Advocacy by the Throat

Juilan Michels, creator of the Open Circle Story method for storyjamming, asked me to write about my thoughts on “character advocacy and suspense,” following a conversation we were having in person. Julian’s said in the past, “I don’t advocate for the character, I advocate for the story.” I’d like to dig into how I feel about that. And what does it have to do with suspense, anyway?

The basics: Character Advocacy is discussed by Jesse Burneko on his blog Play Passionately, and is about a player representing the fictional interests of a particular protagonist, where another player (“Gamemaster,” usually) is responsible for creating adversity and challenging those interests. In a sense this is merely the central and often unexamined tenet of roleplaying for decades—”the GM plays the world, the players control what their characters do and say.”

But for Story Now play there must be a particular focus: a player who advocates for a Protagonist must be free and willing to address problematic human issues through the lens of that character. It’s that player’s job to show us who that character is under pressure.

So why is Character Advocacy so important? Can’t you, as Julian says, “advocate for the story?” It’s collaborative storytelling; surely we’re all mature and sophisticated enough to shed these archaic character-ownership notions and just make story together…right?

Well, Character Advocacy isn’t the only way to make story together, to be sure. But the reasons I find it so powerful are:

1) It’s dead simple. That may seem trivial, but actually having procedures that are intuitive and obvious is very helpful for creative flow. I don’t have to guess what I should be doing at any given point in the storyjam. I don’t have to address a nebulous concept like “what’s good for the story?” with all the attendant self-doubt and hesitation. I can just advocate for my character, with the person across the table providing adversity, and trust that from this a “good story” will emerge. Because we’re sure of our roles, we can each devote ourselves to performing them well and gracefully.

2) It maintains tension. Yes, I am perfectly capable of imagining a character and deciding what happens to her, good and bad. It might even make for a great story; writers of all media and genres do this every day. But the primary strength of roleplaying/storyjamming as an artform, is collaborative story creation. And that means we have a powerful tool for maintaining tension around our circle, by surrendering some control over our characters’ fates to another player. “There once was a girl, and she was an orphan, but she was adopted by a king and queen, but a monster menaced the kingdom, but she defeated it, the end.” Spoken by one person, it may or not be a great story, but it’s not a conversation. There’s where “suspense” comes in–when we enter a back-and-forth of action and reaction, then we have a chance to enter into a realm of spine-tingling anticipation over what happens to the girl: what challenges she’ll face, how she’ll respond to them, and what it will cost her.

3) It fosters emotional investment. Character Advocacy requires you to care about a particular character in a unique way. Not to insist that they are always victorious or have a happy ending, not even to necessarily like them. But to care enough to advocate for their goals, to provide something for an adversary to push against. Enough to be unwilling to “throw” the match, to say “you know what? This guy’s a bastard, hell YEAH you cut his head off and violate the corpse.” Because the character is fictional, he needs a real person who’s going to represent him in the proceedings, to give him a fair shake, even at being a bastard and getting away with it. And because we all emotionally invest this way, we have a chance at being truly moved by the results.

So Character Advocacy isn’t the only widget in the Story Now toolbox, and various games will use it to varying degrees and in various ways. I sat in on an Open Circle Story, which doesn’t formally use the technique at all, and was quite pleased with the results. But Advocacy is a powerful technique for dynamic, emotionally invested group  storytelling. I won’t be abandoning it anytime soon.



17 Responses to “Advocacy by the Throat”

  1. 1 jburneko
    December 21, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    I think #2 is actually a bigger deal than most people think, particularly with how it relates to #3. I have recently come to the conclusion that a great number of gamers value “Drama”, meaning sudden reveals, sweeping speeches, betrayals, heroic actions, etc but don’t actually value “Tension”, meaning actual concern and trepidation over a potential outcome.

    You add tension in with personal investment and a lot of people just plain run away. “Advocating for the story,” is often a way of saying, “making sure things turn out comfortably” no matter how seemingly dramatic or even tragic the result. Frankly, embracing and facing the anxiety of legitimate tension via character investment both as a creative exercise and a learning and growing experience is what the stuff on Play Passionately is all about.


  2. 2 Willem
    December 21, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Julian did mention something in that conversation, about how the feeling of “tension/anticipation” did begin to emerge after several sessions, using his OCS method.

    If I could have anything for Christmas, I would want the shortcut to this experience: deep investment in character, and a profound sense of tension and anticipation over what comes next (or what is happening right now!).

    Even using character advocacy, I don’t always get this from storyjamming. In fact I rarely get it. When I start to feel it welling up, something usually breaks or dissippates this feeling. I definitely experienced tension, anticipation (and in this sense, immersion), while playing Panty Explosion: Gundam Ecole with Jake at Gamestorm (as an example), and here and there in a few different games since. But holding on to the feeling proves really difficult.

    I remember what usually does it for me, what makes me jump over the edge into this immersion, is a feeling of “rawness”.

    Really, all my experimenting with storyjamming really points to this: attaining this feeling of rawness, whether in warm-ups or in the story itself.

  3. December 21, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Some of my earlier playtests followed the idea of “advocating for the story,” without strong character advocacy. It felt … kind of bland, frankly. Your motivations, as a player, became ambivalent, so it became hard to really feel invested. I took from those playtests that you can’t leave players feeling conflicted; really satisfying story comes only when we identify with the characters. That holds true as much reading a book as playing a game, doesn’t it? Except in a game, we should have a shot at something even deeper. I really like how you’ve laid it out here: keep it simple, maintain tension, and foster emotional investment. I think you’ve got it exactly here.

  4. 4 Zac in Virginia
    December 22, 2009 at 1:16 am

    It might be a bit of a red herring, actually, to think about “the larger narrative” or what-have-you: how many times have you played bog-standard RPGs with bog-standard GMs who get fussy when you aggressively pursue Story Now goals? They might very well accuse you of ignoring the “narrative”, which is kind of an amorphous thing, anyway.

    A Right to Dream-style, pure-Exploration sort of play, if anything, would have this kind of unmoored, non-centered narrative – as opposed to something that focuses tightly on the situation, or the characters, or something. Good story lines, in my view, hinge on moral dilemmas and the characters experiencing them; either we get inside a character’s head pretty deeply, or we don’t, but either way we still want to watch a person confronting a dilemma.

    Without interesting characters, who cares that the new Imperial weapon can destroy an entire planet? Without an interesting dilemma, who cares that Han Solo is a devil-may-care mercenary with a hidden heart of gold? I think the latter lends itself to easier overall fodder for *some* kind of game, actually, although if Han is just an action hero instead of an evolving, nuanced person (okay, maybe not terribly so, but he isn’t static), his personality is just color and detail rather than something terribly important to the story’s outcome – who cares what kind of quips the Three Musketeers might dish out, when there’s no question at all that they are loyal to the Dauphin and will fight his foes to the death?

    The former (no characters to care about) cannot be salvaged with any amount of cool powers. This is the downfall of many a White Wolf game, I think – you don’t get the tools to a) make a character that’s in some kind of dilemma OR to b) make using your powers a morally fraught experience. My vampire becomes more and more ruled by his id, the more he … gives in to his id. OK – what’s the tension? What does he have to lose, really lose, by giving in to the Beast?

    Willem – I think I might have your Christmas present! My vampire character needs to have a way for you to connect to him, emotionally, at least after we’ve had some time to experience him. In short, he needs people who care that he’s a vampire, to whom his Undeadness matters on a personal level. The Background traits in Old World of Darkness don’t quite accomplish this – we get Allies, Contacts, Herd… and these things are all tactical resources. If, instead, we got Lovers, People Who Think I’m Human, and Victims, *that* would draw out the personal connection in us and make us care!
    Argh, now I kind of want to break out the 3rd Ed. Vampire: the Masquerade and mess around with it for exactly this purpose :)

    One last thought – it’s possible that, for Story Now play purposes, there is only:
    1 – push/pull the situation
    2 – push/pull for a protagonist
    3 – push pull against a protagonist

    I think that when we advocate ‘for the story’ it can mean a lot of things, but I’m convinced you need something to push against in order to get involved in the story, and if you put a main character in your crosshairs, that would be one way to do it.
    In a game I’m play-testing, I decided to write a rule that states that a player can change which character he “owns” over the course of play, if there’s a much more interesting non-tagonist he’d rather play. Alternately, if the player has a lot more fun wreaking havoc for his character than helping him succeed, it would make sense to avoid bumping into the Czege Principle and kindly suggest that he connect to another character instead, the better to push against the guy he’s decided he loves to hate.

  5. 5 Joel
    December 23, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Jesse: I see a lot of people (myself included, from time to time) worrying not about the story coming out “comfortably,” but fittingly.In fact some of my earliest roleplaying growing pains, when I shifted to playing a character instead of just moving and attacking with colorful imagined pawns, were fraught with frustration over fittingness, as in “that’s not a fitting way for this character’s story to proceed at all!” It had at least as much to do with tone and emotional weight as it did with having a “happy ending” or anything. That’s probably one of the primary reasons I’m still drawn to roleplaying rulesets that try to arrange the social and creative landscape such that a certain tone can flourish. Vincent’s current thoughts on “seed material” have been enlightening in this regard.

    Willem: I’d love to hear more about this “feeling of rawness.” I instinctively identify with that phrasing, but is there anything more you can describe about your experience of it?

    Jason: I know what you mean about blandness. I’ve experienced it a lot in games where the advocacy boundaries have become blurred. It CAN still work and be fun, even rewarding, but it seems on shakier ground to me.

    Zac: Push/Pull is a great way to put it. Your thoughts also put me to mind of another algne on the tension problem: if we’re looking for certain elements in our story (sympathetic protagonists and interesting dilemmas, frex), and nobody’s specifically tasked with keeping those elements present, strong and satisfying..well, they MIGHT turn out OK, but it’s kind of a crapshoot. Will someone have the presence of mind to bring an element in even though it’s not his job? Sometimes, but it’s likely to be erratic. Rather than unmooring those duties from specific participants, I’d actually like to see more elements assigned to individual players. Shock: and Polaris both experiment with this in different ways.

    However, I do want to point out that someone who wants to create suffering for a character doesn’t necessarily “hate” them or think they’re a (fictionally) bad person. I think a lot of times players want to introduce suffering because they want stories about characters they love, but with the emotional weight that suffering produces. Which doesn’t materially alter your points or your ideas, I think, but it’s worth stressing.


  6. 6 Jesse Burneko
    December 29, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Joel: Your use of the word “fitting” has really given me pause. I’ve been wanting to respond but am unsure yet what to say. So I figured at least acknowledge that your use of that word has made me go: hmmmmmm.

    Question: What happens when a player’s idea of “fitting” is so constrained as to include very particular outcomes. I played a Sorcerer game with a woman who afterwords told me she didn’t like how much the dice “defined” her character. When I asked her what she meant it turned out that there were a few particular scenes where she had failed a roll and despite the resolution being interesting and moving the story forward in a new direction it was upsetting because, to her, the character she wanted to play “would have” succeeded at those things. In her mind her actual character concept was *altered* because the character, as she perceived her, would have succeeded at those things, NO MATTER WHAT.

  7. 7 jburneko
    December 29, 2009 at 10:50 am

    I just realized I wasn’t logged to wordpress when I made that last post. Sorry for making you have to moderate it.

    But right as I posted it I had a thought.

    I think there is a big divide between players who define their character based on crisis and those who define their character based on capability.

    If I create a character who is all about fighting for his religion then any outcome which brings him to peace with his religion is going to feel “fitting.” It doesn’t matter if he abandons it and walks away or dies in a crusade or learns to keep it to himself or drives his family away with it. All of those will be “fitting” because the character is defined in terms of his crisis with his religion. Only something like, “fighting martians” is not going to feel fitting because dealing with martians isn’t what this guy is about.

    On the other hand if I create a character who can talk his way out of anything then any time I fail to talk my way out of something it’s going to feel wrong because this character is supposed to be the guy who can talk his way out of anything. That’s all I have to hold on to. I’m the guy who talks his way out of anything. If you deny me that, you deny my one and only point of investment in the character.


  8. 8 Joel
    December 29, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Actually the biggest inconvenience of having to re-approve you is the momentary surge of false hope that i have a new reader! :)

    So: I certainly didn’t mean to imply that “fitting” is a better/healthier/more functional metric than “comfortable.” I wanted to convey that “fittingness” was, rather than a source of inspiration and clear creative direction, a considerable source of fretting and frustration. it was a straw to be grasped at in a wasteland of unsatisfying play, in the hopes that this, THIS! would be the magic ingredient that would give me what i was looking for.

    Which is to say I agree with you. “Fittingness” can be a deadly trap, and it’s only when it’s limited to, say, agreement on tone, that I can see it being a functional consideration in Story Now play.

    In fact the distinction you draw between “crisis-based” and “capability-based” play is shockingly relevatory to me. I can see now that I was enacting the “capability” factor over and over again in my play, wanting a certain competency–coolness, smoothness, badass-ness, or whatever, affirmed in my character before I could look further to something that would TRULY be satisfying in a Story Now way. I think maybe it comes from a brutal, dysfunctional play environment where you’re lucky to get ANYthing affirmed about your play at ALL. You become really defensive about superficial things like “can my guy shoot the eyetooth off a gnat blindfolded?” and can’t get past that to answer “will he choose his religion over his family?”

    Looking back, I was definitely interested in answering questions like that, but couldn’t get past the capability aspect. It was like I needed a baseline affirmation level to feel safe in addressing the “crisis” aspect of a character.

    Thanks for spurring that line of thought. It helped me understand some things.


  9. 9 Willem
    January 3, 2010 at 12:23 am


    You asked about the feeling of “rawness”. I think it emerges when I take risks, real risks. When I do uncomfortable things. I feel exposed, vulnerable, not in a comfortable way, but not in a painful way. My best description of the “rawness” feeling: I feel and move differently, like a shamanic tarzan, my body crackles with energy. Almost as if I turned my self-censor off during the storyjam, but never turned it on again when I finished.

    I haven’t quite figured out what exact kind of risks push me into “rawness”. I don’t really understand the phenomenon, it doesn’t happen that often, but honestly I only play for the possibility of experiencing it. Which makes me a terrible player for most folks’ games (and on the whole, inspired me to stop playing with an ever-rotating cast of people). Who the hell wants to play for something so crazy and edgey anyway? How about just having fun?

    I don’t blame folks who feel that. It’s like a drug for me, really. Once I tasted that “rawness” I don’t want anything else.

  10. January 3, 2010 at 7:48 am

    Hey, Joel!

    I just started two different Polaris campaigns, and then a friend of mine started up a game of 4th Edition D&D (she has no background in story games). What. A. Difference. In two hours, I think I could have played four butt-kickin’ scenes of Polaris, with conflicts and machinations and devils running every which way. In two hours of D&D, there was zero conflict, and we more or less chewed the scenery.
    I resorted to treating my cleric of home and hearth like the Ayatollah Khomeini in full ante-revolutionary mode, a sort of looks-like-a-commie-but-ends-up-a-fascist sort of deal. I did this to inject some for-real conflict into the story, but I tell ya – the other players (and GM) riffed on me as the “troublemaker” in the group. Not that this didn’t match their expectations – someone that revved up and arguing with NPCs must of COURSE be trying to sabotage the game or something, right?
    I’m going to give it one more session, and then it’s back to the Utmost North for me.

  11. 11 Joel
    January 3, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Willem, wow. That’s some hardcore honesty there, and I appreciate it. I definitely feel you on this–I’m didn’t call it “Story at the Polite Tea Social” after all! I think where you’re an addict I’m a social user–I want the rawness, and I seek it out, gravitating toward folks who bring it. But I’m also down with a “just have fun” sort of game too…IF I’m getting my fix of the Raw. A lot of my disruptive or problematic behavior in games has come when I’m NOT getting it, and trying to inject it where it’s not welcome. And of course we’ve had similar experiences together when we’re not on the same page, or I’m trying to drag you kicking and screaming into a more casual play setting. :)

    Zac, that dovetails nicely with what YOU’RE saying: in a way, I’d posit that maybe you ARE the troublemaker in the sense that you’re out of step with the group. I know because I’ve BEEN that guy, in Ye Olde Dee Ande Dee games where a certain kind of player proactivity just isn’t on the table, and I’ve tried to bring it out anyway. It’s created friction, social awkwardness, and just plain blocking, as the group rejects or resists the jarring input. Of course these rules are all unspoken, maybe even unrealized, and I didn’t find the boundaries until I pushed against them. It was all the murkier because there was a bit of a paradox at play–of COURSE you’re supposed to be true to the character even when that’s inconvenient…just don’t “be a dick” about it. What “be a dick” means of course varies widely from group to group, or even from gamemaster to gamemaster.

    At first I thought I was just “being the change I want to see,” and bringing what I want to the game without unfairly demanding change from the other players. But as I continually rebounded against invisible walls and tensions rose, I realized I wasn’t doing ANY of us any favors, and came to the same conclusion you did: leave them to their fun and find some of my own.

    Whew, that could’ve been a whole blog in itself!

  12. 12 Hans
    March 30, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    I just now read this, and yes, yes, YES! I’ve also played Julian’s Open Circle Story and enjoyed it, but I have problems with his theory on character advocacy, which I haven’t been able to articulate very well, until you just did it for me, Joel.

    There’s also this awesome, true post by Judd Karlman on his blog: http://githyankidiaspora.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/the-myth-of-story-preservation/

    In it, he says,

    “In Story Now play you are not at all thinking about making a good story. You are not making decisions for the good of the story. Eff that in the aye.

    The goal of games, even narr-heavy thematic games Story Now, is not to make a story. Story happens.

    The goal is a night of people making meaningful choices at the table. Story is a by-product, like exhaust coming out of a car.

    It is also a by-product of gamist play and sim play. Story just happens.

    Looking out for the story leads to constipation at the table. Story does not need to be preserved or looked out for. It is not a just hatched chick that needs everyone to be careful lest it is trampled. Just play the damned game, make choices that are brave. Look at your character sheet, let your character surprise you and story will just happen.

    Do not preserve story. Shitty stories are made in those times everyone is being careful not to ruin the story, leading to cowardly decisions and furrowed brows and serious thinking about serious things. Story is fun, let it out of the cage. It the story get damaged and messy.

    I like my stories with only one headlight, the other smashed and a dinged up fender. I like my story with an engine that shouldn’t work, that mechanics insist should not run anymore because there is no spark plug and no engine oil. I like them messy and loud with chipped paint and a spider-web crack in the windshield. You should look at them and know they survived something to get to ya.

    Stories just happen in RPG play. Relax. Let them occur.”

    Yes. Yes!

  13. 14 Willem
    March 30, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    Wow. Thanks for that Hans. Judd’s post really articulates my feelings about Story Now fantastically. Whoo!

  14. 15 Joel
    March 31, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Right on, Hans! I’m glad what I said rang true with you. I’m definitely standing on some broad shoulders here; folks like Ron Edwards, Jesse Burneko and Vincent Baker have articulated this mode of play in ways that enabled me to cut through MY mental static and see my way clear to it and in re-expressing it, make it my own.

    And speaking of which, I too found Judd’s blog post pretty bitchin’ and spot-on. “Story Happens,” indeed! I’m proud to say in fact, that this post of Judd’s arose out of a cross-blog conversation that had its birth in an earlier post here. I’m certainly glad it provoked Judd’s manifesto, and it’s great to see that manifesto find its way back around to my living room.

    Rock on, everyone.

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