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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.

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


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


Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
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.

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.


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!".


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.


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

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.

Von Ether

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.

Thomas Shey

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.

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