Dice Tales: From OOC to IC

Roman twenty-sided die(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.


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: From OOC to IC — 18 Comments

  1. Addendum: in between me writing this post and it going live, I played in an “alternate universe” session of my current campaign that was GM’d by one of my players. Rather than playing a single PC, the way I would in a normal game, I had several, because all of the love interests for the regular PCs are NPCs, and we wanted all four of them on stage. In the middle of saying something about what one of them would do, I found myself in a fascinating grey zone: I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to speak of him in the third person (the way I would when GMing) or the first (the way I might if I were a player). I wound up going with first person, just for the comparison. It felt a little weird — I don’t usually identify with those characters that way, and when I say “I” I don’t usually mean five different people depending on context — but it made for an interesting change of perspective. I wasn’t paying close enough attention, though, to track whether all four of the love interests were “I” at one point or another, or whether I distanced myself from some of them by saying “he” or “she”. I suspect I did.

  2. The transition from Missy-as-game-character to Missy-as-novel-character was really weird, and I find I can’t play her now that she’s a novel character. Or at least, there’s a very strong disconnect. I wonder if you would have that with Ree.

  3. Ah, LARPing.

    I don’t know if you ever did this, but try being on the Plot staff for a LARP that goes full immersive like that. That’s more ‘true’ improv, in that I can play any number of NPCs in a give day. But sometimes, the story requires that I be in scene several hours, or that character comes back a few times over the course of months. That is definitely first-person NPCing. And has affected my own writing.

    Another fun thing to experience: LARPers playing tabletop. That was the one group I played in where all of the players came up with nuance of voice, swearing patterns, and clear IC/OOC marking of speech. Once in a while people would stand up during a scene to make it work better for everyone, and we’d pace it out.

    There is some kind of coding that is opaque to outsiders for what is IC and OOC speech, even in text contexts. I also noticed the gradual slip into “I” for those meta conversations; for people new to the group, it took a while for them to pick up on the signaling.

    • My LARP GM experience has all been for one-shots, rather than ongoing games. So while I’ve definitely done the “play ALL the NPCs!” thing, I’ve never been in the position of playing one as a recurrent character, to the point where it might become first person.

      LARP bleeding over into tabletop, though, definitely. Probably less so now, when I haven’t been LARPing much in years, but we’ve done voices, speech patterns, accents, body language, and so forth. It’s one of the reasons I prefer to play sitting on couches rather than around a table; I find the table really gets in the way of the physical behaviors.

      • One of the hard things I’ve had to face as I’ve started writing more long form stuff is how I sell characters in text. When I’m at the table, it’s ALL that stuff. And yet, modern prose is very sparse on blocking. Trying to convey an entire character almost entirely through word-choice, is a very different skill and I’m so not there yet.

        • Buh? Just because many authors don’t write much blocking (in some cases, because they’re terrible at it) doesn’t mean you have to restrict yourself the same way.

  4. When I first started playing tabletop, I spoke about my character as “she” repeatedly. This confused the GM so much he got the impression that my character had a daughter who was “she” because obviously my character should be “I” when I was talking about her. So I guess tabletop has different conventions, depending. I got the impression from that game and others with the same group that “I” was mandatory, so it’s interesting to me that that’s not what you’re describing.

    • Interesting! I’ve never seen it treated as mandatory/100% assumed; we slip in and out, depending on how far into character gear we are. (And now I find myself wondering if I could measure player engagement through a session by watching their pronouns . . . but there is no way I can GM and data-gather at the same time, and asking somebody else to track that would be kinda creepy. <lol>)

  5. I’ve definitely seen a shift to predominant first person with a tabletop group that’s primarily LARPers, but I’d seen it before that. People tend to get weird about first person vs third person when they’re not the same gender as their character, but men (nearly all my experience is with cishet men) tend to third-person faaaar more if their character is not a man. Queer women (I have almost no recent experience with non-queer women) and nonbinary folks tend to first-person their characters far more than they third-person.

    I almost never first-person my NPCs, but that’s often because I have a stupid number of NPCs (I ran one campaign with 300+ NPCs). My GM PCs, however, occasionally go first person.

    • Oh, good point about the gender gap. I’ve had two people play against gender in my campaigns (one man, one woman), but the man was new enough to gaming that I suspect — given the individual in question — his tendency to speak of his PC as “she” had less to do with discomfort and more to do with other factors. And now I’m realizing that I haven’t paid close attention to how often the woman speaks of her male PC in the first person.

      I hear ya on the stupid numbers of NPCs. 🙂 But even GMPC . . . I’ve got a major one of those in this campaign, and I don’t really talk about him as “I.” Possibly as a kind of mental defense, to remind myself that he shouldn’t be quite on par with the PCs in the protagonist role?

      • Assuming I’m the woman in question, I speak about my male character in the first person most of the time. There’s probably a divide about when I use I vs. he, but I’ve noticed I swap back and forth. That being said, I’m pretty damned gender agnostic myself, so that’s not a stumbling block for me.

        However, what I’ve noticed is that nobody in our group has a problem gendering my character as male. But for the other male PC I’ve been playing in a different game, the people in that group refer to him as ‘she’ all the time because they have more difficulty making the break between Tarren and myself (even though I probably use the same levels if I vs. he). I’m not sure what causes that difference in perception.

        • I suspect the fact that you play Tarren in an online game contributes, because it’s distancing. At some later point I’m going to be talking about immersion and what happens when it breaks — I distinctly recall D screwing up Thraxx’s gender in the middle of a mass combat, and *everybody* having problems after that, which I think speaks to the way that combat kicks people out of immersion and the shared headspace they’ve all been inhabiting. (But that’s a future post!)

          • The group one is with is definitely a main factor, though. Almost all of my gaming experience is with women (queer, not-queer, and in between). And I have not been making an exhaustive study of pronoun use, but I would say that the other players gender characters correctly most of the time, only slightly worse when player gender and character gender don’t match up. (Though this is a group that mostly has a good bit of IRL experience in looking at a female-bodied person and saying ‘he’ or ‘they’ or something else.)

            I certainly have not noticed any correlation between player-character gender correspondence and use of first person pronouns to refer to the character (and I would say that players in games I run or play use first person to refer to their characters a nontrivial portion of the time). I do think that, in my experience, LARPers are more likely to use first person when talking about their characters in non-game situations than tabletop players are — but I don’t know how much this is affected by the fact that the LARP sessions tend to be four or five hours long, whereas the tabletop sessions tend to be only two or three hours long.

            I would also say that the degree of acting varies widely between groups. My tabletop groups rarely do physical blocking, but if the game is any good, I can almost certainly identify whether a player is speaking in- or out-of-character by tone, vocal range, and mannerisms, or sometimes even just by body language. (There was a while when my roommate, not a LARPer, actively had a brother and a sister: character A and character C, who both wound up in the party simultaneously. Despite the similarity in the characters’ background, I could, with reasonable certainty, distinguish not just between A and C, but also when C was disguised as a boy, or an elf, or as older, or some combination of the above . . .) And one of our complaints about playing over Skype is that we lost most of the physical cues and at least a third of the verbal ones. (It’s better now that she’s my roommate and we’re at least in the same room, but everyone else is still on the other side of a computer.)

            I have no experience with professional actors, but I think that at least some people in the shows I was involved with in high school referred to their characters as ‘I,’ particularly if they were method actors or trying to figure out character motivation and backstory and such. Not with the same degree of consistency as roleplayers . . . but the actors I hung out with were less skilled and less serious about acting than many of the roleplayers I game with are about roleplaying.

      • I think people also have fewer problems getting the character pronouns right with a female player cross-gendering than the other way around. Marked and unmarked gender categories and assumptions around same.

        I had a player create a dual-gendered character in a game back in ’93 or ’94, and you can imagine the pronoun havoc that ensued. I think he (the player) decided on female pronouns for the character eventually.

  6. I haven’t worked with actors, but I’ve been deep into RPGs for a number of years and am an avid watcher of DVD bonus features. One of the things that has struck me on a number of occasions is listening to actors speak about their characters and doing exactly as you describe–discussing them in first-person. I actually find it fascinating to notice when actors do that, or when other actors don’t do it and stick tightly to third person.

    Ever since I became aware of it, I’ve put a lot of thought into keeping the OOC/IC divide separate. I talk about my characters in third-person, even the ones I feel fiercely about. To the outsider, it may actually make me sound a bit crazy, talking of them as other when they’re the product of my imagination. But, surrounded as I am by both roleplayers and writers, the stigma has eroded. They get it.

    • Huh! I don’t think I’ve seen actors talk about their characters in first person on the commentary tracks I’ve watched — maybe here and there for just a moment, but not as a habitual-sounding thing. They talk about their performance that way, sure, but they don’t adopt the character’s thoughts and feelings as their own. But I’ll admit I haven’t watched a lot of commentary tracks with actors, vs. other people involved in the production. I don’t suppose you remember any specific instances (movies, TV) where that goes on?

      There’s a lot of value in keeping IC and OOC separate; I’ll come back to that in a later post. If you identify too intensively with your character, bad things can happen.