Storium Theory: Playing in Your Own Sandbox: Narrators Playing Characters in Their Own Games

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on September 1st, 2016.

Today’s topic comes to us by reader submission again, this time from monsterfurby! I’m always happy to get topics from my readers–if you’re interested in submitting your own, please use the form accessible from the “Submit Topics!” link up in the top menu. The whole point of this blog is to help people who might have questions about aspects of Storium, and while I can certainly blabber on and on about anything and everything, I’d prefer to be writing on what I know will be useful to someone.

So, on with today’s post!

As narrators, we create some fun and interesting settings for our players. We set up these epic stories, and we get to watch players go through them. But…there’s always this little voice inside that tells us, “you know, you would have a lot of fun playing a character in that world, wouldn’t you?”

So…there’s the question. Should you play a player character in a game you’re narrating? When, if ever, is it okay to do so? And if it is…how should you approach it?

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t about rotating narration games–in those games, narrators end up playing characters as well by the simple nature of the game itself. There’s no avoiding it. This post concerns single-narrator games.

So…when is it okay to do so? I…can’t answer that question for you. I’m sorry, but I can’t. It all depends on your personality, and the players you’ve selected. If you find you like to have tight reins on your game and control things already, inserting your own player character is probably not a good idea for you. If your game doesn’t have a strong atmosphere of trust built up between each other and between narrator and player, it’s probably not a good idea to play a player character in it. In the first situation, you might take too much control over things. In the second, you’re going to have accusations flying.

It’s all in how you do things, not when. And the how is extraordinarily difficult…which means that the when is, for many narrators, “almost never.”

Playing a player character in a game where you’re also narrating is…dangerous. I went into this a bit back in “The Player Characters are the Stars,” but there’s a temptation that any person has to give their own character the spotlight sometimes–the narrator has to watch out for that for NPCs, to ensure he doesn’t take the spotlight away from the player characters. That tendency can carry over to a narrator’s player character if he isn’t careful–he can potentially elevate his character above the others.

Let’s step back from Storium for a moment, and look at pen-and-paper RPGs. If you’re playing a rogue, your specialties are sneak attacks, thievery, and lockpicking, right? That sort of thing. Now, if you’re just a player, hopefully the narrator is throwing opportunities to do those things your way at a reasonable clip. The narrator is responsible for giving each character chances to highlight his abilities. Right? Right.

So, if you’re the narrator, and you’re also playing the rogue, what’s likely to happen?

I’ll tell you, because it’s a mistake I’ve made. Plots are going to have a whole heck of a lot more lockpicking all of a sudden.

And that’s a problem. Because the other characters, they aren’t lockpickers. They’re paladins, and wizards, and clerics, and the like. And while you’re picking your one hundred and eleventh lock this session, they’re sitting on their keisters because you’re not giving them more inspiring speech opportunities, or chances to investigate magical baubles, or terrified civilians to comfort or injuries to heal.

The natural impulse of the creative person is to highlight his ideas–to show them off so they can be appreciated. When the creative person is in charge of both the story direction and one of the main characters, that means that the story direction will have a strong tendency to angle towards events that will boost that main character’s importance. It’s not that you’re a bad person or selfish or that you want to make your character more important than others or make the others side characters in your personal show. It’s just that even though you’re not thinking that way, you’re going to have a tendency to boost your own character. It’s simply going to happen.

Sometimes it isn’t too severe, and players can get by it. Other times, it can really kill games.

Now…Storium has some inherent protections against this. The three-cards-per-scene rule limits the impact any one character can have, and the way Strength and Weakness refreshes work means that even if your character is acting more than the other characters, the kind of impact he has on the scene varies. Sometimes he’ll be highlighted by doing awesome things, sometimes by screwing up. Those factors mitigate this concern a little bit. At the very least, while your character might get the spotlight more and have events based around his traits because you understand him best, you’re not going to be able to play him as a flawless super-character.

The trouble is that a spotlight is a spotlight, and you’re still going to be tempted to point it more at your own character than others.

Now, you might think from this that I’m just flat-out saying don’t do this. That’s not the case. I think there are times where it can be a good idea…I’m just warning you of what to watch out for. Because believe me, you are going to need to catch yourself, time and again. It applies to non-player characters, and it applies to player characters. The advice to narrators is the same. Do. Not. Focus. The. Game. On. Your. Own. Character.

So…let’s talk about what you should do, now that I’ve finished talking about what you need to avoid. Let’s say that you feel the need to play your own character in a game–maybe it’s just that interesting of a world and party and you want to be part of it (and while I don’t advise this, it is better than creating an NPC that has no system controls on him to do that). Or maybe the game has lost some people, or not attracted enough, and you just feel like you need one more character in there who won’t leave (which is honestly the best reason to do this, in my opinion).

Here’s my recommendations:

  • Do not finish challenges. In fact, make a blanket statement that you’re not going to do so unless you have to (because the other players are out of cards or stuck on ideas). While I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face that every card play matters and what happens during a challenge is important and players shouldn’t get hung up on who gets to finish challenges and such…the fact remains that the end of a challenge is the source of a lot of narrative control, and it just won’t sit well with players to have the narrator’s own character ending challenges. It’s “bad optics,” as they’d say in the political realm. Leave finishing challenges to the other players–it’ll help you resist the call of the spotlight.
  • Avoid playing all three cards in a scene unless you must. Again, make exceptions if other players are out of cards or stuck, but limiting your card plays this way can ensure that you let other players have more impact on the story than you do.
  • Avoid cardless moves unless you’re in a cardless scene. Cardless moves don’t impact the scene as much, but they’re still little spotlight moments for your character. Unless someone addresses your character or points something to them that requires a cardless move, like asking you a question, it’s generally a good idea to keep your character to card moves only. That, again, limits the amount of time your character is highlighted.
    • Obviously, if there’s a general cardless scene, like the group just getting to know each other, it’s okay to make some moves. Still, try not to dominate.
  • Do not, do not, do not, do not, do not play a “leader.” Don’t be the captain, don’t be the commander, don’t be the person making decisions. When it’s time for the players to decide what to do next, you should basically be sitting that one out.
  • Question your challenge setups–is this something that your character specializes in, or that’s specifically meant to play to a theme for them?
  • Focus especially hard on building challenges that will highlight the other players’ themes in some way. You are naturally going to slip some in to the game that will highlight your character’s themes, just by simple human nature, so you need to be doubly sure that you’re focusing the spotlight on the other characters.
  • If you do find yourself setting up a challenge that’s pretty much in your character’s wheelhouse, set more card slots on it than you are willing to play on it yourself, and widen the scope of the challenge a bit. To take the rogue example, maybe the challenge isn’t just a two-card one about lockpicking. Maybe it’s a four-card one about needing to get a door open while the enemy is attacking. Then, the challenge is about both your rogue needing to pick the lock quickly, and the other characters needing to defend the point while he does it.
  • Think about playing a character who is definitively not as good at things as the other player characters. Not an object to just be protected, but a character who can flub things up and have to be rescued sometimes. A character who can be used to build up the other player characters rather than to save their butts. As far as cards go, he’ll have the same number of Strength and Weakness cards as others, sure…but you can write his Strengths less strongly, and his Weaknesses more notably.
Essentially, what I’m saying is this: think of your character, if you’re playing one in a game you’re narrating, as major supporting cast rather than a main character. You can still be a big part of the story, but you shouldn’t be the biggest part. Focus even more of your concentration on building up the other player characters than you otherwise would. Make sure you’re giving them the big moments. It’s easy to cause misperceptions or accidentally put your character to the forefront to the detriment of other characters when you’re playing a character in your own game, so it’s just something you’ll need to watch out for and pay extra attention on. It can be done well…you just need to be cautious.
Edit 9/14/2016: The original version of this post neglected to name the reader submitter, monsterfurby. My apologies!

3 Comments

  1. Jan Bernd ten Berg
    Sep 3, 2016

    Robert, you make a very compelling case for not playing a character in your own game and I wholeheartedly agree. And not only because of your arguments, for I already was of the firm opinion that I hated playing characters in my own games and I tend to avoid games where the narrator has a character. However, there are exceptions to that rule.

    Currently I play a character in a very crowded sprawling game, in which the narrator has close contact with one of the other players, who effectively plays some NPC’s for him. I’m not sure if it works for me, but it is an approach which I hadn’t considered before, and while it wouldn’t work for me, I can imagine a few scenario’s where a very important NPC can be a player character. And that brings me to two characters I played in my own game.

    In my long-running Primogenita game I had players drop out. Not surprisingly considering it has been running for over two years. But I also had players announce that they had to temporarily quit Storium, but wanted to pick it up at a later date.

    Because Primogenita is a heroic saga, if players decide to quit, I ask them to write their characters a heroic death and if they cannot be bothered with that, I ask them to hand over their characters to me, and I write the character’s death. But that’s one short move and it doesn’t truly influence the game. I just like tidying up.

    Twice a player temporarily quit. Both times I asked them to hand over their characters. In the first case, it was as long as half a year. That character I used to play an important part in the final battle against a giant monster and had him sacrifice himself. The character died and because of the way he died (his soul was sucked into the underworld, but his body remained intact. In fact, it became the vessel for another character, whose body was destroyed). I then retired the character, and let the other characters go on a quest into the underworld to retrieve his soul. The player was able to rejoin the game close to the moment the heroes had found his soul, thus I re-activated the character and handed him back to the player.

    In total I played that character for less than half a scene, but by taking the reins and giving him a death of my choosing, I could further the plot, and at the same time stall the character for half a year.

    The other time was more recent, in the same game. A more recent player had to quit for a shorter while. She had been inactive for close to a month.and when she finally replied to my Private Message. She announced that she wanted to rejoin, but wanted to take her time. Her character is a seer and I needed her visions as a tool to further the plot. So I asked her to temporarily hand over he character. Again I used the character for less than half a scene before handing her back to the player. Which I did just a few hours ago.

    It is with that class of characters that I can see the use of a narrator occasionally playing a character like a seer; a character which can give the other players information in play which would be more natural coming from a group member than an NPC. It will allow the narrator some more flexibility in how to hand some information to the other players. On the other hand, up and until now, I did it by sending the players who play seers information through PM.

    Still, I agree that a narrator playing a character is better avoided than embraced.

    • Robert Mohr
      Sep 14, 2016

      There are absolutely times when playing a character in your own game is entirely appropriate. In “The Cost of an Arm and a Leg,” the narrator played his own character when one of the players vanished, and I think that was a benefit to the game–I don’t think it would’ve been as good with just the two remaining players, and having the narrator’s character in there gave us a kind of family dynamic that ended up benefiting the game overall. Especially if you’re using it to keep the game going when something has happened, or to just fill in a gap for a time, or something like that, I think it’s a very valid tactic. Even in other situations I’m not going to absolutely say you can’t do it…I just advise against it, and advise you to be very cautious about how you do it should you elect to play your own character.

  2. Zachary Ruffing
    Sep 20, 2016

    Hello, I’m Rattannah for those of you who don’t know me, I’m the one who played a character in my own “Cost of an Arm and a Leg game” I think Robert here has the right idea. I have played in several of my games but I would advise that you shouldn’t if you can help it. The only times I step into my games now is to make up for disappearing players.

    I will say however, that if you are introducing yourself as a character mid-story, such as I did in “Cost of an Arm and a Leg,” It is permissible to allow yourself a bit of spotlight when you first show up. In fact, if you don’t do this at least some, it can hurt how your story looks with another character entering the picture.

    I agree particularly with the concept of aiming low on your characters if you play in your own games, if you aim low, the natural tendency to make your character important will balance out and you will probably avoid scene-stealing.

    And also, do not finish your own challenges. That is probably the biggest rule here if you play in your own game. As a narrator, you already have a ton of control and you don’t want to double-down on that one.