I’ll chime in in kind!
I’m Kit. Similar to John, I got my start in RPGs with AD&D years ago, and took a meandering path from there through other games, until I ended up firmly in White Wolf’s World of Darkness territory for most of highschool and college. I had repeatedly skirted the amorphous land of indie games, until moving to Boulder, where John showed me the light, as it were.
On to the point. I’ve been thinking about situation, action and character lately. My friend Griffin has provided me with some interesting food for thought in discussing Aristotelian drama. Leaving aside much that’s extraneous, what seems applicable to roleplaying games is this: characters respond to situation through action, creating new situation, and actions in response to situations express character. If we take “character” less as “an agent or avatar in the game world” and more as a literary entity, the marks on our character sheet (assuming we have one!) exist just to remind us how to react to situations, to express that character.
This conversation came on the heels of reading through two games: Bully Pulpit’s Fiasco and Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel. These two games have very different approaches to character and situation. In summary, Fiasco is designed for one-shot play, and focuses entirely on situation—there is no specification of character beyond how that character is expressed through action. Burning Wheel, however, revolves around a character advancement system driven by action in response to situation. Both—as in any good game—have situation and character, but the focus is different. In part, as Lula pointed out to me, Burning Wheel is built for long-form play and Fiasco for short-form, so Burning Wheel anticipates that situations will arise, be resolved, and new ones will come, in which case it needs to be driven by the intrinsic qualities of the character.
Or does it? It might be an interesting challenge to make a game like Fiasco where the focus remains on the situation, but can accomodate repeated situation-reaction-resolution cycles. To quote Griffin directly:
Information causes Action. Action causes Choices. Choices create the Illusion of a Mind, which generates Empathy. Then the Action climaxes revealing New Information, which causes the Protagonist to adjust his/her Action based on the new situation (which often involves suffering but at least dealing with the consequences of their choice). Then you write the sequel.
“Then you write the sequel” indeed. Characters might come and go, but their actions and those consequences live on. It’s an idea, anyway.