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Part 3 – Character Stance, Actor Stance and the gap in-between
I’m going to cover these two together, since at first glance they can appear to be more-or-less the same thing. But the distinction between the two activities is important to understand, because they’re often each driven at by players with very different goals. Much more so than the difference between the Author and Director stances.
Back at the start I said that Character Stance was the easiest to explain, and at the time I’d made several assumptions about how other people see this stuff. After talking to several people about it, (mainly in person, but also online) those assumptions turn out not to be true. So what follows is an attempt to explain things a bit better than I might have before. Hey, this is a learning experience for me too!
Character Stance is a big one: the one stance which is most misunderstood. Equal parts great white whale and sacred cow, Character Stance is often put on a pedestal and the quest for it defines some people’s gaming. Some people invest tremendous amounts of time and energy trying to experience Character Stance “right”, while others defend their right to it with almost psychotic zeal.
I’ll be using this term a fair amount in this column, so I think it’s best to get a decent definition of it before we go much further. Given that Immersion is a very emotive subject, and it’s very definition is often disagreed upon, I’ll be covering it in more depth in a later column. For the time being, I’m going to have to briefly define what I mean when I say it in this column.
Immersion is the sense of experiencing an RPG’s fiction as if it were “real”.
In classical or traditional RPGs, this is most commonly associated with people “roleplaying their character”. Which is to say, basically getting into the head of their fictional avatar and experiencing the game world through them, as if the player and the character were one and the same. For GMs, this generally means a sense of mentally becoming the setting which the players interact with, rather than consciously adjudicating the consequences of the PCs’ actions.
The important thing to understand about Immersion is that it applies in a whole bunch of ways. Many folks only think of Character Stance, when they talk about Immersion, but this misleading: it happens to players in most Stances. It also applies to other media and activities: books, films, LARPs and videogames often offer immersion in that they cause the reader/viewer/player to suspend their disbelief and “forget” that they’re experiencing something through an entertainment medium rather than actually being present or observing the events depicted. For example, when a character delivers a particularly good piece of dialogue in a good TV drama, we think of that as a character saying something rather than an actor reading a line. We “choose to forget” that it’s James Gandolfini, not Tony Soprano, who’s speaking.
So not only is immersion possible in other media, but in other Stances within an RPG. We “choose to forget” that it’s Dave, not Titus, who’s speaking, and we “choose to forget” that he’s addressing the GM pretending to be the king rather than the actual (fictional) king. For Dave and the GM, this is likely either Character, Actor or Author Stance, but for everyone else it might be Audience Stance (especially if their characters aren’t there). Everyone there pictures these events in their mind’s eye, with varying degrees of vividness.
If a player describes what their character is doing, and they’re internally reagrding the character as a fictional construct separate from themselves, then they are in acting in Actor Stance. That is to say that they are considering their character’s capabilities, personality and behavioral traits and patterns and deciding based on these what their character will do. They might speak in the 1st or 3rd person, depending on their style, but importantly, they’re consciously considering what their character is up to. They’re considering the character in isolation, and considering then from their own point of view alone. That is to say that the player is consciously trying to disregard all out of character information.
Actor Stance and Author Stance
While Author Stance is not the subject of this column, it’s worth touching on the differences between Author and Actor Stances to help us understand exactly what Actor Stance is.
As stated above, a player taking action in Actor Stance is very likely considering various aspects of their character’s being: their personality, capabilities and knowledge of the game’s world and current situation.
When acting in Author Stance, the same player may well consider all this, but he may also be considering other matters as well. Things like the plot or story of the game, the game’s mechanics or something as simple as what time it is and how long the session has left to run. In short, he’s taking out-of-character knowledge into account when acting in Author Stance. He might not have the character act according to their own personality because he thinks the story will be more interesting if he behaves differently. Or maybe he know that the GM has plans for a particular NPC, or that another player (as distinct from another character) might object to certain behaviors or actions.
To simplify things a bit, a player in Author Stance might ask “What should this character do?” while a player in Actor Stance might ask “What would I do if I was this character?”
This is not to say that players are always disregarding all out-of-character knowledge when playing in Actor Stance. There’s often a nagging sensation that the game would be more interesting or fun if their character were allowed to act in a different way. In order to act upon this though, a player must (briefly) switch to Author or Director Stance and simply incorporate the required tweaks into the character, possibly making subtle changes to the character’s personality or outlook on the fly to accommodate such out-of-character requirements. They can then drop back into Actor Stance and carry on (effectively delivering the “new lines” they’ve just written for themselves). More on this in a future column!
Back in the first column, I described Character Stance as “people wanting to be their character while they’re at the table” and this is more or less the nuts and bolts of it. There is no conscious consideration of the character: if you’re speaking while feeling that you are your character, then you’re acting in Character Stance. The player will be disregarding out-of-character knowledge as much as possible to strengthen their sense of “being there” as the character.
Vive la différence: Actor and Character Stance
So what’s the difference between the two? From the outside, people using both stances can often seem identical, especially people using Actor Stance who tend to speak in character a lot in the 1st person. Mainly, both Stances recognise that the the player knows that the character and events are purely fictional1 but a player acting in Actor Stance is treating the character as a separate entity whom they control, while the player acting in Character Stance is choosing to suspend their disbelief of that fact to the point where they experience the game’s fiction from the point of view of the character as if they actually are them.
This distinction is important, because the majority of roleplayers aren’t actually seeking to immerse themselves in their characters alone2, instead wanting to experience the whole fiction which the game offers. Restricting oneself to one Stance is to cut out the other Stances and limit the possibilities for generating fun.
Character Stance and Immersion
It’s worth noting that many people use the term “Immersion” when what they mean in the context of this particular discussion is Character Stance Immersion. Immersion is a sensation, state of mind or feeling, rather than an activity and as such not a Stance in-and-of itself.
As discussed above, Character Stance Immersion is the feeling that you are your character and that you are experiencing the game-world and the events taking place therein through your character. This tends to be the thing which players who identify as “Immersionists” strive for. They want to almost lose themselves in the character’s point of view and to almost forget who they really are for the duration of the game.
Reading that, it’s easy to think of Immersion as some kind of trance-state, self-hypnosis or mental illness. That’s not really a very helpful idea, since such thinking tends to put Immersion on a pedestal and treat it is as something somehow magical, which in turn leads to hilarious statements along the lines of “it’s just something which happens, man, you can’t understand it or analyse it!” While it should be obvious to anyone taking the time to read this that this is clearly something which can be understood and can be analysed (if you don’t think this stuff can be understood, why are you reading this?), it’s also helpful to try and understand why people feel this way.
It’s genuinely hard to explain to non-gamers what Character Stance Immersion is without making it sound like a mental illness. Suffice to say that it’s really not so different from people jumping at the spooky parts of a horror movie. The brave heroine is creeping down the dark tunnel and her torch flickers and dies. We, the audience sat in the cinema or on our sofa feel threatened on her behalf. It’s no surprise that our hearts race when she manages to turn it back on and sees the monster in front of her: we’re invested in what’s going on. We know, on an intellectual level that what we’re seeing is an actress on a set somewhere and that the monster doesn’t even exist outside the CGI rendering suite. But we’ve chosen to forget that for a while in order to be entertained. In the same way, a roleplayer engaging in Character Stance Immersion is simply choosing to suspend their disbelief to the point where they’re not just invested in their character, they’re feeling like actually are them. They’re taking that dial and turning it up to eleven. This works because they’re not just passively watching through the character’s eyes: they’re in complete control of the character. They experience their every thought and speak their every word.
It’s clear that a small2, but very vocal sector of the gaming community feel very strongly that Character Stance Immersion is the pinnacle of the gaming experience3. While this is not necessarily problematic in-and-of itself, a smaller subset of these people find any attempt to enjoy any of an RPG’s other pleasures (that is, for any other player at the table to engage with any other Stance) to be disruptive of their own enjoyment. They’ll say that certain things are “ruining their Immersion”, but are often not prepared to discuss these problems because that discussion in turn drags them further out of their character and reminds them the they are actually a person sat at a table in the real world, not an elf in Middle Earth or a vampire holding court. I’ll speak more about this in a future column, but for now suffice to say that such players are often very unhappy in games with other player types.
Actor Stance and Immersion
A player who’s Immersed in Actor Stance will regard the character as “real” in the same way a player Immersed in Character Stance does, but rather than feeling that they are the character, they regard the character as a seperate entity. Many people invest very heavily (emotionally) in their characters, but the character is not an aspect of the player so much as someone (fictional) who they know very well. They don’t experience the “dual conciousness” some Character Stance fans describe, they simply regard that character as real.
That’s all for this time, I’ll cover ways to encourage the various Stances in a later column!
Next: Author and Director Stances.
1: Fictional in the sense that the player is not actually the character and the events are not actually happening to the player right now. My character might fall down the stairs, and I’ve fallen down the stairs in the past, so even though the event is something which I’m familiar with when it happens to my character, I know that he’s falling down some stairs in a fictional event. I think everyone sooner or later plays a game in which they play either someone real (often a celebrity or a figure from history) or a version of themselves, but we always know we aren’t really the person who’s starring in the game. Failure to do so would be considered (quite rightly) to be a mental illness.
2: In a recent online poll on rpg.net, less than 30% of respondents said yes to the statement “sometimes feel almost as if I “am” my character – in a way I feel his feelings / think his thoughts”, (Character Stance Immersion) whereas almost half of respondents said that they “generally imagine being [their] character” (Actor or Author Stance Immersion). Meanwhile, almost half said that they “generally consciously influence the course of the “story”“. While this is in no way conclusive proof of anything, the results appear to be more or less in line with my own experiences of roleplaying gamers: more people indulge in Actor Stance or Author Stance than in Character Stance. The majority of roleplayers appear to be interested in creating interesting characters and either telling stories about them or using them as a vehicle for exploring a fictional setting rather than assuming their identities temporarily. In short, over 70% of roleplayers do never experience (Character Stance) Immersion at all, much less regard it as the sole purpose, main or even a minor goal of the hobby.
3: For some gamers, Character Stance Immersion is the only desirable goal in RPGs. Such people are often LARPers as well as RPG gamers.