In my experience there are two things that gamers like to talk about more than anything else: their own character and ways to improve everyone else’s character. Everyone always thinks that they have the very best character and most gamers want to tell you all about it. Yet no matter how awesome someone else believes their character is, someone always thinks they have a way to improve it.
As a DM I often ask the players to provide me with copies of their character sheets before I start a new campaign. By looking over their defenses, feats, powers, and items I can get a better idea of their power level relative to the other PCs and relative to my monsters. It also gives me a chance to suggest improvements and changes to their characters. In some cases the players will be grateful for pointing out better options (especially when they have two feats that don’t stack), but most times the player gracefully accepts the feedback and does nothing. After all they know that their character is already awesome so what business do I have telling them to make changes?
I realized that people become very attached to their characters. They see the PC as an extension of themselves and take great pride knowing that they’ve built this PC exactly the way they want to. Unfortunately this often blinds some players to the fact that their PC really isn’t as awesome as they think. If only there was a way to show those players just how much better their PC would be if they tweaked a few little details? And then it hit me – there is a way.
What if everyone had an opportunity to play someone else’s character? You think you know my character better than I do, well here’s your chance to prove it.
Making It Happen
I don’t believe for a second that most players would be enamored with the thought of having someone else play their character. Asking them to play someone else’s character would be an easy sell, but my character belongs to me. Letting another player run my PC almost feels like a violation. Suspecting this resistance, the best way to carry out any experiment where players swap characters is for the DM to blind side them.
Set the stage by ending game night with some kind of trap, explosion or curse. It can be elaborate or simply be a powerful Wizard waving his magic wand and laughing. Tell the players that they’ll learn the full extent of what just happened next time. Tell everyone that they receive the benefits of an extended rest and ask them to bring a clean hard copy of their character sheet to the next session (I know in my group a few players play their character right off a laptop).
At the beginning of the next session tell the players that everyone’s “soul” or “essence” has been shuffled around. Randomly reassign the character sheets making sure that no one is playing themselves. For the rest of the session each player will run someone else’s character. If the gaming group has been together for a while then they’ve likely seen this PC in action many times before. They’re probably familiar with the PC’s most common attacks and tactics. Now is they’re chance to become that character for a night.
A Learning Opportunity
After the players get over the shock and possible revulsion that someone else is playing their character and that they’ll be playing someone else’s, take a few minutes to explain what this opportunity presents. Everyone thinks they can improve everyone else’s character and this is their chance to prove it. While the curse is in effect the player holding the character sheet owns that PC. If you think the actual player has been missing opportunities then show him, in game, how you’d do it if this was your character.
Taking this approach to character swapping gives the exercise a little bit more value. By saying that your PC’s mind is now in the other PC’s body you retain some sense of identity and ownership. It presents a really great opportunity for role-playing. I’m sure at least one or two PCs will have an identity crisis which could be a lot of fun. The frail Sorcerer who now inhabits the physically fit Monk may not want to switch back. Without this kind of tie to your own PC, playing someone else’s character is really just like playing a pre-generated or throwaway character. Having a stake in it make this personal.
One thing I’d actively discourage is any out of game coaching. Let the new player discover how to play your character by himself. No making suggestions or pointing out powers. Everything they need to know should be on the character sheet. Plus, they’ve seen you run this PC many times so they should be in pretty good shape right off the bat. During combat, players can coach each other on how to play their character but it has to be in-character.
DMs should throw the PCs into combat immediately, before they are even tempted to start having side conversations. Realizing that there will be growing pains the encounter should be a level or two lower than the party’s average level. After one or two quick fights bring the threat level up to normal and give them a few real challenges.
Depending on how long the group seems comfortable with the switch I’d even allow the new player to swap one power and one feat (temporarily, of courses) if they think that something else would work better of if something really great was overlooked or forgotten by the character’s actual owner.
Of Sound Mind and Body
It’s one thing to run another player’s character but it’s another thing to have your character’s mind inhabiting the body of another character. This actually becomes tricky to facilitate. After all if my PC has a really high ability scores in Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma and I take over the body of a character with low scores in these abilities, how will that translate?
For simplicity I’d say leave all six ability scores alone. Switching numbers just gets complicated. Do your best as a player to try to role-play the differences. If my Wizard with 20 Intelligence inhabits the body of the Rogue with a 10 Intelligence maybe I forget important details or get frustrated when I fail to understand things I used to find so simple. A Bard with an 18 Charisma who is now in the body of the Fighter with an 8 Charisma may not understand why the same words he used to sweet talk the princess yesterday fail to sway her today.
Play It For Laughs
Another way to run this kind of experiment is to just have fun with it. Have every player emphasize the best and worse qualities they’ve seen in this PC over the weeks, months or years since he joined the party. I’ll bet when the PC’s owner sees you doing such crazy things they’ll realize just how silly, dumb or outrageous some of their most common traits really are.
Just remember that people take criticism differently. I know with my group we’re all really good friend who have known each other and played together for over 20 years. It’s unlikely that anyone would take this kind of prodding personally. However, many gamers are shy and not the most confident people in the world to begin with. Making fun of their character in this way could be devastating, so make sure you know your audience before taking this kind of approach.
It is possible to still play for laughs and not be critical. Have fun with the other guy’s character but know where to draw the line between illustrating a weakness and belittling that player’s choices.
A Positive Outcome
Regardless of how or why the players ended up switching characters, don’t make them suffer. I’d say that one session is probably the longest you want to keep them mixed up. After all if a player has spent a lot of time and effort to make his PC meet his exact specifications then why should he have to drudge through the pains of playing someone else’s crappy character for more than one game?
Just remember the purpose of this experiment. The idea was to let the players see someone else run their PC and hopefully get an appreciation for how to improve them with a few small changes. Once the characters are all returned a kind DM may even allow the player to keep any changes that the other player made while running the PC.
Have you ever participated in this kind of character exchange? How did it go? Did players get too silly for this to be useful? Maybe your group was thrilled at the role-playing opportunities this kind of mind-body switch presented? If you’ve never done this before do you think it’s something that would work at your gaming table? Do you think the players would be agreeable to it?