Player Characters

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Characters in games that are under players' direct control or represent the players role in the gameplay.

While fictional individuals in games may have abstract qualities that make them into characters, not all are controlled by players. Those that are become Player Characters.


The introduction of Player Characters was one of the design features that create Roleplaying Games from Miniature Games. This is found in most Tabletop Roleplaying Games such as Ars Magica, Basic Role-Playing, Call of Cthulhu, Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay but Universalis is an exception of the general rule. Live Action Roleplaying Games, e.g. 1942 – Noen å stole på, Dragonbane, and Trenne Byar, also have Player Characters but in these case the players enact them not only by saying what they are doing but by physically enacting the actions and by embodying the characters with their own bodies. Computer-based varieties such as Entropia Universe, Dark Age of Camelot, DragonMud, Ultima Online, Witcher series, and World of Warcraft do likewise but in some cases, e.g. the Fallout series and The Elder Scrolls series also allow partial or complete control of companions of the Player Characters.

Borderlands, Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, and the Battlefield series show how a form of Player Characters can exist in First-Person Shooters by letting players develop characters by gaining experience points that can be used to unlock new abilities.

Using the pattern

Player Characters are created by either letting players control Characters - this can be considered Roleplaying since to outsiders the players and Characters share goals even if the players themselves may not identify with the Characters but rather the overarching goals of a game. In the case where players may adopt the goals of the game rather than the goals of the Characters, game designers may consider if it can be sufficient to only use Avatars (possibly together with a few characteristics such as Health) instead of Player Characters and Characters in a game design. It is often a design goal to let players feel Identification with Player Characters; Cutscenes, Game State Overviews, and Player-Created Characters are ways of making this more likely.

Games typically make Player Characters more functionally powerful than other Characters. This is quite commonly done through Privileged Abilities to match any exceptional status they may have through the narration.

In Multiplayer Games, Parties can consist solely of Player Characters but can in all types of games contain Companions. Regardless of which type of games Parties exist in, they modulate Player Characters by defining relations for them and quite likely also Diegetic Social Norms.

There are several design choices that become more relevant when players are to control Characters. First, they may be Player-Created Characters, letting players have influence on their Equipment and Companions. Player Characters are open for players to add Player Defined Goals that the Characters also have, but game designs can encourage or require this as well as part of creating the Player Characters. Second, should they fate be set through Predetermined Story Structures or should they have an Open Destiny, and, related to this, should their exist Character Defining Actions during the gameplay and should players be supported in having a Player-Planned Development for the Characters (and this can be regardless if they can actual influence the development). More specifically, while some Game Items may be Transferable Items in a game, other may not be transferable to other Characters than Player Characters (e.g. Dragon Age II has special Equipment that only the Player Character Hawke can use). It is quite common for Player Characters to have Secret Goals, and this can spontaneously occur since players can add such goals as Player Defined Goals which the Player Characters also have.

For games that wish to support Late Arriving Players, how to handle the Game Element Insertion of Player Characters need to be considered, especially for Player Balance purposes.

Interface Aspects

Live Action Roleplaying heavily modulate the design options possible for Player Characters. This since the Characters need to be based on the actual players that will enact them so that their appearances, Attributes, and Abilities do not break Diegetic Consistency.

Narration Aspects

Player Characters are typically important to Predetermined Story Structures, but not necessary the whole design of them but rather the events that they will be part of and perhaps some defining characteristics they possess. This is due to often wanting players themselves to have some control of the design of the Player Characters - see the Elder Scrolls series for a typical example of this type of design. Player Characters can also help create Narration Structures during gameplay.

Thematic Consistency may be difficult to guarantee with this pattern since having Player Characters let players have significant control in how individual Characters behave in Game Worlds. This can however be controlled by having Limited Set of Actions or Game Masters, and then the added details players can provide can support Thematic Consistency.


Player Characters provides players with a Focus Loci in which to interact with Game Worlds and is more likely to make the Characters control be perceived as Agents. Unlike other types of Focus Loci, e.g. Units, Player Characters form a natural starting point to begin Roleplaying and lets them have Creative Control in how to do this, including engaging in Gossip and Storytelling. While letting players control Characters can give them a focus to have Emotional Engrossment during gameplay, this attachment can be cut if the game provides Character Defining Actions whose effect on Player Characters were not wanted by the players and not perceivable beforehand.

Give that players often provide Player Characters with various peculiarity in their behaviors and expressions, it may be difficult to maintain a Possibility of Anonymity unless games have completely Mediated Gameplay.

Since Player Characters contain the game state values most likely to affect players' valorization[1], the Game Element Insertion of the Player Characters of Late Arriving Players may can be difficult to combine with Player Balance.


Can Instantiate

Agents, Creative Control, Emotional Engrossment, Focus Loci, Gossip, Narration Structures, Parties, Predetermined Story Structures, Roleplaying, Storytelling

with Cutscenes, Game State Overviews, or Player-Created Characters


with Game Masters or Limited Set of Actions

Thematic Consistency

with Mediated Gameplay

Possibility of Anonymity

Can Modulate


Can Be Instantiated By

Characters together with Roleplaying

Can Be Modulated By

Character Defining Actions, Companions, Equipment, Game Element Insertion, Game Masters, Live Action Roleplaying, Open Destiny, Parties, Player-Created Characters, Player Defined Goals, Player-Planned Development, Predetermined Story Structures, Privileged Abilities, Secret Goals, Transferable Items

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Emotional Engrossment when Player Characters are used together with Character Defining Actions in ways not wanted by the players

Player Balance when the Player Characters are put into gameplay through Game Element Insertion due to Late Arriving Players

Thematic Consistency unless supervised by Game Masters or players having a Limited Set of Actions


New pattern created in this wiki.


  1. Juul, J. (2003). Keynote presentation at the Level Up conference in Utrecht, November 4th-6th 2003.