The Problem with Loner Characters in Roleplaying Games

Many game masters (GMs) have wondered why it is that their players keep creating, time and time again, loner characters that don’t mesh with the rest of the party. Characters that insist on going off on their own, leaving others out of their plots, and just generally boring the rest of the players by leaving them out of the action.

I think the culprit is pretty easy to spot: the tradition of the lone hero. It’s everywhere. You’ll find it in movies, TV, books, plays, and so on. It’s rare to have a true ensemble cast; usually one character gets at least slightly more billing than the others, and usually that character will have swaths of time where he runs off alone to do things. Your players are so accustomed to seeing a “main character” in everything that this is what they’re likely to design when they create a player character (PC). Since so many main characters in movies, TV and literature are of the lone, suspicious hero type, many PCs are also of this variety.

Why are loners bad for games?

First, not every loner tears apart a game. Some players are very good at balancing the loner aspects of a character with the need to involve everyone in the party. Some players are very good at playing characters that don’t mesh entirely well with the other PCs – the key is party compatibility, not necessarily party unity. Once you’re familiar with your players’ playing styles you might feel perfectly comfortable allowing them to play characters that look like loners.

Not every player can balance the personality of a loner with the needs of party-play, however. One of the important tenets of a roleplaying game is that you and your players should be having fun, right? After all, it is a game, and most of you probably play because you enjoy it. Unfortunately, loner characters can sometimes result in other characters being sidelined for long periods of time, creating some very bored players. That doesn’t tend to be a whole lot of fun for anyone except the one player whose character is getting all the attention.

How To Create A Loner Who Is Also A Team Player

Luckily, your players don’t have to ditch their loners and start from scratch. It’s possible to create a “loner” who is also a team player. Part of this is how you GM for your players, but part of it is also how the PCs are created. It’s always a good idea for the GM to have at least a little oversight when it comes to the character creation process, so that you can nip problems in the bud. Here are some suggestions for how you can help players to alter their loners to make them fun for the entire party. With some players you might only need to use one of these methods; with others you might need to load in several.

Involve the party in the loner’s plots

Make sure that the other PCs are somehow involved in any background plots the player writes into his character. Make sure that whether or not the loner chooses to involve the other PCs, they’ll get sucked into the plot. This will keep the player from ending up in “solo plots.”

Make the loner dependent on party members

Help the player to come up with a way in which their character needs one or more of the other party members around, so that he’s more likely to involve them in his plans. The form this takes is fairly dependent on the characters your players create. It can range from a loosely-defined emotional attachment to one or more characters, to a strictly defined mechanical reliance. Here are some vague, nebulous examples to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

If the player with the loner character wrote a plot into his background where some authority figure gave him a job, tell him that authority figure also demanded that he work with one of the other PCs – if he doesn’t comply, he doesn’t get the job. If the loner character has some sort of special power, make that power somehow dependent on having one of the other PCs around. (If you don’t want to pick on one character, some genres very nicely provide a convenient answer for this problem: spiffy powers that only work when all party members work together.)

The more worried you are about the player ditching the rest of the party, the more strict you can be. The more you trust the player not to do that, the looser the restrictions you place on him. Some players will (understandably) chafe under this sort of restriction, which is why it can help to work with the player to come up with something that’s acceptable to him.

Give the loner reasons to trust the other party members

Loner characters are often suspicious and paranoid by nature; this paranoia often compels them to keep others out of their plots. Give the loner reasons to trust the other PCs. How much you want to make him trust them depends on whether or not you like running games where the PCs tend to be in conflict. If you like running a game where the PCs backstab each other, then obviously forcing one of them to trust the others is probably not a good idea. Otherwise, you can write in that trust in one of several ways:

  • Create a pre-game tie between the loner and one or more other PCs. If they were childhood friends, or this other PC saved his life last month, then he has more reason to trust them.
  • Have a non-player character (NPC) that the loner trusts tell him that one or more of the other PCs are trustworthy.
  • Start out the game with an incident that will cause the loner to trust one or more of the other PCs. Such as, seeing one of them do something that’s strongly in line with the loner’s morality or goals, or having one of them save his life. This is a little trickier since you can’t always predict how characters will react. Thus, this is probably a good option to use with a player who needs a little help giving his character reason to work with the party, but who isn’t generally a problem player.

Don’t be afraid to use your game system

If necessary (in other words, if it’s a player you’ve never worked with before and the character is setting off warning bells, or if it’s a problem player), don’t be afraid to back up the loner’s dependence on the party with your game system. Most systems have their equivalent of flaws or disadvantages.

To use one of the examples from option #2, if the loner has some sort of special power that only works when the other party members are around, don’t be afraid to put that in writing as a flaw or disadvantage.

Have a talk with the player

I’m back to my communication soapbox again! Even if you make use of one or more of the above options, there’s no harm in explaining to the player why you’re doing what you’re doing, and what your concerns are. In fact, it will probably help. That way the player has some idea of what you’re worried about and, thus, how to avoid it.

As A Player…

You can make use of many of the above suggestions yourself if you’re a player and you know you tend to create loner characters. You may need to work together with the GM or another player for some of them, but others you can do yourself, such as trying to keep in mind that there needs to be room for the other PCs in any background plots you create for yourself.

How To GM For Loner Characters

As noted above, a lot of the fixes for this problem come in the character creation stage. There are, however, a few things you can do during games to encourage loners to spend time with and involve their party.

Make sure the rest of the PCs have reason to be involved in each plot

You don’t need to find a separate reason for each individual to get involved in each plot. But you do need to make sure that enough of the party will be involved that the rest of the party is likely to get sucked in. At least make sure that one of the non-loners will be pulled in; non-loners tend to pull in the rest of the party by nature.

Keep single-character time to a reasonable level

There’s nothing saying that it’s bad for single characters to go off and have conversations with NPCs by themselves, or look into things by themselves. But when it’s carried to an extreme it tends to result in bored players. If things seem to be getting out of hand, talk to the player who’s causing the problem, and then start abstracting long periods of time away from the party. Instead of allowing a single character to go through a dungeon room-by-room without the rest of the party, for example, start summing up what he finds on entire hallways or floors.

Move the spotlight around reasonably often

If one loner insists on going off and doing lots of things by himself, frequently shift the spotlight back to other members of the party rather than just staying with that one character. This can be a great all-purpose way to handle parties that like to have some amount of individual autonomy – it lets them each go off and do their own thing, while ensuring that they all stay in the game.

If things get truly out of hand and the other characters aren’t in a position where you can switch back to them (for example, the loner goes off to do a bunch of things while the rest of the party sleeps), then find a way to get the loner out of action for a little while, until the other party members are available to switch back and forth with.

Use your world

If you’re using a dark and dangerous game world (and many game worlds are dark and dangerous), then keep in mind that characters who repeatedly go off by themselves are much more likely to get ambushed, attacked, and hurt or even killed. Don’t use this to gratuitously kill off a character that annoys you, but consider using a close call now and then to remind loners that there really is safety in numbers. In other words, let the context of your game world take care of the problem for you.

Absolute worst case scenario: dock experience points

The odds are good that one or more of the above suggestions will work for you. But there’s always a worst case scenario: You’ve explained to the player that what he’s doing is making everyone else miserable, but he refuses to stop. You’ve employed the three suggestions above, but he finds ways around them (there will always be players who can outsmart pretty much any clever plan – if you’re lucky they’ll be on your side!). In that case dock experience points, and explain to the player exactly why you’re doing so. Tell him that when he starts to play well with the others you’ll stop docking the points. This should almost never be necessary, and to be honest I’m not fond of doling out “punishments” in games. But it’s always good to have a “just in case” option, and it does work for some groups.

The “lone hero” archetype can be a problem in roleplaying, but there are ways to make it work. There’s no need to scrap entire characters just because they look like loners – you just have to make a few adjustments and be ready to compensate for the loner’s tendency to ditch the rest of the party. Always remember that explaining the problem to the player can go a long way toward coming up with a solution, and keep in mind – everyone’s there to have fun, including the player who comes up with the longer.

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