Demi - blankslates-large copy In a previous article on running a game with minimal prep I mentioned that

“Players build their character’s classes, skills, and special powers based on what they want to do in the game.”

and Rafe pointed out in the comments that this was one of the most fundamentally important things that a Game Master can realize. I hadn’t really thought about that sentence as that major of a concept until Rafe pointed it out. It seemed like something that was just there; part of the scenery and common enough to be taken for granted. It was advice that I’ve seen in some form in multiple places. Robins Laws of Good Game Mastering talks about determining what various personality types players fall into and what types of characters they like to play, Chris Chinn has talked about recognizing and making use of player flags, something Martin has followed up on in his own articles, and those are just a few examples. This advice certainly isn’t new, but it is important and it is easy to forget. Forgetting it is also one of the most detrimental things that a Game Master can do to his or her game.

The Character As An Expression Of Unfulfilled Potential
When a player sits down to make their character they aren’t creating a new game piece to make use of in a game, they are creating a virtual avatar to experience a new world with. They are taking a blank stick figure and making it an interactive tool through which they can utilize a new set of skills and abilities, and they get control over what skills and abilities it can have. While in real life learning a new skill requires years of study and practice, gaming allows us to mark a line on paper and build a person who can do that thing, even if it is only in a pretend world. That concept is powerful. If you could rebuild yourself using the standard character creation rules for a game system, how much different would turn out?

For the normal person, this is a chance to do things they can’t do in real life, even if they aren’t that relevant to the game. Have you ever placed levels of skill or ability in a musical instrument on a character sheet even though you weren’t going to make use of it, but just to know that it was there? A player’s character can be a chance to act out those elements they find lacking in their life. Not the most athletic? That doesn’t mean your character can’t be. Not the most eloquent of a wordsmith? That doesn’t mean your character can’t be. Not able to walk? That doesn’t mean your character can’t. Characters in Role Playing Games are capable of fulfilling fantasies that we have about what we want to do in life.

The Character As An Expression Of A Player’s Wants
Whether or not a character is an expression of things that a character can or can’t do in real life, a character is an expression of what a player wants to do in a game. We all know of players who always play the same type of character. It might be a sneaky rogue in a fantasy game, a stealthy street-ninja in a futuristic game, or an ex-thief espionage expert in a modern game. The thing about all these characters is that they aren’t what is really important to the player, the concept they are built around is. Each of these characters expresses the player’s desire to subvert obstacles by sneaking around them and being unnoticed. The player who always plays a combat oriented character likely wants to face challenges in the game head on. The player who always plays a character with diverse skills and the ability to fill many rolls enjoys being able to handle many challenges.

This isn’t of course just relevant in a characters abilities or class, it is in the back story and personality that the player chooses to portray for their character. Is the character brash and cantankerous to town guards, maybe the player wants to buck authority in a safe and controlled way that won’t really get them in trouble. Is the character crafty and cunning, finding ways to pull cons on NPCs and maximize profit? The player probably enjoys the intricate and detailed interactions necessary to pull off such in game effects. Is the character a paragon of virtue, selflessly saving the innocent? Maybe the player enjoys the spotlight and the feeling of righteousness that acting through a well stipulated ideal brings.

The thing that must be noted is that everything about a character conveys something about what a player wants to do in the game.  The couple of ranks thrown into a semi-useless skill says something about the personality that the player is building inside his or her mind. The ethnicity of the character, especially if different from their own, says something about how they want to experience the game world. The apparent lack of characterization and tons of effort piled into optimizing the attack bonus says the player wants to do really well at combat and have epic battles. Even the lack of attention to any kind of detail says the player might just enjoy game for the sake of hanging out with friends.

Reading A Player Through Their Character
So how can you determine what a player wants to do based off of their character? That’s an easy one, just look at anything on the character sheet or backstory and ask yourself “What does this player want to do with this in the game?”. This is as much about the player as it is about the character. Watching people play the same pregens in multiple convention games over the past 6 years has shown me that a player’s personality will always shine through. I’ve watched one minimally detailed mechanically adept combat capable dwarf be played as action hero, mechanical genius, james bond-esque spy, diplomatic warriorpriest, etc. with the same set of skills and powers each time. Each player made a different character out of the same stats and skills. We can’t forget that the character is always a puppet for the player. The more control a game gives a player in character creation the more the character tells you what the player wants to do. In games that give players choices between predefined templates pay attention to what roles the templates fit and how the player modifies them.

At this point you might be saying that this all sounds pretty common sense. Well, the best advice is, but what this has all been leading up to is this:

Your Adventure Should Have Character Shaped Holes In It Or Your Players Should Be Able To Make Their Own
Being able to determine what kind of things a player wants to do in a game isn’t going to be much help to the Game Master or the players if the players don’t have opportunities to flex their characters skills and abilities in interesting ways. While adventures can be written around the players and have challenges that fit their abilities exactly, this doesn’t have to be the case. Making small modifications to a game so that it takes into account a characters’ abilities, or allowing players to overturn situations with unexpected use of their abilities will make players feel like their character concept was crucial to the game, and thus make it more fun. If a character tries to make use of their shape changing ability to blend in with the bad guys and get a surprise attack in, it should work every so often. Even if the rogues methodical sneaking and scouting slows down the game, it is something they want to be effective at. Build encounters that could be aided by this. If the talky character wants to try to negotiate before combat begins, work it in.  Don’t give the game to your players, but make it one that they can feel engaged in because of their character building choices.

So what do you think? What kind of character concepts have players built that told you something about their desired game right off the bat? Have you ever seen a time when a player wanted to play something completely different from how they build their character? Do you think choice of game system has an impact on this theory, or does it work no matter what game you play?

(Img © Rochelle Simpson, Silvervine Games – Used With Permission)

15 replies
  1. Lunatyk
    Lunatyk says:

    This has always seemed quite obvious to me. When making a scenario, I create a basic idea and the necessary details needed for the game to flow. Then just fill up everything else with whatever idea I get from a character’s sheet.

    Once during an Exalted character creation session, one of the players asked if he can play the leader of a death cult. I said “sure, why not?” and he told me “I don’t want to mess up your story.” At the time I was sort of baffled by the idea and simply said “If you make a guy who deals with the dead then the plot will have the dead somewhere.”

    At least he was very happy to hear that…

    > Have you ever seen a time when a player wanted to play something completely different from how they build their character?

    There have been a few instances now but that’s probably because the player was new to the game. She was playing a diplomat but couldn’t do anything diplomatic with the dots she had so after the session I told her what to change to get the desired effect. I don’t believe in keeping the character sheet as is if it just doesn’t fit the character concept you’re aiming at.

  2. ChrowX
    ChrowX says:

    I experienced a DM who did not understand this concept at all last winter. We ran a DnD game where everyone was making whatever they wanted without the DM giving much consideration to what we were making.

    I made a Rogue with the intention of being cunning and having a number of different tricks up my sleeve. Turns out we ended up in wide open fields against undead monsters, so my character was worthless. Several other characters were also ill-prepared because the DM had little idea of what the players actually intended to do.

    What followed were a couple sessions of DM retconning and clean up, consolation items, nearly killing the entire party because he still didn’t understand what characters we were playing, and then eventually giving up and never speaking of it again.

    Understanding your players’ intentions can save a game from imploding after 2 sessions.

  3. evil
    evil says:

    I’m going to have to disagree with your general thesis here. Not every player is trying to express some deep seated want or play out through their character. Heck, most of the players I know choose skills and abilities just to try to put together cool combinations and/or ways to get the most out of their skills. As a GM, it’s not my job to find a niche for those characters, but to put the players in situations where they can explore those abilities. Tailoring a situation specifically to cater to those skills and abilities seems like it would reduce the fun across the board.

  4. Roxysteve
    Roxysteve says:

    I have to agree with evil – most players first ask “What kind of game with this be?” then attempt to sculpt the character to fit what the GM answers.

    This bears on a recent article here about having the game group generate their characters together so the group as a whole fits the projected game challenges.

  5. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Lunatyk – I’ve seen many cases like you describe with the undiplomatic character. A player builds a character a certain way and then finds that their role isn’t as necessary inside of the game or their character just doesn’t fit. I like that you allow change to the character after the fact. I think our concepts of characters change as soon as we start playing them. What we thought was going to be useful at the start ends up being not so a few sessions in.

    @ChrowX – The DM here didn’t seem to be making concessions for the characters. That can happen unfortunately and games can still be fine. You get the satisfaction of a hard won victory, but if it doesn’t feel fun it isn’t going to be remembered fondly.

    @evil – I would agree that as the GM it isn’t up to you to pander to the players, but realizing that a player is going to want to explore the possibilities they built into their character is part of having a fun game. Not everyone builds their characters with high ideals and lofty goals in mind. Heck, when I play straight out D&D I tend to listen to my min-maxing friends about what sick classes I can build uber characters out of. I still make the choices that enable the play experience I want for myself. I never expect the Game Master to build an adventure made to be overcome by my character, but if I find there is nothing for my character to do in a game I feel quite left out. If my Game Master doesn’t consider that the person playing the rogue wants to do roguey things every so often, or doesn’t get that the fighter wants to fight things, then I need a new Game Master.

    @Roxysteve – True that the type of game needs to be laid out before you start building characters. I’m not likely to build a hefty combat oriented character for a game that is built around diplomacy and tact. It wouldn’t fit at all. If I’m told upfront that the game will center around diplomacy and tact, then I am going to build a type of character that fits both the Game being run and my desires for play. I may not get to play the combat character I’ve been jonesing to play, but I can know that the character I build fits and can be effectively used in the game, instead of being a duck out of water.

  6. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    Wow. I helped create a blog post for the Gnomes!

    DANCE, PUPPETS, DANCE!! *cough, sputter* I’m okay now, really.

    Evil, Roxysteve: You guys are proving the point without realizing it. Even in asking what the campaign will be about (and who doesn’t), the characters made are then those which are interesting to the players making them. You will never ever see a player wilfully create a character they have no interest in.

    In making interesting characters, the players are telling the GM what they like to see in games. You won’t see the player of a rogue with excellent stealth and sneak attack abilities saying “I want a game that’s all about daring direct assaults, damn the odds!” Likewise, someone with a PC with lots of social skills won’t say “All combat! No intrigue or negotiation conflicts.”

  7. evil
    evil says:

    @Rafe – Actually, Rafe, I’ve seen just that happen….but I tend to play with a group that is willfully contrary.

  8. Nojo
    Nojo says:

    It’s the RL introverts you have to watch for. An extrovert will let you know about their skill in a secret language, while an introvert may just be sad that you never used that language in a game. A quick glance at a character sheet every few games isn’t enough to catch everything.

    On the other hand, I’ve tried to guide players by putting in obvious hooks for skills they *don’t* have in the hopes that as they gain experience, they will add them. Didn’t work for me. I had adventure after adventure where I put in a Walker in my Dark Heresy game. Did anyone ever take the skill, “Drive Walker?” No. They even talked about it at the table.

    “We keep seeing these walkers we could use if someone took the skill.”

    “Yeah, but that’s this adventure. If I take that skill instead of the one I really want, we’ll never see another walker again.”

    I finally got it. *I* was the walker nut, not them. And as the GM I could add opponents in walkers whenever I wanted.

  9. Roxysteve
    Roxysteve says:

    One idea I’ve experimented with during games of D20 Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green, when a player is truly at sea and scared witless about ending up with a marginalized character, is allowing the player to hold back a bunch of skill points from the initial build until the action is underway, whereupon they can pull a one-time “Red Mage” and feed points into a skill they need but don’t have (within the boundaries of the rules and character template – which is a fancy CofC word for class).

    This way play isn’t stalled for hours while an inexperienced player dithers trying to second-guess himself and me, and I don’t care because there is no real point in making someone who is manifestly unsuited to “take it as it comes” role-playing make do with a character trait they can’t see the point in, or worse, they feel is a millstone round their neck.

    And anyway it’s Call of Cthulhu and the character will eventually be mad and/or dead.

    Another idea I’ve toyed with, especially in D20 games in which players decidedly never want to play seriously disadvantaged characters, is calling a spade a flat-bladed digging implement and having them roll D4+D6+8 for stats (gives 10-18 with an average of 13 for a moderately heroic party build).

    For BRP Call of Cthulhu I’ve been using 2D6+6 for everything except EDU for a long time now, because although everyone says playing a very ugly character, or a weakling, or a rather simple character is challenging, no-one actually wants to do that for real.

    I’ve got 28 years of running CofC in two different cultures backing that statement, should anyone wish to question it. I used to insist on people running with what they got, but a character with APP 7 or STR 8 soon begins wandering into traffic or leading the way into the cultists’ lair in the hope of ending their miserable existence.

    Not to mention that today’s generation of players has grown up on the peculiar idea of “hard to kill” genius wunderkind characters, a legacy of youthful Monty Hall D&Ding. Such players’ reception of a rolled stat of less than 10 is generally not a happy one, even if the GM swears himself blue in the face that whatever it is can be coped with within the proposed game framework.

    I am very careful to state up front with a group of players what the “tone” of game I’m going to present will be, since I have a couple of bad memories of GMs who either misrepresented what kind of game was in the offing or gradually shifted the emphasis during the campaign to one I hadn’t built for.

    I recently started a D20 Delta Green game and was careful to make clear that *I* didn’t know what style the game would mold itself to – other than striving for a more “pulpy” feel than my 1920s CofC game, and that should the D20 rules (a controversial choice for some) become too onerous, we could back-convert everything to BRP very quickly.

    The players and I are still feeling our way through this very different style of Call of Cthulhu game and I expect the game in 12 months will play to a style quite different to that it has now.

    Just so long as we all still see the point of it all.

  10. bankuei
    bankuei says:

    I’d like to point out that sometimes people build characters with abilities to “not be bothered” with certain things as opposed to focus on it. Maybe someone builds an awesome swordsman because they know they’re playing a game that will demand it, but they actually want to focus on the weaknesses they built into their character.

    This is why actual flag mechanics work better than simply relying on character builds to read what a character wants.

    Flag mechanics exist to remove any confusion between “I put points here because I want to be awesome!” and “I put points here because I don’t care” and “I didn’t put points here because it would make for a good story!” and “I didn’t put points here because I don’t care.”

    Games without these mechanics mean you still have to fall back on negotiating it, and sometimes folks aren’t the best at communicating what they really want (for a variety of reasons).

  11. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    People are often pretty good about explaining what they’re looking for– particularly when they realize that someone’s listening. I know that I’ve been frustrated when a GM asks for long character backgrounds but doesn’t read the answers.

    It is similarly upsetting to have the core of a character ignored; I remember a 2e campaign where I played a bard in a military campaign against the undead. Some good characterization came out of it, but most of the character was lost due to the circumstances. It was annoying, but I knew that it was mostly just a mismatch– the GM had a scenario setup before we began, but I didn’t find out that Alanora would be useless until we were deep into it.

  12. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Rafe – Puppet dancing is an established halfing past-time Rafe . . . 😉

    This is definitely one of those common sense ideas that always benefits from more examination, especially the kind that disagrees with it. I have to say that I agree that no sane non-masochistic player ever plays a character they have no interest in playing. I can see the point of people playing against types to challenge the system, i.e. building the fighter and then trying to roleplay past combats instead of fighting them. That is extremely rare though and not that successful. I’ve seen players enjoy engaging in this type of roleplaying, but not to the total denouncement of the mechanical things built into their character.

    @Nojo – Players often seem to go against obvious GM hooks. I think some of that comes from the desire to outplay the GM and thus the game. I tried to get one player to be an army builder, and gave him many free cool things in game to do so. It didn’t work at all.

    @Roxysteve – The withholding points is a nifty idea. I’ve seen some indie games built around the idea of not building your character until the game starts, but I like the inclusion of it in a different venue. Kudos on the 8-bit theatre Red Mage reference.

    @bankuei – Very true. In almost any combat oriented game, players generally build some kind of combat in to a level that lets them succeed. Whether it is the backstab of the rogue, the magic of the mage, the tech skills of the Shadowrun rigger, etc. it is a necessary part. While that might not be the most satisfying part of the game to them, it is necessary.

    @Scott Martin – “particularly when they realize that someone’s listening.” That’s a great point scott! I’ve known (and been) the GM who wants players to be involved in their characters but doesn’t invest the same level. Running against a predefined scenario with no place for a unique character can suck ass as a player. It is part of the reason I’m such a fan of Game Masters having an adaptive style and building as they go along. At the end of the day, no one will know your story wasn’t played out as intended but you. If it comes to an interesting conclusion and everyone had fun, that is a win in my book.

  13. Lunatyk
    Lunatyk says:

    @John Arcadian – It’s not that the diplomat wasn’t useful. There were many opportunities for being diplomatic but the way she made her sheet just didn’t fit with the concept so the end result was a character that kept failing on diplomacy. So next session we revised the character and it was all good from then on.

  14. Wayne
    Wayne says:

    Seldom do I ever find a game where you have enough skill picks to ‘waste’ them on stuff you might want to do, but if you do, then you penalize yourself later on. I’d love to give my fighter a couple ranks in Instrument for instance but that’s an entire levels worth of points gone.

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