Authority and context: appropriating context

The power I’m talking about that comes with having a context-filled character (or whatever fictional item you’re using, though I think the vast majority of them are characters) actually comes from appropriating existing context from past interactions.  Which is a complicated way of saying: they have context because you are taking it from the last session (or whatever).  This is what distinguishes the character from a character with the same name who is different, or a character that is similar but not the ‘same’ character.  The context doesn’t transfer if the characters are considered different, no matter how similar they might be.

Which gives rise to an interesting technique that is incredibly rare in the culture of tabletop gaming: stealing other peoples’ context.  This is something that is actually common (even dominant) in certain cultures of online play.  The technique is simple.  Instead of saying ‘I wanna play a guy who’s like Luke Skywalker’ you say ‘I wanna play Luke Skywalker’.  The difference is that in the second statement you are directly appropriating context from existing media.  You are taking ideas from someone else.

Maybe you want to play Luke starting from the end of The Empire Strikes Back.  Everything that happened before that in the films happened to your character.  He made those same choices, and had those same revelations.  This gives you a huge amount of context in which to base his actions in play.  Your first session of play, you’ve already got this rich history of decisions.  We already know that Luke blew up a Death Star, that he’s conflicted about the revelations about his father, that one of his close friends has been frozen in a block of carbonite.

But, and this is the key point, we as audience have been shown all of this stuff, not told.  (This assumes, of course, that we as audience have all seen the movies in question.)  The context in question has a weight beyond mere backstory.

Appropriating existing context is a powerful tool, and interestingly one that is rarely done in tabletop play.  I mentioned yesterday that I had a possible ‘solution’ to the power and context thing, and here it is.  New players can, at least in certain types of games, simply appropriate a huge amount of existing context from shared media experiences within the group.

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6 Responses to “Authority and context: appropriating context”

  1. This is all very true, and has applications beyond RPGs. There is a Dutch contest at the moment for stories shorter than 1000 words, which has made me experiment with that limit. One story I wrote is called “Medea dreams” (or rather, “Medea droomt”), and the amount of extra content and meaning you can put into your thousand words because Medea is already a context-rich character before you’ve written your first sentence is astounding.

  2. Ian Burton-Oakes says:

    Very nice ideas. One thing that Victor’s post reminds me of: context doesn’t just have to be a reference to a single ‘shared’ past but to a shared set of pasts. Imagine playing Agon with people who are keenly aware of the mutliple, conflicting stories surrounding different mythic figures–they get to the table with a network of opportunities that they each appreciate and can amplify more freely.

    So you don’t just need to think of context in terms of a past, but a mythos, a set of pasts which allow players a good deal of opportunity to make their own choices even as they use a shared context.

    Major cultural phenomenon, with the right fans, really do start to develop more mythos–fanfic, alternative imaginings, and so on. Something which rpg’s seem poised to further…

  3. Thomas Robertson says:


    Yeah, it’s an interesting thing to play with. Especially since there is this odd resistance to doing this in tabletop play. I can point you to discussions of online freeform stuff that argues back and forth between using canonical characters from other works vs. using ‘OCs’ (Original Characters).

    But as far as I know, no one is talking about doing this sort of thing in tabletop play, and I’m not sure why.


  4. Thomas Robertson says:


    Good point, but I’m not entirely sure how well this works. See my post for today for some possible thoughts as to why mythos doesn’t do the same thing.

    But honestly I’m not sure. I mean, there’s definitely value to be found in shared mythos. I just think that it’s value along the lines of shared genre ideas and conventions. It helps to center color and theme. Of course it also lets you make thematic statements by playing with expectations, but I think that’s something that’s at least slightly different from what I’m getting at with appropriating context in the sense I’m talking about right now.

    What do you think? Is there really a difference, or is it all in my head?


  5. Rahvin says:

    I get what you’re saying, however, I think when you try to apply this there will be a very different result here. Maybe it’s just my groups, or my area, I don’t know. But I’ve found that stolen context (your term) is weaker, not stronger, than fresh, unknown, unestablished context. It’s certainly better than no context, but not by much.

    There’s a couple reasons. As is my habit, I’ll list a few:

    1) You’re not playing Luke Skywalker in this example, are you? You’re playing Luke Skywalker up to a certain point or, more accurately, “It’s Luke Skywalker BUT…” with the “but” largely unknown and unestablished. Thus, not only do you still have a hidden or unestablished context, but the context which you provide to others is actually a deception. Everyone knows it is, but isn’t sure by what degree or method. Am I making sense? You’re not going to make all the same choices that Luke did, be in the same situation, or have the same perspective. You have your context (in the form of Luke), in this case, but taken out of context (in the form of his story and movie).

    2) As you’ve noted, playing is a process of editing. You’re going to START OUT as Luke, but you don’t yet know what you’re going to become. Normally in this process, that editing CREATES context. In this case, it RESISTS context. You’ve given a context that allows people to have a clear, concise, and appropriate way of thinking about your character and when you decide to edit that image, the other players may not necessarily make that jump with you. In a way, by taking this modelled (stolen?) character you’ve given all players a stake in your character by accepting it — they’re, in effect, going to be judging how Luke your Luke is, whether they realise it or not. Eventually you’re going to want to take ownership of this context you’ve stolen, and surprisingly, you’re going to meet resistance when you do. My last roleplaying game was a superhero game and there seem to be a lot of problems on those message boards with people having different visions of their favorite comic book characters within the game.

    3) This context you’ve stolen is much weaker than you credit it. It is TOLD context, not SHOWN. Other people may have done great things about showing us a context with this character, but at the moment the game starts, we have no idea what you’re going to do with it. Yes, Luke just blew up the death star. But is knowing that from a movie any different from you just telling us that Goremeir the Godling just destroyed the nation of Darkfang? Either way, you have a lot of possibility… but we have no idea what you’re going to do with it because there’s still no context. There’s background, and there is interest, and there is familiarity, and there is a strong image, and these are all great, powerful things. But it is not context. We don’t know you’re story, we don’t know what you’ve got in your head as a player, we don’t know where this whole story is going to go… we’re TOLD a lot of cool stuff and the story seems to have potential but nothing has been concretely established and nothing SHOWN.

    *) Side note: There is an issue of context I’m trying to sort out in my own games, and that’s the player history context. In this case, I’m trying to find ways of ELIMINATING or reducing player history context. That is, despite what has been TOLD about Punisher, I know he’ll probably forgive me because I’ve played with Punisher’s player, Tom, before and I know he doesn’t like to shoot other players and prefers to focus all of his attention on completing mission goals.

  6. Ian Burton-Oakes says:

    I am willing to bet that what I call mythos and what you call context are not reducible to each other and, as you rightly point out, that color and conventions also fall within ‘mythos’ but not ‘context.’ Still, I think there is real overlap, where some of mythos becomes context.

    Still, I’m thinking of the Luke Skywalker case–as a player, I *know* all sorts of things he is capable of doing, of the relationships he possesses with other members of the story. I can draw on the mythos to ‘tug’ at the other players who have characters with ‘mythos’ ties to mine. If we play first episode Luke, I can play up Luke’s innocence in order to get the player of Han to respond in a helpful but ‘you dumb kid’ way. I can also push against type in some interesting ways, which encourages other people at the table to do the same–very much as an ‘interpretive’ context move. Imagine the what-ifs–if Vader and not Kanobi met Luke first? Those are re-interpretations which mythos helps me to negotiate.

    Now, those surely won’t *replace* ties formed by the players over time, but those ties aren’t just context, either, at least not in the way that you are using it in reference to the story-level events. Those ties also involve my knowledge about those players as people, with preferences of their own which I can appeal to *regardless* of the context we have built up in game. (Like Rahvin’s observation that his friend would probably play the Punisher in an un-Punisher like fashion)

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