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Players as Characters

Composited from stock art and art by Juan Ochoa

If someone plays RPGs long enough, the thought of “What if I were a character in a game?” will inevitably pop into the brain. Most people shy away from this idea for fear of the introspection or the fact that they must be themselves 99% of the time and want to use role playing as an escape. I completely understand these inclinations, but I’ve been a player in a few games where my character was, well, me. One of them was a Werewolf: The Apocalypse game, and the other was a GURPS game. The Werewolf game was incredibly enjoyable because “me” was actually “me with werewolf abilities,” so there was the sense of escapism involved. The GURPS game, however, fell flat because there weren’t any fantastic or sci-fi or horror elements to the game. It was quite boring being a real person in the real world tackling real world problems. There was no true sense of escape or enjoyment.

I always get player buy-in on a campaign concept, and if one or two players are lukewarm about the game, I adjust things a small bit to bring them into the fold. If I were to ever run a “players as characters” game, I’d go for 100% buy-in. If even one person is uncomfortable with the concept of being themselves in a game, I’ll back off. Because of this very strict rule I have, I’ve never managed to actually fire up a game like this. I have gone through a few session zeroes for these concepts where characters are made, but at the end of the day, someone backed out.

Game Concept

In addition to getting the players to accept playing themselves, the GM must be extra careful with the game content. Most horror games trigger something in the players. When the players are themselves, this can be especially true. I highly suggest avoiding horror-themed games, but they can work if everyone knows what they are in for up front. I’d also avoid the “you’re real people in the real world” idea. We get enough of that as it is. Almost any twist on reality or change in location or time period can work for the group, so long as everyone is on board with it. This has to be a group consensus.

Sense of Wonder

There needs to be a sense of wonder or fantastic things happening to really immerse the players into the game. Dropping them into a fantasy world can be a nice touch. Also, using a historic period would be a great idea (take a look at Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court for ideas). Basically, displacing the players, as they are now, into a different and fantastic location, strange time (future or past), or changing the modern reality to be wondrous is key.

Another approach is to leave the real world as it is (maybe with a few twists), and change the players. These changes can be drastic or subtle, but need to come with benefits and hindrances that flow naturally together. As I’ve already mentioned, I got to play myself as a werewolf. That was great fun! I also wouldn’t mind seeing what I would be able to do with cybernetic enhancements or minor magical talents. These ideas really intrigue me.

Character Creation

Character creation is probably one of the hardest things to do in this situation. You’re not creating someone imaginary. You and your players are trying to emulate the players themselves in the game statistics and numbers. This requires an open mind, a dump truck full of honesty, and a cargo ship packed with acceptance of others’ opinions of you and your abilities. Some physical stats (such as strength) can be measured with relative ease. However, things like intelligence, wisdom, charisma, chutzpah, charm, or other mental/social abilities are harder to judge.

There are two approaches I’ve seen that work. The first is to have each player anonymously “vote” on one player’s stats. The GM then collects these votes and produces an average of the votes that the player has to accept. This prevents hurt feelings over a low score. Another approach is to trust the players to do what is right and let them self-evaluate. Some players have a hard time with this depth of introspection, so some nudging and guidance by the GM might be needed.

Lastly, I like the idea of allowing the players to add a point or three to abilities and/or skills. This will allow them to be themselves, but a slightly better version. This will help increase the fun of the gaming.

Character Balance

We’re not all created equal. We didn’t all have the same opportunities to improve or learn or practice. It’s just a fact. This means if you go with the “dead honest” approach, there will be some players that are more potent than others. This needs to be avoided. I suggest that once the characters are created, find the most powerful ones and either adjust them down closer to an average or allow the weaker players to boost up to be a match for the more powerful ones. This is very easy to do in a point-buy character creation system. With a race+class+level type system, this can be done via special items, more money (Congrats! You won the lottery.), more contacts/connections, a sidekick, a potent pet, and so on.

Character Death

This is touchy. What happens when a character dies? Normally, this is a great storytelling moment to make the death dramatic and impact the plotlines. However, this is a player playing themselves. I advise not to allow the players to have “plot armor” as protection just because they are playing themselves, but acknowledge up front that character death is a possibility and collaborate on what to do if this happens. Does the player then create a more traditional character? Does the player drop out of the game (it’s an option, but not one I like unless it’s a one-shot)? Do the rest of the players find a way to bring the dead character back to life? There are quite a few courses of action that can be taken, but I feel this needs to be addressed and planned for before it actually happens. I highly recommend going back a short bit in our archives and reading Avery’s article on how to make death matter [1].

Middle Ground

If you’re not interested in leveraging a normal RPG for representing the players as themselves, there is a series of games designed to be one-shots or short run campaigns from Fantasy Flight Games. They are called “The End of the World.” In the series, the players get to be themselves with whatever they have at hand in the real world to do battle against either zombies, elder gods, aliens, or the robot uprising. I’ve had the books for a while and have read most of the zombie version. It really looks like a fun game to immerse into for an evening, but I’ve not had the right chance to pop the game into a group due to adulting too much.

You can find more about these books at Fantasy Flight’s web site [2].

Conclusion

Have you ever been in or run a game where the players play themselves? What pitfalls did you run into? What were the high points? Let us know how things went!

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Players as Characters"

#1 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On September 13, 2017 @ 5:00 am

When you started oof, I thought you were going a whole other angle. The epistemological, “But what if we’re just characters in someone else’s game?” angle.

#2 Comment By J.T. Evans On September 15, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

I’m not that deep, Matthew. 🙂 Unless I have a few adult beverages in me.

#3 Comment By Peyton Beard On September 13, 2017 @ 4:29 pm

A friend of mine ran a short “alternate reality” campaign for our group a few years back. The premise was that alien technology at Caltech had created an anomaly that transported players to a distant galaxy (in reality, we all live and work in southern California and the in-game anomaly broke out in our real-world friend’s lab at Jet Propulsion Laboratory leading to some very interesting verisimilitude in the game).

I missed the first session, so the GM ran a prologue just for my character where I discovered that all my friends had disappeared and the government had shut down the lab to hide the anomaly. I actually had to think through what I would do in real life if I had less than 24 hours to leave home and trespass on government property to save my friends who were apart of a government cover up. In-game I broke into the GM’s house and riffled through his closet to get his military uniform so I could infiltrate the lock-down around Caltech. The GM actually got up and went and checked his closet to see what items I could use. Talk about life imitating art!

Playing myself using real-world situations to solve gaming problems was a whole lot more emotionally stressful than I had anticipated, particularly when I had to write my wife a note telling her why I was going to disappear and how she shouldn’t worry about me. It was a real testimony to the GM’s skill in capturing the right immersive elements. The emotional distance that I had in other games, playing an purely fictional character was removed and I actually felt the stress of planning contingencies in the event of my own death (albeit in-game). It was some of the most intense and personally rewarding role-paying I’ve ever done.

Unfortunately, the campaign fizzled due to real-world scheduling conflicts shortly thereafter. To this day everyone who was involved speaks of it as one of the most immersive experience they’ve had in gaming. I think in the hands of an experienced GM who knows his players well and communicates clearly this sort of “real life” gaming can be very rewarding.

#4 Comment By J.T. Evans On September 15, 2017 @ 1:14 pm

Wow! That sounds like a great immersive game. I love the fact that you and your group embraced the emotional beats and ran with it in what sounds like a safe gaming environment. Congrats on having that experience. I’m sorry that it fizzled because of real life concerns, but that seems to happen all too often.

#5 Comment By juddon On September 13, 2017 @ 6:42 pm

When playing as the GM I usually can’t get my players to actually get into their characters, there really is no sense of immersion, is that a bad thing? It kinda seems that they are a bit embarrassed to actually get into and roleplay as their characters, is there some way I can encourage them to?

#6 Comment By J.T. Evans On September 15, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

There’s so much advice to give here, and much of it has been captured by articles here on Gnome Stew. If you hit our search bar in the upper-right corner and plug in “IMMERSION” into the search, you’ll find hours of quality reading material.

I can drop on piece of advice here: Lead by example. If you get into character for your NPCs, it’ll show the players that it’s not “foolish” or “embarrassing.” It’ll put them more at ease at getting into their own characters and expressing themselves more freely. Don’t do this with EVERY NPC. That’ll be overload for them and you. Just pick a few key NPCs (ones with names, not the random shopkeepers) to really get into character with. You can add small flavor bits to the no-name NPCs (random shopkeepers) for the world immersion, but don’t add too much detail to them. Players are always on the watch for clues and hints. If you go on and on about the butcher’s daughter’s bad habits, the players will hook into that and possibly lead them down a trail you didn’t intend.

Good luck getting your players to jump into character!