Vincent Baker has finally posted his long-awaited declaration on character ownership. As we’ve come to expect from “Lumpley,” it’s a bare-bedrock examination of what we do when we play a roleplaying game. And, again, as we’ve come to expect, Vincent’s goal is deconstruction, to tear apart our assumptions in search of the raw stuff of gaming. For those who just enjoy eating pizza, rolling dice, and racking up the EXPs, there’s not much here for you. However, if you’re interested in what may possibly become the cutting edge of design, there are some interesting thoughts to ponder.
I must confess, I sometimes feel cheated when I read Vincent’s stuff. This is a great example. On the one hand, it feels very “yeah, well, duh!” Anyone who’s ever been involved in a game where the players controlled multiple characters, or swapped characters around because the thief’s player wasn’t going to be there and the group really needed a thief, has brushed up against the issues Vincent’s talking about here. On the other hand, this sort of formal description of the underlying principles can be useful in designing a game. Once you dissolve the barriers of ownership, all sorts of fun things become possible. The character is, in the raw mechanics of gaming, a resource to be manipulated in pursuit of the player’s goals. Why not make characters, or the attributes of characters, a tradable commodity within the system of the game? Anybody got sheep for magic-users?
On the other-other hand, Vincent’s also challenging a core appeal of gaming. As “World of Warcraft” and other diku-muds have proven, improving a character and fighting for that “DING!” of leveling up is one of thrills that keeps people coming back to the table. Even if your particular “DING!” has nothing to do with stats and numbers, but is instead the more social victories of love and political power, or even the “muy macho” thrills of overcoming impossible odds while enduring great suffering, your enjoyment of the game is heavily invested in your sense of ownership of your character. Designers tamper with these expectations at their peril. Not to say it’s not worth it. But do understand that you’re going to face some stiff resistance from players once you start to dance where angels fear to tread.