Phil Nicholls blogs at Tales of a GM, where he writes about narrative gaming, faster prep and more story. He is currently running a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign in a home-brew setting. Phil has written for Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter and has a selection of self-published pdfs.

This essay is taken from the archives at Tales of a GM. –

What’s in a name

Labels are useful tools, they help us understand the world and ensure we are discussing the same object. Every noun in the language is a label, a name for a thing.

The labels we take upon ourselves become part of our identity. They shape our self-image and affect the way the world treats us. Therefore, we should choose our labels with care and ensure they send out the right message about who we are and who we want to become. This principle is also true for our gaming alter egos.
Player Character

The role of the Player Character is central to our hobby, but is this the best label we could use? Let us break it down and see what it tells us.

Firstly, the label tells us this is a Player. Well, duh! If you are participating in a game, then by definition you are a Player. This part of the term is rather redundant in the modern game.

The traditional style of RPGs was far more adversarial. Therefore, Player in this context helped distinguish the individual from the GM, or DM as it was originally. And yet, was not the GM playing too? Playing a different style of game, and with a significantly different set of abilities, but still a Player at the table.

If this is to be the only justification for the Player part of the term, then the modern shift towards more collaborative games undermines that argument further.

Perhaps the label fills the need to distinguish the two classes of Gamer, those who run the game world and those who explore that world through the eyes of individual characters. Yet even that definition seems to struggle against the experience of modern, group-storytelling games. Many of us mix the role of Player and GM, sometimes even within the same game, so this classification of Gamers only works on a game-by-game basis.,

Moving on to the second part of the label, Character. Once again, the modern game has made this part a redundant term. Of course, the avatars of the Players are characters, no matter how slim the backstory. At the very least these avatars are a version of the controlling Player.

I suspect the most appropriate use for the term Character was back at the birth of the RPG hobby, where our “radical” new style of play needed to be distinguished from wargaming. At this time, the fledgling hobby needed to clarify how the Player’s point of intersection with the game was an individual character, not a command of several thousand troops.

Furthermore, there is an assumption with the name that only the Players’ avatars are characters. What about all those individuals the GM portrays? Are they not characters too? Is characterization just the preserve of the Players?

Clearly this is not the case. Certainly, the Players have a greater opportunity to explore the emotional depth of their avatar. The Players have only one personality to develop, they only need to control the actions of this one avatar, and are not distracted by all the other tasks a GM performs to keep a game running. There is also far greater “spotlight time” on the Players’ avatars. They should be the focus of the game, and thus are allowed more time to develop as individuals.

Yet, the label also implies an aspiration element to the entire game. Namely, that the aim of the game is to develop a character, a believable personality. Such an assumption pulls every game towards a freeform theatre-style approach.

While we all want to create and interact with interesting and entertaining personalities, is this really the primary goal of our hobby? Are we all just thwarted actors, looking for validation from our friends?
Entry Barrier

It is possible that the term Player Character is actually another barrier to entry into the hobby. The associations surrounding the use of character may not be doing our hobby much of a service. Of course, we know that playing a RPG is not about training to be an actor, but our choice of label is not making this as clear as we might like.

Does our choice of label mean new Players worry too much about how to develop the personality and character of their avatar? There are better labels we can use to help new Players grok our complex, nuanced hobby.


Close examination of the label Player Character reveals both elements are just stating the obvious, and thus not entirely helpful. So where do we go from here? Well, the term Hero solves many of the issues above.

“This is a game about being a Hero!”
 Here is a far better recruitment pitch. No theatre associations, just action and adventure associations. Who does not want to pretend to be a Hero?
 Now the chosen label is leading the Players to a more interesting place. Character depth is part of our hobby, and can be the goal for some Players, but the focus of most RPGs is for the avatars to be Heroes. Doomed Heroes, perhaps, but Heroes nonetheless.
 While the parameters of being heroic may change with the genre, or style of game, the term still suggests that the game is about being proactive. We want the avatars to be doing something, taking action and making an impact, not navel-gazing and quibbling about their motivation.
 Now, as a GM, we want the label to be self-fulfilling. Call the avatars Heroes, and this might just be what you will get.
 In a typical RPG, the Players take on the role of active Heroes, while the GM portrays the world around them. It is appropriate for the Players’ avatars to be labelled Heroes, leaving the rest of the world non-Heroes. These non-Heroes can take the form of allies, opponents or neutrals, but it is left to the Players to take on the role of Hero.
But why bother?

The label PC is firmly entrenched in the RPG community, and it is not going away. So long as the mainstream games continue to use the term, then it will not fade away. I know we cannot change this.

However, in the confines of our own game, we are free to introduce whatever terms we like. So, try applying the term Heroes in your game and see if that has any positive effect on your Players.

What do you think of Player Heroes? Do you use an alternate label in your game? Share your ideas in the comments below.

Happy Gaming

For more essays from Phil, and updates about his latest campaign, visit Tales of a GM.

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