When I’m reading a book and really enjoying it, I’m in my reader-mind: I’m invested in the character, I want them to do well, I don’t want them to suffer too much or lose anything too precious. I can tell I’m enjoying a book when I wish I could actually enter the story and tell the protagonist what they should do so they stop fucking things up.
In reader-mind, I’m a partisan for the main character
In writer-mind, I’m thinking more about the story as a whole. I (try to) create a character for readers to invest in, then I put them through their paces, running them ragged and making them suffer for the benefit of the story. I have them make mistakes, fail, and screw up in ways that can’t be fixed.
Hopefully, that leads to a hard-won victory that gives the reader something to celebrate. Unless the character is Ray Lilly, and that victory is pyrrhic as hell.
One of the big differences there is control. When I’m in reader-mind, the problems the character faces is wholly out of my control, and that shit can be stressful. In my writer-mind, I’m in complete control, and while I’m making life hell for that perfectly wonderful main character, I know how far I can push things. It’s up to me, and that takes a lot of the stress out of it.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about these two perspectives a lot, mainly because of the role-playing games I’ve been playing lately.
In the old days, when I played D&D (before it became AD&D) and other games later, like The Fantasy Trip or The Morrow Project, I approached the role of GM with the writer-mind. I tried to measure the challenges without making them impossible. Hard-fought, but not impossible.
That could be a challenge, obviously, and those old-school number-crunching games sometimes made it hard to avoid a total party kill, once the scenario was committed. And I can admit it: I wasn’t a great GM.
But when I played a character, I was in reader-mind all the way. I never had the character do anything stupid or illogical, never had them take an action that might screw up their quest, whatever it was. They never rushed in without preparation. Never gave in to foolish temptation. Never trusted anyone likely to be playing the role of traitor in the story.
They never went down into the basement without grabbing a knife from the kitchen first, if you know what I mean.
As I’ve said before, rpgs are storytelling of another kind. Unlike novels or movies, they’re an oral, interactive narrative. And if you played those old-school D&D games, most of the time they were fucking terrible stories. Characters marched down halls in formation, stabbed monsters, searched for treasure, and if they survived, spent it. Often, that became the only goals: gather wealth, go up a level. “There’s a group of bandits stealing from those villagers” was nothing more than a fig leaf over the necessity to put our miniatures on the hex paper.
We made half-hearted efforts to create actual stories in the game, but frankly, we were terrible at it.
That was because the point of the game was not to tell stories, it was to hang out with our friends and make each other laugh. The game was always less important than the people we were playing it with.
However, as boring as these narratives could be, I learned a lot from them. I learned what people expect when they experienced stories with reader-mind. I learned to make the characters as smart and aware as I could.
Essentially, I learned not to have characters in my novels investigate a weird noise in the basement without first stopping for weapons in the kitchen. So to speak.
I still write with the writer-mind in place, but I try to be aware of reader-mind expectations.
Games have changed, though. The last few games our group has played required much more writer-mind perspective from the players. For example, many times our GM will say something like: “Okay. You’re in another dimension. What do you see? Describe it to me.” Everyone in the group is empowered to contribute to the setting and to design NPCs.
That’s something you can’t do if you’re stuck in reader-mind, and think the hellscape surrounding the villain’s stronghold should have a beautiful bridge across it, with napping guards and plenty of fountains for proper hydration.
I confess, that I sometimes struggle with this. I don’t want my characters to get killed every session, but I don’t want to play rpgs on EASY every time, either.
Which brings me to our last session. We’re playing a game called MASKS, which is about a team of teenage superheroes. The characters have power but they’re young and unsure of themselves. They try their best. They make mistakes. And it’s a great game. If you want me to go into details, let me know.
Briefly, here’s where things stood in the game, story-wise: the major villain we were facing was a time-traveling conqueror who, in the distant future, has become powerful enough to rule over every one. Basically, he’s a tyrant who conquered the universe, but no one knew who was really under the mask.
However, we knew he came from Earth and that, in our time, he was a regular guy. He keeps bumping back to our present to influence events, kidnap people, or just villain up the neighborhood. Basically, we were trying to unmask him and identify him, so we could beat him before he became a cosmic-level threat.
Now, since this is a comic book story (and in keeping with the theme we’re often asked to describe what we’re doing in terms of panels) it seemed very likely that the villain was either one of the player characters, or someone we knew. I thought it might be my character, who is a teenage version of Dr. Strange. His history makes him a candidate for turning evil, and when we did finally unmask the time-traveling villain in our last session, I figured there was a 50/50 chance it was my character.
And in my writer-mind, I was mentally prepared for that. It made me unhappy, because I was supposed to be in writer-mind without having the same control I do when I write fiction, but this is how it’s done and I’ve been trying to play the games as best I can.
But it wasn’t my character. It was my friend’s character, and my reader-mind was absolutely not prepared for that.
Here’s the thing about MASKS: the character classes are not defined by power/abilities. Not really. They’re defined by the kinds of stories you tell about them.
For instance, The Janus covers a hero with a demanding secret identity: they have a job, school, money troubles, an Aunt May… The game recommends power sets that work best for each class, but they’re only recommendations. You can play Peter Parker without taking bug powers.
Similarly, if you want to play The Transformed, you don’t have to be a big, strong, left-hook throwing pile of orange rocks like The Thing. But you can still role-play Thing-type stories–the fearful way people react to you, the normal life you can never return to, the whole deal–if that’s what you want.
Weeks ago, as an exercise, I sat down and wrote out the same Deathlok-style hero, with the same powers, for three different classes. Same guy. Same origin. But the changes between one class and another were like different runs by different writers on a long-running comic. It was just a change of tone and style.
One of the character classes that lets you play someone like Raven, from Teen Titans. (Her dad is a super-powerful demon who plans to invade the Earth, and the team helps her keep him at bay. But the danger is always there.) The playbook for that character class is The Doomed and it suits any hero who is the child of demons, scout for a race of alien invaders, etc.
Now you would think, logically–I mean, logically–that it would be obvious to me that a character who is called, literally, DOOMED in the game, would be a prime candidate to be overwhelmed by an evil force and turned into our deadliest enemy. You would think that.
But I never saw it coming, and here’s why:
On the character sheet for The Doomed, under the section “Advancements” (which is a bit like leveling up, except some advancements are plot beats you unlock) I could see RIGHT THERE on the page was an advancement called: “Confront your doom on your own terms; if you survive, change playbooks.”
Which is a way of saying “Your character wins over their mortal enemy and can become any hero you want them to be.”
When I saw that on the character sheet, I thought: “I can’t wait to play out that moment.” My reader-mind wanted my friend’s character to win the day. I was blinded by the expectation that he would get a happy ending. It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t get to play that scene.
I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with all this, except to say that the games people make now are wildly superior to what we played in my junior high days in the seventies.
Also, it’s been really hard to keep my reader-mind in check when my writer-mind should be working. It’s also hard to stay in writer-mind when so much control of the narrative has been ceded to the other players. Old habits, I guess.
Even when I’m ready to put my own character through it, I’m still rooting for the rest of the team.