Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Player *as* PC vs. Player *is* PC

This will be a little (?) dialog about two similar types of relatively unusual campaign constructs that I've seen crop up now and then, but aren't really suitable for long-term play and certainly aren't suitable for every gaming group. These constructs are the "Player as PC" campaign, and the "Player is PC" campaign. They are closely related, but there are some subtle (yet important) differences in how this is handled.

First, a couple of definitions. The "Player as PC" campaign has the Player imagine himself as having become the PC, but the PC is aware that they were the Player - in essence, the Player has possessed the PC. There are two examples of this sort of campaign that come to mind. The first, and most textbook example (because it might have created the idea) is Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame series. Now, I've only read the first book, and I hate spoilers, so I'll just lay out the basics that anyone picking up the book and reading the back copy can figure out: a group of college gamers is sent to the world of their fantasy campaign by their GM in order to do something for him. The players suddenly find themselves in the bodies of their PCs, with their strengths and weaknesses, fighting and spell abilities, the whole deal. Even the personalities of their PCs begins to war with the personalities of the players, so there's a lot of interesting interpersonal as well as personal conflict going on (this book actually turned out to be much more serious and interesting than i thought it was going to be, go figure).

The other really good example of this is, believe it or not, The Matrix. I'll just focus on the first movie, not the follow-ups. If you consider the separation of selves which is "Neo" and Thomas Anderson, in a way Tomas Anderson is the Player, and Neo is the PC. Thomas Anderson can't dodge bullets or bend a steel bar, but Neo can. In this way, the "real world" is the world around the gaming table, while the "Matrix world" is the campaign. In The Matrix the players have the ability to move into and out of the game world and become their in-Matrix personae, but that isn't actually who they are - it's their "digital self" as Morpheus calls it. The differernce between the PCs and the other people in the Matrix world is that, like the Player as PC campaign, the PCs know that they are in a "game" of sorts (the Matrix), and again as Morpheus says, there are rules that can be bent, and apparently, even broken.

The second campaign variation I'd like to look at is the "Player is PC" campaign construct. Here, the idea is that the Players (around the table) "play" themselves. However you want to set up the campaign (either the Players supposedly go through a portal to some other world, or the campaign setting is the "real world"), the "PC" is the player - just as smart, just as strong, just as good with a gun or just as able to climb a wall. Probably the best example of this, that I can think of, is actually the Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon. Yes, the kids were labeled "Cavalier" and "Acrobat" and such, but that had no bearing on their actual abilities - all their extraordinary abilities were due to their magic items.

Another good example of this is the "Earth Man on Mars" type campaign - think ERB's Barsoom series, or Moorcock's Kane of Old Mars, or Zanthar of the Many Worlds, or even Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. Any story where a "normal" person (we can debate whether John Carter or Kane or Flash Gordon count as "normal people, but...) is transported unchanged to a "fantasy world" (however you define that). Of course, to keep them from getting killed off in the first five minutes of First Contact, these characters are usually tough, fit, individuals with some ability to defend themselves, but certainly not combat monsters (at least, not at first...).

So where does this leave us? Would this be a cool idea, or a disaster? I've a couple of stories to relate in that regard. One GM I know, back in the early 90's, decided to run a D&D campaign where the Players would be "transported" to a fantasy world. He even asked them to bring props (prop swords, costumes, tankards, etc..) to the games to help enhance the idea that the Players were "really there" (I have mixed views on this, but whatever). He got a good sized group of players, and at first, the game went really well.

Note I said, "at first".

I wasn't there, so I can't directly comment on how it all fell apart, but I've talked to the DM and several of the players who were there. Apparently personality conflicts began to arise, and since the game was essentially "in-game" all the time, people began to take things personally...a little TOO personally. It really fell apart when one girl "poisoned" her boyfriend over something, and two other players got so angry at each other over some issue or another that they almost came to blows over the issue. Apparently one PC screwing over another PC is one thing, but when the Players ARE the PCs, I imagine you can't help but take it personally.

A number of years later, the same DM tried to do the same sort of game while running Mage: the Ascension. There might of been one or two people from the old game involved, but it was largely new blood, and from what I heard, those who might have been in the old game had learned their lesson and weren't the troublemakers - this time around, right from the beginning, certain players began to actively pit factions against other factions, and the game died out VERY quickly, most of the conflicts being orchestrated via e-mail (ah, e-mail...).

(I just thought of another good movie example of this, albeit working in the opposite direction - Last Action Hero. There, you have the PC coming in to the world of the Players, and experiencing the differences between the Movie world and the Real world. Food for thought...)

So, I'm very curious to hear other people's opinions on these sorts of campaign concepts. I think under the right conditions, with the right people, it can work and provide everyone with a really amazing play experience. Player as PC I find fascinating because the PCs know that they are in a "game world" with rules and information that they know as "meta-game" material, and it gives the Players the opportunity to openly "meta-game" to their benefit as part of the game play - guilt free cheating, so to speak. There is still the danger of the Players taking things too personally, and character death takes on a whole new meaning - you can't really just "roll up a new PC", when that PC is supposed to be you.

These issues get ratcheted up another couple of notches when the PCs are supposed to be the actual Players - at which point you don't even have the thin veneer of distance that Player as PC play gives you. It is also a very "warts and all" situation - if you're a short, fat, ugly, nearsighted klutz in real life, you're a short, fat, ugly, nearsighted klutz in the game - you don't even have the ability score dice to blame for a sub-par series of ability score rolls - it's just you. Also, the question arises - just how smart are you? Just how fast? Does the fact that you took fencing in college for a year really count as a weapon proficiency slot, or are you just fooling yourself? What sort of skill rating does your yellow belt in Karate give you? The game might fall apart under the weight of hurt feelings during character creation before the first session even starts, as not too many people really want their shortcomings to be laid out in front of them in cold, harsh numeric values.

Definitely a long post - time for the commentary to begin. Have any of you out there played in campaigns like these, or want to play in campaigns like these? If you have, did it go well, or did it fall apart? Inquiring mind(s) want to know!


Randall said...

The first fictional example of the "Player as PC" that I know of is Andre Norton's Quag Keep: the very first D&D-based novel. Set in Greyhawk and punished in 1978 or 1979, it appeared several years before the first Guardians of the Flame book.

Badelaire said...

Iiiinteresting. Is it any good? I might have to hunt this down and give it a read some time. Actually, it's kinda cool that they got Andre Norton to write a D&D novel back in the day.

Randall said...

I've seen Quag Keep described as "dreadful" before. I don't think it is that bad, but it is certainly not one of Norton's more memorable works. It's worth a read for fans of D&D, but I wouldn't pay much for a copy. I still have mine and have re-read it a few times over the years... but not that many times.

A sequel by Norton and Jean Rabe, Return to Quag Keep, came out in 2006 from Tor, but I've never read it.

The 99th Problem said...

The default chargen mode for Villains & Vigilantes (2nd edition ... I never owned 1st) was to use oneself, the player, as the PC, and then apply the randomly generated superpowers. This led to all sorts of fun. It's instructive to hear your peers rating you, and each other, on Intelligence and Charisma.

Badelaire said...

That's actually pretty cool, and perfectly appropriate for the genre - heck, it's pretty much exactly how you'd do a RPG version of "Heroes".

You could very easily apply the same to almost any World of Darkness campaign (design "normals", and then apply whatever powers you take on - lycanthropy, vampirism, mage powers, etc.).

Jape said...

Dear T&B ~ Just stumbled across your site and thought to add my two quatoos to this discussion (albeit several months late)...

I remember reading Quag Keep when it first came out, though the only thing I can recall now is that each of the characters woke up in the 'game world' wearing bracelets with dice on them that would suddenly begin spinning whenever they attempted something. (IIRC, the idea was way better than the execution in the story).

The friend who lent me that book would, years later, run two game nights where we played ourselves -- once in a fantasy setting, once as superheroes.

I don't remember much about the fantasy game, other than the fact that it gave us license to behave badly, but the superhero one was a blast. (Quite literally, as we -- suddenly blessed with superpowers -- proceeded to get into a fight with a villain which resulted in mucho property damage in our own hometown, where the GM set the adventure.)

Overall I'd say the concept is fun for a lark but isn't viable as a campaign.