Playing Someone Else’s Character

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 11, 2011

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?

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1 OnlineDM October 11, 2011 at 11:53 am

I could see the character switch as being interesting in its own right, but I don’t see it as being connected to the “here’s what you SHOULD do with your character” phenomenon. I think that’s more about the build. I know that you acknowledged an option to let the player temporarily switch a power and a feat, and I think that’s going to address the issue better.

All that said, I personally wouldn’t want to encourage the players who criticize one another’s characters like that!

2 Camelot October 11, 2011 at 1:14 pm

I’ve seen some players for whom “system mastery” means remembering to make an attack and damage roll at the same time. Allowing them to watch a more experienced player using their character might show them their potential. Players who only ever play one type of character can get a different perspective on how the game can be played.

At first I’d think it would be good to do at a higher level, mid- or upper-paragon. But maybe mid-heroic would be better, because the players are very familiar with each other’s characters, but it wouldn’t be too complicated to suddenly have a different character, and they also might not be entirely aware of what each of them are capable of.

3 Alphastream October 11, 2011 at 3:06 pm

There was a Living Greyhawk adventure where PCs entered a crazy Zagyg magic-gone-wrong area and found their minds swapped bodies. Players switched character sheets, making no changes other than personality. As the level was high enough that these were established PCs, it was hilarious and really fun. You could RP being in the mage’s body and using all of their stuff. The mage’s player was now in the barbarian, feeling the raw physical power. Everyone had a lot of fun with the adventure.

4 Simon T Vesper October 11, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I used the same technique as a trap in a game, but only managed to target two players. The result was a lengthy side-quest to restore their minds/souls to the original bodies. However, prior to the switch, the sorceress was possessed by a demon. After the switch, the demon gained a link to both bodies. The other character was a multi-class psion/monk; I ruled that he could “feel” the demon’s presence, and he took that as a cue to draw the fiend out. The roleplaying that resulted was some of the best I’ve ever dealt with.

The best part about the situation: the monk’s player is a great roleplayer (method actor), while the sorceress is terrible (good guy, just not good at roleplaying). In the end, everyone at the table had a great time.

In regard to 4th edition, I can see this method working especially well if the party includes one or two players who exhibit the sort of behavior that causes problems, like telling other people how to play their characters better. I find that 4th edition encourages this social dynamic by encouraging teamwork. In-game, characters discuss and/or bicker about who is responsible for last battle’s success/failure. Out-of-game, players do the same. So a trick like this could easily push character and team development into places it might not have gone otherwise.

‘Course, that makes me wonder if a different rule might do the same: table talk that’s out-of-character automatically translates to in-character dialogue.

5 Chlar'r October 11, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Sounds like a great encounter/adventure for all – beyond just improving the build of a character. Great for RP – especially a Fighter trying to rummage through a Wizard’s “components”. Experiencing a Pact, Primal connection or
whispers from a “rival” god are spectacular character hooks.

Builds aren’t always about min/maxing.
Feats that don’t stack is always a welcome tweak.
Suggestions for how abilities might augment the party should be welcome.
Sometimes builds are primarily about the theme of the character rather than
optimal combat role.

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