As far as grand experiments go this one was pretty short: one game session in the middle of an ongoing campaign. Even though the experimental part was over pretty quickly it became a sounding board for the characters for years to come. Like swinging a hammer at a vase, it all happens pretty fast but the vase remembers it for a long time.
The concept was simple: the players showed up for the regular game, but instead of their normal characters I handed them each a short paragraph with a name of a new character and some details about their day-to-day life (occupation, friends, romances, etc). Players only looked at their own blurbs, not each others. No further explanation of who/what/why. And then… go!
This was a long-term game with well established characters in the middle of a major plot arc (massive quest to do the necessary thing by finding the mystical hidden city, the eponymous Lorngard). The last game had ended with the heroes fighting past the immortal guardian of the gates and entering the city… only to be engulfed in a blinding white light — end scene.
The reasonable reaction is of course “what the huh?”, but these players, bless their hearts, took on their new characters and just went with it, playing out scenes in their ordinary peaceful lives, taking lunch with lovers and working on their latest sculptures, etc. They were, as they say, game fish.
In fairly short order clues start to emerge that point to the truth, at least for the players if not their characters: these “new” characters have certain similarities to their normal characters in the game. Physical similarities, interests, etc. And the city where they are living this peaceful life and have lived since birth, is (surprise, surprise) mythical Lorngard, the same city the PCs were about to finally enter in the last game.
Naturally pieces fall together. We play out the discovery that when the heroes fought their way into the peaceful, utopic city, the denizens who eschewed all war had no means of self-defense except to embrace and integrate the intruders. Using their considerable mental powers (“the mind is the arsenal of utopia”) they implanted false memories of being born and raised in the city. To make the picture complete some citizens volunteered to also have their memories altered to become friends and families of the new-comers so they would believe their part in charade (a key point as it turns out).
All very Philip K Dick. An interesting reality twist until the mask is pulled off and everything goes back to normal, right?
But here’s the thing: either because I knew the characters well enough after years of play, or because the players molded their play as they sensed what was going on, or just because the gaming gods loved us, these new fictional lives of the heroes struck a deep, deep chord.
Each was carefully crafted to match the inner desires of the character: The once morally dubious wizard who was in some places distrusted and in others reviled was instead a respected scholar, wiling away his days in pleasant academic pursuits. The conflicted warrior-servant of demanding gods was now a simple sculptor, spending hours in his studio with no larger concerns than his hammer and chisel and the marble before him. And so on.
The players embraced the idea that here, in these fictional lives, their characters were happy. Because their lives in the regular campaign were fraught with perils, duty, and enemies on all sides (even among their so-called allies), the idea of a peaceful, tranquil existence was very, very attractive to the characters. A laying down of burdens, a rest from all their troubles.
When their real memories were returned to them, I let the each player decide to what degree they believed their real memories vs their implanted ones. After all, if you are going along with your life, and then someone comes along and says “it’s a trick! this isn’t your real life!” and dumps a whole second life on you… well why should you believe them? If they wanted they could have perfect memory of both lives side-by-side, or just expunge one entirely — whatever they wanted.
Naturally the players knew which was real, but faced with a life of endless danger and heroic sacrifice or a chance to have a peaceful fulfilling life as a scholar of rare languages and finally getting to write that book you always wanted, most of the players embraced the idea that their characters preferred the fiction to the reality.
They couldn’t turn their backs on the duties of their “real” lives, but they cherished the lives they could have lived. They chose to have the false memories still feel real to them. They had awkward partings with the people who had also had their memories altered to be friends and lovers since those people also had that double-memory. Because those people had volunteered because their own real lives weren’t so hot, they preferred the fiction as well, leading to complex feelings and “we’ll always have Lorngard” moments. How do you say goodbye to your wife who you simultaneously know you’ve only been with for a few days and also remember spending a decade with?
For years afterwards, the characters in the game clung to a kind of double-identity, their normal self but then also this ideal “peace time” self, an unattainable gentler life that they knew fate had denied them. Their “Lorngard names” became a secret private thing among them, and the (false) memories of their years in the city long before the few actual days they spent there were precious to them.
It unearthed a whole new human dimension in the campaign, an undercurrent of yearning that had been hinted at before (“wouldn’t it be nice to retire to Bayvinn Village?”) but never had such a clear voice.
So to dissect the experience, what made it such a smash hit? As always these factors aren’t absolutes, just variables that increase or decrease the odds of success.
Good players — I’ll start off with this obvious one because it’s the foundation for everything else. The players jumped in and went with the experience.
Know the players and the characters — The players embraced their fictional lives because I knew the players and the characters very, very well and could craft new lives that clicked for each of them. I gave them what they subconsciously wanted. I didn’t do as good of a job for some of the characters (through lack of inspiration or insight) and not surprisingly those players didn’t adopt it as deeply.
Voluntary acceptance — Each of the players got to choose whether to embrace or reject the memories. I didn’t force them to change their characters. You could also call this “respecting the players’ control of their characters.” The game world (like the real world) is full of things that can change you beyond your control, but in gaming there’s a gentleman’s agreement that while you might destroy someone else’s character (bang, you’re dead), changing them against their will is a no-no (bang, you’re a gnome).*
Change is only meaningful against a baseline — Because the players had been running these characters for years, adopting this kind of personality change was a huge decision. It had a lot of meaning to the players. If this had been a pick-up game with new characters, it would have been interesting but not a big deal.
I was going to say that “no malice” was part of the equation, since the NPCs doing this weren’t really trying to screw the PCs, but I could see other scenarios where evil arch-nemesis did something tragically character changing but the players were into it and embraced it anyway. So scratch that one.
There’s another lesson in this experiment. When I set up the scenario I _never_ foresaw the impact it would have. I thought the players would gain an insiders perspective on Lorngard (kind of a proto-NormalVision, but with the same characters thinking they were other characters) but then snap out of it and be pretty much back to normal. I only came up with the idea that the characters could retain their fictional lives in parallel when I saw how much the players were embracing the whole thing.
Which makes the lesson: be warned, your experiments may be bigger than you think. Because you are wired into the tropes and themes of the game you may be subconsciously creating something that strikes a greater chord than you realize. You may be playing with fire. If you’re lucky your experiments will smash your test tubes and stomp on your preconceptions. You want your players to go with the flow and think on their feet? You should too.
* miscellaneous gaming corollary: Players should always be allowed to choose character death rather than imposed change.