Unique Character Choices

I’ve noticed that a lot of game masters (GMs) frown upon unique character choices. You know the ones–where someone’s background doesn’t really fit correctly into the way the game world is supposed to work. For instance, the world background states that all members of the Yama tribe live within the Phebos valley, but one of your players wants to play a member of the Yama tribe who was stolen as a baby and grew up on another continent among strangers. Or the background states that all members of the Yama tribe were killed a thousand years ago, and one of your players wants to play a descendant of a lost family of the Yama who have been secreted away in the mountains all this time, or a member of the tribe who was mystically transported forward in time.

The concept is unique in that it’s something that doesn’t previously exist within that world. It’s unusual. It has implications for the character’s life and the plots of your game world.

But what makes it offensive?

Listening In

I’ve listened in on and participated in various GM discussions on forums and mailing lists. I’ve talked to GMs and players in various places. In all of this, the conclusion I eventually came to had several parts to it.

Correlation with Bad Habits

GMs see a correlation between a desire to play a unique character and several habits that they dislike in players:

  • A desire to hog time in the spotlight to themselves
  • A desire to muck with the rules to create an over-powered character
  • An unwillingness to play within the system provided
  • A preference for playing loner characters that won’t mesh well with a group of player characters (PCs)

They figure that there’s plenty of interesting material provided in the game world already, so there’s no reason for the player to go to great lengths to play something further unusual. If the player does, then clearly there must be some sort of hidden motive for doing so, whether conscious or unconscious.

Hijacking Your Game

Another source of resentment is the feeling that the player is hijacking the GM’s game. Unique characters tend to spur intense, often mid- to high-epic plots centered around that character or his concerns, which might not be what the GM had in mind when he started thinking about his campaign. These GMs are (perhaps understandably) a little irritated that all of their plans have been changed.

Breaking the Rules?

Yet another problem is that GMs sometimes see world background as immutable and unchangeable. They almost view it as a part of the game system,such that the religions, cultures, and other details of the world are rules, not just interesting things to be used in their games. Keep in mind that world background is just that–background that you can make use of, so you don’t have to come up with everything on your own. Plenty of games don’t even include world background at all. A world is not a set of rules; it’s something that can be mucked with as you please to make for a better game. (For that matter, rules too can be mucked with as you please to make for a better game, but that’s an argument for another time.)

Why Unique Can Be Okay

Unique characters don’t have to be a thorn in the GM’s side. There are plenty of ways to keep them from being a problem, some of which we’ll address here. And there are benefits you get from unique characters that you might not have thought about.

The Benefits

A unique character is an automatic plot-attraction device, just waiting for you to make use of it. Unique is always valuable or in demand for one reason or another; use the character’s uniqueness as an easy plot hook when you’re in need of one. Use it to make your heavily-plotted game plausibly so. For more information on the uses and benefits of plot attraction devices, check out Game Worlds Designed for Roleplaying: Plot Density. Under the heading on “The Plot Attraction Conceit,” there’s an entire section on “Plot Attraction as Destiny and/or Unique Status.”

Getting to play a unique character can often get a player very excited about his character. It’s a fantastic way to make him feel engrossed in the game. In addition, unique characters often have a unique tie to the game-world. What they are is inherently wrapped up in the concepts and history of the world. This often involves the player in the world in a way that few other things can.

None of these benefits should be underestimated. Involving your players and finding believable ways to pull their characters into the plots of the world are important goals.

Why the Player Isn’t Necessarily Trying Something Funny

It often seems to the GM as though there’s no good reason for the player to want to muck with the presented world material, so clearly he’s trying something funny, right? Well, there are a number of other possible reasons for the player’s character preferences:

  • The player’s imagination naturally drifts in weird directions.
  • The player has a vivid imagination matched with a creative streak.
  • Some GMs (and games) give out conflicting signals. They say that they don’t want players to make stereotypical or two-dimensional characters, but there’s an (unstated) assumption that neither do they want players to get too creative, or creative in the “wrong ways.” The player is expected to magically divine this perfect in-between state without even knowing about the latter restriction. No wonder he often misses!
  • Maybe there’s a particular situation, story concept, or some other thing that simply appeals to the player, or that he’s always wanted to play with.
  • If the game background is particularly appealing or inspiring, it can be hard not to get caught up in saying, “ooh, what if this happened?” When you’re a GM you get to make a plot out of that. When you’re a player, the only option you have is to make a character out of that. Why should the GM get to have all of the creative fun?
  • Remember that even though it seems like these odd suggestions don’t match the game material, oftentimes they really do. They might not stick to the facts of the world, but look around your game background a little more. Does it give other examples of unique situations and individuals? Then maybe your player is playing more firmly within the world than you realize.
  • Roleplaying is escapism, like reading a good book or watching a good movie except more intense. There are lots of unique characters in fantasy and science fiction for a reason–because people like to escape to amazing and special identities. Is this really a bad thing? If it’s good enough for your TV shows and your books, why isn’t it good enough for your games?
  • The desire to play a character that is uniquely tied to the background material is often simply a sign that the player is inspired by the world and premises of the game. If it’s your home-brewed campaign world, take that as a compliment.

What to Do about Problems

Spotlight Time Problems

You’re the GM, and as such, there are plenty of ways for you to deal with and affect spotlight issues. Ask the player to find ways to work the other PCs into her plots; help her find ways to do this that you approve of. Make sure that you find ways to spotlight the other characters in the game — if you really want to draw their players into your game then you should be doing this anyway. If anything, the player who came up with the unique character has simply saved you some of the work of coming up with interesting plots relevant to her character. Switch back and forth often between characters during the course of the game if they’re in separate places, and abstract long, boring actions being taken by single characters alone.

Over-Powered Characters

There are plenty of ways to deal with players who want to play over-powered characters that don’t involve totally overruling the character concept. First be sure that this is what the player is really trying to do. Ask her some hard questions to be certain. Either way, you have a right to try to balance the character. Bring up the problems with the player and work with her to solve them; communication is your best weapon here. A player who agrees to your measures is more likely to go along with them!

Try to balance any weird advantages the player gets with commensurate disadvantages. Alternately, find ways to tone down the advantages. For more suggestions on dealing with this situation before the game starts, check out some of our other articles on relating to players.

Playing Within the System

Just because a player creates a unique character does not automatically mean that he’s going to cheat or try to break the system in other ways. However, if you’re worried about it, then talk to the player about your concerns. Give him the chance to convince you that your fears are unfounded. Either way, at least it puts him on the alert that you’re worried about the issue, which will make him more aware of his behavior.

Loner Characters

This is probably the most valid reason in the bunch to worry about a unique character. There are plenty of examples of unique characters in television, books, and movies, and most of them are loners. This means that your players might have an unconscious image of their unique characters as loners. The best suggestions I have for this situation can be found in:

These articles contain suggestions for turning your characters’ loners back into team players, without necessarily wrecking the original character concept. You’ll find plenty of ideas, both for creating a coherent party of characters in general and for dealing with loners in specific. Do remember, however, that you don’t have to have PCs that get along all the time in order to have a coherent party–a bit of conflict can make life interesting.

The Hijacked Game

I suspect that many GMs are worried about this particular problem. They had some great ideas for where to take their game, and now they worry that the entire game will be taken over by this wild card of a character.

Solution #1: Communication: Talk to the player. Help her to integrate the character into your pre-conceived campaign. You might be able to work the character into some of your own plots. You might be able to get the player to change a few details in the interests of fitting in a little better. Make the argument that you just want to make sure the player gets a share of the fun.

Solution #2: Share Your World: As I’ve said often in various articles on free will in roleplaying, your players are a part of the game. They and their characters should be able to have an effect on the plot and the world too. Otherwise, where’s the fun?

If a player really wants to play with something in particular, why not find a way to work it into the game? Again, as in solution #1, you can work with the player to find a way to make it fit. You can connect it to other plots that you already want to play with. You can consider what neat ideas you might get out of the intersection of that character and your plots.

Did you ask your players ahead of time what sort of game they enjoy? Did you put at least a little effort into delivering something they’d enjoy? If not, then maybe you should consider using their odd character choices as a means to inject something of what they would enjoy into the game. After all, players tend to be happier if you integrate their characters into your game and make use of their characters in general. Why should things be any different with a unique character choice?

Solution #3: Delaying Tactics: If you’re worried about an intense, epic plot disrupting what you had planned, then put it off for a little while. Feed little tidbits of information about the character’s plot into your game so that the player doesn’t get restless. Let there be little hints that something big is coming later. Meanwhile, play with the plots you had planned ahead of time. Once you feel like you’ve played through enough of the things that you just can’t reconcile with the unique PC, start ramping up to that character’s plot. Tell the player up-front that you plan to make the unveiling of the character’s uniqueness a long and drawn-out process that doesn’t resolve itself immediately, so you don’t have to worry too much about him getting impatient.

Unique character choices don’t have to be seen as an affront to your game. They don’t have to be seen as poor roleplaying. They’re ready-made plot hooks and plot attractions that you can shamelessly abuse to drag your party into your plots; why not make use of that? They even reduce your work-load by reducing your need to come up with plots that involve the unique PCs. If you’re worried about various forms of abuse, you can take care of most problems ahead of time just by communicating and working with your players.

If you worry that too many unique character choices will cheapen the specialness of such characters, then ask that not all unique choices involve big, epic things. Not all unique characters break worlds. Most of all, if you have any concerns, talk to your players. This is a tool that too many GMs ignore. By discussing problems with your players you’re more likely to come up with solutions that everyone will be happy with.

Given all of these factors, I can’t imagine why more GMs don’t allow unique characters. In fact, under many circumstances I recommend encouraging unique character choices, at least once every handful of characters. It gives the players something amazing to play with now and then, and gives you a bit of a break from having to come up with quite as much in the way of plots and motivations for a little while. Why not take advantage of that?

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