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Hot Button: Playing Yourself

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On August 18, 2010 @ 12:01 am In Hot Buttons | 19 Comments

With Villains & Vigilantes back in action this summer, I thought I’d revisit a topic that had always bugged me about that system. Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was  a great game at the time and actually found it rather elegant compared to some other contemporary supergames (and V&V‘s ads in Dragon Magazine actually included a fully statted hero or villain–how cool is that!?). But the one thing that really bugged me in the “crawl up my rear end and refuse to die” sorta way was character generation.

Rather than roll up or design  Clark Rogers, Steel Patriot, Defender of Metro City, I was expected to play Walt Ciechanowski, overweight gamer who randomly rolled his powers and, with his other two unexceptionally physical superfriends, bravely defend the local mini-mart and pizza joint from supervillains with questionable ambitions. That’s right, you were expected to play yourself and defend your hometown (to be fair, I think the rules suggested using the closest city, but I’m pretty sure Philadelphia warranted better superheroes).

Needless to say, character generation was a nightmare, with the rules suggesting arm wrestling each other to determine Strength (how we figured out the baseline is another matter)  and comparing I.Q.s or SAT scores to determine Intelligence (I guess we had to go to the local mall and try to pick up dates in order to determine our Charisma scores…looking back on my 12 yo social calendar, I must’ve ended up with a very low score). I don’t think we ever actually played, as giving ourselves scores created such a fuss that we abandoned it and used the “optional” character generation system buried elsewhere in the book.

So can having your group play themselves work? I don’t know. I only have one other experience to go by, and that was a Vampire: the Masquerade game. My buddy decided to run a campaign with all of us playing ourselves. While I protested (still obviously emotionally scarred from my V&V experience a decade and a half prior), I gamely played along. We were allowed to stat ourselves normally, so apparently my hedge mage self worked out a lot more often and spent more than a month and a half in a dojo.

Unfortunately, the campaign failed to capitalize on our backstories other than to give us a common bond to get involved in the adventure. We really could have made up completely new characters and been given the “you’re all childhood friends” speech and we would’ve been fine. The GM felt a little stung when we told him it wasn’t very interesting and he ended the campaign rather quickly.

All that being said, I could see playing yourselves as something very cool for a one-shot Call of Cthulhu or Wild Cards (assuming you don’t pull a Black Queen) adventure, but in my limited experience I’ve just never seen it done well.

There is also much stock to be put in the argument that you roleplay yourself all the time, so why would you want to do it at an RPG session? There’s also the consideration of real-life loved ones being harmed in such a campaign, as well as “interesting” complications (“why is your character hitting on Rob? We’ve been a couple for three years! You’re cheating on me!”).

So today’s hot button is this: Have you ever been involved in a “play yourselves” situation? If so, how did it go? If not, would you consider running or playing such a campaign? Why or why not?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Hot Button: Playing Yourself"

#1 Comment By Crushnaut On August 18, 2010 @ 12:42 am

My friends and I used the base new World of Darkness rules to play a zombie apocalypse scenario in our home area. I DM’d, and included myself as the “big bad guy” (knowing full well I would have to kill myself off and give the glory to the PCs).

We started one night by stating ourselves up. I slightly modified the character generation procedure. Instead of imposing the limits of 5/4/3 on the attributes I just gave them 12 points, with no fours, or fives allowed. For skills we did the same thing, but I forced them to take a four in one skill that was related to their job and then use one of their specializations on that skill as well. Other then that, they were allowed to do whatever they wanted with in reason. Luckily the players were good sports and enthusiastic and we had no real problems.

I started the game before even getting to the table for the first game. At the time I did I.T. work for a pharmaceutical company and my other friend worked in security. So, I called up my friend that worked security and roll played his dispatcher telling him to head over to the place I worked. We did a quick scene, and he was the first to get hints of a possible zombie virus at the labs where I worked. He then called my other friends and explained what had happened. They had a number of phone conversations I was not involved in, but eventually decided to meet up (in game). That is where the first session began.

We had a great time. The game lasted 3 sessions, plus lots of out of game phone calls, etc. and ended in a blood bath/heroic last stand. The main problem was believably role-playing yourself. There were a number of times that someone would say something to the effect of, “you would never do that.” It caused some tension, but we mostly overlooked it for the sake of fun.

I think we had success because, at times, the game and real life intersected. The players looked up the locations of actual gun stores to steal weapons in the yellow pages. We used google maps as battle maps. The players picked starting weapons from objects in their house, place of work, etc. I would call the players between games and role play phone calls from characters in our semi-fictional world.

Would we do it again? Probably not. While we had fun, I do not think we would have fun playing the same characters again (besides they are all dead / zombies). Plus, what other scenario could top a zombie apocalypse?

#2 Comment By DNAphil On August 18, 2010 @ 6:02 am

The WEG game The Price of Freedom, offered the option of playing yourself in the game. For those that don’t remember, The Price of Freedom was basically Red Dawn, the RPG. For those of you too young to remember Red Dawn…look it up on IMDB, and let me get back to yelling at the kids on my lawn.

Back to what I was saying…PoF’s avatar play, was actually quite fun. You were encouraged to have your town occupied by the Russians, and all the kids you didn’t like were sympathizers and your friends were fellow freedom fighters.

We played that game for a few years, and it was a lot of fun, to start the game as a high school student, and finishing it up as a somewhat grizzled freedom fighter.

#3 Comment By Throst On August 18, 2010 @ 7:12 am

I once played in a Call of Cthulhu campaign that did exactly this. It helped that the whole group lived in or around Salem, Massachusetts, a bizarre place to begin with that was easy to believe Lovecraftian horrors could be lurking around.

While overall successful, there was a definite line drawn between those that did a great job playing themselves and those that were simply playing a game. Interestingly enough, and counter-intuitive to what one would assume happens in this sort of situation, the line was drawn thusly: the three guys playing themselves did so damn near perfectly, scouring the mansion we were trapped in for weapons or barring ourselves in rooms to escape tentacled horrors (or, in my case, crawling out onto the eaves of the house and laying down in the rain to freak out and cry — I’m not too proud to admit that in such a situation, I would break down); the two women in the group, meanwhile, studied a mysterious leather bound tome looking for “magic spells to stop the monsters” or trying rationally to tame a demon-possessed taxidermy tiger.

Ultimately what happened was the game was divided. The men all but ignored the girls as we played our own, realistic game and plunged deeper and deeper into insanity. The ladies played their game of Harry Potter and spent the time trying to turn their character sheet counterparts into brilliant wizards.

Maybe it boils down to having a chat before the game starts and saying to each other “Hey, what kind of game are we going to play?” In a Supers game that’s pretty much already a given — you’re going to have superhuman powers and fight villains to save the world.

Like many roleplaying games, what you get out of a “play yourself” game depends on working together and collaborating as a group to produce the kind of game you want. If everyone can’t agree, it’s probably not the sort of roleplaying you want to indulge in.

#4 Comment By Kikatink On August 18, 2010 @ 7:14 am

Years ago we did this in our group. It was with the Ghostbusters RPG, which isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. Instead of a player creating himself, everyone else at the table created a sort of humorous version of that player for him/her to play. We had characters with skills like “strut”, “Star Trek Trivia”, “Wrestling Characters Triva”, etc.

The game worked by characters picking “4 equipment cards” for their character. So if you didn’t pick a proton pack equipment card you didn’t have one. Everyone picked their cards (including the Alpine Climbing Gear; despite the campaign taking place in our home town in Southern New Jersey). One problem; no one picked the Protection Grid (the place where ghosts are “permanently” stored). So they ending up sending the ghost traps back to Ghostbusters HQ in New York via UPS! Great fun when UPS finally found out what they were doing.

We even used one of the player’s car as the “Ecto-1″ for the group and had the local headquarters in a nearby strip mall.

#5 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 18, 2010 @ 7:20 am

@Crushnaut – Sounds like you made it work. Kudos!

@DNAphil – Wolverines!!!

I actually have that old Price of Freedom game laying around somewhere. I never actually played it though (I’m shocked you got years of play out of it). It’s probably sitting somewhere on top of my copies of Cyborg Commandos and Aftermath!

@Throst – It seems like every horror game I’ve been a part of divides into “realistically frightened” and “monster butt-kicker” factions when confronted with the preternatural.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On August 18, 2010 @ 7:27 am

Sorry Walt, but in the way that you present this argument your issues with paying yourself in an RPG seem to be more about your own self-image than any problem with the systems or the concept. Not trying to start a fight here, but it is a hot button… :)

My friends and I loved our V&V game where we played ourselves. My best friend still talks about that game 20 years later. Yeah we were a bunch of geeky gamers in real life, but in the game we were transformed into superheroes! How cool is that?

As for stats, well we just winged it and went with the average for most of our scores. Then we came up with cool origin stories to explain our acquistion of powers. We also explained how those origins changes our approach to life in general in the game. Then we became the group known as ShadowForce, defenders of Chicago and the world and played one hell of a fun supers game.

We were definitely playing ourselves, but we weren’t forcing anyone to be realistic when in the game these teenage kids could throw around cars and fire lasers from their eyes. Instead we just used the game as a medium to express what we wanted to do in real life, or what we wished we could do in real life.

And we’ve played ourselves in several other games as well. The secret always seemed to be that origin story where it was explained how normal everyday Patrick became super kick-ass PC.

And I don’t give any credit to the idea that all roleplaying is really just playing yourself. That is like saying that all actors just play the same person in different roles. I definitely play things differently when playing a PC based upon myself.

I think playign yourself in an RPG and acting out certain qualities that you might not have in real life can help you begin to develop those qualities in real life. Those games are usually great fun for me, so I encourage anyone to give V&V and other games where you play yourself a shot.

#7 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 18, 2010 @ 8:03 am

@Kikatink – I loved Ghostbusters! Unfortunately, something happened in my campaign that’s prolly worth another article.

@Patrick Benson – You were just sniffing glue back then! :)

Self-esteem and ability score pissing contests probably had a lot to do with my V&V experience, but it had absolutely nothing to do with my VtM experience. I embraced the premise (no pun intended) and looked forward to playing my darker self, but the adventure completely failed to exploit that angle.

I think I could have a lot of fun with playing myself as a one-shot, but I don’t think I could do it for an extended campaign without my character quickly morphing into Walt-in-Name-Only (ooh, I’m a wino!).

#8 Comment By GeneD5 On August 18, 2010 @ 8:03 am

I’ve played in a few games with self-based characters, in AD&D2 fantasy, homebrew espionage, superheroes, and time/dimensional travel. Sure, egos can get bruised, and I often found that the people who gave themselves the highest or lowest stats in the group had issues with competitiveness or dominance. But for the most part, such games were fun exercises and an occasional change of pace. (my own: Str 10, Dex 12, Con 11, Int 13, Wis 12, Cha 12, Align. NGl, Class: Editor 8 (one level for every two years of “real-world” experience)

#9 Comment By Virgil Vansant On August 18, 2010 @ 9:13 am

Although I did play some V&V a long time ago (and have fond memories of designing superhero costumes), the first game that pops in to my mind when it comes to playing yourself is BTRC’s TimeLords. You play yourself, traveling to unknown points in time with a device you can’t control. It’s less “Ah-ha, I’m in the 1930s and will avert WWII” and more about survival, especially early in the game. I ran a campaign for friends of mine in high school that lasted for about a year and a half, and it was a lot of fun. There’s a new version out that uses the universal EABA system. Different tests and suggestions are used to help stat the character. One of these days, I may run the game again on some unsuspecting players.

#10 Comment By Lord Inar On August 18, 2010 @ 10:10 am

We tried it once with V&V (1st ed).
As I recall, coming up with stats was only a problem when it came to who had the highest intelligence! We’re all geeks, what can I say? Anyway, it quickly became apparent that (at least for me anyway) I was a pretty boring superhero! So that character was retired (but still exists in the game universe in a gov’t position assisting other supeheroes) and we made new characters and went on with things.

On the other hand, having recently rediscovered the joy of random character creation (and not just stats), I may never want to go back to calculated creation again. I forgot just how liberating it is (if you’re not a powergamer)!

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On August 18, 2010 @ 11:22 am

I played a V:tM one-shot, where a bunch of us were up at Tahoe camping when a bunch of bloodsuckers came and made vampires out of us.

Parts of it were great; the GM was very into describing the drawbacks of the change– so it felt truly horrific, not like super heroes by night. But there was friction too; the GM removed himself from the world, and someone set themselves up with his girlfriend and had sex with her onscreen. Weird in so many ways…

Anyway, it was a fun one-shot. As Throst pointed out above, for a longer game, you have to coordinate whether responses are “realistic” (so a lot of shock and inability to deal with the horror) or make sense for a standard action game.

#12 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 18, 2010 @ 11:22 am

I’ve played with myself in many a ‘one-shot’, especially when I was single.

Oh, you mean played yourself in an RPG. Um, yeah, that’s a bit different. In all seriousness, I think we can only play characters who have a bit of ourselves in them, so in a sense we’re always playing ourselves.

But that’s not what you’re looking for, is it? I don’t think I’ve ever done just that, although a fellow Gnome did give me an AWESOME idea for a convention game based on exactly that premise. You’ll have to wait until Gen Con next year to find out, though…

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On August 18, 2010 @ 11:49 am

Well, I ran a popular V&V game some years ago, pre Call of Cthulhu (which eclipsed every other game when I started running it in terms of popularity and hence used up all my GM hours) and have to contest one or two minor points raised in the article here.

First, the “play yourself” thing was only supposed to be done for a person’s *first* character, and their stats were given to them by the GM. It was here I learned that you can’t judge a gamer by his age and vindictiveness in the GM only hurts the GM in the long run. The best V&V player I ended up with, the one that drew comics of the team in action, was the one I tried *very* hard to dissuade from playing. Idiot me.

Next, players were supposed to create and recite their backstory as part of the game start. It was here that I learned not to sweat the details and to reward creative play – the V&V GM who *didn’t* add stat points for the creative use of “radioactive”, “meteor”, “lab rat/dog/chimp” etc was not “getting” V&V.

I should add that V&V is the only game in which I’ve ever asked players to play a version of themselves, and that I agree that overall it isn’t a popular option with the younger players.

Funnily enough, years later, after I’d been in America some years, it turned out I’d come to know someone who had been instrumental in the design/playtesting of V&V back in the day.

#14 Comment By Sarlax On August 18, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

Several years ago I ran a d20 Modern game with the players as themselves (it was basically Matrix & Mind Flayers). We used point-buy to assign our stats, with the tweak being that we set the game “a few years into the future” to justify additional skills or changed ability scores (appropriate, given that we were mostly in our early twenties and in college).

Being good friends who frequently joked around, we were pretty comfortable open discussing what our stats ought to be. While I was GMing, I made myself into a PC, too. This was to help keep the process comfortable (and because “I” was going to be a villain in the campaign).

Overall it was fun and worked well: we played that campaign for several months, which, for us back then, was an exceptionally long stretch (we tended to play a game for three or four sessions before trying something new).

I think one reason it worked well for us is that we used the “improvement over time” guideline. If someone might have felt uncomfortable with what they felt their “true” Constitution was, we could justify improvement by saying we’d taken up exercise, karate, etc. in the intervening time. We also set out to deliberately exaggerate our own self-perceived foibles, so I kept my Dexterity low, my friend bottomed out his own Wisdom, etc. By choosing to joke about ourselves, there wasn’t much reason to be self-conscious.

#15 Comment By evil On August 18, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

We did this one, and once only…. It started out as a superhero based game where everyone had fairly minimal stats, but we picked out best quality and turned it to 11. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out well as some didn’t like their powers and others overly enjoyed them. Eventually I had to end it all by turning evil (big surprise) and nuking the group. It saved a lot of headache later. The big problem wasn’t so much people being unhappy with their own lot, but rather being envious of everyone else’s powers.

#16 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 19, 2010 @ 6:38 am

I’ll be reviewing the zombie survival RPG Outbreak Undead on the site before too long (my review copy is en route), and its central conceit is starting yourself up and playing out the zombie apocalypse.

It sounds like the perfect game to be an avatar RPG, and I’m really curious about the character generation. I’ve always wanted to play an avatar game, but forgo particular reason I never have — maybe its just that they’re not that common anymore.

#17 Comment By XonImmortal On August 19, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

When we decided to playtest both my new RPG system, LunaStatX *and* a scenario that had the players interested (Invasion Reno), I had them start off playing themselves, but they grabbed stats normally. I was only interested in using their backstory anyway.

This was a bestowed/superhero scenario, and I had them make five statements about themselves, as they wanted to be, and used those five statements to create their powers.

The group was an artificer/alchemist with access to every recipe and schematic ever made, a swashbuckling healer (don’t ask), a Cosmic-class teleporter with kleptomania tendencies, and a nigh-invulnerable dragon boy with an overwhelming need to increase his horde.

They got the bad guys, eventually, after an NPC pointed out they were chasing after every red herring thrown at them.

Alchemist/Artificer did pretty well. Teleporter wound up using semi-trucks as artillery, while ripping off the occupied casinos and storing his loot someplace safe. Healer did make some good points, while throwing up several times. Dragon-boy got hit once, and wound up cowering in the corner the rest of the adventure.

If there is anything I would *not* have done different, it was character creation.

All, in all, this take worked well. Don’t get all tied up in getting the stats perfect, or even near realistic. You aren’t LARPing, you’re gaming.

#18 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-08-20 — Double Edition! On August 20, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

[...] Hot Button: Playing Yourself I’ve played myself in a handful of games in the past. The most enjoyable one was where I got to play myself as a werewolf in the White Wolf World of Darkness setting. It was an absolute hoot! Character generation was also fun as the Storeteller pulled us aside and “interviewed” us one-by-one to see how we’d act and react in certain situations. It was good stuff. Even though I had a blast with it, not everyone will feel the same. It takes a strong person to be honestly introspective enough to fairly create themselves in an RPG system without getting offended when they see “on paper” how much they suck at various things. [...]

#19 Pingback By Triple Crit » Into the Another World On August 5, 2011 @ 10:19 am

[...] certainly presents a number of challenges. Can the players believably role-play themselves, from the present time, faced with another era? It’s much easier to face magic and monsters [...]


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