There’s a reason PCs are called “player characters,” and it’s not what you might think. As much as we hate to admit it, “player” and “character” are inseparable. You’re always, to some extent, playing a self-insert. Some are just more blatant than others.
The question is, which traits of the PC come from the player and which traits are the character’s own? And, of greater concern, do we always know who these traits belong to? If you’re anything like me, you tend pass off the darker traits as just your character’s – “yup, that’s totally them. Not me at all.” …but is it really?
The best PC I ever played was a druid halfling named Wellon. He spent his time wandering through the woods (self-insert!), sticking it to the man (self-insert!), and leaving a trail of innocents dead in his wake (…..). Up until that last bit, I fully acknowledged that Wellon was just me repackaged into a three-foot-tall spellcaster with an afro. A little more rugged maybe, and a lot more pugnacious. But otherwise generally me.
But when the corpses began to pile up around Wellon, I – or Wellon? Both of us? – began to get defensive.
“It wasn’t my fault – I mean, Wellon’s fault! We didn’t do anything.”
“Exactly,” the DM replied, “and that’s why everyone in the village died.”
“But can’t they save themselves? It’s not our problem! We’re not even from their town.”
Yikes. Our excuses got increasingly thin. Not to mention emotional. And this was real-life emotion, not in-character acting.
At two AM on one of those argumentative nights, I left the DM’s house feeling unnerved. Was it Wellon who couldn’t take responsibility for the carnage, or was it me? Was I – the player – a willing bystander to the world’s tragedies?
“Poverty…war…genocide… It’s sad and all, but totally not my problem. Someone else should’ve stepped in!”
The thought that I could so easily detach from the consequences of my own inaction scared me. That I could push the responsibility for justice onto others? Foolish and callous. Self-preservation was one thing, but this was about as far from heroism as I could get.
So, was it me, Wellon, or both of us who bore this shame? Maybe it didn’t matter. After all, these tragedies (how many? I lost count) occurred in a fictional game; a trial run before engaging with the real world. To use a pop culture analogy, it was like that episode of The Office in which Pam admits to holding the phone line for a moment before transferring Michael’s calls. Michael thinks he’s already been transferred and says something stupid. Then, when Pam tells him he hasn’t been transferred yet, he gets a second chance at his greeting and nails it. Perhaps RPGs work the same way, allowing us to make mistakes at the table and then avoid them in the real world.
It all boils down to the unacknowledged power RPGs have to inspire self reflection. Who am I really? Who do I want to be? And what hidden darkness travels with me when I leave the table?