Transneptune Games

warm games, cold nights

Smashing Dolls

We’ve all made dolls: characters who are perfect just the way they are, and who we want to carefully protect from the dangers of a game. There can be many reasons for this—I know that when I play Shadowrun, the character creation minigame is time-consuming enough that I feel invested in the character as they are, and don’t want to “lose my investment”, as it were.

Fundamentally, I want to make a game that rejects dolls. Helps people smash them.1 I’m interested in that sort of play, because I think that, for me, an important part of stories is that the characters change, particularly in response to the choices they must make and the consequences they must face.

But there is a tension here. On the one hand, you want people to be willing and able to change their characters—to avoid excessive attachment. But you also don’t want them to not be invested in the characters. If you don’t care at all about a character, you won’t care what they do or what happens to them. I see a continuum from “whatever” to “oh no, don’t touch!”, with somewhere in the middle being the ideal: I care about this character, but am not so attached that I can’t bear to see them sullied.

There are various games that have answers to this. Smallville gives you more traction with the mechanics if you make a character whose views aren’t always tenable in the face of new revelations. Dread gives you a suggestive list of questions that you get to answer for yourself. Each game has different needs: Smallville asks for long-term ongoing play, Dread asks you to make characters who stand a very good chance of dying horribly, but who you hope will not.

So, just to brainstorm some other ideas: you could make characters in a pass-to-the-left fashion, each person making not their own, but their neighbor’s. This requires some good-will, of course, and pushes people more towards the apathy end of the spectrum, but could yield interesting results. You could make characters in an exquisite-corpse fashion,2 with each player making part of a character without seeing the rest, passing to the left and doing the next part, until the characters are whole, then unfolding them and seeing what stitched-together set of contradictions they are due to play.

You can of course have games like Misspent Youth or Becoming Heroes where, during play, you get to write on someone else’s character sheet. You could have games like Dogs in the Vineyard that encourage you to, sometimes, root against your own character as part of rooting for them.

However it does it, if the game makes you more attached to who your character might become than who they are now, I’m more interested in it.

  1. Again, from the Book of Vincent: “what you want are outcomes that upset every single person at the table,” and “there are 4 serious problems holding tabletop roleplaying back: … oppressive social footprint.” []
  2. Which could be powerfully thematic for a game like Promethean: the Created. []

2 responses to “Smashing Dolls”

  1. I think all of us have at one point another made these Dolls as you’ve termed them, but I think this smashing of the dolls requires a strong investiture to have meaning.

    Many people I know are enamored with Fiasco.  I myself don’t care for the game. Why?  Fiasco starts with the premise of unlikeable characters whom you have little shaping over, who will end up poorly.  I’ve played a handful of games, and while I have had a laugh or seven, ultimately they don’t stay with me.  I have no emotion riding on my character, they make me feel nothing aside from the occasional chuckle at the predicament someone gets into.  I’ve heard people talk buckets about their DnD characters (to the point of where everyone else is checking their watch and rolling their eyes) but heard very little in the same vein of Fiasco.  Why?  It’s hard to have that emotional bond and investiture in a character that’s throwaway and you’re encouraged to not care about.

    If you want to smash dolls, pass-to-the-left has the same problems for me as Fiasco.  Smashing these lifeless dolls means nothing.  It’s not my character.  There is nothing of me in him, there is no attachment, no desire to keep him safe.  Even FATE requires you to agree to flaws and problems by making double-edged Aspects, and yield control to the gm who keeps smashing you in the face with the very tools you give him.  For there to be meaning in doll smashing something has to be at stake.

    So I agree.  Growth is important.  Change is important.  But I think your problem with Shadowrun is time-investment.  What you need is quicker character creation, with deeper more personal questions and a system that then hits these buttons hard and sharp.  Not as much distanced, unattached creation with less care about the smashing protocol.

    1. I think what I intend to argue for is actually that—in a game I make, anyway—you shouldn’t be as attached to your character as one gets to, say that D&D character. I don’t want to make a character that you’re deeply invested in (read: attached to) and then change them, I want to help you get in this sweet spot on the spectrum, where, in Austin’s turn of phrase, you can have engaged non-attachment.