Story Games 101: Shifting to Third Person
You’re sitting at a table, playing a game, and someone across from you says:
“I grab your neck and put a knife up to your face and say “Tell me what I want to know, or else!’”
Story games can be intense. Sometimes too intense. If you need to cool it down and avoid scaring the crap out of the people you’re playing with, try shifting into third person narrative:
“Jacob grabs the manager’s neck and puts a knife up to his face and says “Tell me what I want to know, or else!”
See? Much less threatening to the humans at the table.
In the heat of the moment there’s the danger that fictional tension becomes real tension at the table, between the players. You start to feel that what is happening to your character is happening to you, that you are being threatened. Not only is that just plain uncomfortable, but it potentially destroys the creative fun of the game, because you feel the urge to defend yourself and protect your character, rather than seek outcomes that interest you even if they are awful for your character.
When you shift to the third person, it opens the safety valve and reinforces the idea that this is not me doing something to you, this is me describing a fictional character doing something to another fictional character. It adds a comfortable distance.
You can also invoke third person defensively: if you feel things are getting too hot and it’s killing your fun, switch to third person. Other players will often match you and reply with the same phrasing without even thinking about it. If they don’t, just ask them to switch. Notice that in both cases, dialog is still in the first and second person because it’s, well, dialog. That’s still a danger zone, but because it’s juxtaposed with third person narration it breaks some of the tension, just like you paused between dialog, broke character, and said “whew, this is dramatic!”
Should you use third person all the time? Not necessarily: first & second person can make your play much more engaging. What I’m describing is a way to shift gears, a tool you should have in your arsenal to change the mood at the table when you need to. Be aware and try it out.