Telling a story through an RPG can be a lot like a “first person” adventure for the players. They control their pawn in an overall game and experience the story from that perspective. Sure – the player probably talks in third person about the character but if you ask for a run down of the previous game you get their characters perspective on the action in the game. This is a great thing and by no means would you ever want to permanently take this perspective away. However, there is a way to enhance a player’s enjoyment of their character by playing with perspective.
Recently, the crew from the Besmara’s Kiss in my Pathfinder Skull and Shackles game went looking for a fellow pirate that had some information they were seeking. They anchored their ship to the south of a “cursed” island and went ashore to find the guy. The game ended for the night and the next week when they returned I handed them all a set of statistics for their crew members. They were back aboard the ship with the officers and important (i.e. player characters) all gone. The crew spot some large fish (manta rays and sharks) as well as some corpses coming toward the ship.
Bang! The manta rays and sharks leap aboard, some form of undead as the ghouls swarm the ship. Half an hour of combat and the crew is overwhelmed, the ship under the control of the undead. The effect that this perspective shift had was extremely strong. The players got quite attached to the crew they had left behind and I am sure that this small departure from the linear story will be talked about for some time.
When to shift?
This is a technique that will work well used sparingly. You do not want to be continuously removing the player’s control over their character. After all, that is the character that they signed up to play in your game. A departure from that needs to offer up something in return. In the above example it gave the players a bit of foresight of what happened when they return and the ship is not there, and also the realisation that though they are all awesome, their crew can barely hold their own against a normal challenge.
Consider running this as a highlight to a character. For example, say you are running a supers campaign and the players are about to save a bunch of civilians from the big bad. Have the players come up with the plan and then, to highlight how monolithic and brilliant their characters are, have the players take on the role of a civilian in the battle and run their supers through the mechanics of the plan. They then get to experience their character from the perspective of those they help. Do not do this more than once though – the player will feel a little let down that they did not get to act their character through the important parts if it is a common thing.
If you do things like this it can be great to flesh out the character that the player will eventually be taking control of. For example, give them a one page dossier that says something like:
Name: Sarah Singleton
Occupation: Share Broker
Interests: Finance, Horror Movies, Jewellry
Family: Defacto Sam Howitzer (Failed author), Daughter Tiffany Singleton (12, Severe Cerebal Palsy), Son Cal Howitszer (18, run away from home)
This plus some statistics will give the players some real connection. That or spend 5 minutes at the start getting the players to come up with a short back story and this should cause the players to care for their character and play them as more than a two-dimensional cutout.
The switch need not even be just for the entire encounter, perhaps just a brief interlude in a continual battle like the one in the image above can give a perfect jolt to a stale story!
A story has many layers to it. A player that only experiences one of those layers can lose interest in the story as a whole and become jaded. By adding in a surprise here and there, as well as making the player think about the effect their character has in the story can make for a much better playing experience.
Give it a try and let us know in the comments how it went, or if you have already tried this, let us know what happened and if the players enjoyed it or not?