The vicarious participant

Proud shit-stirrer Joe the Lawyer recently posted a great excerpt from another article which more or less exactly describes the the concept of role-playing I’ve always been most comfortable with.  I first heard it described as “vicarious participation” in an issue of the Dragon.

The first “other” RPG I remember playing for sustained periods was Villians and Vigilantes, which actually urged players to make characters unambiguously based on themselves (which is also apparently how Dave Arneson’s first Blackmoor players made their characters).  I never actually made a D&D version of “myself” but I certainly played pretty much all my characters as I would behave, or would like to think I’d behave, with some variation in recognition of the enhanced abilities my character might have.  I never thought of a D&D character as a completely separate personality.  They were much more like avatars or pawns.

It was not until I’d been playing for several years (I’d started playing D&D at age 9) that I began to meet people who actually wanted to play roles completely different from themselves, and who would claim that this was doing “right” while mere vicarious participation was a primitive, immature even, form of role-playing that one should move beyond.  This attitude would be mirrored to some degree in The Dragon too (which was the only gaming magazine I’d read or seen for years and years), and in hindsight I think it may have had something to do with the increasing vogue for providing, first, pre-generated characters for modules, and then of course the Dragonlance and Conan modules that required, or at least urged, players to use pre-gen characters based on fully developed literary characters.  By this time I had begun to drift away from D&D anyway, first into Rolemaster, Champions and various D&D ripoffs, variants, like the Palladium FRPG, and finally GURPS.  All these games encouraged the creation of a separate “personality” for  characters, and I think this should really be understood as a fad that was independent of any particular game publisher.  I still thought it pretty odd when players wanted to play characters of a different gender, but maybe that’s just me.

Well, even in the early days, I thought in terms of a given character possibly having different reactions than I might, and certainly I understood that I should bracket some things I knew that my character would not (even if only the recipe for gunpowder), but I also liked the fact that Boot Hill had no intelligence stat at all.  I could understand how to play a character that was dumber than I am, but not one that is smarter.  Likewise I could play a character with almost any mental or social ability that was less than my own, but I didn’t attempt to play a character that was smoother or more cunning or whatever.  Until I started playing those games with skills.

That is the one thing that is really nifty about games with “Diplomacy” skills and the like.  I know old schoolers tend to prefer not to use such mechanics, but I have to admit that skills systems make it a lot more practical to play characters with much better mental or social abilities than the player.  I would not say you can’t do it without skills, but it sure does make it easier if you have them.  (You could, for example play a really smart character by being more deliberate, cautious, and thoughtful than you really are.  But that is more work than putting high numbers on knowledge skills….)  For the same reason I do like games like GURPS which require you to consider adding flaws and personality traits.   Of course you can build a GURPS character without them, but just having the advantages & disadvantages system does remind the player to give the character a personality.

In actual play, I’ve tended to develop the character’s personality through play, rather than trying to make up a fully formed persona beforehand, and I guess that is just an aesthetic choice.  If there is a flaw in skill-based game systems (apart from complexity & the time it takes to roll up a character…) it is that skills can all too easily become a crutch, which is what I think the old schoolers really abhor about skills.

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Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 12:51 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Monaco mentions an interesting bit in this post. “In actual play, I’ve tended to develop the character’s personality through play, rather […]

  2. You’re posting a lot of stuff this week that’s catching my interest. ^_^

    I still thought it pretty odd when players wanted to play characters of a different gender, but maybe that’s just me.

    I’m used to being the GM for all-girl groups where somebody had to play the male characters, but my groups also had plenty of theater people who were used to role reversals on stage too. On the flip side, one of my exes said that his all-guy games rarely included any female characters, even as NPCs.

    I think a lot of in-game decisions and play styles have to do with the out-of-game environment. I’m building a vampire-heavy oWoD campaign with a bunch of Magic: the Gathering guys, and it’s amusing to see how the guys polarize to their MtG play styles. (The guy who likes playing control-heavy decks going for Ventrue, the one who enjoys building rogue decks playing Gangrel, etc.) It’s also going to be an interesting challenge for me as a GM: this’ll be my first time running an all-guy game.

    I’m also one of those GMs who prefers doing social skills as roleplaying challenges and prefers people sticking to their merits/flaws system. (Or even an example from Slipstream: how do I spend my exp points? What was I doing during the last session or during the downtime aboard ship that would cause me to gain points somewhere? Only two other people in our group of eight took that approach.)

    • I’m not familiar with WoD or Slipstream. Back when WoD was new, the people who played it were not my crowd. But Christian over at Destination Unknown speaks highly of WoD, so it must be ok. 🙂

  3. There are two Worlds of Darkness series: the one before the end of times and the one after the end times–basically after the reboot. Changed the rules, clans/groups, etc. but made all the different products (vampire, werewolf, mage, etc.) work together for a change. I’m running a pre-end times WoD campaign set in the town where I live. It’s been fun so far, pulling out the seamier elements and building up the mysterious ones. I just think it’s hilarious that the guys in my group approach RPGs like their collectible card games: one guy’s out to win (he’s never played an RPG before), one’s out to be everybody’s pal, and the other wants to know what every char is up to at all times.

    Slipstream is a campaign setting for the Savage Worlds RPG. Think Flash Gordon-y sci-fi where heroes in a pocket universe dominated by a black hole fight an evil queen and her minions. It’s a mixed gender group run by one of the owners of the local gaming store, and I’ve never played in anything quite like it. Everyone gets a little “screen time” and the DM’s never hesitant about changes on the fly to make things more interesting for the characters.


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