Telling Stories: And I’ll form the head

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.When you trust people, you’re usually willing to let them borrow your things.  Your books, your movies, your roleplaying characters.

I’ve seen various people share their characters in the years that I’ve been roleplaying, ranging from fully shared accounts to versions of characters being controlled by multiple different players.  (I’ve also seen players controlling multiple versions of the same character, but that’s a discussion for another day.)  The idea is that it can form a shared experience, both players getting some of the fun of roleplaying in theory.  In practice…

Look, I’m not one to say that this is something that can never work.  But there are a lot of really big hurdles to climb here, ones that I don’t think are necessarily easy to surmount or even suggest a methodology.  So before you even consider it, you need to really think about what you’re doing and why, especially if you’re talking about your main character and not an alt.

At least, not in terms of roleplaying.  What you guys do in the bedroom is your own business and I am not judging no matter what, if you're happy more power to you.

Your partner is not a mount; he or she does not simply go wheresoever you yank the reins.

Your communication is not absolute

When you roleplay, you are doing the best you can to create an illusion of a living, breathing individual.  That means that you need to have that character not suddenly forget people important to them, unless that character is meant to be suffering from a particularly advanced form of Alzheimer’s.  So if two people are going to be controlling the same character, you just need to keep in touch about what’s happening, right?

Yes, but you’re going to screw it up.  It’s not your fault, though; everyone screws it up.

Even if you and your partner are dutiful about communicating constantly what happens each time one of you sits down and plays, there’s going to be some stuff that doesn’t quite come through.  Nuances of speech, minor meetings and chats that you might have missed, a difference in focus, and so forth.  It’s possible – almost certain – that sooner or later something important is going to happen and the other person is going to not quite get what it was, leading to an overall state of confusion in which the character has somehow forgotten something of obvious importance.

And that’s assuming that you always recount everything with perfect clarity immediately after it happens.  Miss a detail?  Your interpretation of what your shared character is doing becomes entirely different.  If you talk about things a few days after they happen, odds are that you’re going to forget something, miss a joke or two, and suddenly Sven’s character seems less like your character’s friend and more like a fair-weather professional acquaintance.  Which is going to baffle Sven the next time his character and yours interact, and it’s going to baffle you when you take over again and find that Sven’s character likes yours a lot less now.

And sweaters.  Always sweaters!

I know that you had wanted her to be a slightly impulsive commando, but I decided she was more interesting as a drunken loudmouth with a fear of heights.

You’re not focused on the same things

Of course, the above is a problem anyway, because the odds are good that both of you aren’t really able to impersonate one another.  Trying to recast a role with a different actor with both reading from the same script is complex enough; trying to do so on the fly when everything is improvised is just begging for something to go wrong.

Even if you overcome that, there are going to be characters that you like that your partner doesn’t.  There are friendships that your shared character will cultivate that make perfect sense to you, for example, that your partner has never liked.  Odds are good (as in almost absolute) that the two of you also have different ideas about where you want the character to go.  Sure, having some ambiguity in these areas is a good thing, it’s something that can be talked out… but that also means more compromising and more winding up with a character that neither of you really feel strongly about playing.

The result is that the character doesn’t feel the same when interacting with other players.  They feel as if they’re being controlled by two separate forces with a vaguely unified purpose, which doesn’t sound so bad until you consider that it’s the exact opposite of what you want.  All the missed details add up, as do all of the different ideas about how your character would react – unless you’re both watching and discussing every character interaction as they happen, the result is that you’re going to have two very different sorts of interactions based on who’s in control at any given time.

You can’t even push forward with a unified front to change things about your character, because your opinions about who this character should be are going to diverge.  It’s just a natural thing, it happens all the time, but this isn’t a script where you can hammer out a shared version over several revisions.  You have one chance to get this right.

There isn’t a whole lot of advantage

I’ve talked in the past about potentially having someone guest-star as a character you play, which I stand by.  When done correctly, that’s the one benefit to having a character played by two different people, assuming you have that character on two different accounts.  Other than that, however, having two people control the same person doesn’t really help you in any way.

Sure, you both get to experience that character’s ups and downs… except that you’re closer to experiencing half of those ups and downs and hearing about the other half.  And hopefully hearing enough that you have a relatively clear picture of what the ups and downs look like in the first place, which is far from a certainty.  You can’t do anything that you couldn’t do with a single controller; instead, you’re having your character designed by committee, without a clear focus and without the advantage of just doing things that seem interesting at the time.

Both you and your partner will benefit more with two separate characters, to the point where I struggle to think of a single scenario which actually works better with two people in the driver’s seat other than trying to create a character who seems to be going subtly mad.  And maybe that’s the effect you want… but if not, you should probably reconsider.

Like I said, it’s not that it can’t work, it’s that odds are it won’t.

Feedback is welcome down in the comments, via mail, via Twitter, whatever floats your boat.  Next time, I want to talk about character circles and creating a coherent image for your character via those circles.  After that, prompted by discussions with friends, I’m going to talk about why ERP has a bad rep, which is fair and unfair at the same time.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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