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I was watching a repeat of Iron Chef the other day, and (not for the first time) ruminating on the evident personalities of the three chefs. Sakai always comes across as the friendliest of the three, Chen with an impish sense of humor, and of course, Michiba is the oldest, and in many ways, the most venerable. While still approachable, his personality seems more paternal than the others.

And, not for the first time, I wondered how much of the personality being expressed derived from the men themselves and how much from the voice-over men who dubbed their words into English.

While an interesting question, it’s one that seems incapable of complete solution without actually meeting and getting to know the men personally. So, as is usually the case, I was about to set it aside and think about something else, when it unexpectedly connected with another association, one that holds direct relevance to Campaign Mastery.

If the Chefs are the equivalent of the personalities described on a character sheet, the voice-over artists are analogous to the players!

Struck by this thought, I decided to spend this article examining the concept…

Personality on the page

A character sheet for many types of RPG is completely devoid of personality. Some systems, like the Hero System, include quirks of the psychological profile of the character, but these typically don’t define the character, and don’t express why these traits form part of the character’s makeup. At best, you can get some idea of the influences on the personality.

Racial Profiling can be applied in some cases to get a first-draft of the personality that completely ignores any possibility of individual variations. Other forms of stereotyping can also be applied in a similar manner.

It takes a player to put all these ingredients together and integrate them into a coherent persona, one who belongs in the environment from whence he derives; this is often more difficult at the start of a campaign, when the player doesn’t have sufficient context to connect the character with his native environment.

The Limits Of Interpretation

I have written several articles, and read many more, on the subject of interpreting characteristics and other dry facts on the character sheet. But while many aspects of behavior may be dictated by the character sheet, the most important elements are always provided from a source other than the dry facts; they need to be interpreted by the player, in the same way that a script has to be interpreted by an Actor or Actress.

In the world of television, this is a saving grace; it means that several different writers can provide scripts, each of whom have their own perceptions of the character, and by filtering these scripts through the perspective brought by the actor, something reasonably coherent can emerge and be recognizably “this character,” week after week.

To some extent, actors have an advantage over players in an RPG, in that they often have an incomplete set of facts about the character, and hence have greater freedom to be creative. In other ways, players have twin advantages over actors – they not only have concrete statements of the character’s ability in various ways, but they get to create the characters from start to finish, instead of simply interpreting someone else’s creations.

But both have restrictions and limits the their respective interpretations.

Personality within the game

Things get even more complicated when you consider that no personality can exist in isolation; personality is revealed only in interaction with other characters, with the environment in which the character exists, or with both in combination. That means that, at least partially, a player is not enough; he needs the GM to provide situations in which aspects of the personality can be expressed, to furnish the context within which a player’s choices of words and actions can be interpreted into a personality.

The Gestalt personality

In many ways, then, the player character is a gestalt of many different sources – the Campaign World and stimuli provided by the GM, the foundations deriving from an interpretation within the world-context of the raw numeric measures of the character sheet, compounded with the genre elements that shape all of the above, and all coming together in the “hands” of the player.

Yet, there is little or no sign of this multiplicity of sources and influences when any given character is discussed or considered. So ubiquitous is the filter and interpretative power of the player that all else is diminished or dismissed completely in any discussion. At all times, it is the player who is given authorship, acknowledgement, and ownership of the character, even though it is everything else that makes the character important.

Campaigns have changed game systems before, and the normal measure of successful implementations of this type of transformation is the degree to which the concepts, manifestations, and expression of the player character becomes compromised. If the change results in little or no impairment, it is deemed successful, or at worst, neutral; if it results in the potential for further avenues of expression of the original character and further depth and refinement of persona, it is a definitive success; and only if the change impairs one or more modes of expression of the character’s individuality, impairs the rendering of the persona by the player or worse yet, forces a change to the central concepts that underpin the persona, it is deemed a failure.

There are other ways of measuring the success of such implementations, such as the GM’s ability to craft adventures that the players find interesting, but these ultimately manifest themselves in terms of character expression, so the same criteria can usually be employed; the only distinction is between primary and secondary causes of the impact.

Similarly, characters can experience an out-of-genre adventure, or even a complete transformation of genre, and continue unchanged, or even be reinvigorated as a result; or can migrate from one campaign to another, under a completely different GM, with great success, provided that enough supporting infrastructure remains unchanged to permit the character as he was to connect to the new campaign.

The Interpretation Spin

It is thus the singularity of perspective of the player that is central to the definition and depiction of a character. This can be demonstrated in real-world terms by the differences in persona demonstrated by the character of Blackwing in my Zenith-3 campaign, which has had three different players (You can read the full story, highlighting the differences in interpretation, in the section “Example: The Blackwing Evolution” within The Moral Of The Story: The Morality and Ethics of playing an RPG, about 1/3 of the way down the page).

Each interpretation is radically different and distinct, and yet, they are all reflections of the one character. In creating adventures for the group, I react to the persona displayed by the player, so it is the campaign, and the game world, which is transfigured by the player, not the other way around. The relationship between player and GM is a two-way street, and in many important respects, the player is the dominant element of that relationship.

Side-note: Why do the words “let me tell you about my character” create such universal dread and loathing amongst other players and GMs the world over? I would argue that it is because the character is presented bereft of the context provided by the game world, and thus the usual recitation is of flavorless game mechanics and anecdotes without relevance – leaving only the most boring and disinteresting elements of the gestalt. Don’t tell me about the character, tell me about the world he lives in, how he interprets it, and what he has done to make that world his own. How has the environment affected him? How has he affected the environment, the history? How does he reflect the underpinning philosophy of the world? What makes him interesting?

The player’s interpretation of all the other ingredients that contribute to the character thus “spin” those elements into a character-driven context.

Which brings me back to Iron Chef and the original thought it inspired.

Perception and “Reality”

The only “cast member” of Iron Chef that I have ever seen in any way outside of the context of the show is the time Hiroyuki Sakai appeared on an episode of Masterchef Australia in Season 2. Unlike the episodes of Iron Chef that had been translated and dubbed by the Cooking Channel in the US, Chef Sakai spoke English for himself.

It was a very strange experience, and responsible for first raising the question given at the start of this article in my mind. It was as disconcerting as having Hugh Jackman opening his mouth and the voice of George Burns issue forth, reading Jackman’s Lines. No matter how appropriate such a blending might be for any given role being portrayed, the incongruity has to be overcome before you can wrap your head around what you are hearing.

In terms of the actual experience, what I noted was that the content of what he was saying, his philosophy on food, was largely consistent between both sources, but the characterization and emotional content were just a little different, though with some resemblance. What I have realized after much reflection is that everything that could be read from tone of voice, and analyzed therefore from the subjective viewpoint of the listener, was the result of a hybridization of the personalities of the two individuals involved – Sakai’s personality generated the original responses, which were then interpreted by the voice artist who dubbed the English translation. The emergent personality expressed on Iron Chef was a hybrid of the two, and a hybrid that could only exist within the context of the circumstances generated by the directors of the show.

The parallels between this situation and the description offered of a character in an RPG are pretty clear.

Extending the metaphor I

So an RPG is like a TV show or movie dubbed into another language. While an insight worth something in it’s own right, it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of practical value. Perhaps if we extend the metaphor, we can find other aspects of resemblance between the two that will be of more worth in a practical sense.

The Game World on a page

The first thing that comes to mind is the difference between the game world as it appears in the GM’s notes and as it is in actual play. Here it’s the players who are the transformative element; not only is the world perceived through the eyes of the characters that they play, it is filtered through the capabilities of those characters. Furthermore, the world – as it is experienced – is also a function of what the players choose to explore and how, and what they choose to ignore; and a fourth function lies in their assumptions and the context placed on the world by their experience and real-world knowledge. Throw in the constrains of Genre and the fact that everything they perceive comes as a communication from the GM, adding his capabilities in expressing the “ideal” world in a tangible way, and the restrictions imposed by the adventures that he writes, and it is very clear that no matter how well delineated a world might be on paper, it is going to be a lot more inchoate and vague once play actually starts.

This is like a game of Chinese whispers. You start with a clear written description, but it is interpreted by the GM for the creation of an adventure. The game world is also interpreted by the GM to provide descriptions to the players which are, in theory, what the PCs can perceive. But the players have to take those descriptions and integrate them into a coherent world-view in order to understand what is going on and what options they have to intervene or take advantage of. The words go from the printed page (or digital analogue) to the GM to the PCs to the Players, with Genre and Game Mechanics – and the understanding of them – impacting the process at both the GM and the player stages.

Described in this way, it becomes utterly amazing that any coherent view of the world is even possible, let alone one in which the players and GM agree as to the fundamentals. There are simply so many failure modes that it’s impossible to guard against them all. It is therefore a certainty that the players will have an incomplete or incorrect understanding of at least some aspects of how the game world works.

There are several ways in which the Iron Chef Dubbing can be used as a metaphor for this circumstance.

You could describe the game world as being the original dialogue, and the GM’s descriptions of the interactions with that world as the dubs, highlighting the fact that the world as perceived by the players is a synthesis of many perspectives and elements, Equally, you could ruminate on the differences between a theoretical description (the one in writing) and the reality, arguing that the world on paper doesn’t matter, it’s the world as experienced that’s significant.

You could talk about two different GMs taking the same published setting and interpreting it in two completely different ways, neither more valid than the other.

Manifestations Of Misunderstanding

All these become vitally important when the players make a decision that the GM thinks is wrong or foolish. Before treating it as such, and penalizing the players or their characters for a mistake, the GM needs to be certain that the decision is not rooted in an incorrect or invalid understanding of the game world – tricky to do without dropping hints that the players are doing something they will regret.

One way of circumventing this problem is to insert test problems where the results of failure are non-critical. This enables the GM to test the player’s understanding of one or more critical aspects of the game world before they are forced to make a more serious decision based on that knowledge.

Another choice is to explicitly assume that the players don’t necessarily know what their characters would know from living in the game world. Thus, when a player makes a bad decision, the GM can simply announce, “[Character X] would probably think that was a bad choice because…” – that “because” is all important because it connects the misunderstanding with a correct interpretation. But, while this deals with the immediate problem, it subtracts from the player’s opportunity to make decisions that he knows are bad but that he thinks his character would think correct.

To get around this issue, there needs to be some understanding between the player and GM concerning who decides how much of the world and its workings the character understands, and that’s not a simple question to answer. Or perhaps the GM and player can develop a protocol by means of which the player can communicate to the GM, “I know this is a bad idea, but it’s what I think my character would do.” Part of this protocol should be an understanding that when this happens the GM will punish the character but not to the fullest extent to which he is capable; the character should be given the opportunity to learn from a mistake made voluntarily by the player for roleplaying reasons.

In other words, if the GM thinks the bad decision is being made because the character misunderstands the world, he should refrain from bringing the full load of bricks down in the character in question, but should not intervene to correct the decision. If the GM thinks the decision is flawed because the player misunderstands the game world, he is obligated to speak up and to intervene before the decision is final. And if these decisions were as black and white as this makes them seem, all would be well. Frequently, though, decisions will fall into a gray area in which the GM is uncertain as to which of these policies should apply.

The only solution at such times is to pose the question rather bluntly. “If you are doing this because your character thinks it right while you know better, I’ll require the decision to stand. But if you genuinely think this the right thing to do, then I will give you the opportunity for a do-over while explaining whatever it is that you haven’t understood about the game world.” And if that means that the GM permits the players to make mistakes and be punished for them less often than should be the case, that’s just bad luck on his part – coddling the PCs that little bit is far better than the alternative.

These problems generally become less frequent over time, as the players gain a more thorough understanding of the game world.

Extending the metaphor II

That’s not the only direction in which the metaphor can be extended. There is also the question of announcer Kenji Fukui, whose dubbed voice (by Bill Bickard) is one of the few that doesn’t appear to fit the appearance of the original performer; but Bickard’s voice is so unquestionably a part of the show, bringing an element of over-the-top humor, much of which originates with him, as this compelling interview makes clear.

And so we once again revisit the same questions, with some additional data. Once again, the performer we hear is improvising his performance based on a translation of what the original announcer said in the original foreign-language broadcast, but is explicitly adding things to that performance, resulting in a synthesis between the two that is neither one nor the other.

This precisely parallels what happens when a GM reads flavor text or other narrative from someone else’s adventure. What players may not realize is that even experienced GMs find themselves doing the same thing even when they read from their own script: a touch more explanation here, an attempt at a defter turn of phrase there, a change of emphasis, or the insertion of some parenthetical comments, either as part of the narrative or as a metagame intrusion into them for added context. The same thing often happens when encountering prescripted encounters, especially if the players don’t follow the “script” that the encounter lays out for them.

All of these changes bear a striking resemblance to the humorous turns of phrases that Bill Bickard inserted into his dubbed narration for Kenji Fukui, which in turn has a striking effect on the overall character of the show.

It can also be described, in the GM’s case, as the difference between a live performance and a studio rehearsal. Ideally, it transforms scripted but lifelessly dry narrative into something that is more spontaneous, more dynamic, and more responsive when it reaches the ears of the audience – in this case, the players. It blends a literal recitation of planned statements with communications between GM and player to produce something that is a synthesis of both. If the spontaneous, dynamic elements go too far – and it happens – the adventure also begins to diverge from the script. Sometimes, this is for the better, because the GM is responding and modifying his performance based on the reactions of the players, sometimes it is not because it diverges from the internal logic of the plotline contained within the adventure in ways that may be unrecoverable.

A good thing can become a bad thing, in other words, if not employed judiciously, with restraint, and with an awareness of the effect that it has on a multitude of levels of experience.

Great GMs will know instinctively how far they can go and not exceed that restriction. Professional GMs will understand the plot and the motivations of the characters and know through experience and judgment how far they can go, and will usually not exceed the restriction imposed, but will permit as much freedom within those boundaries as possible. Good GMs will exceed the restrictions regularly, but be adept enough at their craft that they can get things back on track, or simply find a resolution to the in-game situation that results.

Of course, there are other talents that GMs bring to their craft beyond this single criterion; a GM may be only ordinary in this respect but a genius at expressing distinct NPCs, employing different voices and accents at will. Others may be adept at painting a visual image with words, or at creating magnificent props, or any of a dozen other areas of excellence. (I regard myself as a good GM who works hard to bring a level of professionalism in this respect, FYI).

The biggest trick, in this area, is knowing when you’re about to go too far in improvising. Quite often, the limit isn’t obvious until you’ve already crossed it; the challenge then is to get the adventure back onto a course that has some internal logic without forcing decisions onto the players.

Example: The Jimmy Fingers Story

In the early days of the Zenith-3 campaign, I introduced an NPC by the name of Jimmy Fingers. This character existed to serve a defined and definitive plot function, but the players decided – based on a hint that I inadvertently dropped during my improvising – to use him as a source of intelligence on the world in general, and kept him around. That meant that I had to expand on the original defined role in a hurry and improvise a depth of characterization that wasn’t required of the original function that he was to serve.

So I improvised reactions to each of the members and began to develop relationships between him and them. This expanded role immediately disrupted the planned next step in the adventure I had worked out, because the way that the PCs learnt certain facts was supposed to actually be the trigger for the main adventure. I literally had to rewrite the rest of the adventure on-the-fly in such a way that this NPC could function as a conduit into it.

Once started down this road, natural progression kept Jimmy turning up in adventures. In particular, he developed an entirely-improvised crush on one of the PCs, which led him to get himself in over his head trying to prove his worthiness to her as a suiter. Because he didn’t come out and reveal his affections, having a massive inferiority complex – ordinary teenaged boy vs superheros – it took a long time before the reason why he would never “look after himself and keep himself safe”, no matter how often she lectured him about doing so came out.

Several times, he became the conduit for making the PCs aware of a situation of vital interest to them (ie a plot hook they couldn’t ignore) as a result. Eventually, he left with the undeclared intention of making himself worthy of her love and got himself caught up in something that was way over his head, re-entering the campaign in the worst possible way. This pattern repeated itself a couple of times before it began to show signs of stagnating; he was seriously injured a number of times, and came close to death on one occasion. As soon as it started to become predictable, it was time for him to inadvertently (while incoherent) reveal the motivations that had been driving him for years.

After that revelation, which forced the PC to reevaluate many of the encounters between the pair, he took advantage of an opportunity to travel space and time in pursuit of superpowers of his own. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since, but it’s a certainty – now that the PC in question is in a relationship with another PC – that he will eventually return and a complicated love triangle will emerge. They’re all waiting for that shoe to drop – and very aware that if they say or do the wrong thing, he might become a vengeful super-villain, one privy to a lot of their secrets. That shoe hasn’t dropped yet, but everyone knows it will eventually happen!

This NPC worked because I was prepared to let the PCs exceed the bounds of the plot, and was then able to expand on the personality in such a way that his continued involvement in the campaign (which is what the players wanted at the time) was justified. He went from streetwise delinquent to hanger-on to lovesick teenager to self-declared intelligence operative to victim to potential ally or obsessive enemy in the course of play. The character, the relationship, the adventure, and the broader campaign were all reshaped as a result of an off-the-cuff comment that the players decided to make central to their approach to the adventure in which he first appeared.

With Jimmy Fingers it worked out well. There have been other occasions on which I have had to scramble to correct some piece of improv that’s gone awry!

Extending the metaphor III

There remains one final interpretation of the gaming experience that can be perceived from a new perspective using the “Iron Chef” experience as a metaphor, and it is possibly the most complex of them all.

A player in an RPG doesn’t perceive the world directly, he receives a description of that world from the GM. But that description then has to be interpreted; the player has to filter the description he receives through his awareness of the restrictions of his characters perceptive capabilities, his understanding of the game world environment, the context provided by game history, recent game events, and his past experience as a player. To this he adds his own education and experience of popular culture, everyday reality, and genre, to arrive at a unified perception that is a synopsis of many sources.

No one player’s understanding and visualization of a scene will ever quite match that of any other player, and none will ever accord precisely with the understanding and visualization of the GM who furnished that description.

Each player’s interpretation of a scene is unique, and therefore even if they each had the exact same character to play, the way each such character would be directed by their player act and react to any given scene would also be ever so slightly different – though those differences might never be publicly discovered.

This is not that far removed from the compounded perception of the dubbed TV show, in which phrasing, emotional content, nuance, clarity, performance, and even body shape can be suggested by voice alone. Multiple voices can deliver the same lines and give a completely different impression of who is speaking, why they are saying it, and what the speaker is thinking and feeling. Cultural context and subliminal cues also play a part in these interpretations; that is one of the challenges of translation, for what is not stated explicitly and yet is required for full understanding must be conveyed by the translation. This would be all but impossible if it were not for the capability of incorporating an appropriate cultural subtext for the audience hearing the translated version into the translation itself.

“Somehow, it reminds me of a tale one of my aunts used to tell about how she encountered a human in a faraway land and inquired if he were a native. ‘I ain’t no native!’ she was told. ‘I was born right here!’ I quite agree with her that the only proper response when confronted by such logic was to eat him.” This brief passage from M.Y.T.H. Inc. Link by Robert Asprin clearly illustrates the point I’m making; what is described as ‘the only proper response’ makes no sense to us (because we aren’t Dragons) but obviously makes perfect sense to the Dragonkind of the series of novels. In the novel in question, it is used to emphasize the differences in cultural values between humans and dragons, played for shock value and humor. When speaking of the dubbing of Iron Chef, the cultural cues on film are Japanese, which gives them a closer resemblance to those of the audience hearing the dubbed version, but there will still be differences and nuances that would not survive a direct translation.

Did the original show have anything approaching the sense of humor and lightheartedness overlayed on the serious competitive aspects of each episode? Or was it more akin to Iron Chef America (which took itself far too seriously in the only seasons to be aired on Australian Free-to-air TV, or seemed to,) or Iron Chef Australia, which mixed that seriousness with the occasional element of humor that fell completely flat? I will probably never know – the only clues I have are the two appearances outside the show that I have encountered, the appearance of Sakai on Masterchef Australia and the interview with Bill Bickard linked to previously, and they suggest that the original was indeed far more serious than the dubbed version. This opinion is reinforced by the final season or two of the show, after Bickard retired; the dubbed version lacks the same added “punch”, the game show quality that he brought to the gestalt. It’s far dryer, more serious, less exuberant – and less entertaining.

It’s easy to demonstrate the power of the voice to add nuance. Take any famous line of dialogue by Darth Vader and “dub it” yourself with an accent of some sort; it will just feel wrong (and will often be funny as all get-out). Or try it with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous line, “I’ll be back” – without his Austrian accent, it changes completely.

Getting back to the RPG sphere of activity, there’s many an occasion when I have given a description of a scene or circumstance to the player whose character was the only one to perceive/observe the salient details and then had them report their observations back to the group. On every occasion, there were critical omissions, frequently there were insertions of new material, and the message was usually garbled almost beyond recognition.

This occurred because they weren’t stating what had been described to them, they were relaying their understanding of the scene they had observed. The gaps in that understanding created the omissions and the interpretations and assumptions were reported as what the characters had supposedly observed. They were “context added” – with the player’s interpretations reported as fact every bit as solid as the actual scenes witnessed. It’s a direct result of their individual synthesis of the many sources of material compounding to compile an overall perception. They “see” the game world through the eyes of a gestalt of sources, part player, part PC, and part GM-derived.

Visual aids like illustrations, photographs, battlemaps, props, diagrams, and more extensive and detailed narration all serve to unify perceptions of a scene or situation in various respects, driving those differences in interpretation into the shadowy recesses of irrelevance – most of the time.

A shared activity (conclusion)

Gaming is a shared activity which relies on communications between the players and GM, communications which are inherently fallible. Both GM and players have to interpret what is communicated to them from the source material through a number of filters and synthesize that interpretation with other material to romanticize the partial picture into a holistic “reality” within the imagination. The entire process is error-prone, and can catastrophically impact on the logic of perceived situations. Remaining aware of these factors is vital to rational choices of action on the part of the players and interpretation of those actions by the GM.

Whenever the players seem about to make a horrendous mistake in judgment, be sure to allow for the possibility of a failure of communications; if the situation were properly understood, the course of action proposed might well be very different. It behooves a good GM to validate the player’s understanding before applying an iron fist to flawed and erroneous choices.

Make allowances for mis-communications and insert corrective mechanisms into your GMing style, and the results will be a better gaming experience for all concerned.

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