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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


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This is the rub. My experience so far has been 'that f'n guy' who wants to play an evil character in a party of good-aligned heroes.
I've encountered a few of those.
I've also had players who played Lawful Evil... they lived up to the letter of their word... and used the locals mercilessly... but never killed a "civilized race" NPC, and waited to be attacked by the "uncivilized" (read "inherently evil") races...
Now, I was running Cyclopedia, so the evil part was NOT on the sheet... but it was in the player's conception.
One such also got the party to make a formal (in character) charter... only party I've ever had where they did so.

I've seen far more of that type in GURPS or Hero System. Again, it's not always on the sheet, sometimes just in the player's head. Sometimes, it's in the disads...

Many players will play disads not on the sheet and ignore the ones on it.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Yeah, the common no evil characters is often two fold for folks. One is to head off dink characters that just want to PvP and crap on campaigns. The other is, some folks want a heroic tone in the games they play. You can get anti-heroes out of evil characters, but eventually they go homicidal on their allies or just lone wolf at best.

After alignment and no evil rules we have all kinds of folks trying to test the limits. Essentially, its another version of trying to play a thing that is banned or doesn't exist in the GM's campaign anyways. So folks are now trying to justify necromancy as not actually harmful, but really good for society. Another popular one is, their character is an assassin who only kills bad guys. Surely he is good and not evil?
Funny - I allow evil PCs and I still get a lot of this. :)
My take is just let them do evil things. You want to fight fire with fire? Ok, so you are a societal outsider who harnesses the power of necromancy. There is a cost to this. You need to realize that society at large doesn't accept this nor understands it. You have to operate understanding that folks will recoil in horror from you if they dont outright try and stop you. You only want to assassinate bad guys? Ok, you need to understand that murder isnt self defense or even a last resort for you. Its the first thing on your list of things to accomplish your goals. Killing is your method, but you do it for the greater good even if it means you are an evil son of a bitch.
Yep - anything goes, but the in-game potential for consequences is ever-present.

Maybe this is why some particular PCs in my game just never stay in any one place for too long... :)
 

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.
If you want to assume that all one point relationship is mild, absolutely -- go ahead, but since we were talking about RAW, the default assumption is that a one point relationship is sufficient so that:

"your connection to this icon brings trouble from people associated with the heroic icons who oppose the villain. Be prepared to justify why you’re not imprisoned, interrogated, or otherwise harassed by the heroic icons and their representatives whenever they encounter you. Or for that matter, by the other PCs."

RAW, a one point relationship with the Diabolist means that whenever you encounter a "good" person you need to justify yourself or be imprisoned, interrogated, or otherwise harassed. Not just sometimes, but every time you meet someone new. To me, that sounds a bit more than "mild". In Savage Worlds it would be a major hindrance, for example.

Again, I've never played 13A with a GM who enforces icons RAW, but if they did, any character with three relationships each of which is allied with evil or opposes good, would find it almost impossible to get along with good characters / allies / towns / whatever. If you are looking for a mild hindrance, as a GM I'd probably suggest a conflicted relationship rather than straight-up positive.
 


The "Evil PC" point goes to the heart of the "Is this character suitable for the campaign", and whether that's really being considered in a reasonable way, because in the longer run, it's rarely alignment that's actually the issue, it's usually how the character is played that's the issue, not their alignment.

In particular, what can disrupt or derail a campaign almost always comes down to whether the player sees sticking to their alignment at all costs (often even failing to RP more nuanced stuff they've described about their character) as vital, or whether they're willing to be flexible and thoughtful, and play their alignment, but in a way that's productive and engaging for the group.

We had a good example of this issue in a Dungeon World campaign a while back. One PC was Evil, but he was clever, thinking kind of Evil, who didn't wear black and murder shopkeepers in public and stuff, and he actually acted to keep the group together quite effectively, because his "Evil goals" aligned pretty well with those of the Good and Neutral PCs. Sure some scary stuff sometimes happened when he was around, but was he disruptive? No. In fact he was absolutely an asset to the group.

Whereas one of the Good PCs was nothing but a stick in the mud, frequently causing problems for the group, refusing to talk to certain NPCs or work with them for genuinely petty reasons (we're not talking slavers or serial killers or something), even when it furthered their goals, and trying to force all the other PCs to do likewise (he chilled out eventually, thankfully).

I have come across the Evilman McDarkside type, who dresses in black, wants to murder everyone and generally commit Crimez(TM), steal from the party, etc. but not from a player aged over 22 at the time. Here's the though: you don't want that guy even in an all-evil group.

(For an example of this, please see the movie HEAT. Basically all the criminals are arguably "Evil", but it's only Waingro who is actually causing a problem, because he's not just "a bad guy", but sadistic and impulsive. Waingro is "that effin guy")

Evilman McDarkside is disruptive, boring, and annoying. Personally I think it's important to consider the player if you know them well enough, too (which is why I tend to like to play fairly MoR campaigns with new players). If I think of my main group, I'd say 4/6 I'd be happy with them playing an Evil or Evil-adjacent character, because I know they'd play them in an ultimately cooperative way, and they're not going to turn it into "The Evil Guy Show" or intentionally create party-destroying situations. The other two? I'd try to steer them on to a safer path, but luckily neither particularly likes to be Evil.

Thinking about that and the "Character vs Campaign" stuff discussed here, it actually seems to me the main two kinds of disruptive character come from two sources - just in my experience:

1) Certain players just really like potentially show-off-y and disruptive concepts, in absolutely any campaign, in any RPG. These guys you need to watch. If you're self-aware you can avoid doing this yourself, but not everyone is. It's more about the player than the character though, with them, and particularly they can make even seemingly-appropriate PCs cause issues.

2) Other players will create really good PCs most of the time, but "act out" unconsciously when presented with a setting/campaign they don't actually want to be part of, but maybe the rest of the group is perfectly happy with. So instead of arguing, or sitting out (and it may be reasonable for them to not want to sit out, if it's a regular group and there was no real "Yea/Nay" discussion), they create a PC who is going to be a problem.

Again, note this is often unconscious. I did it with a Castle Falkenstein game once. I loathed what I saw as the "bootlicking" tone of Castle Falkenstein, which despite being from fairly "woke" (for the era) designers, basically seemed to think the 1800s were only really bad because of the British Empire, and everyone else, all the aristocracy and etiquette and associated bollocks designed to repress people was totally awesome, quaint, and fun. Everyone else wanted to play it though and I did like the system (I thought), so I made a PC. I made an ill-mannered, hot-tempered gunslinger from the American West, and was basically intending to shoot anyone and anything which tried to make me bow or "follow etiquette" or the like. At the time it seemed perfectly reasonable - after all, he was from the right time period and there was a backstory to how he was in Europe, and that he was "plausible" was all that mattered, right?

A few years later I cringed just thinking about it. The campaign didn't get far, but if it had, he'd have been a huge problem. Ever since then I've kept an eye on myself to avoid doing that and look for it in others too. I think one thing the article misses is that, with an established group at least, the DM has a duty to discuss what they want to do, and ensure everybody is on board with it, and I think you need to keep checking on that during chargen.
 
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Though I think Ruin Explorer's post above is excellent, I think he underestimates one thing: even a nuanced evil character can arrive at a situation where the GM has presented events in such a way that his natural, coherent and in many ways proper (in a roleplaying fashion) reaction is going to blow the campaign up.

This is largely a problem at the GMing end, though. In a heavily structured campaign, a GM should be aware of this risk and avoid producing situations that will produce it, and in more sandbox style campaigns, consider whether letting that character type in is a good idea at all for that reason.

(To be clear, this sort of problem can come up with other, non-evil concepts too; in fact, in some campaigns, it can come up with characters who are too good, but the situations where the evil character will produce it are more frequent and usually more fraught).
 

Ulfgeir

Hero
Though I think Ruin Explorer's post above is excellent, I think he underestimates one thing: even a nuanced evil character can arrive at a situation where the GM has presented events in such a way that his natural, coherent and in many ways proper (in a roleplaying fashion) reaction is going to blow the campaign up.

This is largely a problem at the GMing end, though. In a heavily structured campaign, a GM should be aware of this risk and avoid producing situations that will produce it, and in more sandbox style campaigns, consider whether letting that character type in is a good idea at all for that reason.

(To be clear, this sort of problem can come up with other, non-evil concepts too; in fact, in some campaigns, it can come up with characters who are too good, but the situations where the evil character will produce it are more frequent and usually more fraught).
We almost had that happen in the Tianxia-campaign I Play in. One character who was an assassins got a well-paying contract against another character, and ended up killing her an her servants while they slept. The vi Tim was quite important to the campaign though, so we had to have some divine intervention, that would let them come back a few days later.. Their souls and Chi now permanently marked by this.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
We almost had that happen in the Tianxia-campaign I Play in. One character who was an assassins got a well-paying contract against another character, and ended up killing her an her servants while they slept. The vi Tim was quite important to the campaign though, so we had to have some divine intervention, that would let them come back a few days later.. Their souls and Chi now permanently marked by this.
I’ve encountered situations like this in the past and, if it’s a problem, it’s entirely an own-goal problem. The GM didn‘t have to set up a lucractive contract to kill a PC, much less one important to plot of the campaign. And the assassin character didn’t have to accept it.
 

Ulfgeir

Hero
I’ve encountered situations like this in the past and, if it’s a problem, it’s entirely an own-goal problem. The GM didn‘t have to set up a lucractive contract to kill a PC, much less one important to plot of the campaign. And the assassin character didn’t have to accept it.
True. That was a mistake from the GM to set it up (at least to that player). Most of the other players would probably not have gone through with it. However, it was something that did make sense in the setting, and the narrative. The handling was maybe not that well done though. The fix we did however did show the characters in that group that there were much more important things happening than they thought. So the ones that came back, they now have a holy mission, and they learned certain things while being dead.

The characters (we have 5 different groups in various places in the campaign) aren't neccessarily good people (a few of them are, some others are evil cutthroats, others are morally grey). They are special, marked by fate and certain powers. Everyone has their own agenda though, and they have complicated connections to each others (some that they know of, like sibling in another group etc).
 

I’ve encountered situations like this in the past and, if it’s a problem, it’s entirely an own-goal problem. The GM didn‘t have to set up a lucractive contract to kill a PC, much less one important to plot of the campaign. And the assassin character didn’t have to accept it.

The first is true, but to the second, it may well end up being a situation where there's no good reason not to. And whether the player should have just asserted his ability to make the decision OOC would likely depend on whether it was obvious to him as a player that it was going to be a problem (he may very well have thought since the GM presented it that it wouldn't be).
 

Hussar

Legend
I have to admit, I find DM side arguments that something "makes sense in the setting" often isn't really a solid argument. There are all sorts of things that make sense in the setting, usually, and choosing the one where you are setting up PVP in a game is generally a bad idea. Not necessarily - depends on the group, but, generally.

It's a pretty fine line really. I remember years ago, a PC dropped a Fear spell in a crowded market, causing a riot and several deaths. I had repeatedly warned the player that this was a REALLY bad idea, even going so far as to directly tell him what would happen if he dropped this spell. He either didn't understand or didn't care and dropped the spell, causing exactly what I said would happen, a riot resulting in several deaths, to occur.

The PC was apprehended by the constabulary and taken for trial. Throughout, the player insisted that he didn't do anything wrong - he just wanted to break up the crowd. We were sharing DM duties among a few of us in the group and the group of DM's conferred and decided that yup, executing the PC was perfectly reasonable.

Thinking back on it now, I'm not really sure what I could have done differently, but, wow, talk about a scenario going way out of control.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
I have to admit, I find DM side arguments that something "makes sense in the setting" often isn't really a solid argument. There are all sorts of things that make sense in the setting, usually, and choosing the one where you are setting up PVP in a game is generally a bad idea. Not necessarily - depends on the group, but, generally.

It's a pretty fine line really. I remember years ago, a PC dropped a Fear spell in a crowded market, causing a riot and several deaths. I had repeatedly warned the player that this was a REALLY bad idea, even going so far as to directly tell him what would happen if he dropped this spell. He either didn't understand or didn't care and dropped the spell, causing exactly what I said would happen, a riot resulting in several deaths, to occur.

The PC was apprehended by the constabulary and taken for trial. Throughout, the player insisted that he didn't do anything wrong - he just wanted to break up the crowd. We were sharing DM duties among a few of us in the group and the group of DM's conferred and decided that yup, executing the PC was perfectly reasonable.

Thinking back on it now, I'm not really sure what I could have done differently, but, wow, talk about a scenario going way out of control.
That reminds me of a 2Ed Player’s Option campaign that imploded when one of the two PC clerics* in the party insisted on proselytizing to the locals after being warned against doing so by the region’s prince. He was arrested, tried before the prince and exiled…instead of executed.

The player insisted his PC only did what his faith demanded. The DM pointed out that it didn’t seem particularly wise to disobey the expressed decree of the most powerful person in the country.

That pretty much ended that game.




* I played the other one, who his faith instead of preaching it.
 

MGibster

Legend
It's a pretty fine line really. I remember years ago, a PC dropped a Fear spell in a crowded market, causing a riot and several deaths. I had repeatedly warned the player that this was a REALLY bad idea, even going so far as to directly tell him what would happen if he dropped this spell. He either didn't understand or didn't care and dropped the spell, causing exactly what I said would happen, a riot resulting in several deaths, to occur.
A lot of players take that position. I've had PCs who didn't hesitate to make damaging attacks knowing it would hit their allies on the grounds that, "Hey, it doesn't do that much damage and I know they can take it." In one memorable game, one PC threw a grenade at two other PCs who were fighting one another. They can especially take that position when casting a spell that doesn't do damage in and of itself.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
The PC was apprehended by the constabulary and taken for trial. Throughout, the player insisted that he didn't do anything wrong - he just wanted to break up the crowd.
I had something similar, the players really tore up a train they were on, ultimately the military arrived, and though their patron got them off charges, and they still lost their fancy gear.
 

talien

Community Supporter
2) Other players will create really good PCs most of the time, but "act out" unconsciously when presented with a setting/campaign they don't actually want to be part of, but maybe the rest of the group is perfectly happy with. So instead of arguing, or sitting out (and it may be reasonable for them to not want to sit out, if it's a regular group and there was no real "Yea/Nay" discussion), they create a PC who is going to be a problem.
This. So much this. And it means it's on the DM to figure this out, because if you don't, you're essentially making everyone suffer because one player is unhappy but not willing to leave the game.
 

The Lizard Wizard

Adventurer
If I know the GM and what they like, I try to factor that into my character choice as well as aiming for something that will fit the campaign and setting.

For example, I had a player that always played wizards and loved magic in general in D&D who started running his own campaign, so I made an Arcana Cleric as I figured it would be something he would appreciate.
 

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