First Person Instructional Voice

I’m currently writing a rules text that is written from the point of view of your character. So instead of being addressed from the designer to the player, like:

When it is your chapter, your character is in the spotlight. The story bends toward them. It’s your coin to flip. Other characters can figure prominently, and should, but in the end it’s about your character, and what happens to them is your call.

…it is addressed from the character to the player, like so:

When it’s my chapter, I’m in the spotlight. The story bends toward me. It’s your coin to flip. Others can figure prominently, and should, but in the end it’s about me, and what happens to me is your call.

It’s a weird voice! It feels oddly intimate. For a long time I’ve been inspired by the notion of Dosmukhamedov-style character agency (the idea that characters in fiction have their own voice, and their own needs and desires, basically), which this emphatically is not, but I think having your character tell you what to do with them suggests a certain mind-set for play and a certain sort of strange intratextual relationship between you and your tiny little character.
I’m sure other games have done this but I can’t think of any! Lots of fiction that has a game character speaking directly to the reader/player, but for rules text I’m drawing a blank.

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The story bends toward me. It’s your coin to flip.

Was “your coin to flip” a typo? I think the first-person voice is interesting but that sentence jumped out at me as really jarring.

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It’s intentional - you physically flip the coin, it fictionally impacts me, your character. It does read oddly.

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Oh! Now I see what you mean. That is interesting.

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(sorry, I pressed post far too early on my previous post, please ignore)

I’ve seen this style of presentation before in games, but very rarely. The one example I’ve dredged up from memory is in the card game Blue Moon, designed by Reiner Knizia. It’s a two-player duelling game (in the same style as Magic the Gathering), and the gameplay effects on the cards are written in such a way that when I play a card, I read its text out loud to you.

This image shows what I mean: https://cf.geekdo-images.com/imagepagezoom/img/vyaVYGBwfh7xXp2ktt-KgcWxPVM=/fit-in/1200x900/filters:no_upscale()/pic158424.jpg – the “you” on the cards means “you, my opponent” and the “I”/“my” means “me, the player who is playing this card”.

In gameplay, it feels both strangely intimate (as you say), and also strangely stilted. But even as someone who does this kind of stuff for a living, I’m struggling to put my finger on why. If I had to guess, I’d say it is partly out of unfamiliarity, and partly because it feels weird that the card is writing me a script, telling me exactly what to say to my opponent. It really surfaces the ‘scripted play-acting’ element of a card game.

If I understand correctly, you’re talking about something a bit different: not providing scripts for players to say to each other, but rather allowing my character to speak directly to me out of the page. I think that’s a really interesting idea, and it clearly has strong effects. But I also think you will have a significant barrier of understanding to cross before readers get what’s going on. The exchange above with @calris illustrates the kind of “huh?” reaction that I think you can expect from readers. Having got over that barrier, I think it could be really cool and interesting.

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I think you can fix the oddness by moving the sentence “It’s your coin to flip” to the end of the passage you quoted, thus:

When it’s my chapter, I’m in the spotlight. The story bends toward me. Others can figure prominently, and should, but in the end it’s about me, and what happens to me is your call. It’s your coin to flip.

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Here’s another snippet, this time formatted:
cwbh_text_clipping

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Yep; ok, I am 100% convinced. It’s awesome and distinctive.

What specific effect were you looking for? Character intimacy?

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It just feels right. Not sure why. Since not every player will read the rules, I can’t expect it to create intimacy (although the player-facing materials also use this voice). The idea that you are collaborating with your characters rather than using them as puppets is very appealing.

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It foregrounds a kind of creepiness which I suppose is inherent in character roleplaying in general, by highlighting the experience of actually sharing a stream of consciousness with another person. When your character is just a puppety construct of yours, it’s easy to overlook that creepiness. But when they turn round and talk to you — and especially when they look you in the eye and point out how utterly, slavishly dependent on you they are — that’s a whole other thing. Are you content for that creepiness to be a theme of your game?

I love this. What I like most about it is that it gently discourages players to identify with their characters. It might be that success in this game isn’t about the character ‘winning’; or maybe the character will plead with the player to help them get as much treasure as possible. This is a fun thing to play with!

Another thing I like about this style is that it gives players a sense of an appropriate idiomatic character voice. I suppose there might be some players who would feel constrained by this; for me it would be a fun challenge.

I wonder if there’s a risk that writing like this will create the expectation that the game will feature the character rebelling from their player master in some way? (If not - there’s an idea for another game…)

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I really like how it is a nuclear bomb of a signal that the player and the character are not the same, and that a failure of the character does not reflect negatively on the player.

To get at your last paragraph, I think a nice example would be each player being a Greek/Roman God and the PC being their favoured hero. That tension could then be exploited as it would be more natural to come to a head with “my hero is too beaten and broken to continue serving me adequately, do I reward them for their service or discard them for a fresh new model?” very Darkest Dungeon vibes.

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That’s my ultimate goal, designing a game in line with Dosmukhamedov’s principles of character agency. I’ve tried from a few different angles. This is a baby step in that direction.

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I can’t find any publications by Anzhelika Dosmukhamedov on the Internet, or in the National Library catalogue. I wonder if she is talking about the phenomenon where it feels like the characters make their own decisions within the fiction rather than being directed by the writer?

The idea of a rebelling character reminds me of those team-building games in which a blindfolded person is directed through an obstacle course by their colleagues. And of the type of Hermetic astrology where the goal is not so much to see your future in the stars, but to find ways to escape destiny’s influence.

The closest existing game I can think of is Everyone is John, which requires all the players to share one character, John, and compete to have control over him.

I think that’s what she’s talking about and ultimately what I’d like to evoke. This game won’t do it. It’s a hard problem.

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This is a messy solution, but couldn’t you have some mechanics where characters act outside of their player’s control?

I’m thinking like something along the lines of the Contaminated from the expanded AW playbooks. All of its moves are bad, because they force the character to make sub-optimal decisions over the course of play.

It’s kind of a cheap hack, but I could imagine a system where you pick (or roll for, if you’re really trying to take away control from the players) a character flaw, like, say, “Greedy,” and then add some kind of mechanical effect, like, “When you’re in the presence of gold, jewels, or luxury goods, you must immediately strive to take them however you can.”

Again, this is a mess, but it is kind of a direct mechanical interpretation of what Dosmukhamedov is talking about, right?

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The ultimate goal is way trippier than that - she argues (as I understand it) that characters have actual agency, and procedurally generating their reactions is not functionally different from player fiat. What really needs to happen is akin to divination or channelling. They need to speak to you and tell you what they actually want. It is some deep, spooky stuff.

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I don’t think what you suggested is a mess. I think it makes perfect sense in the context of first person instructional voice. If we are trying to extract our own persona from that of the character we act as, it would make sense that the character has drives we do not agree with and are contrary to our (the player’s) goals.

Honestly, I think you could take it a step further. I would propose that for every negative drive a character has, another player gets roleplay rights when that drive manifests. The initial proposal of mechanically forcing the character to act in ways you as a player do not want to engage in is a great learning tool in the “play to lose” or “roleplay not rollplay” camps. Taking that extra step and having your character literally act outside of your control can be a very strong (probably too strong for what most people want out of a typical ttrpg) demonstration of compulsions and addictions for people to experience in a safe way. Narratively, it can make overcoming that compulsion a huge achievement.

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How…?

All fictional characters are created by somebody, right? If systemizing it—through dice rolls or a programmed AI or something—is the same as fiat, what else is there? Fictional characters aren’t real, and thus they don’t have free will.

Sorry, I feel like I’m missing something, but I don’t really understand what she means.

I understand what she means but I have very few ideas about how to achieve it. her argument is that fictional characters essentially are real and do have free will. It’s a weird theory space and I sorta love it.

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