Playing the Unusual and the Unexpected

Game masters (GMs) often balk at unusual or unexpected character choices that players make. They believe that their players are only doing it to get an advantage or to get a greater share of the spotlight time during game. Even if they don’t think these things, they might be miffed because they had one kind of a game prepared and the unexpected character choice doesn’t fit that game.

Is It Really So Bad?

You’re going to hear me use this phrase a lot in this series of articles: Is it really so bad? What’s the big deal? Why is an unusual or unexpected character so offensive? It doesn’t suit your sensibilities — so what? Different people like to play different kinds of things.

If the player is doing this to gain some sort of advantage (which probably isn’t the case as often as you think it is), there might be other ways to deal with it than simply disallowing the character that allow the player to have their fun too. If the player isn’t doing this to gain an advantage, then where’s the harm? There are ways to fit the character into your game!

Some players’ imaginations naturally gravitate toward the weird. Some players just get caught up in asking “what if” questions when they start looking into a game universe, and this leads to some unusual character ideas. Some players just don’t realize or believe that your campaign doesn’t suit their character choice, or they’re so caught up in their “cool” idea that it doesn’t occur to them.

Do you really have to punish this kind of thing? Is thinking outside the box such a crime? (It’s always surprised me that in roleplaying, a “fringe” activity in the first place, people get so bent out of shape by people thinking in unusual directions.) While you do have to consider how to make the player characters (PCs) work within your game, that isn’t necessarily the same thing as disallowing unusual or unexpected characters. Here are a few suggestions for handling players with weird imaginations.

The Possibilities

To Gain an Advantage

If you think the player is choosing such a character to get some sort of mechanical advantage, then ask her some questions about why she chose that character. You might find you’re wrong. In that case explain your concern and have her help you figure out a way to make the character more balanced. If you’re right about the player wanting an advantage, then you have several options.

  • Explain your concern to her and have her help you come up with a way to keep her from having an unreasonable advantage.
  • Use your game world to compensate for her advantage. I don’t mean totally neutralize it; it’s incredibly frustrating to come up with a character concept and then have it ripped out from under you. I mean that you should work on plots that won’t be too easily solved through use of the advantage. Come up with a list of ways to compensate for the advantage during game-play. You’re the GM — use that!
  • If the advantage is really that unbalancing and the two of you just can’t make it work, then explain to the player why you don’t want her to have it. Ask her what else about the character really appealed to her, and help her to find another character concept that will appeal to her in the same way yet not give her such an unbalancing advantage.

To Gain Spotlight Time

“Spotlight time” is the time during which a player and her character have the attention of the GM and group focussed on them. For what are hopefully obvious reasons, it’s a good idea for the spotlight time to be a bit balanced. You don’t want some players being bored while others hog the spotlight to themselves.

Perhaps you worry that a player who has chosen an unusual character with a weird background, history, and so on is doing it because she wants to be the center of attention. There’s a pretty easy solution that doesn’t involve vetoing the character concept: You control the spotlight. Players can influence it, but ultimately you are in control. There are different ways to exercise this control, some of which can be influenced to varying degrees by players.

  • During game, if one player is hogging all the action, find ways to draw the other characters into that action. If the characters are in different places, switch the spotlight back and forth often to keep people from getting bored. This is the method that can go wrong most easily, since clever players can find ways to ensure that the rest of the party is shut out.
  • Make sure that every character has a plot at some point that revolves around him. These don’t all have to be active at once; these don’t all have to be epic-level things. Just find little ways to involve each and every character in the game world. Find ways to make things personal for them. Some players will do this for you by coming up with weird background plots; you can do it for the others. This helps to balance things.
  • Put a little thought before each game run into something interesting, dramatic, and/or personal that could happen for each character, even if it’s something tiny. Again, this provides much-needed balance and keeps the other players from feeling left out.
  • If one player is particularly good at coming up with her own character’s plots, then let the exciting parts of your plots happen to other characters who haven’t gotten as much spotlight time. You need someone to have a weird dream? Pick a character played by someone who doesn’t tend to come up with much character background.
  • Ask the player before game to work the other characters into her spiffy plots somehow, to make them important to her plots. Help her find a way to do this that you approve of.

To be honest, you should really be finding ways to make things personal and interesting for the PCs anyway. That one player with the weird character has simply saved you the trouble of coming up with things for her character.

It Doesn’t Fit

Okay, so the character concept doesn’t fit your game. Why? Did you explain what would fit? If not, why not? Your players can’t come up with something that will fit if you don’t tell them what they have to fit it to. If you did explain and it still doesn’t fit, ask the player what’s going on. Maybe there’s something that makes her think it can fit. It might reveal a misunderstanding she has about the game, or it might even convince you that her idea could work. Maybe you’ll just find out that your players aren’t inspired by the same sorts of characters and plots that you are. Maybe then it’s time to let them work something that they are inspired by into your game, if you really want them to have fun.

If the character concept doesn’t fit, can it be made to fit? Perhaps a few small changes to the character would make it work. Perhaps a few small changes to your game would make it work! Talk to the player and ask her to help you work out a way to fit the character into your world. If the two of you together can’t make it work, then you can both talk about alternatives.

If it doesn’t fit, again, why not? Did you remember to ask your players what they enjoy playing before planning out your adventure? If you’ve planned out a huge adventure that doesn’t allow for your players’ preferences at all, then maybe that’s a problem with the adventure, not their characters. Remember to communicate with your players; if you don’t know what they enjoy, then you won’t be able to make the game fun for them.

It Just Won’t Work

“They don’t have a cleric in the party! How are they going to survive without a cleric?!”

Think back to when you were last a player. Didn’t it suck, as a group, to have to decide which player would play the crappy character that no one wanted to play? Wouldn’t you be really frustrated, as a player, to be the one who got the short end of the stick?

Then don’t do the same thing to your players. If all of your players want to play thieves, let them! Think of it as an opportunity instead of a disaster. Just think, you can play with all sorts of things you usually couldn’t get into — thieves’ guild politics, elaborate theft plots, and so on, all without sidelining the “irrelevant” characters because there aren’t any irrelevant characters!

Think of unexpected character choices as a challenge, not a tragedy. If your players want to play all thieves, or all clerics, or some other weird “non-traditional” party, what’s wrong with that? Instead of screwing them over to “teach them a lesson” or making them roll up new characters, you could run a really interesting and unusual campaign.

It Won’t Play Well with Others

Perhaps you worry that the character won’t work well with the rest of the party of PCs. This is certainly a valid concern; a group of characters that won’t work together can drag any game to a halt. Before simply rejecting the character, however, why not work together with the player to fix the problem?

If necessary involve the entire group of players. Work out a way to ensure that there will be enough reason for the characters to be able to work together, hang out together, etc. If you all just can’t make it work, the player will probably be much less unhappy about changing the concept if you at least gave it a chance to work.

For more information on helping the party to work together, see our article on Coherent Party Creation.

Yes, there are circumstances under which a character just won’t work in your campaign. Why jump to that conclusion, though?

  1. Talk to the player; give her the chance to convince you that it will work.
  2. Talk to the player; work with her to change the character such that it will work in your campaign. Change your campaign instead!
  3. Talk to the player; if steps 1 and 2 really do fail, and you can’t think of a feasible way to change your campaign such that the character will work, then help the player to come up with a new character.
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