Thursday, December 22, 2011

Protagonist Driven vs. Antagonist Driven

Wow, I'm doing really bad this week on these updates. I apologize. Not really sure what is going on, but between missing a post and setting the wrong time, this has probably been the worst week for the blog in a very long time. My apologies for that.

Today's post is a bit less about RPGs specifically and more about story telling, which is something you need to be aware of as a GM. When it comes to a character driven story you have the choice of having the Protagonist drive the events, or the Antagonist. Now, the driver doesn't mean the other character is passive, it is just who has the bigger impact. However, this interacts with a game setting in an interesting way. Let's take a look at that.

Players Are Always The Protagonist
As a simple rule, it is always best to consider the players as the protagonists. Why? Because the story should be about them, and it is them who should be changing as the story progresses. A game where the PCs never change, never grow, will quickly become boring and stale. A game where the players are not the central focus will quickly find the players bored and feeling marginalized. So let's just make a quick rule that your players are the protagonists. That's not a bad thing though, as it means you - the GM - get to poke and prod at them with the antagonists.

Antagonist Driven
An Antagonist Driven story is one that a lot of us are actually very familiar with. Any story where the heroes are reacting to the presence of a villain in some way is an antagonist driven story. This is pretty common in action movies and even in RPGs and fantasy epics. I mean, sure, the hero wants to be a hero and have grand adventures, but all the main story points are put into play by the antagonist. The antagonist's armies showing up is why the journey begins. The steps needed to defeat the antagonist determine the hero's path. Essentially, the string of events goes - in a simplified fashion - like this: Antagonist ACTS then the Protagonist REACTS. Eventually the story comes to a close with the Protagonist beating the antagonist, or something similar to that.

Film wise, a great example of an antagonist driven story with an active protagonist is Die Hard. In Die Hard, John McClain is constantly reacting to the actions of Hans Gruber. Every major event is dictated by Hans and his crew, while John desperately tries to turn things to his advantage, get help, save his wife, and stop Hans. Most James Bond and mystery movies also work like this, with the Antagonist setting the pace and the Protagonist keeping up.

Game wise, this structure works very well for a game based around telling a story. The GM can use the Antagonist to set up the stage, place the pieces, and keep the PCs going. Yes, it is the PCs who grow and change, and who are to take down the big evil, but the Antagonist is the one with his/her hand on the throttle. When the Antagonist is defeated, the throttle comes back to 0 and waits for someone else to take control. This is, usually, where the game ends - or you move into a sequel.

Protagonist Driven
Protagonist Driven stories are the opposite. In these it is the main character setting events into motion and causing things to happen. There is less of a direct big villain, but an antagonist may still be present. The stronger the protagonist's drive, the more focused the story is - and this is where some games can get into trouble. In general though, these games follow the format that the protagonist ACTS and then the antagonist/world REACTS.

Movie wise, a lot of heist movies work well as examples. In Ocean's 11 it is the protagonists that drive the action. Daniel Ocean and his co want to rob the casino and they go about doing so. They put their plan into action, the world reacts, pieces are moved around, and eventually they win.

Game wise, this structure works better for more of a campaign or game with long term intentions. The PCs can grow and thrive in the world, molding it in their image. The problem can come in when the PCs don't have much in the way of drive and end up flopping aorund a bit. At which point they need a bit of a poke and prod to get back in motion. Still, you can get some awesome moments by letting your PCs off the leash to dictate their own pace.

Your Preference?
Do you have a preference between the two? Sound off in the comments.

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