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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!