Tuesday, January 28, 2014

When Did Player Stop Be Synonymous With Characters?

Back in the day, game books referred to the players. Not the players and their characters, just the players. It was a synonymous term with "player characters."
[Editing later: This is clearly a bit inaccurate. Both were used from extremely early on . . . but it wasn't a rigid distinction of terms, where you'd have to use player to me the actual person, and character for the alter-ego, not ever use one term when you meant the other.]

Later, it changed to "players" for the actual people playing the game, and "characters" for their imaginary alter-ego / paper men in the game. You go and say something like "One of the players died in my game last night" and you get this mock-serious reply of "Oh, your players die? Your games sure are lethal! Hahahah" etc.

When did that happen?

For examples:

1974's D&D, Book I: Men & Magic has an "example record of a character" named Xylarthen, followed by the line "This supposed player would have progressed faster as a Cleric [. . . ]"

In Strategic Review 2/2, last issue before The Dragon #1, Gary Gygax wrote an article that was reprinted in volume I of the Best Of The Dragon issues, called "D&D Is Only As Good As The DM." In it we get this gem of a quote:

"Second, absolute disinterest must be exercised by the Dungeonmaster, and if a favorite player stupidly puts himself into a situation where he is about to be killed, let the dice tell the story and KILL him."
Good advice, certainly, but nowadays we think of player as the person not the character.

Even then you had people saying "character" not "player" but the terms would get mixed together pretty frequently.

But after a while, that stopped.

"Player" started to mean the person, and "character" the imaginary alter-ego. I'm curious about when that happened. I don't have time to dig down and research it, but I've kind of mulled that one over for a while. When was it clear you couldn't co-mingle the terms usefully?

Flame Retardant: I am not interested in this as a "bad thing" or a "good thing" but just from a more historical perspective . . . when did it make that interesting linguistic shift?


  1. Dave Arneson was known to use the term "player" in much of his older Blackmoor stuff and the D&D playtest pages we have use the term "player" and "non-real player" in place of character and NPC. So it looks like the use of character was already replacing player before D&D was even published.

    I see this as a indication of the game moving away from the use of player skill and more towards character skill.

    1. Think it's because Mr Arneson didn't really bother about it (or thought about it). In his Blackmoor supplement, he uses "character", "player character" and "player" in totally interchangeable manners. Good to know there was a way for players to get total immunity to the Bubonic plague though...right? :)

      Overall I believe it was just because the words were not properly defined yet, the hobby had not matured enough. Soon as it began to grow, they had to define the words they were using (bit like it's done in science, etc) because they didn't always mean that people thought it meant.
      To me, D&D4E represents the ultimate conclusion of this "wording process", with every single little word used having it's owned strict definition and rule, for good or ill :)

    2. That's what I figure. I think they got used interchangeably for a while because in a straight-up wargame, there isn't any distinction to make between you and your pieces. But there is in an RPG. But for a while the vocabulary wasn't so strictly defined so you get overlap of usage.

      That's my theory, anyway. I wish I had time to really dig and find out when that shift occured, and using "player" to mean "character had become outmoded.

      . . . and I think, personally, it has nothing to do with player skill vs. character abilities, just that it was a clear linguistic need to communicate when you mean players (a player gets one character, players need pencils and paper, etc.) and characters (characters have stats, characters start at level 1, characters fight monsters, etc.).

    3. The PHB for AD&D is certainly making the distinction (p.8), and that's 1978.

    4. Yeah, that's true. The distinction started to get firm pretty early.

  2. As you said, even back in Man & Magic vol.1, there was the concept of Players and Characters being separate things. Early in that book you can find "Players must decide what role they will play [..]", followed by the Characters descriptions. That made the distinction I think. Players are the ones taking the role of Characters.
    That said, there's also mention of "Player Character" later on in the book, which I assume was to indicate the fact that this did not concern "Non-Player Character" (which can actually be run by players as well, go figure!)

    Check out the "THE GAME" bit of the 1st edition AD&D hand-book if you got one laying about, it's quite clear on the matter already: you're not you "the player", you're him, the "character" and this is done via the act of "role-playing".

    Personally, I've always known the strict separation between the two, right from the get go when I was taught on the D&D Basic Set back in the 80s. Player was me as me. Character was that Halfling running through a forest of legs in the streets of a nasty city.
    Role-playing, the way I learned, was being able to forget your own context as a Player, and enter another one as a Character, as described by the GM and the physics of that context were based around dice rolls. That's pretty much how I've played and GMed since then :)

    To be honest though, the terms get mixed quite often, even today. Lots of people say Players when they mean Characters and vice and versa, RPG forums are full of it.

    In the end, I think it's just a matter of RPGing & GMing styles and how you approach it...

    ...And man do I NOT want to get into that kind debate ever again! :)

    1. Yeah, it's clear they understood the difference, but weren't too particular about which word they used to cover it. That Gygax quote is such a gem because of that - letting players die means, clearly, letting characters die, but it probably didn't seem odd to say "player" and not "character" yet.

  3. Probably after that unfortunate incident with Marcie and Black Leaf. ;)

    1. It would have happened sooner or later. Her character was too weak.

      (Like Muton Z., I knew the terminological separation when I started playing with Moldvay D&D, though I may have got it from other players rather than the books.)

    2. Marcie and Black Leaf aside (Marcie totally had it coming), back in the day I did always get the vague impression that the distinction between player and character started getting more emphasis after the James Dallas Egbert-type stories started circulating about players starting to think they were their characters. I remember Palladium RPGs taking great pains to emphasize this difference in their Intro sections, clearly aiming the text at concerned parents or loved ones who might be flicking through the rulebook, trying to see just how "dangerous" these games were.

    3. Even when I was 9 I knew the difference (we had piles of characters from day one!) but it was still okay to say stuff like "Players start at level 1" when you meant the characters did. Now that would seem downright odd for an RPG.

    4. I think it was more of a public perception thing, rather than educating actual players. Sort of like when McDonalds had to put "Hot" warnings on there coffee cups. Just as old ladies that had been drinking coffee for years knew that pouring a dozen or so cups on there legs would result in burns, players knew that they were not really "Zeldor the Magnificent". But, if little Timmy, after browsing through the Player Handbook once for five minutes three years ago, starts thinking he is "Hogarth the Destroyer of Worlds", the lawyers could sue without a clear statement about the difference between Players and Player-Characters. Remember, at that time, it was reported that D&D players were committing suicide at a rate that would depopulate the US in a matter of years.

  4. The term "player character" itself acknowledges a difference in the terms player and character, so the two were clearly differentiated from the beginning, but the (correct) usage hadn't propogated. I don't think it's a reflection of player skill vs character skill or some such; I think it's rules of English vs a new term, and it takes time to understand how the two interact properly, or is imply misunderstood. IMO, it goes in the same category as capitalizing the names of races, classes, monsters, and spells (My Elf Magic-User casts Magic Missile at the Basilisk).

  5. Interestingly enough, I'm reading Jon Peterson's Playing at the World (an excellent book so far) and it seems that in the earliest days -- i.e. in Blackmoor -- there really was no distinction:

    "The personalities . . . were simple transpositions of the players themselves. . . . Naturally, returning players resumed the same role they had played before -- to do otherwise would have been quite unnatural given that they were playing themselves." (Chapter 1.10, "Blackmoor")

    I haven't gotten far enough in the book to know if any sort of specific transition point from players playing themselves to players playing characters ever comes up in Peterson's history. But if it does, I'll come back and let you know.

  6. It's an interesting topic and it seems odd to me to ever have treated them as anything but separate terms. However, that's likely in part due to my introduction to tabletop RPGs, which was a combination of MUDs and theatre. In fact, our director was also a DM for several friends. Coming at RPGs from a basis of computer games (where a clear delineation is present in the medium) and the stage (where player and character are already defined terms), it never occurred that the two might be confused or used interchangeably.


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