Amnesiac RPG Characters

I was listening to a This American Life podcast from a bit ago, part of which discussed amnesia.  The story was interesting, though wasn’t really about amnesia per se. But it got me thinking about it in role playing game terms (I’m working up to GMing my first adventure soon, so I’m thinking of just about everything in terms of gaming possibilities).

It occurred to me that amnesia is used in all kinds of fiction, sometimes to comedic effect, sometimes to more dramatic effect, but that I hadn’t ever thought about using it in a role playing game.  It seems like potentially a pretty good and fun trope to use in a game, either with a character who forgets who they are for some time, or with NPC’s or any number of other ways.  This would probably work particularly well in a pulp themed game, where these sort of outrageous ideas make perfect sense.

I’ve also been reading Gnome Stew (a great GMing blog) a lot lately, and as I was thinking about this I also read this article, in which the author talks about the fun of having secrets from the other players, and generally cutting down on meta-game thinking at the table. These two things started to churn in my head and I got the following ideas…

I also started to think about the idea for PC’s with amnesia.  Role playing it could be interesting but difficult for a player if their PC is supposed to have lost their memory partway through the game, or if they’ve written a background for the character, that they then have to “re-discover.“  This could be a lot of fun, but might be difficult to role play properly for the player, since they’d know what the background really was. 

It might also unfairly focus attention on the one character if they were the only one with amnesia (again this isn’t necessarily a problem, depending on the player and the groups, but is a potential problem).  Of course this could be solved by having everyone start with amnesia, and have to slowly learn about/try to remember their backgrounds and histories.  But again, you still have the problem of a PC who knows the real background, but has to pretend that they don’t for the purposes of role playing.

One solution would be for the GM could write up a background for a character, or all the characters, and start the game with that characters, or the characters with amnesia, and they could slowly learn who they were as the game went on.  This could be a lot of fun, and might work really well with the right group.  But might lead to some players feeling like they don’t have enough real investment in their character, or that they are being railroaded some.

Then an interesting idea popped into my head.  What if all the players wrote a background for another player’s character?  This could lead to all the players really feeling like they had some investment in the game, but would also leave them not knowing what their own background was.  The players could either write the backgrounds specifically for one other players character, or they could all write a background in secret and turn them in to the GM who would then assign them to different players and make any adjustments to make them all fit together.  The GM would get tons of plot hooks, and would be able to really involve the players ideas in the game and center it around the characters, while still haveing the freedom to determine quite a bit (like how they got amnesia, and why they are together etc.).  The players would get to start the game with a clean slate, and then have the fun of figuring out who they were and how they got to where they are.

I think this is a pretty fun idea for an interesting game.  I’m not planning on using it for my upcomign adventure, as I’m not sure I feel like I’m quite experienced enough as a GM to run something like that (at least not yet), but I think it sounds like a pretty fun game for the players and for the GM (though probably a lot of work for the GM).

So what do you think?  Would you consider running a game like this, or playing in one?  Do you have any fun ideas for how to us amnesia in a game? 🎲

Stephen B @DrOct