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Character vs. Campaign

You know what can really derail a game? Making a character that conflicts with the guidelines the GM created for the campaign.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Some Guidelines​

Now, I should say up front that I don’t think the GM should be able to make the guidelines so tight they may as well just hand out pregen characters. It is very important to remember that every player should be able to not only create a character they want to play, but one they have had the opportunity to invest some of their imagination in creating. It’s pretty much their only input into the setting of the world and so it’s only fair the GM should share that power a little. For many players, the excitement to join a new game is not to enter the setting but to get to play the person they just created. Cut down that enjoyment and you will cut down their investment in the adventure.

However, there are occasions when players simply ignore the world and create a character they want, or worse, a character actively works against playing the game as a group. For instance, the GM might decide to run a crossover World of Darkness game where each player plays one of the various supernatural creatures each. When the person playing the Werewolf arrives he declares, “My character really hates vampires, like just goes into a killing rage when he sees one.” It may be in character, and it may not have been explicitly against the GM’s instructions. But its pretty clear that in a mixed group, such an extreme reaction to a character someone else is playing is not only going to cause problems, but make playing those two characters together impossible.

Why This Happens and How to Fix It​

In most cases, the player isn’t trying to make trouble. It’s more likely the player simply played a character they’re accustomed to playing, or didn’t consider the consequences of their actions in group play. So in this case the GM should take care not to just say what players can’t play, but to offer them some suggestions of what would be acceptable. One of these templates or examples might inspire a player having trouble deciding what to create.

The GM should also be up front with what will and won’t work in the game they are offering. Being clear about the game’s guidelines may turn off some players to the game early, but will save a lot of headache later.

In the Saga Star Wars game I’m playing in the GM said he wouldn’t allow droids as PCs, and would prefer humans, but anything else was ok. What we didn’t know was that we were all adapted clones of the Emperor, created to give him several possible body options depending on his mood if he was killed and needed to possess a new one. Most of us went for a human but one player chose a Besalisk (large and very corpulent 4-armed guy). In this case no one had gone against anyone’s instructions and the Besalisk is a cool character. But as we played the game it turned out we found ourselves infiltrating a lot of Imperial bases. While the rest of us could disguise ourselves as officers or storm troopers, they don’t do too many XXXL uniforms with 4 arms. It added a difficulty that meant in retrospect, insisting on all human or human-like characters might have helped.

Some players are of course more bloody minded. This often comes from what they think is fun not being what everyone else thinks is fun. This is one of the reasons Guardians of the Galaxy is clearly an RPG group: a wise-cracking thief, a deadly assassin, a powerful warrior, a tech guy, a tree that only says one word, and a talking raccoon with an attitude. The group really worked in the end, but if the GM had been planning a serious and intense sci-fi heist caper, that was off the table the minute he heard “racoon” and “tree.”

So, it’s important to set the theme and mood as much as the physical aspects of the characters. The GM needs to tell the players if they are ok with silly characters from the get go, or if actually they prefer them. If you are playing a game of Red Dwarf or Toon and everyone creates deep and serious characters, it will fall apart just as quickly.

But It Restricts My Creativity!​

Even with many tough restrictions of the types of character allowed, there is still a vast array of options. The GM might say: “You are all cops on a space station. You went to the same academy, you must have the following skills at least at the following levels, off you go.” Restrictive yes, but carbon copies of each other? No. Is your character married? Did they have relationships with any of the others at the academy? Is one of them corrupt or on the take? How well do they react to the internal hierarchy? Do they do anything illegal themselves? The list could go on, mainly as the true heart of a character is rarely to be found in their stats.

Interestingly, whole games that restrict characters are often easier for players to dive into. Vampire the Masquerade restricts you to one of 13 clans as character templates and its one of its most successful features. Star Trek Adventures assumes you are a Federation crew and that’s fine. The three Fantasy Flight Star Wars games are each very specific about the type of characters available (Fringers, Rebels or Jedi).

More open games are the ones that can run into problems. We added “Associations” to Victoriana 3rd edition as we had many people say of 2nd Edition “but what do you play?” The answer of “any Victorian you like” just left them confused. Similar advice was required in Doctor Who as “anyone from the whole of time and space” was quite daunting as character options. So a totally blank page is actually problematic rather than freeing. To quote Monica in Friends, “Rules are good, rules control the fun.” Essentially, a few restrictions are not a hurdle to be overcome but a guideline to help reduce the impossibly wide selection of options.

Isn’t This the GM’s Job?​

It’s a common refrain that it’s the game master’s job to make every character work for the setting. But I find that long-term, cohesive campaigns are a collaborative effort from the start. It’s everyone’s job to work the characters into the adventure, and that starts at character creation. It’s up to each player to create something that will fit into the adventure. It’s up to every player to create a character that can at least join the player character group (even if they hate everyone) and then it is up to the GM to adjust the setting a little to make sure everyone fits. If any single person ends up having to do all that the game will suffer.

So, while it is up to the GM to allow a certain amount of freedom in character creation, the players have a responsibility to make that job as easy as possible. They need to meet the GM halfway; sometimes, explaining why the guidelines are there can ruin the adventure or secrets of the campaign. If in my Star Wars game, we’d known what we all were from the start, a huge part of the driving mystery of the game would have been lost. GM and player trust go a long way in creating a fun game.

Your Turn: How do you manage player concepts that don’t fit your campaign?
 

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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
First step is to either make the premise of the campaign as clear as possible, or to provide clear guidance on options.

Second step is to talk to and work with a player whose ideas are at or near the border and see if there's some moderation possible. E.g., "Please don't have a murder-hate-on for a PC race, thanks."

Possible further steps include giving players input into the setting at chargen--or later than that, potentially--either through explicit setting-building processes or just by asking for character backgrounds; also, incorporating the players' ideas about their characters and the setting into the events of the game.
 

Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
My take on this topic...

1. I pitch the campaign's idea before the game (usually by mail) in broad strokes to the players. During session 0, players make characters together and I require them to provide one reason to be interested in the upcoming events. Yes, I know it dodges the question, but I actively avoid having characters that don't fit. "Sure, everyone is creating member of the Watch, you can be anyone but please find a reason to get involved with the mysterious serial killer that I pitched. It doesn't restrict who you can play as long as there is some kind of link. It helps avoid "hey I am a haughty wood elf, why should I care about the big city being destroyed by a wizard? It's actually eco-friendly".

2. I also reward good behaviour by offering characters arcs. I am not convinced by how RotFM handled "secrets" of the players, but I do something along that way: when presenting the setting, I also provide a few hints on who will be involved, which power groups will be active in this particular campaign, and if the players take one of these hooks, or propose something that will fit as well [the goal is to help, not constrain], I will make some effort to use that to give them a particular spotlight time. If they create a loner that don't fit, he'll stay a loner as wishes.

3. If there is a character concept that don't fit, it can be either the sign of a player being not interested in the campaign (if you pitch a classic dungeon crawl and someone comes up with a pacifistic barbarian who eschew fighting at all cost, the problem isn't salvageable and should be dealt by disussing with the player)

4. Assuming everyone is in good faith, I'd try to find out what are the core idea of the player concept to try to make him fit. If he wants to play an elf in an elfless world, I'd ask what is important about being an elf to try to find something to accomodate him.
 

Ulfgeir

Hero
Seldo that I am a GM, but we tend to have that the person that is the GM sends out what is the general guidelines, and then we also have a session 0 if possible, where we create the characters.

That said, we have one guy, who is also one of two resident rules-lawyers/munchkins that we tend to joke that the default answer to his character ideas is to say "No!".
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I say no. I run the table by consensus, it is pretty much in the job description too, the other players talk to me, and I have to be point, and say no. Then again, the first concept might be ruse, just to get the second through.
 


aco175

Legend
There needs to be some back and forth over the DM making things the players enjoy and the players going along with some of the restrictions. There are some other newer threads about DM control and having players like it or leave it. Another thread on having non-PHB races or DM restrict the races available. Another thread on which books players can choose from for PCs. I feel it all comes down to each side wanting the other to enjoy the game- I mean sport. ;)
 

Wolfram stout

Adventurer
D&D character gen is such a kitchen sink of options that in order to avoid the You meet in a Tavern (and the implied YOU WILL adventure together) I try to build in a little structure. Usually it is pretty light: You are all part of or attached to a specific Nobel House, or Merchant, or religious group.

It usually works out ok. The other players are generally happy to play anything. BUT, inevitably someone comes up with a character that doesn't quite fit in. I try to accommodate, but that character tends to stay the one that always seems out of place. So, I think I would better serve both the player and the game if I were a bit more strict.

With all the cool options, part of me wants to start a "Go Crazy: all races, all classes are fine and we will figure it out" campaign. Just to see what came out of the chaos.
 

I had a player for a few campaigns who did the same shtick. Join up, pick a concept that was indirect conflict. Like being slumming alien prince in a Farscape game.

I’d make it work but then he’d ghost the game when the consequences of his character’s actions were obviously coming. (His cover is blown and his family is coming for him.)

Nowadays I would have just made go back to the drawing board for his PC to make my life easier but I suspect he would have bowed out. I think he liked being disruptive.
 

There's a couple different dynamics that can come up here, and they vary in difficulty to handle.

1. Square-peg-round-hole. This is a player who just ignores what the campaign is about, and decides what he wants to play with only the most vague nod to the campaign premise. You can often have a bit of give here, but at some point may need to take him in hand and say "Look, I'll work with you but you need to do something that doesn't look like it belongs in an entirely different campaign."

2. One-size-fits-all. This is the player who likes playing one particular character type, and is going to do so again and again no matter what the campaign type or even genre. Usually this can be accommodated (though it can get a bit tiresome for everyone else to see an obvious variant on the last four characters the same player has played, but in the end I'm not sure that's anyone but his business), but you can hit cases where the base concept either makes no sense or is useless for the campaign type. There's not much to be done there but to point it out to the player and see if they can find something else.

Related to the above, you can have players who have some particular thing they simply must or won't do. Those need to be pretty much shaken down at the campaign development stage and either adjust the campaign or accept its just not going to work for that player.
 

payn

Legend
Early in my career I fell into trying to the trap of trying to push my pet character idea into any campaign. My part in that was I was new and really wanted to play characters I was super interested in. Another part, was GMs lack of campaign material and communication. After getting a few shots at the GMs chair, I understood more how important campaigns are and that players fit them nicely. At this point, I find myself asking for more and more info and detail from my GM so that I can custom fit a character I want to play in their game. I've come full circle as a campaign investor over character. After all, there will always be another campaign and another group to try out character concepts.

Further more, I started reading Paizo adventure path players guides and a whole world opened up to me. Regardless of what you think of adventure paths, the players guides are a model everyone should follow in my opinion (free to donwload from Paizo site). These guides allow players to sit and stew in the campaign setting. The guide provides ideas on how to make the characters you want, in the setting the GM wants to run. Most importantly, the guides cover both mechanics and theme of the campaign. I find the inclusion of both helps players who get caught up in the flavor and those most interested in mechanics.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
I had a player for a few campaigns who did the same shtick. Join up, pick a concept that was indirect conflict. Like being slumming alien prince in a Farscape game.

I’d make it work but then he’d ghost the game when the consequences of his character’s actions were obviously coming. (His cover is blown and his family is coming for him.)

Nowadays I would have just made go back to the drawing board for his PC to make my life easier but I suspect he would have bowed out. I think he liked being disruptive.
I've seen players like that too. Their idea of fun in RPGs is to disrupt things. That may work for some campaigns, but they're generally not a good player to have around if you ever want to try to play something that isn't "let's screw around and see what happens".
 

Thunderfoot

Adventurer
I've actually used a couple creative ways to get around these problems. First of the session 0 is a must; whether via email, text, phone or table. I found out quickly as a DM to pitch the idea and then shut up and listen. Answering questions and interjecting only when needed. It helped on one occasion in particular in an old STAR WARS (WEG) campaign.

As the players discussed what they wanted to play, brash pilot, young jedi, etc., one player kept thumbing through book after, after book and kept surreptitiously looking at the Imperial Sourcebook. So I said hey, I'm gonna go get us some pizza, why don't you come with so I can carry it all? Once in the car... Well, he said he always wanted to play a stormtrooper. I said, well we both know that won't work, but what if you played a spy?

15 mins later he was rolling up a "Rebellion Communications Officer" and the moment he backstabbed the party (about 25 sessions in) was epic.

I also had a young player who wanted to play an ogre. I pulled him aside and explained that big and dumb was tougher than he might think. I mean he was limited to a max INT of 6. He said I rolled a 4 and have been trying to figure something. I said okay I'll allow but if you can't make it work agree to a drop and re-roll. Archibald Rockcrusher is still one of my favorite PCs to this day. He could count. 1 2 many.. Was a metallurgist extraordinaire shiny rock dull rock and with a little plagiarism had a catchphrase for combat. Archie Crush...
Sometimes giving a player what they want doesn't HAVE to be bad, but makes sure that player isn't just an a**hole.
 

payn

Legend
I've actually used a couple creative ways to get around these problems. First of the session 0 is a must; whether via email, text, phone or table. I found out quickly as a DM to pitch the idea and then shut up and listen. Answering questions and interjecting only when needed. It helped on one occasion in particular in an old STAR WARS (WEG) campaign.

As the players discussed what they wanted to play, brash pilot, young jedi, etc., one player kept thumbing through book after, after book and kept surreptitiously looking at the Imperial Sourcebook. So I said hey, I'm gonna go get us some pizza, why don't you come with so I can carry it all? Once in the car... Well, he said he always wanted to play a stormtrooper. I said, well we both know that won't work, but what if you played a spy?

15 mins later he was rolling up a "Rebellion Communications Officer" and the moment he backstabbed the party (about 25 sessions in) was epic.

I also had a young player who wanted to play an ogre. I pulled him aside and explained that big and dumb was tougher than he might think. I mean he was limited to a max INT of 6. He said I rolled a 4 and have been trying to figure something. I said okay I'll allow but if you can't make it work agree to a drop and re-roll. Archibald Rockcrusher is still one of my favorite PCs to this day. He could count. 1 2 many.. Was a metallurgist extraordinaire shiny rock dull rock and with a little plagiarism had a catchphrase for combat. Archie Crush...
Sometimes giving a player what they want doesn't HAVE to be bad, but makes sure that player isn't just an a**hole.
This is great to hear. I have a friend who loves to GM but he wants the players to act according to exactly how he feels they should. Then, when players move in unexpected directions, or take actions he doesn't agree with, becomes bored and torpedos the campaign. Its a shame, because I do enjoy gaming with him, but the cycle makes it difficult. I do think he is one of the best one shot GMs I have played with, but insists his strength is the long term campaign...
 

delericho

Legend
First step is to either make the premise of the campaign as clear as possible, or to provide clear guidance on options.
I would argue that the first step is to talk to the players and agree on a mutually-acceptable premise for the campaign. Then generate that guidance on characters.

Then again, that's easy for me to say - I always seem to have about six campaigns I'd like to run, and no time. :)
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I would argue that the first step is to talk to the players and agree on a mutually-acceptable premise for the campaign. Then generate that guidance on characters.

Then again, that's easy for me to say - I always seem to have about six campaigns I'd like to run, and no time. :)
I'd say that's part of "making the premise clear to the players," but I'll admit it's not in the words I posted. :)
 

Veril

Explorer
You need to talk to your players and work with them. I'm running a Zeitgeist campaign and everyone is an agent of the RHC so the requirement that you have that background and are loyal to Risur makes it all work. They also have other backgrounds elements as well that make them all very distinctive and interesting.

Anyone who is an intentionally campaign disruptive character should be excluded from play. Tell the player to come up with a different background.
 

Was very easy for me. I had three simple rules.

1. Don't play an evil character. I am running my second game ever (though it's gone on for over three years so I think it's doing well!) and don't think I can run a fun game for evil characters. I like glass-half-full, largely sunny settings. You can definitely have moral struggles and make mistakes and try to redeem yourself, but cross that moral event horizon and we need to draft you a new character.

2. Don't play a necromancer. Necromancy is suuuuper forbidden in this setting and anyone caught doing it would basically be a pariah. Save yourself the trouble and do something else; I will help you make it work.

3. Don't play a disinterested loner that doesn't care about anything. It's fine to have characters that are slow to open up or who default to aggressive responses or whatever, but this is a group activity and you're being brought together to cooperate. It wouldn't make sense to invite along people who are 0% interested in cooperating with others.

I didn't even have to speak rule 3 aloud, the players made it work just fine. Only one player had minor issues with the evil thing, and that seemed to be purely because he was new to TTRPGs and was just a little too eager to go for a shiny evil thing.

I kept things open because I wanted to see where my players would go. And they sure did go places! Even though only one is a non-Tolkien race (a tiefling), they definitely did some good stuff with it and I'm proud of the game we built together.
 

John Dallman

Adventurer
Things that seem obvious to the GM from the premise frequently aren't to the players. So when you say "no", explain why. For a GURPS Infinite Worlds campaign I had to refuse an animated suit of armour (there will be magic-free worlds, where you'll shut down at minimum, maybe just die) and a vampire (There's no correlation of time-of-day between worlds, so you're at risk of arriving in full sunlight and dying).
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
This is part of why I like shorter campaigns. It's easier to get buy-in from certain players if they know it's not a super long commitment. Broadly, short campaigns are nice for exploring a variety of campaign settings, systems, playstyles, as well as character concepts.

Oh, and I find restrictions (on characters and/or settings) to be a fun exercise. It forces me to think in new directions, so I personally find that to be a boon for creativity, not a hindrance at all.
 

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