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Characters in Third Person

image by Virgil Finlay

This post might be banal for most old school DMs. But in the era of YouTube D&D where one can get the wrong idea about a variety of expectations...and primarily for novice DMs that might worry about whether they should stay in character or not, I thought I'd offer this post as my personal assessment of narrative tools and to what ends they can be plied.

Truly old school D&D functioned much like a board game without a board. It was abstract in many ways. For one, the dungeon was little more than corridors and rooms filled with monsters and traps devoid of ecology, plausible history, or other connective tissue. One can surmise that the doings of a "Mad Archmage" were often used to cover for this omission and provide carte blanche to the DM in creating whatever hell hole was desired.

Typical play went something like this:

DM: "You arrive at the ruins. There is a black hole in the earth. What is your marching order as you descend?"

[Insert several hours of dungeon delving, combat and looting]

DM: "You return to the hamlet and rest at the inn."

[XP are handed out. Items are identified. Equipment is resupplied. Characters are leveled up.]

DM: "You return to the ruins and descend to level two, where we last left off. There, the giant doors remain unopened. What do you do?"

In such fashion "town" was abstracted and "play" focused on the fun house of puzzles and monsters. The character and the player of the character were typically referred to as one and the same, directly, with the "you" pronoun. Sometimes players even gave their own names to their characters, with Jeff's fighter simply being called "Jeff the Bold".

Because the game focused on very simple ideas (which were novel at the time) namely: treasure collection, monster slaying and puzzle solving in a theater of the mind...there may not have been much in the way of contentious role playing. Gary himself sneered at D&D becoming amateur theater.

Whether you prefer silly voices or not, with the advancement of the game, additional depth was added, such that role playing began to take on more and more significance. With AD&D, the campaign world took center stage and the Dungeon Master's Guide was packed with advice on calendars, time keeping, economy management, city encounter tables, various forms of government and deeper systems for NPCs and their personalities. Now players began to interact with entire worlds (and their problems) and more often engaged in all sorts of activity beyond the dungeon.

In the 1980's, ecology was all the rage. Monsters began to have detailed write ups in Dragon Magazine concerning their diets, habitat, physiology and thought processes. Staying in character at the table became more of a thing.

But whereas cooperative treasure gathering, puzzle-solving and monster beat offered less opportunity for "complications" let us say...the simulation of entire worlds and the multiverse opened a Pandora's box, role-play style. How many of you played AD&D in the 80's and experienced the soreness of the party thief regularly screwing over the group? Or, possibly even worse, the in-character arguments (sometimes vociferous) between PCs [or possibly the WORST] PCs and NPCs.

In character arguments between PCs and NPCs (where the DM is all powerful and the PC is at the DM's mercy) often got ugly, especially in the teen years of the 80's. A bad night of role playing could and sometimes did end both campaigns and friendships----or at least mar them. Additionally, the content of some games became more adult as the players aged which sometimes put both players and the DM in awkward positions. The notion of grappling with a fantasy setting full of gritty problems and moral dilemmas seemed like what we wanted...because through role playing about those things we were able to think about them, feel about them and learn about them. But when faced with the moment, where we inhabited the characters...let's just say that acting out the part while looking into the eyes of your pal across the table got...weird.

Let me be crystal clear. This post is NOT about what should and should not inhabit your role playing experience. We're all grown up enough to make those decisions.

It IS about the advantage and utility of shifting out of first person and into THIRD when the moment calls.

Putting reasonable distance between in-game characters and the humans running them is desirable.

Many long-time D&D players may be under the impression that the character they rolled up is THEIRS...and that they have complete control of it since they inhabit it...wearing it like a costume. But very much like the Man in Black was only MOSTLY DEAD...the players' characters are only MOSTLY owned/controlled by the players----99% let us say.

Yes, you are free to disagree with me, as always.

But let me tell you what that 1% buys. The 1%, just like in the Princess Bride, represents possibility. You see, if the Princess Bride was a role playing game, the Player of Wesley believed that his character was dead. It is only through such belief that the wonder of his resuscitation is attained and that the Player feels elation and relief. The player therefore cannot know 100% of the time what is going on with their character.

When a character is possessed or replaced by a doppelganger, it is often in the DM's interest to continue as if nothing is out of the ordinary, allowing the player to continue role-playing and therefore supporting the "disguise" until camp is made and the changeling's turn for watch comes up. Only then is the horrible truth known.

Fairness is of course paramount in all such considerations with occasional checks made to discover the ruse before it is too late. The fact remains that what a player knows and what her character knows are analogous but often not equal. Likewise what a character feels and what a player feels are in no way the same, nor should they be.

Whereas the character feels terrified and is fleeing pêle-mêle from a lich...the player is feeling frustrated they can no longer participate in combat. Loss of character control is a common and recurrent feature of AD&D with charm, geas, paralysis, name it...all waiting their turn to wrest control.

Furthermore, there are a host of unsavory situations that player characters might find themselves in depending on the campaign and it is therefore both necessary and desirable for disassociation between player and character.

Agile transitions between 1st and 3rd person can be used to handle a wide variety of unsavory, contentious or awkward moments that might otherwise mar game night. The amount of distance enforced is up to the DM. Instead of impersonating the king and speaking like the king, the DM can shift through several gears, each one more removed than the last in order to avoid overt hostility or awkwardness:


First Person in character:

DM (shouting at the players): "You imbeciles have torn up my kingdom for the last time..."

Third person alternatives:

DM: "The king is shouting at you. He says, "You imbeciles have torn up my kingdom for the last time..."


DM: "The king is shouting and berates you mercilessly for the damage the party did to the keep..."


DM: "The king is shouting and berates Sir Dan for the damage done to the keep..."


DM: "The king is shouting. He is ferociously angry about the damage done to the keep..."


Each example above is incrementally more removed and less directed at a specific player. This distancing is particularly useful in both clarifying that the DM is not upset and that the player has done nothing "wrong" on an objective scale. Subjectively, the king is pissed and there is now a chasm of anger and distrust between him and the characters. But this is in no way an actual rift between dungeon master and players.

Many role players would be comfortable with the above exchange taking place in first person with the DM channeling the king's fury. This blog post is not going to tell you when (or that) you should use third person. I'm only going to explain some of the conditions in which the DM may use it as a tool for results that might otherwise be difficult to achieve were the campaign to be run strictly in first person.

Firstly: third person is particularly friendly with exposition (modifiers and descriptions) that can clarify or add more implications to an interaction.

Example: "When you enter the foyer, the graying but svelte and impeccably dressed man behind the desk hurriedly returns his boots to the floor and brushes a few crumbs of dirt from the desktop. His demeanor is warm and genuine and he smiles charmingly...though you do notice him glance at [character name] with a trace of what might be described as animal interest. His words are perfectly silver as he welcomes you to the inn and insists that he is completely at your service."

Certainly there's nothing about the interaction above that should be off-putting even if delivered in first person----unless the DM wants to clarify that while Jeeves' may have amorous interest in one character, nothing of the sort exists between the DM and the player running that character.

So, the DM could just as easily have run the exchange in first person and added some details about Jeeves' personality, but----unless the DM is an exceptional orator----Jeeves' silver tongue might not have come across as clearly. Sometimes, descriptions and adjectives allow the DM to convey the way an NPC talks or behaves with greater clarity than by trying to inhabit the character. If the DM tells the group that the words coming out of the NPC's mouth are musical and angelic and cause them to weep...then it is so. The same cannot be said for trying to act out such a demanding role!

Secondly, third person is useful not just for avoiding the unsavory (what the torturer does in that nighted cell is best left unsaid, but Ibram has lost his sanity and the rest of the characters will certainly bear scars, some visible and some not)...but also for reveling in egoist glory or otherwise enjoying decadent facets of a character that might otherwise feel gratuitous or perverse.

DM: "Steve, while the rest of the party was off on the dangerous foray to the ruins of Burash-Khet, what was Gabriel doing?"

Steve: "I guess he'd stay at the manor house and try to keep in the good graces of Lord Beil. How long does it take for his leg to heal?"

DM: "At least a month. (rolls dice) Gabriel isn't invited to the lord's table but the cook likes him and enjoys making his favorites............?"

Steve: "Uhm...mince pie. And beef ribs."

DM: "Mince pie and beef ribs. (rolls dice) As the summer month begins, there's a flirtation that occurs with one of the house servants. How does Gabriel handle that."

Steve: "He's a young man in his twenties so he'll be into that."

DM: (rolls dice) "Ok, so Gabriel spends most of the summer relaxing on the veranda, surrounded by the estate's blossoms and deeply involved with a young woman named Awh'Gnuyk whom he finds completely intoxicating and utterly enjoyable to talk with. Desserts, mince pie and other luxuries turn the summer into a dreamy haze of enjoyments that pass all too quickly. When the party returns to the manor, what does Gabriel do?"

Steve: "Well, he'll get ready to leave."

DM: "Mmm...not sure. (rolls dice) Maybe...."

And at this point I might say that Gabriel breaks Awh'Gnuyk's heart and causes a row in the household with the other servants and perhaps the lord. Or perhaps there's a pregnancy and the lord (being a just person) demands support for both mother and child. Or, in the 1% area of possibility, Gabriel might have fallen in love. And this is where the DM could, if the dice dictate it, impose a romance on the character either by limiting the character's availability to leave the manor for adventures [or] by simulating heartbreak with a minor penalty to various rolls that indicate Gabriel is (for a certain duration) distracted and melancholy at having abandoned the relationship. Recall that Gabriel was ASKED how he wanted to handle the flirtation. And know that falling in love is not something anyone can foresee. Therefore, through third person, Gabriel's depth as a character has been expanded in a way that allows for questions of morality, offspring, and life-choices that might not otherwise enrich a character sheet.

Awkward role-playing is kept to a minimum. Players and DM admit that sometimes magic is not required to charm a person. Everyone understands that some of the outcome was determined by player choice and some of it was determined by the dice and that, in the grand scheme, Steve is not Gabriel and Gabriel is not Steve.

To apply some disassociation between player and character can allow for safer explorations of fantasy role playing than might otherwise be possible, not to mention cushion the blow when the character inevitably dies.

A certain self-absorbed illusionist (name of Bijan) in my current campaign enjoys spending a large percentage of his take on wild parties in the city, where he foots the bill and uses his illusions to recreate (and embellish) his adventures for attendees. These choices and their consequences are almost always role played in third person so as to expedite and enjoy various adjectives attached to the diversion. Of course there are always hazards. Theft of property, addiction, inadvertently insulting a powerful guest, succumbing to a crush, being targeted for assassination and so on.

Ben Laurence, at Mazirian's Garden inspired me to take downtime/urban hazards seriously and his work on tables for that subject matter is admirable. He also uses a clock system for what he terms "Downtime Activities", which for less calendar-centric campaigns is a brilliant way of dealing with pay-off vs time invested.

Ben has covered relationship-building (between PCs and NPCs) in depth on his blog and I find his treatment exceptionally inspired. It allows for dice rolling to assist in determining the efforts of characters while rewarding players for engaging with the setting.

It is my opinion that these sorts of tables combined with the right rhythm of first-person/third-person can greatly enrich a campaign while making the events accessible even to the shy or inexperienced role player.

Lastly, I think if you are not comfortable with acting out parts, you should always feel comfortable moving to third person. Third person will still allow you to embody the personality while also qualifying actions that might otherwise seem arbitrary.

Player: "I throw the ruby into the underground river."


Player: "Jeff the Bold is actually going to throw the ruby into the underground river, and when he does this, he looks terrified and upset but as soon as the ruby is gone, his face relaxes and he looks much relieved."

Strict adherence to first person can bring about misunderstanding. If you say what you do and hide the reason you do can come across as a douche. Other players may wonder whether you are role playing or just causing problems. But if you make sure to qualify your actions (even when you believe the character would not feel comfortable explaining) by giving clues to the emotions behind the action, other players will be able to pick up on these and thereby might be more willing to engage with the mystery.

All of this is pretty basic, common sense stuff. But for the novice DM trying to manage a group of people for the first time, maybe it can help keep your game from straying into the weeds.


and happy gaming.

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