Matthijs Holter

Design notes II – The characters

In Design notes on August 31, 2010 at 12:30 pm

In Society of Dreamers, when you create characters, each player makes two cards for each of the following:

  • Gender or sexuality
  • Nationality
  • Age
  • Occupation

Then, you get everyone’s cards together, making four stacks. (So my “Age” cards are in the same stack as everyone else’s).

After this, you draw one card from each stack to make your character. You’re allowed to trade one of your cards for a new one.

So what does this mean for the game?

This has some interesting effects. First of all, it allows the group as a whole to define the potential characters for the game. (If there’s one thing that I really like about this game and Archipelago, it’s how they handle group input by making each player’s contribution part of a greater whole, something greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a transcendent mechanic, I think you could say.) Even if some players have ideas that diverge strongly from the group’s, those ideas will be… assimilated into the whole. And in defining this potential, the players are already creating the setting; by coming up with ideas, looking at others’ ideas, and forming these fragments from other players’ brains into a whole – a character. We’re already performing magic here.

The second thing, which is pretty obvious, is the removal of self; the loss of control. I can not decide what my character will be like. I can only affect the decision in a limited, statistical fashion. Right from the start, as a player, I have to accept that I am not in complete control of anything.

The third thing, which is one of my favorite tiny bits (and something that would never have happened if I hadn’t run this through so many iterations), is the option to swap only onecard. Notice how this is very different from just throwing your entire character out. It’s a trick! It makes you feel like you’re in control: If you decide to swap one card, you’ve implicitly accepted all the others. You suddenly feel like this character, which is completely random, is something you chose to play.

This acceptance has an important by-effect: Other players are now free to play on all your character traits. If you didn’t swap away “transgendered”, or “dirt poor”, or “too young to be significant”, that means you’ve accepted that others can use those traits – as counterpoints, as challenges, for touching scenes. It means you didn’t shy away from the difficult parts of your character. They’re there, on the table, for everyone to see.

(I didn’t just come up with “transgendered”, by the way. A lot of games get characters with interesting genders or sexualities. I think it’s just a result of players trying to come up with something original instead of just “male” or “female”; I like it a lot, since it’s another aspect of liminality – being on the border between things we usually see as very separate, transgenderedness resonates with the bleed of dream into reality or vice versa.)

Some do’s and dont’s

The common thing to say in all creative exercises is “don’t be original”. Trying to come up with something Weird And Different can make your ideas stilted and contrived. However, in creating character cards, this doesn’t really matter much. Even if you write “Transgendered” on a card, the other cards making up a character might be “British”, “Office worker” and “34 years old”. Having something that makes the character colorful is only cool.

However, do try to balance it, at least 50/50. Don’t only make “interesting” cards, and don’t only be “realistic”.

You might want to push against the norm. If your group usually plays only male characters, here’s your chance to make sure someone plays a woman – fill out both gender cards with “female”. Or if they’re usually always about social realism and no conflict, fill out the occupations with “enthousiastic soldier” and “secret assassin”.

Make sure the nationalities you pick are ones that the group has at least a little bit of knowledge about – or associations to. Don’t pick “Bulgarian” if nobody even knows if that’s a real country. Definitely pick nationalities where you can picture some land- or cityscapes in your mind!

  1. …but if you are only allowed to swap one card, it doesn’t mean you have accepted the others. It means you haven’t been allowed to chuck them out. It gives you the power to adjust, but not to recreate. It is therefore limited and not (completely) free.

    Allowing for a single swap is good because it strengthens the illusion of free choice while, in fact, it only allows a limited power over the situation. This, in itself, is not necessarily bad in any way. But bear in mind that it is only an illusion.

    If I got a character that had two traits I don’t want to play off of, for instance “teacher” (which is my trained occupation, and therefore not as interesting to me) and “hermaphrodite” (which, to me, is too difficult to interpret without seeming silly) and I can only chuck one out… then I’m essentially doomed to play something I don’t really want to play. That said, I don’t think this will happen very often. 🙂

    • Oh yes, the chance of being dealt a card you at first don’t like is there. I think it’s a good mechanical way of getting the message across that being able to accept input is a necessary skill for playing the game.

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