(This is the ninth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
One of the big skills involved in playing an RPG is negotiating between you-the-player and you-the-character. As I’ve discussed before, playing in a game involves shifting between those registers on a frequent basis, and yet at the same time you have to maintain a distinction between what you know in character (IC) versus out of character (OOC), and not use the latter to influence the former . . . except when it’s good to use it, because it makes the game better.
This isn’t easy to pull off.
I’ve often wondered, but don’t actually know: do professional actors habitually speak of their characters in the first person? Not just the mode where character and performer are blended together (e.g. “how about I move downstage while he’s talking to me”), but speaking about “what I want” or “what I don’t understand,” where the desires and knowledge in question are primarily those of the character, or even entirely so — because what your PC wants and what you-the-player want may not be the same thing. I haven’t worked with actors enough to know whether they do that kind of thing or not; if you know, please speak up in the comments.
Gamers tend to do this a fair bit, to the point where it was one of the things I intended to discuss in my dissertation, if I hadn’t left grad school. In my experience, it’s more common in LARPs (live-action games) than it is in tabletop, which sheds light on what’s going on. A LARP, remember, is kind of like improv theatre. Instead of describing your character’s actions, you perform them — unless, of course, those actions would be unwise or impossible in daily life. (I can’t actually levitate; I’d have to say “I levitate.” I can hit someone with a sword, but unless I’m playing a “boffer LARP” where the weapons are made of foam, that isn’t a good idea. And many LARPs have a no-touching rule that means kissing another player is verboten, unless you’ve agreed upon it OOC first.) The theatrical nature of a LARP means you’re more continuously in character than in a tabletop game; occasionally you have to step out to discuss rules or some other OOC matter, but the usual goal is to stay IC as much as possible.
This means you could be spending hours at a time performing a role, with hardly any moments outside of it. Furthermore, unlike in a play, you’re “writing” the story while you’re performing it. Actors may workshop a scene, deciding how to move, what props to employ, what the rise and fall of the dialogue should be . . . but most of the time, they’re working from a script someone else has created. There’s a distance there, which vanishes when you’re talking about a LARP. You are simultaneously writer, performer, and character — and for many players, the ideal is to reach a point where the former two categories collapse temporarily into the latter. Instead of making a conscious, analytical choice to behave a certain way, it just happens, because you’re sufficiently in the character’s headspace that you’re thinking with their mind instead of your own.
Not everyone plays that way, of course. But for those who do, it’s no wonder that pronouns start to slide all over the place. I noticed this when I ran scenes over chat with my fellow LARP players, filling in character interactions between the big events of the actual games. We’d be chatting about game, and “I” and “you” would mean the players involved, while “he” and “she” meant our characters. But as we got more caught up in the topic, we’d shift into a mode where “I” and “you” meant our characters instead, and from there, it was a very small step to direct roleplay, instead of meta-level conversation about it. You could see us warming up, just by looking at our pronouns.
It happens less with tabletop games, I think, because there’s more distance: you’re less intensively in your character’s headspace, with more OOC interruptions reminding you of the difference between yourself and your character. It’s no surprise to me that, to the best of my recollection, I have never spoken in the first person about any of the NPCs I play when I’m the GM, any more than I speak in the first person about the characters in my novels. (Write from a first-person perspective, yes. But if I’m discussing a plot problem with a friend, I never say “I need to find some way to persuade him to let me head out into the desert.” It’s always “I need to find some way for Isabella to persuade him to let her head out into the desert.”) However much I get invested in their stories, I don’t identify with any single person to the extent that I do when I’m a player, because there are too many other things demanding my attention. I need to think about many characters, stuff happening “offstage,” pacing, the flow of information, whether or not this is going to be interesting to my players/readers. All of which are at least a little bit on my mind when I’m a player, too — but not to the same extent.
The gamer side of the experience has interesting effects on my writing. That, however, is a topic large enough that it will have to wait for my next post.