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Suppose that the PCs are actors that have to play roles in film, television, theatre. Or that they are some sort of spirits that process other people and make them do their bidding without letting anyone suspect them. Or that they are trapped in someone else's mind and they are forced to play out the roles of people from his memories.

This is something that I have yet to try, but I'm really interested in how it would affect the game dynamics and player behaviour.

So, what happens when player characters have to role-play other characters? Has anyone tried it? What's your experience? How does player behaviour change? How does the flow of the game change?

For example, I have noticed that players tend to shy away from having vulnerable characters, which makes building a dramatic narrative almost impossible. Is it possible that this need to "win" is alleviated when role-playing within role-playing since players are more distanced from their second-degree characters?

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This is awfully meta... –  C. Ross Jan 20 '11 at 14:32
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This question brought to you by the movie "Inception". –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Jan 20 '11 at 14:39
    
Funny - just saw this in Fable III. The player-character gets shrunk and put on a landscaped playing board and put through a role playing game where the NPCs are painted cardboard cutouts and the GMs are visible as giants around the table. Not really "role playing" but related (hence the comment, not an answer.) –  F. Randall Farmer Jan 20 '11 at 15:37
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Your question title totally had me envisioning some DM saying "Okay, guys - you're all sitting around a table with dice, paper, and pencils in front of each of you..." –  Iszi Jan 21 '11 at 21:36
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Hey, no recursing! –  TML Jan 22 '11 at 18:12

7 Answers 7

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I've been in several live freeforms which worked like this; one-shots have more room to experiment, of course. (Also one in which the intrigue was based on a diplomacy-board-game-within-a-roleplay.)

It happened unplanned in a Cybergeneration game I ran once: the players (mostly as a prank on me) had one of the characters running a VR D&D game... which we proceeded to play out at the table. However, it was only intended as a one-session joke; the dynamic fell apart pretty quickly... not least because the teenage PCs in the top-level game were using their weird powers to cheat like hell in the D&D level.

That was a short-term gag, though, and the humour provides too much detachment. To do it seriously, you need to create reasons to identify, and care about, both sets of characters. Doing this on a sustained basis is difficult but by no means impossible.

World of Darkness 1 Changeling is designed like this: PCs are simultaneously children and the ancient fairies spliced into their soul. This sometimes forces you to get in trouble fighting threats that no-one else can even see... and the damage system meant it was possible for the fairy half to 'die' to a magical threat and leave a very confused mortal child to try and cope until the rest of the party could rescue them somehow. (Ignore nWoD Changeling; it's a different premise.)

This doesn't change the game flow much compared to, say, other WoD games, because the characters are still integrated at both levels, and the game encouraged you to care mostly about the fae. But it could easily be GMed on both levels.

On the other hand, in R. Talsorian's Dream Park the characters are gamers playing characters of their own. I used to run this about 15 years ago; memory is fuzzy now but I recall that players were much more casual about risk to the 'bottom-level' character, as long as it wouldn't be a crippling loss to the 'top-level' PC.

It was important to provide motivations and plots that affect the 'top' characters as well as the current events, or the players (and GM) tended to forget they existed and play only the 'inside' RPG.

Issues to consider

  • Keep the system simple! People have enough to do tracking two layers of character, without fighting the mechanics.

  • Your plot should involve both levels of character, or else be about the confusion caused by being stuck at the 'wrong' level. If you don't have a plot that uses both layers, you don't have any actual need to do this at all - you're just complicating the game, not making it deeper.

  • Keep the plot more about one level than the other at any one time. Alternate focus between the 'outside' and 'inside' characters to involve both layers; save both-at-once for the climax - after everyone's had enough sessions to get the hang of it.

Campaign ideas

  • Simple and fun warm-up: a superhero game involving infiltrating the lead mob boss's operation. Everyone is a shape-shifter / illusionist / telepath capable of playing a criminal (or knocking one out and taking his place... until discovered.) Plot complications arrive when other characters who know the heroes as themselves start to get involved with (not necessarily fight against!) the criminals they're playing.

  • The players are staff/security/gamers at a futuristic RPG VR park. When a commercial rival infiltrates saboteurs into the gaming groups, they all need to enter the game to figure out who's the enemy... before it's too late.

(This is the premise of the Niven/Barnes "Dream Park" novels. R. Talsorian published a tabletop RPG system for this, so you might want to take a look. The system is so-so, but the books are excellent reading... and a great demonstration of how to do action plots on both levels at once, involving the characters while they're playing other characters.
Avoid the published adventures; they were fun, but focused entirely on the 'inside' game, with no interest in the top-level PCs, which defeats what you're trying to accomplish.)

  • The super-high-tech Richard Morgan / Charles Stross identity confusion plot. Use Eclipse Phase, which has the total separation of identity and body as the game premise. By accident, the stored/backed up minds of the players are restored in someone else's bodies. They have to pretend to be who everyone thinks they are long enough to escape... as if the deception is discovered they'll be forcibly uploaded back to storage in a memory bank so the 'real' owners can have their bodies.

  • Everybody is dead. The players are ghosts who have to possess and influence living mortals to solve the problems that keep them angry and undead. But they'll have to help solve the problems of their mortal hosts to do it. (Pace Lo'oris, I think you mustn't allow outright puppet-like control, or you'll lose the two-layer depth!)

  • For a party game that works like this, check out Knizia and Jacklin's "Hollywood Lives", in which the players play actors and directors competing for the best parts. It's a one-session con game or a party game more than a tabletop, but it's a nice simple introduction to doing two layers at once. Effectively it alternates focus in about 15-minute intervals between the actors and the film characters.

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Thanks for an exhaustive answer. I found the "Issues to consider" section especially helpful. –  Naurgul Jan 23 '11 at 12:42

I can explain to you our experiences in something like this approach. We have a really dynamic game because of our group's experiments in this area.

We play King Arthur Pendragon right now. Its a long campaign, about 100 sessions in total. We're 20 sessions into it, nearing the end of the first generation in the families. Each player takes on the role of a family of feudal nobles. The patriarch of the family is most commonly the character for the evening; but, not always so. Brothers, cousins, wives, sons all get their 15 minutes of fame as the primary character. One player in particular has a stable of family members that each make some kind of appearance in about every session.

I'll also throw NPCs at the players and ask them to play that NPC for a while. The local Saxon king was a fun one, as was the "long lost cousin". A ne'er-do-well tinker is marrying into one player's family (egad! commoner blood!) He's a spy on the side so I'll probably just let the player take over the NPC and we can play out a bit of skullduggery. After all, he's family now.

Lastly, any player is welcome to try the GM seat at any time. With such a long campaign I need breaks. So we swap seats. Whatever they say, goes. I totally throw the major plot lines to them and let them run with it. Of course, they don't get a sneak peek at my future plans! This happened three sessions so far and each time it took the plot into a great new direction.

The creativity unleashed by this approach has taken the story to a new level. I can never predict where the story will go each time we play. This has in turn given me new spontaneity.

The idea of character death has a different meaning in the game as well. It is not unusual to have a player character die during a session. There's a pool of family members from which to draw the next character. Or if an NPC temporarily taken by a player dies, there isn't the same kind of player investment in the character. Lastly, each session is generally a year long in game-time. The sessions usually start on New Years Day and end after Christmas. The years fly by and characters grow old. Mortality is just a fact of life in our stories.

There are dangers of which to be aware. I keep some NPCs as absolutely my own, just like the players have their own PCs. All of the players have been playing RPGs much of their lives, and we're all geezers. I'm not sure a novice player could do it unless they were quite mature and courageous.

We all agreed upfront before starting the first session what we wanted from our games, and "a good story" was the first answer everyone gave. You might want to be upfront about your plans to introduce these techniques into your game and clarify your goals in doing so.

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I am not sure this is some weird esoteric syndrome. In many RPGs, the characters are at some point or another pretending to be someone else. In the recent Paizo Adventure Path Second Darkness, the PCs masquerade as drow in a drow city for an entire adventure. Not "playing," but "assuming."

There is the (meta) game "Power Kill" by John Tynes, where you play someone in the normal world who is in turn roleplaying, but it's more of a critique of casual violence than a real game.

I would assume the only difference you'd see in a game within a game scenario is that people would play "less hard" if they felt like they had little to lose. If your PC is playing some game with other PCs then they're likely to not powergame - or care. Stakes are low. If you just want to make your players not care about the results of the game, there's probably less complicated ways to do it.

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I'vu found it generally unsatisfying, save when using well established characters, to have the PC's in character of someone else.

Players generally don't like it, and further, it's seldom done for any purpose that advances plots, unless the character are trying to bypass security protocols.

I much prefer to simple resolve it as a die-roll and move on.

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Closest thing i can think of is 1001nights from Meguey Baker in which you play characters telling stories.

So, what about the story-in-a-story thing, does it do that? A: Well, the basic game has our characters telling Stories, so it's already a story-in-a-story, so the simple answer is yes. To make deeper levels, all it would take would be for someone's Story character to start a Story-within, and see how it went. I think it's possible to go down at least two levels, so Court, Story, Story-Within. I'd suggest having different GMs for any multiple Story levels. And you can definitly do linked Stories already, sharing characters or setting or whatever. -from Night Sky Games Website

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Have you ever had the PCs take on a disguise or assume an alternate identity? It happens in games I run from time to time. so in that way they have to not just RP themselves, but RP another character as interpreted by the first character. That's the thing- character number 1 is interpreting the surface character.

My favorite scene in the movie Inglorious Basterds is when the roughneck Brad Pitt character (Aldo Raine) is disguised as an italian. He claims to be able to speak italian so there he is, wearing the disguise, and he is approached by the German inspector guy, and the Hans Landa character breaks into perfect italian with a greeting and Brad Pitt just says "Bon giorno".. but like with a southern accent. Hilarious.

Great roleplaying moments are like that. Not true portrayals, but really just interpretations of a character (some of which should be faulty) through the lens of the "real" character, flaws and all.

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You succinctly described what I find exciting about this concept. Thanks! –  Naurgul Jan 23 '11 at 12:44

I've never seen this explicitly, although my groups bring up the idea on occasion. What is a regular occurrence is for our characters to get really into making up their names and backstories whenever the players have to create false identities.

When this happens the players are more likely to play flawed, goofy characters. They also tend towards humor because they don't take the false identities as seriously (and because the false identity will never affect them mechanically). Other than that, group dynamics don't change. The quiet players remain quiet. The dominant players still take the lead.

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