplest terms when Protagonist meets Antagonist something within the game must be fighting for each side, either outcome must be within the realm of possibility and no one player should be able to guarantee an outcome either way. In the classic Player/GM setup, by default the Player is the advocate for his character and the GM is the advocate for any adversity that character encounters.
This is not the same as playing to win. Winning and losing is a wholly real world social thing. Winning is about the real player demonstrating that they are a superior games-man to another real player. Character advocacy is purely a fictional concern. Indeed the player and GM may have very well colluded heavily to bring the fiction to this point. The player and GM may even be rooting for the same side. But without legitimate representation for either side, the conflict is a straw-man and no system at all might as well have been deployed.
Different games handle Character Advocacy in different ways and indeed some unusual and grey area applications exist. For example, in My Life with Master it’s pretty much a given that the Master will die. That’s not where the tension is. The tension is in who will be the minion to kill the Master and what epilogue conditions will each minion be left with when that happens. In Spione character advocacy is only specified during the Flashpoint phase of play and is lifted during the Maneuvers phase of play.
This raises the question of strategy and rules mastery. Character advocacy is one of the main reasons why well designed rule sets are so important in supposedly “story oriented” games. Well designed rules with story creation in mind allow players representing characters in conflict to push as hard as they want for success. No one has to hand wave away rules to guarantee an outcome and no one player has the authority to “keep the story on track” or ignore rules for “the sake of the story.”
It is the system’s fair and legitimate representation of the fictional character’s interests that opens the door for the kind of emotional investment and vulnerability that play passionately is about. That emotional investment is what Part II will cover.