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I've never really managed to engage or have a good experience of a game where the GM has asked me to "play a version of myself". It feels a little self-conscious and wierd, to me at least.

But Can having the players play themselves as characters work?

and What are the perils of doing so?

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Be careful with criticism: suddenly criticizing something about a character is the same as complaining about the same aspect of the player, which may not do good things for your friendship. – Oblivious Sage Jan 31 '13 at 15:35
I play a lot RPGs and some individual encounters as if I were placed in that situation with my current set of morals and values as a sort of psychological experiment. I think it's interesting to think about how different personalities might make different decisions based on the same input. Thinking about things from your own perspective creates a nice baseline. – Mark Rogers Jan 31 '13 at 16:19
Possibly of interest: Playing as, not with, ourselves – Dakeyras Jan 31 '13 at 17:33
If the players are just acting out what they themselves would be doing in real life, that can really only lead to one result. – jwodder Jan 31 '13 at 18:01
Slightly relevantly; a quiz designed to determine what AD&D character you are - – Rob Mar 11 '13 at 9:54
up vote 15 down vote accepted

I do have plenty of experience with this.

I ran a 3-years campaign which was basically modern-day Call of Cthulhu, set in my own country (Italy). Actually we used mostly the rules and the world was more like Dresden Files (even if 25 years before Dresden's novels) than Lovecraft.

This was quite popular and inspired some spin-offs among fellow players, so I was exposed to the idea both as a referee and as a player.

We were all in our early-20s so I ruled that while keeping events in the current year, everyone should create a 10-year older version of themselves (most of us were in UNI and I wanted PCs that could actually do things, both in terms of skills and in general independence). (Retrospectively this also allowed players to "deviate" a bit from their own self, in the sense that they could at least choose a career path).

Stats were rolled but I (as GM) had the right to mandate a reroll for things that didn't make sense knowing the real person. This was done only for things like people rolling pathetic INT stat, or body size too out of whack with their real body etc. (I am not perfectly sure of this anymore, but I think I made them roll 2d6+6 instead of 3d6, removing the risk of excessively low stats... I toyed with the idea of having people vote on each other's stats and average, but in the end I decide this wouldn't be practical so I ditched the idea from the start).

Profession was selected more or less freely. In some cases people opted for "unrealistic" stuff (one of the players became a private investigator) but I allowed it to have a more interesting mix (in Italy private possession of firearms is strictly regulated, so this was also the only one who had rights to bear a weapon). Nobody else was allowed to get absurd things like "mercenary" or "fighter pilot", though.

Interestingly enough, most players were happy to play themselves, but some decided to roll a completely unrelated character instead (a DBA opted for being a support guitarist for pop-rock bands - i.e. the kind of guy who gets in the in-studio credits). Thos who opted for not playing themselves just told they didn't like the idea, and I didn't press the point because for me it was the same (I just wanted "normal" people in the campaign). For those cases we just invented a retro-connected story to make them mingle with the ones that had opted to play "themselves".

For a bit the idea worked: having to deal with "real world" consequences, players tried to remain on the right side of the law, and worked hard at making good use of what (and whom) they knew in real life. Whenever they introduced NPCs ("I have a cousin who is a doctor, he will be glad to cure my wounds without calling the police") I vetted them to be sure they weren't just inventing stuff. In retrospect, being able to use real-world knowledge and real-world contacts/friends/relatives helped the PCs to be more effective at the start of the campaign (later they acquired plenty of uncanny, powerful friends and enemies, as the weirdness level ramped up).

N.B.: My reason to structure the campaign around "real world people" came from me growing disgusted by how players (mostly veterans of old-days AD&D) tackled any kind of issue in-game: i.e. "kill it, loot the corpse... can't kill it? kill something else until we get enough experience to get back and kill it". I wanted a change in paradigm, and I hoped that playing "yourself" would help players getting out of the stereotypical AD&D party mindset.

In that sense, it worked. For a bit. I wasn't interested in making this a psychological study, so I never sacrificed "fun" for "realism": a bit later things started getting surreal - but this was due to the direction I wanted to give to the campaign, not a problem with the PC identities.

So, my advice:

  • do not force anyone to play themselves if they don't like the idea. Make them generate characters in the normal way for your system.
  • personally I think the idea has some merit if you want to play in some variation of real world. Having a group of D&D players magically transported in a fantasy world may be fun but I don't think it adds much in terms of value (YMMV, of course).
  • if you want a "gritty", realistic campaign you have also to take in account that some of the players will know more about their own job than you can possibly do. This may create problems if they start poking holes in some of your ideas. But the real problem is that you may have little ability to double-check or overrule what they say about what their PCs can do. (Case in point: my PCs routinely took strange artifacts to a real world guy with a degree in Physics to have them analyzed... he even guest-starred - for real - in a session where they were dealing with a painting showing some bizzarre properties... the guy bombarded me with questions about what the results of his various tests were, and I had really a hard time keeping pace).
  • death of a character is a problem. Not just because it may be uncomfortable for the player (my own PC was killed after a few sessions in a "real-world campaign" with another GM, so I know what I am talking about) but also because replacing "real me" with a rolled-up character creates continuity problems: the other PCs have much stronger bonds than what you could expect in a "normal" party.
  • In general terms (unless you play only with US Army members or Police officers and so on) "real people" are fairly ineffective in terms of average RPGs. Especially regarding combat. This creates two problems: first of all you have to constantly doublecheck conflicts to be sure that your PCs stand a chance. Besides this, you have to be very careful during character generation to find a way to express their actual competences in game terms. Case in point: I am currently a 3rd Dan in Aikido... what will this mean in your game system of choice? If it is something like GURPS, it has some equivalence in terms of "number of hours practicing a given skill->X points in that skill" and this is probably the best way to do that. But most other systems may be lacking this kind of rules and you will have to eyeball things a lot.

Someone else mentioned the fact that interpersonal relationships (like having your wife or parents as NPCs) may be difficult to handle. I agree with that, too - and I have to admit I steered clear of that as much as possible. We were young, and most of us were the stereotypical nerds, with no GF etc. The "make yourself 10 years older" glossed over that part, so all of them played "singles", no kids etc.

If I had to do this today I would surely try to handle this in a more appropriate way, but for sure you have to think about how far you want to go (as a GM) in involving NPCs who are actually "real people".

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I tried running such a game years ago when my friends and I were in high school. I used Basic Roleplaying and envisioned an 'aliens attack the high school' game. The attempt failed miserably, for reasons that in retrospect could have easily been avoided:

  • As the GM I selected attribute values for the players. The guy who (in my view at the time) was charisma-challenged was given a low CHA value. That put a serious strain on our relationship for a while.

  • I didn't tailor the adventure so that each PC had a clear role in the group. Think of class mix in D&D and how it affects each PC's role in the game. Because I didn't delineate clearly where each PC would shine, the natural leaders in the group took charge, and just told the other players what to do.

  • I placed to much emphasis on what I thought of as my objective view of my friends' capabilities, when my views were anything but objective, and there was no real point in slavishly attempting to mirror reality.

The whole experience left a sour taste in my mouth and damaged a couple of important relationships, so although I am no longer quite so naive as I was then and I know what minefields to avoid, I still have no desire to attempt such a game again.

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That's exactly the answer I had in mind. If I may add: Don't forget that in real life we are not heroes (well I'm not) so limiting players to what they "are" (from your point of view) can be a big problem. – MrJinPengyou Jan 31 '13 at 16:25
Yeah, the whole exercise broke down for me fundamentally because I couldn't reconcile "real" player selves and fantasy character selves. It's an exercise fraught with peril, though as @Leezard points out, it can be done. – Erik Schmidt Jan 31 '13 at 16:55

There are some games that are even designed to this approach. I have seen it on some indie games, but I can't recall them, except these I saw the other day. Unfortunately, I think they are not translated to English.

I have done this in my first RPG years, even in fantasy games. The more interesting part is for me the character generation. It would make a great group dynamic.

When I have grown older, playing at my self has been becoming more weird. Especially in characters interrelations (ie: having to let your real life friend die in the game to save your own life), and in some mature situations, like sex.

And then, if you mix real life feelings with in-game feelings it can be all weird. What if your RL girlfriend is seduced by a vampire? Would you roleplay the anger you feel against her? What if you could cast a love spell on someone you actually love in secret?

So, although playing ourselves in a game was fun when I was a boy, I don't do this anymore. I prefer to invent new characters, with their own personality and motives, like a writer usually imagine new characters instead of posing himself as the protagonist. After all, your characters will always have something of yourself.

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Yes, it can, in a variety of games.

The closer the game setting is to the real world, the easier is to play yourself. The main difficulty of playing yourself well is realistic assessment of your capabilities (if we are not talking about "myself-with-superpowers" case) and reactions to the challenging events.

On the contrary, the closer the game setting is to the real world, the less fun it is to play yourself, from my viewpoint, since it is probably possible to actually live the game experience for real.

The main peril of playing yourself is the indefinite amount of escapism involved.

Different for different games and players, potentially rising to the dangerous levels, and not really comparable in general with escapism of "playing-a-cool-elf" variety.

For example, X can be a lousy unskilled laborer in real life, whereas in RPG he is playing himself - and faring quite good, given the zombie-apocalypse environment. What do we see? Escapism = sky-high. And a successful guy Z, who enjoys playing funny losers, is just getting fun at the expense of his character, which barely registers on escapism-meter.

Also, the character generation process may be quite challenging and requires general maturity (or the party consists solely of smart, strong and healthy characters, knowing just about everything needed for success).

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It sounds like you have experience in this! Maybe you could edit your answer to reflect your experience and make it less of a list? Experience answers are a lot more valuable than plain lists, though if you want to use the list as a jumping-off point to talk about your experience with each system that'd be great! – BESW Jan 31 '13 at 11:53
Unfortunately, I have no actual experience in playing myself (not counting real life). Have been purposefully avoiding it the whole time. The answer is just a brief (and probably ill-expressed) analysis. – Jeor Mattan Jan 31 '13 at 12:14
Unfortunately, that then limits the usefulness of your answer and means it is likely to get marked down. – Wibbs Jan 31 '13 at 12:28

Can having the players play themselves as characters work?

Short answer, yes.

I had a chance to do this in the mid 80's and it worked out well. Our scenario was a world ending war that moved us into a Gamma World setting which would quickly give way to a dimensional rift that carried us to an AD&D setting. Mutations and magic, it was fun.

We started off with everyone making stats for everyone else, not rolling but looking at the person and assigning stats based on what we saw in them. Not as easy as it sounds be we talked about it and worked out real life baselines for every stat we could. Charisma being one of the hardest to objectively work out. Once everyone had assigned stats for everyone else, the stats were averaged out. In this way, we had a slightly less subjective set of stats. Everyone had input on everyone else and it felt fair. Skills where not an issue as these early editions of Gamma World and AD&D didn't have much in way of skills. On top of that we were teenagers and didn't have lots of skills that translated to in game skills to worry about.

We equipped ourselves only with things we had in our homes. Being that it was the 80's and we lived in the southeastern United States most of us had guns and/or bows (or even crossbows) in our houses. We also had the skill to use these weapons (where I grew up you didn't have a gun in the house unless everyone knew the correct way to handle it, gun safety was education in those days). Camping gear was also common. Oddly enough, the one thing I recall being at all problematic was food and the encumbrance of what gear we put together.

The only things that were randomly rolled were hit points and mutations. Luckily, only one of us got a defect mutation. That was me but it wasn't a very bad one.

The game lasted a few months and we had fun with it. I would call it successful. If I was to do it again I think it would done in a similar fashion. One thing to watch out for would be systems that are highly skill based.

If you are translating RL people into a skill based game system make sure everyone has a few skills that will translate. Age will be a factor for this as someone with more life experience may have a substantially larger skill set in relation to the other players.

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One big thing to watch out for is to make sure the players don't see each other stealing and killing and get confused and negatively judge the actual PLAYERS' moral character based on something they said their character did in an RPG, even if they are playing "themselves." I doubt this would happen with a tight group, but there are always those nights where for some reason emotions are high. You don't want crap to hit the fan.

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