Your experience with shared characters

edited April 2008 in Game Design Help
I'm interested to know peoples experiences and thoughts about games where all the players share one or more characters. I'm particularly interested in problems that have arisen or ways problems have been solved, although your good experiences are nice too.

Why do I ask? Well I'm writing a game in which it make sense that there is only 1 PC, but players will take turns to play him/her/it. The character being a lone wonderer, travelling around and righting wrongs. I would like to draw upon the forum's collective experiences to try and avoid any problems with this design.

Thanks in advance,


  • Are you interested in experiences with troupe style games, like Ars Magica, where various characters (usually grogs) are often passed from player to player but not in one session
  • I'm concerned about different players saying 'that's not how they would act!!!' when another player takes over their beloved character, I can see that happening regardless of the frequency of character switch over so yes, any kind of swaping/sharing of characters would be interesting, including Ars Magica.
  • I'd suggest that you need to communicate the attitude you want from the players so they are aware of, and appreciative of, the strengths of shared ownership. So instead of "you're playing her wrong!" it is "you surprised me!"
  • I think that as long as your design facilitates the sharing of the character, that players will understand the sharing. That is... if you want them to have a say in terms of what the character is doing when it's not their turn, give them a mechanical way to do so. Veto points or something like that (to use a really rough idea).

    Just as the rules in a traditional game show how it's fun for each player to run one character, your rules have to show how it's fun for multiple players to control the same character. Note that this can even work in a competitive model where each player really doesn't like what the other players are doing, and that makes the goal of getting control all the stronger. Basketball isn't abhorent to play, even though the opponent is trying to make play hard for you. So even that is a potential model.

  • My big problem with shared characters has always been a lack of investment. They are often disposable, and in some systems (ars magica is a good example) less powerful than normal. You don't feel the same ownership of them, and that can sometimes result in a flatter and less emotional style of play, because you just don't care about them as much.

    That would likely be a lesser problem in a game with one central shared character though
  • edited April 2008
    I've found that explicitly team playing a character works very, very well, but having a character that passes from hand to hand sequentially can be very problematic. I've got examples of each.

    First, the latter case. In the Ars Magica hack I played for many years, our group shared around various grogs, coven-folks and mage "npc"s--we were co-gming, so we all played all the characters, but there was a clear distinction between main characters and secondary. Mostly it was ok? Meg and I played the head of the guards, Alysium, at various times. She was a male-passing woman soldier. We portrayed her differently, but the readings were pretty compatible. However, there were two other characters where the different portrayals were extremely divergent. One npc mage I played as a suave ladies' man, and at other times Vincent played him as a manipulative asshole. Honestly, Vincent's read was better in many ways: the actions of the character that we'd come up with as a group (using the covenfolk women as his personal harem) were assly. And we needed a character to put pressure on us during a dragon hunt, and he was the man. So, I appreciated it that V.gave this spin. But. It still kind of rankled since it was so different from what I'd played him as originally.

    The second was a grog who Vincent and Meg disagreed over whether he was gay or not. This character faltered on the disagreement, never being able to realize his share of the plot partly because the character concept couldn't be squared. The character eventually chose to leave the covenant, and this seemed like an in character resolution of a meta issue.

    In team play, I've never seen this happen. I started using this approach after GenCon the year Breaking the Ice came out. Ron had started doing this in some of his demos of some game, and since BtI is a 2 player game but there were many times when I wanted to demo it to more than 2 people, I started giving people shared responsibility for a character. Since then, I've done it many times, with both Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon. I've even had two players take a single character in a larp--which worked wonderfully since the character was trans, male to female, and the fella of the couple played the character at times when it was manifesting male traits more, and the woman when female. It was powerful. Ron's game It was a Mutual Decision has 2 teams play 2 characters.

    I think the reason why this is not problematic is that you can discuss the actions and resolve any differences in the moment. The various suggestions of what the character does become resolved with one another and a continuity emerges naturally. But, if you put a character into one person's hands fully and then pass it off, there is so much room for different reads of a character's personality and different views of the purpose of a character to enter in that picking it up from what someone else did is much harder. On the other hand, having radically different takes on a character could be fascinating--giving one person's view of a character vs. anothers. For example, when I played that Ars Magica mage maybe that was how he saw himself--a suave, sexy guy. Vincent's take was maybe how our main characters saw him: a fairly loathsome asshole who used his servants, male and female, for their use to him rather than considering their needs and desires at all.

    For your games case, you might take a look at or try playing It was a Mutual Decision for more ideas.

  • Hm. Guess I had more to say.

    Also, it might be interesting to have the other players have some way to have say in the middle of your turn about how they might want the character to act. So, for instance, if everyone very explicitly had a different take on the character--one is highlighting her manipulative aspects primarily, one her shyness, one her love for her family--as the character goes about her day the others might be able to roll or spend points to influence her actions to highlight these characteristics.

    There was at least one game I've heard of that had all players take turns with a central character. Darned if I can remember the name, but the idea was that the character was multi-personality or that the players were literally playing different parts of the persona.

    But it all depends on what you're looking for from the game, and what the character sharing is about for you. I'm looking forward to hearing more about what you design.
  • Posted By: John KI'm interested to know peoples experiences and thoughts about games where all the players share one or more characters. I'm particularly interested in problems that have arisen or ways problems have been solved, although your good experiences are nice too.
    Hey, I spotted your design goals, so this might not help. But, I've played two games now (With Great Power, L5R) where the players all own one PC (their own), but all of the NPCs are up for grabs. In fact, in the introductory scene between two of the players and the campaign's equivalent of "Gandalf" (powerful badass mysterious good-guy NPC boss), I had the third player take on that role (even before I did: Usually I play a Truly Major NPC for 1-2 scenes, then turn it over to the players (figuring they have an understanding of the character)). I prepped the player by saying a few things about his attitude and what he looks like, then I said "go".

    And that player went. I tell you, this is my new drug: Letting the players take on the roles of major NPCs, even the Most Major NPCs. Rarely do I have a bit where the players jerk around with that character, and more often than not they take the character in a direction which is both surprising, and awesome. When I take on the role of that character again, I work with what was established earlier.

    In fact, what I often find myself doing as GM is "advancing the plot" when I take on the roles of major NPCs, promoting their schemes and doing other things that I have written down as being part of The Adventure. But when I'm not doing that, I hand the characters to the players, who take them and run with them, not intending to do anything Wild or Wacky or Out of Left Field ("woah ho! Now that I have control of the big NPC baddie, I'm going to reveal that he's actually a woman! A lesbian woman! A lesbian woman with a lisp who drives taxi cabs, breathes fire, and is secretly in love with all three PCs!" etc). They just play them as they see them, and inadvertantly do things that I wouldn't have intended to do or imagined to do with the character, in ways that make me say, "Holy crap, that's awesome!" I can't wait until the scene is over and I can take control of that NPC again, because now I've got more material to work with, thanks to that player acting out the NPC.

    I think this works best *because* the players also have Their Character: They are open and interested in also playing out NPCs, and will get invested in them as they do so even though they don't control them, because they know that control of their own character is 100% (more like 95%) theirs. In situations where no one truly owns any character, I do see some disengagement with all characters (even ones they created), since there's nothing they have unquestionable full reign over. For this reason, the last few campaigns (of 2-3 sessions each) of Universalis we played were always... I dunno... had a feeling of moving tokens on a board game? I mean, we'd get into character, but had absolutely no care about turning left or right, doing good or evil. With the above system (players own one character, and /control/pass on control of/ NPCs), there was both investment in some characters, and the excitement of playing someone different.

  • I have experiences similar to Andy's about giving important NPC to players. And, as a player, it is very gratifying.
  • Having the players play all the minor characters gives a game so much depth. Great post, Andy.
  • Okay, I honestly try to avoid just name dropping my games at every opportunity, but you should probably check out my design Dirty Secrets. It's closer to what Andy is describing, though, with the "NPCs" being controlled by the group with a single "PC" investigator. So that's about the opposite of your design goals.

    The advantage is that each character gathers depth in just the way that Andy describes. Sometimes, a player finds himself connected with a given character, which can be cool. However, the additional details that the other players bring to the character really bring him to life, adding depth and mystery for everyone engaging with that character. Given that Dirty Secrets is a detective game, that's especially good for it.

    In addition, the game does incorporate a veto mechanic called Appeal. Essentially, it works like this:

    Player 1 does a thing.
    Player 2 Appeals to veto the thing that Player 1 did.
    Player 3 can Uphold the thing that Player 1 did, overriding Player 2's Appeal.

    So, as long as you impress one other person at the table, your narration (or action) stands.

    You also might want to check out Spione for ideas.

    Seth Ben-Ezra
    Great Wolf
  • Posted By: Emily CareThere was at least one game I've heard of that had all players take turns with a central character. Darned if I can remember the name, but the idea was that the character was multi-personality or that the players were literally playing different parts of the persona.
    Khaotic? Something like that?

    Seth Ben-Ezra
    Great Wolf
  • That was Cranium Rats, Emily, my design.

    Actually, CR's next version, which should be written within the next two months will be a generation engine for those kinds of experiences, of playing characters where players play different aspects of their personalities.
  • edited April 2008
    Thanks for all the feedback so far, I think I'd better elaborate a bit about my design so far since it seems people would find that more useful.

    Dark fantasy, post-magical apocalypse, world is doomed (a little like Polaris but with more Cthulhu). The character is possibly the only moral magic user left in the world and is a Tragic Hero in every sense (although dragged down by a virtue rather than a mistake).
    Known to most as the Heretic Saint (mages are now called Heretics, most are bad so they are a Saint) they travel the world trying to put right all that is wrong (an impossible task). Setting and character are 1/2 defined by the rule book, the other half of each is created during play by the group (may create some common ground between players for portraying the character).
    While you aren't playing the Heretic Saint you're providing NPCs and Antagonism (I'll call them GMs for ease). The goal is to make the lone player feel surrounded and out manned, dangerously close to being impotent despite all their magical might. If a player fails in conflict the Heretic Saint is passed to a new player. I've taken pains so that antagonism has no manoeuvring mechanics (is that the right term?) otherwise they may 'go soft' on the character.

    Hope that made some sense and isn't too much of a turn off.

    I have a veto style rule written at the moment, but I'm worried that will ruin the effect I'm trying to produce. In the eyes of the current Player I need the GMs to seem 100% antagonistic, not sympathetic enough with the Heretic Saint to veto a character action.
    Maybe a rule to try and wrestle control of the character, by forcing them to fail, could do the same job and remain in keeping with the desired feel... as long as failure in this manner has no effect in winning the overall conflict, I don’t want players screwing each other over and then failing because of it, they are portraying a hero after all.

    I can see how character investment could be a problem. I've already got a rule where each player has a couple of abilities only they can use so maybe I should extend this so that each player has a particular aspect of the character they should 'personify', maybe represented as a virtue.
    That may tie in nicely with my Madness rules (magic... very powerful but very nasty side effects), as well as the above rule for wrestling control. Instead of a Veto you make Madness take over the character, after which you gain control.

    I’ll try and take a look at the games mentioned (probably very useful for handling NPCs than the single PC because of the multi-GM aspect) and probably scour books on Improv for a good way to explain how sharing a character (like sharing a story) should be fun and exciting, rather than irritating.
  • I've played games with shared characters before and my experience is that it works much better in the long term than in the short term. Our group went on a Hero's Banner binge a year or so ago where we'd squeeze in a one-shot of Hero's Banner when someone couldn't make it to game night. To make it fit into one session, we'd have everyone take turns playing one character.

    It worked okay, but we still wound up with really disjointed play for some sessions all went in very different directions. I think part of the problem with how we were trying to run it too was that Hero's Banner is pretty light in terms of initial detail with character creation - defining the character through play is sort of the point. It seems to me that having a better defined character would alleviate that somewhat.

    We also wound up having shared characters in our games of Polaris, due to our intense love of tying our Cosmoses into knots with shared characters. So we wound up having two or three different people playing characters as we went around and the duty fell to different people. Because our games of Polaris ran several sessions, I felt like this wound up working better because we weren't working with such a sketchy idea of the character. And in truth, having divergent versions of the same character worked well in Polaris, because they will necessarily interact differently with the different Hearts.

  • Ooh. Polaris. Another good one.

    Seth Ben-Ezra
    Great Wolf
Sign In or Register to comment.