There has been a lot of talk about 'co-ownership' of characters, lately; and Vincent has proposed that perhaps we can let go of the idea that players play protagonists. Perhaps, he offers, we can "let the events of the game's fiction choose" whether a character is a protagonist or a supporting character.
Apart from the minor quibble that the fiction isn't really the kind of entity that chooses anything, this is a neat idea. Is this possible? Could it be fun? Could it, for instance, be fun to play a character that suddenly dies a deprotagonising death and is thus shown not to have been a protagonist?
Certainly. What's more, it could not only be fun, it could also be important. It opens the possibility of a new kind of narrative, a kind of narrative that is a critique of traditional kinds of narrative. The death of the protagonist (those who heard a resonance of Barthes in the title of this piece were absolutely right) is an important step towards the coming of age of roleplaying games as a form of art.
I will leave the abstractions now and speak about something very concrete: George R.R. Martin's beautiful A Song of Ice and Fire series. I recently read the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, and although it may not have been the best book in the series, it has not changed my judgement that Martin is writing the best fantasy epic ever.
But this fourth book made something clear to me that I might have seen earlier if I had been older when I read the previous books (Martin is not a fast writer), but which this fourth book made even more clear: A Song of Ice and Fire is not only the best fantasy epic, it is also the last fantasy epic. Not in the sense that it somehow ensures that people won't write epics anymore, but in the sense that it mercilessly exposes and destroys the ideology of the epic. It takes a traditional kind of narrative, seems to follows its rules to the letter, and then suddenly breaks them where it hurts most.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, being good and honourable, or even kind and innocent, doesn't mean that the author will protect you against evil - it generally means that you will die at the hands of those who are more ruthless. Here, a war doesn't end in victory, glory and things being set right again - it ends in Phyrric victories, death, a devasted countryside, plague, famine and horrors untold. Here, in a trial by combat the innocent person can die. As one of the characters was fond of saying: "Life is not a song", and "Knights have no honour".
But Martin's most powerful weapon is protagonist death. Or, in Vincent's words, letting the events in the world decide that someone was a supporting character after all. In A Song of Ice and Fire, focal characters that we have followed for many chapters sometimes die, out of the blue, suddenly, and utterly senselessly and in a deprotagonising way. More than once, I looked at the words in shock an horror as I stammered: "but, but... that wasn't supposed to happen!"
But happen it did. Life is no story. You can hear Martin laughing in the background and saying: "the ideology of the epic is false. You should learn to accept the reality of life, where fate intervenes suddenly and without human concerns. Life is not a song". After A Song of Ice and Fire, all other epics will be recognised by the reader as the lies they are.
(Whether Martin will be able to keep to his anti-ideological stance even when he writes the climax of the series is, of course, as yet unknown. But one can hope. I sincerly hope he'll levae us with both the ruins of Westeros and those of the epic.)
If I were to make a roleplaying game based on A Song of Ice and Fire, one of my main design goals would be to make sure that player characters could die in a sudden and deprotagonising fashion, without anyone at the table being able to prevent it. I would do exactly what Vincent proposes. These destructive blows against the very notion of protagonism are what make Martin's books the jewels they are. Sudden, unpredictable and senseless 'protagonist' death packs the punch that drives the message home.
It would be a game I'd love to play. (I suppose it is far too much to hope that the Game of Thrones RPG, which does exist and is called after the first book of Martin's series, is this game. But maybe I should check it out.)
No matter how innovative games like PrimeTime Adventures, My Life with Master, Polaris and Dogs in the Vineyard may be, the tales they can be used to tell are always safely embedded within a structure of human meaning. Taking away that safety will open entire new realms of possible tales - and dropping the idea of protagonism is one important (though by no means the only) way to make this happen.