"Well it says I have blue, but I decided I wanted grey eyes…"
The Situation We’ve All Been In
I’ve recently found myself running a new game. It is only a few sessions old, but one of the players sheepishly approached me asking if he could change some stuff about his character. The character was cool, but it wasn’t fitting in with what the game became. Despite a good backstory, fun powers, and some great hooks that would come into play later in the campaign, the player wasn’t having as much fun with the character as he had hope. He wasn’t feeling as effective in combat and his demeanor didn’t quite fit with the rest of the party. My group has always operated with the idea that you can make any change you want if it is in the first few sessions, and I totally understood. We retconned some things and made the changes. The game got a lot more fun for everyone.
Why Do Post Creation Changes Occur?
Making character changes after the fact strikes me as a pretty common occurrence in the realms of roleplaying. There are lots of reasons I can think of or have seen that a player might want a change.
- The game could go in an unexpected direction. Maybe the rapier/finesse fighting style the player was following turned out to be ineffective against the types of enemies that the Game Master decided to make the focus of the game. Nobody wants to play an ineffective character and even if the Game Master lays out some themes beforehand, it doesn’t always mean they characters will fit like a puzzle piece.
- The character might not fit with the rest of the party. The player who approached me was playing a nobleborn and sophisticated mage that didn’t quite mesh with the rough and tumble party that had developed. It’s no fun to feel like the odd man out, so one in-game drinking and loosening up session later, the character fit right in with the rest of the group.
- The player might have found something awesome in a new splat book, but can’t meet the requirements the way their current character is set up.
- The character might be traversing a path that will not end well. We once had a player join a Shadowrun game at the last minute. He created a techno-terrorist without knowing that most of our characters were hackers and riggers … That was some bad planning that ended up in a few in-game/out of game explosions. A few changes to characters might have prevented some strained friendships.
No plan survives the battlefield, and no character remains the same once they’ve gotten in the game. When a player wants to change something about their character after the fact, it is usually because some aspect of the game would be more fun with the change. Players create characters for a lot of reasons, but rarely do those reasons fit snugly into what the Game Master plans.
Early Changes Are Easy, But What About Late Game Changes
My group has always operated with the idea that you can make changes in the first few sessions. Nothing is too set in stone, so why sweat the small stuff. But what about when the changes are requested after the characters have been well established? Well, if the reason is good enough there are always ways to handle it. And most methods for changing characters early on will work just as well for changing characters later in the game.
- Depending on the size and nature of the change, you can retcon the changes in as if they existed right from the beginning. The smaller the change the easier to retcon in. Requiring a little backstory adjustment can help shoehorn in bigger changes. Sure the character might not have picked up an assault rifle and used it in the game yet, but that doesn’t mean he never went hunting with his dad when he was a kid. He just never had a chance or reason to show it up until now.
- Late game changes can be justified by providing in game reasons for them. The upright paladin might loosen up after a drinking session or being showing how his hardline attitude negatively affects the people he is trying to help. The boat trip across the sea might have exposed a character to someone who taught him the tricks of a new class. Adding a bit of in-game reasoning can help big changes become accepted.
- If the story allows for it, taking a week’s break and fast forwarding a couple of months in game can help make changes feel less sudden. No character can be expected to sit around doing nothing for a few months, and with a bit of a real world break the changes don’t feel as out of place as they would if the last time you played was just a few days ago.
- Allowing one player to make changes late in the game will go over better if you give the other players the same opportunity. They might have been feeling that their characters were a little stale and could use some housecleaning. Letting all the players make changes can freshen up and reinvigorate a game.
- And of course, late game changes to characters will go over well if kept to reasonable things. Changing races is going to a lot harder to swallow than changing fighting styles.
In the End…
It’s all about fun, and if changing a few aspects of a character make it more fun for one player, then it will likely increase the fun for the whole group. Changing things up after the fact can cause some chaos, but if handled correctly it can be smoothly handled. Have you ever had a player approach you asking about a change to their character after the fact? How big of a change is too big, or how many gaming sessions would you consider being to many to allow changes?
my group is pretty friendly to changing things, and building it into the story along the way. i rebuilt my warforged paladin into a warforged warlord in our last game, and in my current campaign, the adventurer guilds exist to facilitate a PC retraining just about anything. or even race, via the changeling guild.
I’ve always gone with the idea that a player can make changes after the first game or two — kind of like how characters change from a TV show pilot to follow on episodes. (Hell, Hill Street Blues resurrecyed to characters from pilot to series.)
I also allow rewrites after major story points are reached, if characters have had major life changes.
I like to let my players develop their characters during the game. Like many GMs I think of campaigns as like a TV series. The first episode of a TV series usually establishes the basics about the main characters, but then you find out more about them and they become deeper characters as the show goes on. Requiring a fully-detailed character background the first session of a game is like a TV show that shows the entire life story of the main characters in the first episode, and then never goes back.
I don’t even require the players to spend all of their skill points at the beginning. If the player realizes during the second session that they want the character to have a certain skill, that’s much easier to accomplish if the character has a skill point that’s still unspent. Often in TV shows a character turns out to have some useful skill that they’ve never used before, but makes sense for the character. Likewise, I would also allow them to take a flaw/drawback during the game – perhaps their intrepid treasure seeker never told their companions about their fear of snakes until they are dumped in a room full of them, for example. Allowing characters to develop during the game has always led to much deeper characters for us than writing a 10-page biography and sticking to it ever has.
When I started a Shadowrun campaign with my group, largely made up of individuals who hadn’t played Shadowrun much (and a few who had never played tabletop RPGs at all), it was with the caveat that they could change their characters after the first three sessions or so. Generally speaking, they were all welcome to change their character, though I required the more experienced players to justify their changes a little more. It worked out really well, letting my players drop skills they didn’t find they used and fit their characters together better in the group.
Now that we’ve been running for a long time though, I’m not sure I’d let my players retcon a character. I’m all for encouraging them to *change* their character, but I think I would require them to do it through in game mechanics. That’s probably easier to say with a system like Shadowrun than, say, D&D. Its just a matter of improving attributes and certain skills to turn your crude and rude gunslinger into a smooth talking, stealth operative as compared to trying to turn your Fighter into a Rogue in D&D.
My main rule for character changes is this: don’t do it mid-session. If you want to tweak your character, rebuild a character, or totally chuck a character and get a new one, that’s fine, but my players must discuss it with me out of game, and if we build or tweak one for them, it is done between sessions. The process of rebuilding is too tedious to be done during most gaming sessions.
BTW, my favorite hook for this is the death/rebirth method. It can explain away a lot of changes to a character.
I used to be pretty restrictive about this, but these days I actually encourage players to change stuff if it’s not working out. If the character sheet isn’t a constant, then the character has to be something more than just the game mechanics.
I think the key word here is fun. We all play games to have fun. Many games require a small commitment, say a few hours for board games and such, but role-playing demands a much greater commitment. No one has fun when he/she is not happy with his/her character and feels “stuck” with it. As a role-player you live with your character for years. Why would anyone want to continue session after session with a character, skill, feat, etc. that just doesn’t make him/her happy? Change is good if it facilitates happy players because happy players leads to more fun! Now if someone wants to change a few things to create a situation that “breaks” the game, then all bets are off!
I always use this. I even outright tell player that if something isn’t working they way they want to let me know and they can change it in the first couple sessions. I want the players to have fun playing a character they enjoy, not something they grow fond of over time.
I run D20, BRP and Savage Worlds games regularly, and I’ve begun to urge players with new characters to “hold a little back” – keep 10-20 skill points unallocated in the BRP & D20 games. That way, if a character needs to suddenly become qualified to do something he/she didn’t foresee at charatcer generation time they can just allocate the points and away we go.
With Savage Worlds I use the “Defining Interest” idea by having them unallocated at the start of a game and letting any player claim one as play progresses – first one to call it, gets it. If the SW character is so badly built for the game that it won’t work at all, I generally suggest the player makes a new one from the ground up.
I also have a policy that if a character isn’t working for someone, they can have that character walk out of the action and be replaced at any time with another.