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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

Though, honestly that "You wouldn't do that" tends to be a lot less of an issue away from D&D sphere games with alignment; you can have games where the characters take disadvantages, some of which are psychological (and are expected to stick to them), but they get to choose those themselves.

The "no ties to the setting" can be a scar tissue thing, where players have found their connections are only used as levers to manipulate them. If they're also useful as often as not, I suspect you'd get less resistance, but a lot of GMs have an allergy to giving out anything that resembles an advantage for free.
 

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Though, honestly that "You wouldn't do that" tends to be a lot less of an issue away from D&D sphere games with alignment; you can have games where the characters take disadvantages, some of which are psychological (and are expected to stick to them), but they get to choose those themselves.

The "no ties to the setting" can be a scar tissue thing, where players have found their connections are only used as levers to manipulate them. If they're also useful as often as not, I suspect you'd get less resistance, but a lot of GMs have an allergy to giving out anything that resembles an advantage for free.
This is one of the reasons that I like the way 13th Age replaces alignment with allegiance to Icons. Rather than a check-box saying you are "evil" you are choosing to ally with Icons who are cruel, undead, warmongers or the like. It's both softer and more actionable -- the player gets clear benefits and the GM has built in, clear ways to make it affect the story.

So if I have a good relationship with the Crusader and the Diabolist, and a bad one with the Priestess, I'm unlikely to be a very helpful person, and I probably like enslaving people and summoning demons. So in an alignment system, I'm probably "evil". But it feels very different, and much less likely to cause players to behave in disruptive ways.
 

Hex08

Explorer
Both the DM and players have some responsibility here. Back when I was playing in a D&D 2e campaign my character died and when I made my new character my DM let me play an evil character. I was very upfront about his personality and motivations. I should have thought more before asking and the DM never should have approved it. I completely derailed the adventure and that campaign came to a premature end.
 

This is one of the reasons that I like the way 13th Age replaces alignment with allegiance to Icons. Rather than a check-box saying you are "evil" you are choosing to ally with Icons who are cruel, undead, warmongers or the like. It's both softer and more actionable -- the player gets clear benefits and the GM has built in, clear ways to make it affect the story.

Though one should note that 13th Age still keeps it down to a dull roar as a default. Positive relationships with negative icons are limited to, what, one dot as I recall?
 

Both the DM and players have some responsibility here. Back when I was playing in a D&D 2e campaign my character died and when I made my new character my DM let me play an evil character. I was very upfront about his personality and motivations. I should have thought more before asking and the DM never should have approved it. I completely derailed the adventure and that campaign came to a premature end.

Honestly, a lot of players are really kind of bad about thinking about the overall health of a campaign and how they're contributing to it or harming it. Even when you don't have someone who aggressively considers it "not their problem" (and there are people who absolutely do), there's a strong tendency for people to just not think about it because of player tunnel-vision. Its the flip side of GMs who can't see how things look like from a player's POV.
 


I tend to approach a campaign with a general idea, then I share that with my players and get their input, then we kind of go back and forth to hash out details of the world and find a place in it for their characters.

It’s a collaborative effort.
 

Hussar

Legend
That's pure BS. It's the player's job to make a character that fits the DM's campaign.
I wouldn't go quite that hard line about it. There is a fair bit of wiggle room, and "fits the DM's campaign" can be very broad, and also pretty hard for the player to know at the outset since the player likely doesn't have a huge amount of information to go on.

On the flip side, it does behoove the player to do a teeny bit of homework about the setting - actually READ the player's guides if available is a good start. Actually listen to what the DM is saying when describing the upcoming campaign. If the DM is describing a nautical campaign using the Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign, lots of swashbuckley action, then, maybe, just maybe, play a character with some sort of nautical bent? And, maybe, just maybe, some sort of tie to the town? :erm:

@Thomas Shey - oh, I totally get it. I had a player actually turn down a free house in Saltmarsh that optionally came with his character background (soldier? Can't remember now). And I know it's because he had zero interest in having anything that could potentially be a lever for the DM to use.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
As a GM, I haven’t nixed a whole bunch of characters. Maybe a half dozen in all the decades I’ve tried being on the lonely side of the screen.in each case, it was something that radically didn’t fit the setting, like a nonhuman PC in a humans-only setting.

As a player, I’ve come up with stuff that got denied, but not because I was being contrarian. If I can’t come up with something similar that fits the campaign constraints with the GM, I just play something else.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I wouldn't go quite that hard line about it. There is a fair bit of wiggle room, and "fits the DM's campaign" can be very broad, and also pretty hard for the player to know at the outset since the player likely doesn't have a huge amount of information to go on.
If the player doesn't have enough info to make a character that fits, that's entirely on the DM. "We're playing kitchen sink fantasy. Anything official goes" is wildly different than "we're playing Dark Sun. Buckle up." If the DM has restrictions, they should tell the players. But once that happens ("we're playing Dark Sun") it's up to the players to conform to that. "Nope, sorry, but your water merchant / iron merchant lawful good paladin of Bahamut won't work in Dark Sun." "But my snowflake." "Too bad." If it is an official setting, the players should do a bit of homework. It's not the DM's job to read the setting info to the players. It's out there, Google it.
On the flip side, it does behoove the player to do a teeny bit of homework about the setting - actually READ the player's guides if available is a good start. Actually listen to what the DM is saying when describing the upcoming campaign. If the DM is describing a nautical campaign using the Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign, lots of swashbuckley action, then, maybe, just maybe, play a character with some sort of nautical bent? And, maybe, just maybe, some sort of tie to the town?
Absolutely. I get that players are used to the DM doing 99.9% of the work, but come on. You don't get a gold star just for showing up on game night.
@Thomas Shey - oh, I totally get it. I had a player actually turn down a free house in Saltmarsh that optionally came with his character background (soldier? Can't remember now). And I know it's because he had zero interest in having anything that could potentially be a lever for the DM to use.
Isn't that weird. As if somehow everything about the character or on the character sheet isn't also something the DM can leverage. There is some kind of weird hyper-risk adverse thing going on recently. It's so odd. Like people forget it's a game.
 

Hussar

Legend
@overgeeked - I'm not really disagreeing with you. There is at least a bare minimum of expectation that the players will make something of an effort. But, even, "It's a Dark Sun campaign" is pretty vague. Sure, that eliminates "water merchant", for example, but, there's a whole lot of grey in there. Can I play a druid? Well, that depends on what period of Dark Sun you're working from, doesn't it? If I read the DS wiki, it would tell me that druids are definitely a think in Dark Sun.

And, then it gets even fuzzier if we start into some of the more esoteric supplements. In a 3e game, for example, does a Binder fit in Dark Sun? I'd say that it certainly does, but, I can totally get why others might have an issue. Heck, I made an issue of a gnomish sorcerer in Dragonlance, but, really, if you dig into the canon lore for a bit, a time traveling gnome sorcerer might actually work pretty darn well.

I guess my point is, there's really no one size fits all solution here. It does need both sides of the screen to keep an open mind.
 

I wouldn't go quite that hard line about it. There is a fair bit of wiggle room, and "fits the DM's campaign" can be very broad, and also pretty hard for the player to know at the outset since the player likely doesn't have a huge amount of information to go on.

On the flip side, it does behoove the player to do a teeny bit of homework about the setting - actually READ the player's guides if available is a good start. Actually listen to what the DM is saying when describing the upcoming campaign. If the DM is describing a nautical campaign using the Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign, lots of swashbuckley action, then, maybe, just maybe, play a character with some sort of nautical bent? And, maybe, just maybe, some sort of tie to the town? :erm:

Its one reason I usually have a 2-4 page campaign premise document. Of course even then people can read material differently than intended, but it at least lets me screen out some of the blind character build issues (while sighing at others because people just listened to the elevator pitch and never bothered to read it before generating a character).

@Thomas Shey - oh, I totally get it. I had a player actually turn down a free house in Saltmarsh that optionally came with his character background (soldier? Can't remember now). And I know it's because he had zero interest in having anything that could potentially be a lever for the DM to use.

Its not universal, but its all too common, and I suspect strongly it doesn't come out of nowhere, but from bad past experience.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
@overgeeked - I'm not really disagreeing with you. There is at least a bare minimum of expectation that the players will make something of an effort. But, even, "It's a Dark Sun campaign" is pretty vague. Sure, that eliminates "water merchant", for example, but, there's a whole lot of grey in there. Can I play a druid? Well, that depends on what period of Dark Sun you're working from, doesn't it? If I read the DS wiki, it would tell me that druids are definitely a think in Dark Sun.
Just because druids exist doesn’t mean they’re always useable as PCs.

“The druid is a priest tied to a particular feature or aspect of Athas. Unique geographic features are guarded by spirits when druids serve. For example, a pooled oasis has its own spirit and a single druid will reside there to protect it and preside over its use by humans, demihumans, and animals. Druids can be from any social class.”

Playing the permanent guard to a specific oasis doesn’t sound that appealing to me. But everyone’s Dark Sun is different.
And, then it gets even fuzzier if we start into some of the more esoteric supplements. In a 3e game, for example, does a Binder fit in Dark Sun? I'd say that it certainly does, but, I can totally get why others might have an issue. Heck, I made an issue of a gnomish sorcerer in Dragonlance, but, really, if you dig into the canon lore for a bit, a time traveling gnome sorcerer might actually work pretty darn well.
No idea. I avoided 3X like the plague.
I guess my point is, there's really no one size fits all solution here. It does need both sides of the screen to keep an open mind.
The one size that fits all is: DMs, talk to your players and make your expectations clear. Players, make a character that fits the DM’s expectations, don’t make them read you the entire setting bible before making a character, and don’t insist on playing the snowflake chosen one that breaks their campaign world.
 

Though one should note that 13th Age still keeps it down to a dull roar as a default. Positive relationships with negative icons are limited to, what, one dot as I recall
That may be the case, but honestly, I can’t recall any campaign I’ve been in mentioning it. I’m pretty sure it’s no more than a brief advice though; Definitely can’t think of any rules or mechanics that depend on this. I’ll look up the rules tonight!

Edit: yup, it’s in the SRD even. starting characters by RAW cannot have more than one positive dice with a bad icon, or one negative dice with a good one. But that’s per icon, so you can easily spend your three starting with a positive relationship with multiple bad icons. So a Diabolist, Crusader-loving, Priestess-hating character who wants to summon demons and use them to enslave others while destroying forces that bring help to the common folk is OK by RAW.
 
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Hussar

Legend
Just because druids exist doesn’t mean they’re always useable as PCs.

“The druid is a priest tied to a particular feature or aspect of Athas. Unique geographic features are guarded by spirits when druids serve. For example, a pooled oasis has its own spirit and a single druid will reside there to protect it and preside over its use by humans, demihumans, and animals. Druids can be from any social class.”
Again, not arguing with you.

The point is, druid PC's are possible, depending on which version of Dark Sun you are playing. So, a player wanting to play a druid in a Dark Sun campaign isn't being a problem. Just a difference in expectations. Cherry picking a single quote from some book isn't probably going to end that conversation. :D

And, the presumption that the player is trying to make a special snowflake character is awfully hostile.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Again, not arguing with you.
You keep saying that, then you keep arguing with me. Weird.
The point is, druid PC's are possible, depending on which version of Dark Sun you are playing. So, a player wanting to play a druid in a Dark Sun campaign isn't being a problem. Just a difference in expectations. Cherry picking a single quote from some book isn't probably going to end that conversation.
It will if the player wants to play in the game.
And, the presumption that the player is trying to make a special snowflake character is awfully hostile.
Years of dealing with hostile players who want to make campaign breaking special snowflakes. "I know you said no X, but here's a backstory explaining why X is perfect for this campaign." Nah. I'm good.

Let me guess. You'll "not argue" with that either...by arguing with all of it. Don't bother. I'm good. Cheers.
 

Jmarso

Adventurer
Players should make characters they want to play- within the framework of the campaign.

Case in point: Signed onto a 5E game that was going to do "Rime of the Frostmaiden". Awesome. I rolled up a guy who was a human fighter, outlander background, modeled on the Northman "Herger the Joyous" from the 13th Warrior. A viking warrior achetype in a 'frozen north' sort of campaign. Thought it was perfectly reasonable and had fun with it except...

The other two 'regular' players were an evil-aligned half-vampire, half human warlock, and a turtle-cleric? (Can't even think of the species name)

I get that some people can cope with this- it just doesn't work for me. Because in the 'story' in my head, my viking warrior does not keep company with evil half-vampires and f'ing turtle-people, or whatever. Another player would show up every week wanting to play an entirely different character- and the DM was like... 'okay.' So one session the guy is a paladin, the next a warlock... what the f ever.

I played it for a while, then bailed. The players themselves were very young and immature as well, and a couple of times abruptly left mid-session with no warning for reasons they came up with on the spot, which was strange to say the least. Coupled with a 'no-threat' DM who would let someone cast a fireball into a melee without damaging any PC's, and it all just got OTT dumb.

Very bad gaming experience.
 


That may be the case, but honestly, I can’t recall any campaign I’ve been in mentioning it. I’m pretty sure it’s no more than a brief advice though; Definitely can’t think of any rules or mechanics that depend on this. I’ll look up the rules tonight!

Edit: yup, it’s in the SRD even. starting characters by RAW cannot have more than one positive dice with a bad icon, or one negative dice with a good one. But that’s per icon, so you can easily spend your three starting with a positive relationship with multiple bad icons. So a Diabolist, Crusader-loving, Priestess-hating character who wants to summon demons and use them to enslave others while destroying forces that bring help to the common folk is OK by RAW.

Eh. I think that's overstating the likely character state given how mild his relationship is with any of them, and I think they elsewhere indicate that the biggest reason for the rule is they think evil campaigns are mostly a mistake. There's nothing that says you have to agree with them, of course.
 

Hussar

Legend
You keep saying that, then you keep arguing with me. Weird.

It will if the player wants to play in the game.

Years of dealing with hostile players who want to make campaign breaking special snowflakes. "I know you said no X, but here's a backstory explaining why X is perfect for this campaign." Nah. I'm good.

Let me guess. You'll "not argue" with that either...by arguing with all of it. Don't bother. I'm good. Cheers.

Dude I’m really really not arguing or even disagreeing with you.

I’m less hard nosed about this than you are but I do agree with the basic intent.
 

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