Friday, January 24, 2014

Avatar Games: When Players Play Themselves

Any gamer who's seen the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon show, or who's read books like the Magic Kingdom of Landover series has wondered what it would be like to step out of their normal, everyday lives and into a true adventure. We wonder whether we would be able to master swordplay well enough to fight for a nation's freedom, or if we'd be able to match wits with centuries-old vampires and come out ahead. For players who want to take the fantasy one step further, an avatar game is the next step.

What's an Avatar Game?

No, you don't get this till level 20.
An avatar is a manifestation of a Hindu deity, whether in human or animal form. The term is also used to discuss an archetype, or someone who represents an idea in physical form. In our case the term is used to describe a character who is as close to the player as the game rules allow. When an entire party is formed this way, the result is an avatar game.

How to Play

Character Creation

Avatar games are not like any other games. Players aren't creating a concept; they're re-creating themselves. We all like to think that we're stronger, smarter, more dexterous or more charming than we actually are, though, which can lead to problems if you let people choose their own stats.

I should totally have an 18 strength guys. Guys? What's so funny?
Because of this unfortunate tendency we have, it's important to come up with some method of character creation that takes as much creative control out of the individual player's hands as possible. One option is to design a test that all players take which provides them with basic stats and a class (if you're playing a game that uses a class, that is). There are dozens of these online, and I'm sure you've all seen them. On the other hand, if all the players have known each other for a long time it's often fun to have the players rate each other with the skills, attributes, and classes they think an individual should have. The storyteller can then average the other players' thoughts together, providing a finalized sheet.

It's important to mention that an avatar game should be accurate, but it should also be fun. If a player is really disappointed by what the measuring stick says he or she should play, then work together to find alternatives. Maybe the consensus is that an individual should be a rogue, but that person feels in a world of magic that he would throw himself into the study of the arcane to become a wizard. Listen to your players, but at the same time don't just give them everything they want. If the player with the graduate degree and an aversion to the gym really wants to be a master swordsman though, provide him the opportunity to pursue that kind of training as the story goes along.

The Hook and the Deus Ex Machina

Once characters are made, the DM needs to come up with some way to make these very normal players enter a very unusual situation. For some games this is exceedingly easy; for others, not so much.

"And, lo, four shall come on the full moon and speak these words," Huh... weird.
The further removed the game world is from the reality players live in, the more difficult a believable hook is going to be. For instance, if players are in a World of Darkness Mortals game, or even a Call of Cthulhu game, all the storyteller has to do is leave clues to the dark creatures lurking just behind the scenes. Maybe a local reporter hears about a rash of murders that track back to a vampire, or a police officer notices a pattern in animal attack reports that lead to a squamous being from the outer planes. These characters are just human, and the hook is that they've been living in the game world this whole time without any knowledge of it. Until now.

High fantasy avatar games, like those running on Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons, take a bit more work. Maybe players decide to visit some local ruins to check out a spook story, and end up accidentally stepping between worlds. Maybe they're victims of an anomaly that tears open different planes of existence caused by a reactor explosion, or a large Hadron collider experiment. Or, my personal favorite, a wizard mis-spoke a spell, and instead of pulling in a demon lord or a celestial host, what he ends up with is a party of 4 or 5 very confused geeks who were all in the middle of one activity or another who now have to figure out where they are and what the hell just happened.

Let The Games Begin!

The biggest challenge a storyteller has is, once the party has been assembled and the hook jerked, how realistic is the world around the players? For instance, if they're now in Golarion, does anyone speak English? Do the players take up a trade or some kind of apprenticeship to incorporate themselves into the fabric of a community before becoming adventurers? If players discover a group of cultists in the local goth scene, are they the kind of people who will call the police and the media, or are the players in fact the sort who would go in fists swinging?

You do what, now?
Building a realistic world is key for getting players to, well, be themselves. While there's going to be an unavoidable bit of "OMG, I want to start playing super-powered me already!" it can be cut short with solid world-building and the right atmosphere. Don't nit-pick every little thing, but don't just look at them and say "And you're in Ravenloft! Okay, what do you do now?"

Tips and Tricks

Avatar games can be a lot of fun; they're also very easy to mess up. As such there are a few things that the person running this whole mess needs to keep in mind.

Rule One: Show, Don't Tell

You expect me to believe what now?
One of the best ways to make players really keep their heads in the game is for storytellers to paint a scene. I covered this here on the Literary Mercenary, and here on this very blog, but it cannot be repeated enough. Don't tell players what monsters they're fighting, what world they're in, or even what country they're seeing. Make players, and their avatar characters, dope it out. This keeps the players involved, and it keeps them on their toes. Out of character talking and idea sharing is sometimes all right, but it will kill the mood and destroy the tension you need in order to really sell the world players have entered.

Rule Two: Level One Characters Aren't Heroes

This is not the hero you're looking for.
We know, because we're playing the game, that the party is going to be the focus of the plot eventually. However, even in a game like Scion where players are the half-breed children of gods, no one starts at the top. So, if a storyteller feels that the "chosen ones" card must be played, it's going to strain credibility. Who are you, after all, but a bunch of nobodies. Just because you managed to find a changeling freehold, or you accidentally wound up stumbling into the Forgotten Realms, that doesn't make you special. Especially not if the threat in question requires characters of exceptional power to take on.

Rule Three: Beware the Monkey Wrench

Where the hell did I put that thing...?
We all know this player. He's the guy who decides to take the left hand path for no apparent reason, or the girl who decides she'd rather stay at the tavern and drink than go ogre-slaying. These are the players who say "no" to plot, and who will do their level best to avoid whatever needs-to-happen stuff that goes on in a game. Monkey wrenches are like very stubborn mules; give them a carrot, and they will chase it right where it needs to go.

For instance, say that your party has been transported to Golarion. The entire goal of the campaign is for players to try and get back home because of friends, loved ones, spouses, children, etc. However, let's say your resident monkey wrench decides that he really likes living in a world of magic and mayhem. Perhaps he decides he'd rather carve out a kingdom and live like a duke than go back to a 9-5 gig working retail. Or flip the circumstances around, and say that everyone else is gung-ho to become the next lords and ladies of the realm, but one character's entire focus is to get home to her children. It's your job to dope this out and to incorporate it into the game so that everyone can move forward.

This is another reason why really powerful rails are a bad idea. Establish some general things you want to happen, and work out with your players the arcs they'd prefer to go through before the first session. Don't tell players what to do; lay out the options they have, and see which way they go. You will have far fewer headaches by simply setting up the world and the events in question than trying to force anyone to do anything.

As always, thanks for dropping in! If you'd like to keep us going please drop a donation in the "Bribe the DM" box, or check us out on Patreon here. If you'd like to keep up to the minute on what's going on with your author and his blogs, drop by Facebook or Tumblr and follow me. Lastly, if you try out your own avatar game and you want to share how it went, Improved Initiative is always looking for gaming stories to share on our Table Talk feature. See you next time!

1 comment:

  1. Have you ever checked out Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame series? It's a series set among these lines (though, in this case, it's not the screwed up summoning, but rather the reverse.)