Here’s something that is important for the whole group to pay attention to: Character Roles. The best description of the problem I have read came from Fang Langford when he was working through his description of Scattershot a few years ago. At the time he called it Sine Qua Non, Latin for “without which not”. [The current version is here.]
It is important to clearly label the core– whatever part of your character that is required to be the character you envisioned– the part that if it was missing you wouldn’t be playing the same character. A lot of interesting things can be that core; sometimes it’s party-role (so a character has something unique it can do), sometimes characterization-role (so everyone’s not the wise mentor… someone has to be the plucky hero who learns), sometimes it involves both party and characterization roles, or even something else altogether.
I find it difficult to meddle with a player’s character concept– players have control over only one character in the game so it’s hard not to give them their space. Unfortunately, not paying attention to overlapping character concepts and letting concept conflicts fester can have an ongoing and negative impact on the game. This has cropped up a couple of times in the games I’ve run; once to deadly effect, and as an ongoing annoyance in others.
A cautionary tale
Once upon a time, I created a Mage: The Ascension game. I invited a few players and they invited a couple more and soon I had a large game. Combine that with very uneven experience with the system, different levels of investment, OOC disputes extending back beyond the years I’d known them, and way too many other factors, and you have a disaster.
One specific element that was “only indirectly” my fault regarded character roles. Two players independently created characters. One was a master of death; an assassin with training in many exotic weapons and an understanding of fate. The other was a superior martial artist, skilled with his hands and weapons, and a respect for the chi flowing through all things.
You don’t even have to guess, do you? The two characters were run by players who had some mild antagonism [by far not the worst in the group, I later found out]. Their characters’ philosophies conflicted [each analyzing the winds of fate/chi in their own way], so the characters fought. It probably wouldn’t have been a terrible fight– a little knocking the characters back and forth– but both players grew frustrated. Each, you see, considered their success in this conflict important. This fight revealed them as having the same character core: kicking butt hand to hand. I scrambled to describe how cool the fight was, how elegant their attacks and parries were, how they’d never seen a competitor of such skill– but none of that mattered. Each had an idea of their character in their mind, a concept of their unmatched competence in the fist and blade fighting arena. This fight undermined the core concept for their character in both player’s eyes.
Eventually the dice provided a victor, but the victor’s unhappiness at seeing their role rendered weak sauce (plus the underlying antagonism and half baked splat book philosophies) resulted in disaster. I’d hoped that, disastrous as the fight might have seemed when it began, that it would work out like a movie. I hoped the characters would come to respect the each other’s tremendous skill. Though this conflict wasn’t planned, if they went with the idea that they’d found an honorable and respected foe/companion it might work out for the best. Their real rivalry could be expressed in game as an honorable rivalry– maybe they’d compete to one up each other in their great deeds.
It was not to be. Because the victor didn’t trust his advantage, he killed the defeated while he had the upper hand. He didn’t trust the dice and system to preserve his victory– uphold his character’s core– and who knew how the defeated would react after another hard fight?
An ongoing concern
My current D&D 3.5e group is filled with sneakers. (Not shoes, stealthy types!) Together they decided to make a party that moves lightly, strikes with surprise, and sneaks away before the flyswatter comes down. They are devastatingly effective. The first sessions of the campaign were rough.
The campaign began with the group responding to a nearby city being attacked by the evil dwarven empire. They gathered their gear and headed north, moving stealthily through the woods to count the enemy. The trouble began immediately. I asked, “What’s your marching order as you move through the woods? Are you sneaking in one bunch, do you have an advance scout… what’s your plan?”
It sounds innocuous, but there was real friction. The ranger proposed that she’d sneak ahead of the group; with her stealth and keen senses, she’d make sure they spotted their foes before they could be seen or heard. The rogue immediately proposed that they split the duties; the ranger could walk an arc ahead along the right side of the party, and he’d do the same on the left. On the surface, this made sense, but it really frustrated the ranger’s player. They were in a wilderness, sneaking… the most ranger like behavior possible, and the rogue could do the same. She felt there was no niche protection at all.
The first combat had similar problems. The ranger’s player had ran a sorcerer in the last campaign and wanted to switch styles and play a front line fighter this time. We rolled initiative. The fighter moved in and started smashing the foe. The rogue’s initiative came up and he moved forward, lining up a flank attack but stopping right in the ranger’s path, blocking the ranger so she can’t reach the combat. Over the the next few combats the fighter often set up the rogue for flanking and bonus damage, leaving the ranger’s hard purchased Distracting Attack gathering dust.
They picked the feats for their two characters. The ranger took the two weapon path, granting two weapon fighting at second level. At third level, the rogue proposed taking the two weapon fighting feat. I suspect you can guess the friction that came from that idea. He backed off, a little scorched by her claim to a whole combat style.
Even though I’ve had campaigns explode due in part to the tensions that come from overlapping niches, I didn’t notice the problem until the ranger’s player pointed it out after the first night of play. We tweaked the characters somewhat to make them more distinct, but it’s still an underlying concern.
You’ve probably noticed that I made it up to my most current campaign and the problem still crops up. I don’t have a good way of figuring out what the core concept of a character IS to the player. I can imagine another group’s rogue/ranger combo shrugging off the problems above– especially in a campaign featuring more city or dungeon fighting, sophisticated traps, etc. I can also imagine a pair of players anchoring their core to entirely different tasks; I can imagine the wizard and the rogue being upset as each tries to fill the practical joker role. Or it’s the bard and the beguiler who compete to negotiate and charm the NPCs, or two different people want to be party leader, or the wizard who casts silence and invisibility to be a more undetectable thief than the thief… you get the idea.
I suspect the best solution is to get people to describe how they view their character. That’s pretty meta though; I know it often takes me some time in play before I figure out what the character is meant for.
One good way to address this may come from Fang Langford’s post on the subject.
When you make your persona, you need to define their Sine Qua Non. The simplest method I’ve come up with when someone is having trouble, I call ‘three up, three down.’ List the first three things you want people to remember about your character, then list the last three things you would let anyone forget. For example:
Ajimiru ‘King Blade’ for Armageddon Engines (a game of giant robot anime)
Three up, three down:
- He’s a hotshot ‘engine pilot who’s never lost a battle.
- He has a tragically scarred, older brother who disappeared in epic battle (and secretly went over to the other side).
- His kitten goes everywhere with him.
- He has the morals of an alley cat.
- Ajimiru is strikingly handsome.
- He’s an idealistic ‘good guy’ out to avenge his brother, regain his family name, and have a rockin’ good time.
Some games have very narrow roles and thrive for it. In Pendragon the characters are all knights; in carry the characters are all soldiers. By assuming the common ground, you encourage looking at smaller differentiations for the characters. In Pendragon it might be the virtues they value, the weapons they wield, or just the skills that one character emphasizes. The “all thieves guild” campaign that was mentioned in the second edition AD&D books would be another example of lots of similarity (they’re all thieves) but also lots of differentiation (one rogue is the the box man, another the cat burglar, a third the fence, etc.)
Is this problem limited to my groups, or have you run into the same thing before? Do you have a good way to figure out what niche the player really wants to protect? If you’re a player, are you fighting to protect a your character’s core concept from other players right now?
I had this problem most recently with, oddly enough, an NPC. One of my fellow players in the Iron Heroes game was very excited for a cohort that he was planning on gaining a few levels down the line. He’d been working on the character with the GM, and was explaining to me how this guy would have several levels of man-at-arms, primarily wield a greataxe, be his right-hand man in combat..
Wait a second. I play a man-at-arms. I kill stuff with a greataxe. I save my buddy’s sorry hide in combat. My buddy, on the other hand, usually stands back and buffs everyone else, or takes potshots with a longbow. I can see how that would be less fun than smashing stuff in melee. That’s why I chose to play a character who smashes stuff in melee. Sometimes I wish I were good at ranged, especially when we’re dealing with ogres, but that’s a tradeoff.
The GM was reluctant to get involved, so my friend and I had a long conversation about character concepts and tradeoffs. He agreed that it wasn’t fair for him to have and play cohorts that duplicate things other party members specialize in. It ended with him deciding to tweak the cohort NPC from a front-line fighter, to someone who would stand next to him during battles and guard him. Since he seems to almost magnetically attract arrows and crossbow bolts, this seemed a good solution all around.
I’m not the only one in our group who kills things with a greataxe – our berserker does, too. I think my problem was more that another player being able to do his core thing, AND my core thing, diminished the value of what I do. Then again, my core isn’t “best at killing things with an axe.” It just includes “kills things with an axe” as part of it.
I think the only real way to resolve problems like that is to have the players talk about who the core concept is most valuable to. If that rogue was toying with the idea of playing a fighter instead, maybe he’d be okay with letting the ranger be the stealthy one, and switch his build to be less centered around sneaking.
With the two players who both wanted to be the best in the world at the same thing.. I think there’s really nothing that could have been done, since their real rivalry was out of character.
I think that’s what it always comes down to. Players who like each other will adapt their own ideas for a better party that lets everyone have more fun. Players who don’t like each other will get in each other’s way no matter what the issue at hand is.
Used to run into this problem with D&D and Shadowrun, but have not had the problem with Burning Empires/Burning Wheel.
I don’t think it is STRICTLY a system problem, but I think some systems can LEAD to the problem more easily than others.
The only solution is to have extremely laid-back players (unlikely) or to create characters together who tell the group the concept they want to play. When I put my old group together for a 4e game, we all sat down and worked out what everyone was going to play and how that would fit. No problems. Everyone picked something they enjoyed and established their niches. Obviously, 4th edition makes that easier with pre-defined roles whereas it can be pretty grey in 3.x.
In the game in which I’m a player, everyone was so laid-back that everyone said “I’m up for just about anything. You guys pick something and I’ll fill in the gaps.” That’s a fantastic and group-oriented attitude to have but, when everyone has it, that can make it hard to jump-start the process. Thankfully, I’m a bit of a control-freak so I said “I’m playing a 2-weapon berserker type Fighter whose utility abilities focus around shrugging off hits and gaining temp hp. All of his attack powers will be burst melee attacks after first level.” (We are gearing up for a Viking/Norse-themed game.) Everyone else then started to pick roles and the most flexible players chose last, filling in the gaps.
Maybe I’m just lucky to be playing with people who are all good friends and give each other room to have their own places to shine but the situation can be dealt with up front by simply making characters together. Backgrounds should be done individually but the concept stage should be done as a group so everyone knows right off the bat who has shown a preference for which specialties and roles, combat and non-combat.
I would wager that small groups run into this problem less (for obvious reasons). An adventuring party with 3 PCs (as opposed to 7 or 8 ) tends to overlap very little, and they come to depend on each other to a great extent.
I GM’ed a game with 3 PCs and they all had totally separate roles, especially considering that they couldn’t even completely cover the basics (melee, healer, wizard, rogue). Everyone had a chance to shine.
I’ve also played in games with 8 PCs where halfway through the combat you’re saying “Hmm, our 2nd wizard is down…lucky we have another.”
I have a player that after creating a rogue expressed how frustrate he was with it because his character could not work as tank like the fighter, could not cast spells like the sorceress, could heal like the Cleric, and it could not fire his crossbow as well as the Ranger.
But everyone in the party told him how they could not bluff or use any of their social skills as well as he did. They also said he could dish out lots of damage but he needed to learn how to use the sneak attack. As for the rest of what he wanted. They said everyone has a role to fill.
But he insisted in wanting to be the center of everything. His character has been down in most of the battles since he runs in front of the party to engage the enemy. He is usually taken out in the second round of attacks. The rest of the time he spends moping.
I had to tell him that in D&D 3.5, the system works that way. A rogue should not be front runner of the party. It’s up to him if he does that or not, but I won’t hold out on the damage just because he wants to outshine everyone.
Swordgleam: It sounds like a difficult but good conversation. I wish I’d facilitated one like you managed– though it sounds like you also had to do it without GM support. I agree that the worst situation is when one person does everything you do AND more.
Rafe: Yes, being able to identify your wants is important. Part of our problem came about because the concept for the whole group was “light strike force”, which kind of assumes stealth and wilderness competence for everyone. The ranger wound up being the common ground that everyone matched.
We’ve also done the “what do you want to play” thing where we’re all flexible and looking to fill the gaps. Before this game I told them I warp the world to match the characters they wanted to play, which helped– there wasn’t a need to fill every slot.
Micah: I haven’t run into this problem in small groups either– it’s pretty hard to feel “left over” when it’s only you and a buddy.
Cole: It sounds like he misdesigned his character. Have you considered letting him switch classes? It sounds like he’s more of a ranger or barbarian as he’s playing the character– no wonder he’s not happy with the rogue skills. Even the scout class might help direct him in a more productive direction [if you have Complete Adventurer].
@Scott: I think the problem with that particular player has more to do with wanting to fill all the roles of the party. He does use the rogue skills quite extensively, but when it is time for someone else to shine, he wants to be that person too which creates a problem.
Cole: That’s a much trickier problem to handle– it sounds like you have a good read on him. We’ve had players who struggled with the same problem; the Paladin who after a battle simultaneously tried to loot the bodies, bury the dead, participate in conversations, plan our defenses… basically, be involved in everything interesting.
This came up in the Trinity game I ran a while back. In Trinity, the PCs are psions, psychically evolved humans who are affiliated with various pseudo-governmental agencies that (mostly) work to protect humanity.
One character (played by Martin) was an electrokinetic, able to mental access and control computer. Another was a telepath. My campaign was very heavy on information gathering (much more than I’m likely to ever do again). Because the campaign involved high-tech conspiracies, the EK and TP had similar roles.
Trinity isn’t a cyberpunk system, so there weren’t very elaborate rules for hacking. We found that EK was very effective at getting information from computers, but TP had a lot of built in barriers to getting details buried in someone’s brain, and it also took a lot more time to build up the power (in terms of XP) before it was able to do this.
In short, TP was built to suck information out of people but wasn’t great at it, while TK was built mostly to control all machines but happened to be very good at getting information. This meant that the TP, played by Don, ended up being frustrated with their ability to contribute to the haul.
This is something of a system issue, but I think it more squarely falls on my shoulders as something which I ought to have balanced better, either by houseruling TP or putting the information closer to the surface and in more brains. On the other side, I ought to have made the sessions less about puzzling through information and more about action and interaction.
Wow! Just Wow!
This completely explains some problems in my last game (D&D 3.5). Two of my players are very alike in many ways – snarky retorts, heavy use of sarcasm, and low tolerance for snarky sarcastic comments about themselves. One played a Wizard and the other a sorcerer. Constant one-upsmanship. Constant bickering. Frequent teeth grinding.
Luckily, for our new campaign, each is doing something different. One is a fighter and the other a rogue. Now I know why we’re having more fun!
In a recent campaign we had two spellcasters: one a war mage and the other a druid. The players all came to the table with their characters without prior consultations with one another. The war mage always ran into battle blasting baddies left and right before the druid could get into battle (beefing up other characters, etc.). The druid player confided in me on one occasion, several sessions into the campaign, that it was difficult for him to enjoy playing the character because of the war mage’s actions. The way the druid had set up his character background and choice of spells unfortunately mimicked, for the most part, the spells and abilities of the war mage, just at a lower power. He told me it frustrated him to play with her because of her power and his spells never had the same effect. He wasn’t ready to quit the game, but wasn’t overly enthusiastic about playing.
So, I gave him some leeway and sat down with him and helped him figure out some subtleties to his character; a little re-work here and a tug and pull there and he had a result that was just different enough to cause some interest.
Now the war mage blows things up while the druid works from within–casting spells that turn flesh to stone (or similar effects) working from the inside out. With the proper description from me, the DM, it can be just as spectacular (or even more so) than a fireball. And just like that, everybody’s happy.
I’ve had two scenarios pop up in relation to this:
1) The rotating spotlight: This is less of a D&D problem, but it can come up in games where PCs can be very very specialized. Take a party with a stunningly intelligent PC, a social monster PC, and a tank PC – what manner of encounter do you craft for all three of those PCs? Even more thorny is the question of keeping the other two PCs engaged while the third is playing to his or her strength. I find this happens in White Wolf’s games a lot.
2) Protection of class role: Honestly, I find it easier to cope with this problem than with the above. If two PCs want to be combat monsters, then I can up the number and difficulty of combat encounters.
The problem does come up when, as was pointed out above, a character’s concept includes the phrase “Best there is at…” Such thinking usually leads to bad things, either because they feel threatened by other PCs encroaching on their space or, worse, they feel that encounters that are honestly challenging to them in their strength are the GM undermining their character concept.
Sarlax: I’d have been frustrated as the TP in your campaign– but it sounds like you figured out the problem and a solution. I’m trying to do as you suggest in your last sentence and trying to make sure that I setup situations where one character shines.
Tmax: Glad it was useful– and glad that they stumbled into a good solution for your new campaign.
Wild Joker: Good eye for your player’s frustration; I can barely imagine the frustration of “all the same but he’s better” over long term. Your solution sounds great. Emphasizing the other particularly druid things [like Wildshape’s coolness, etc.] might help too.
Bookkeeper: Case 1> You’re right, it’s hard to design something that challenges such different focuses all at once. The rotating spotlight’s one of the few solutions I’ve seen that often works.
Case 2> Two combat monsters can work as long as they’re different in how they do it. They need different styles, abilities, or something similar or they’ll compare their damage output and whoever is consistently lower risks feeling comparatively weak.
Excellent thoughts so far…
This topic reminded me of something that can be very frustrating for a player. When talking about niche roles, there are few things that are more frustrating for a PC than when his niche is useless or meaningless to the group’s efforts as a whole. For some reason, there are DMs that don’t allow a particular class or niche to have a fulfilling place in the game. There are no opportunities to shine for some classes.
I have encountered this so much in my local games, when trying to run a rogue, that I have just about given up on the class entirely. When a GM makes everything near impossible to achieve just because they don’t want the rogue to succeed at a particular strategy or plan of action, then it becomes pointless to play the rogue in the first place.
Certainly the rogue must plan carefully and not take on things that are way out of his league, but he should be allowed to try and help the party by doing what he is good at. When a rogue is reduced to being nothing much more than a 2nd class fighter, they aren’t filling the role the PC envisioned when the rogue was created.
Have I told you the story about playing Alanora the 2e bard in a military campaign set in the depths of a forest filled with undead? While not intentional… ouch!
Now that I read everyone’s stories, it reminds me of a discussion I just had with a friend of mine. She thinks that the defined niches in 4e are a flaw in the system.
I was puzzled by this, until she told me more about her group. Their rogue apparently will refuse to fulfill his role (open locks, find traps, etc) unless everyone does as he says. Since no one else can do those things in this edition (knock ritual not available yet, takes a long time to cast, etc), the party either gets stuck, or has to cater to him.
This always happened in the old editions with “never ever piss off the cleric,” but now it applies to every class. While having defined party roles is awesome for a cohesive party, it apparently exacerbates the problems in a dysfuntional party.
I guess the flipside of the “my players hate each other and their characters do the same thing” issue is, at least you have redundancy where you’re most likely to need it.
I was once in a super-hero campaign in which we were the x-men. At the beginning, we played existing x-men, I was nightcrawler. As the campaign progressed, some players switched to new characters they had designed themselves.
One player designed a character which had, amongst other super-powers, the ability to permanently alter another’s appearance.
Of course, they offered to use this power on my character, nightcrawler, to give him a normal human-like form. It would be easier for me to get around, blend into the crowd, whilst on stealth and/or diplomatic type missions he said. And besides, was it not an essential part of my character concept that I resented my demonic appearance that set me apart from society? He could cure all that.
I was, to say the least, furious. In one stroke this fellow player had eliminated a large chunk of my character’s personality and motivation. Wether I accepted or refused the offer was irrelevant. One way or the other, my character would become reconciled with his appearance, and also would become more boring to play.
I explained this problem to both the fellow player and the GM, to no avail. The GM thought the other player’s character concept was valid, and that I should just role-play it out. This I did, in under a minute.
>> Part of our problem came about because the concept for the whole group was â€œlight strike forceâ€, which kind of assumes stealth and wilderness competence for everyone. The ranger wound up being the common ground that everyone matched. <<<
That said, it sounds like there was a fighter in there? One of the things that could have helped was to open up class skills. If the Fighter gets 5 class skills say a Fighter can choose 5 skills to be his/her class skills. Same with the other classes. This allows almost any class to join the “light strike force” concept. Otherwise, with more than 3 players, you’ll have too much overlap. Even with 5 players, you could have had a nice mix: Barbarian, Rogue, Ranger, Monk, Druid, Sorcerer, whatever. In a case like that, house rules would have allowed everyone to play what they’d wanted without all being heaped into 2-3 classes to be effective and thus sharing or being forced out of the spotlight.
Swordgleam: That’s pretty terrible and there’s little you can do to stop it. The real question seems to be– if your friend’s group is making each other unhappy campaign after campaign, isn’t it time to fix that?
Remoray: Yes, taking away a “negative” trait can really deal a blow to a character concept. Something tells me your one minute conversation would be… instructional to hear.
Rafe: We did open up the skills and while it had the positive effects you mentioned [all classes could join the light strike force] it had an unintended consequence. Everyone could be equally effective in the light strike force with their skills. Some of the traditional trade offs that would have been required for a fighter to join weren’t required because he didn’t pay cross class penalties, etc.
One neat thing about 4E is that WoTC made it a stealth classless system. Every class has the same progression of feats and powers. If you want to play classless, just give everyone the same HP progression and use feats to give the otherwise automatic proficiencies in certain armors and weapons. From there, a PC can have any class feature from any class, and pick powers from any list when they qualify for a new one.
This might completely destroy the idea of combat roles, but it really opens up character building. I think it could also help protect character concepts. IE, it’s hard to play a fast-talking fighter by the core rules, but this option would allow you to take a lot of martial powers, but throw in the Rogue utility power Master of Deceit, and be the quick-witted warrior you want to be.
This has become sort of an unnoticed problem in our current 3.5 campaign. The campaign has been running for so long, it’s down to three of the original PCs, and we have added 3 new PCs. We built the originals with a little eye towards group roles, but as we added prestige classes and gained/lost characters, we’ve had a lot of overlap develop. Two of the originals (including me) could feel a bit jealous, but so far it hasn’t developed that way. It has been noticed that at least one of the originals is sort of in a dead-end slot, and isn’t contributing as much. One player left us for pretty much that reason, even though he was out #1 tank– the warmage and elven shooter were wiping out foes before he got into swinging range.
If/when we finish this one, and start the next campaign, I for one will raise the issue of role-duplications. We’ve already put out some feelers on this, one player has a strong concept, one has a pair of ideas, and another is thinking about playing a spin-off of her current character.
We will definitely sit together on party roles, since this game’s disruptions are largely due to players making up PCs alone.
We built the originals with a little eye towards group roles, but as we added prestige classes and gained/lost characters, weâ€™ve had a lot of overlap develop.
I think this becomes a problem if a campaign focuses much more on action (meaning action resolved with dice) than roleplaying. There’s only so much “room” for different powers. D&D’s got the magic to martial range. A supers game can hold a ton of power diversity, while a modern espionage game might see a lot of overlap.
To make another Firefly reference, there’s almost no niche protection among the characters. Mal, Zoe, and Jayne are basically all fighters. Wash and Kaylee have a lot of overlap with engineering. Book is a social type with a martial background, so he bridges the warriors with Inara, the pure social PC. River, although very distinct as a psychic, also happens to be the best warrior. Simon’s the only character with protected niche – the cleric.
But the shows works because the characters are completely distinct in personality.
@Swordgleam: The rogue’s player just sounds like a prick. Is he?
I agree with Scott on that one: That’s not a system problem, it’s a social problem.
@Scott and Martin: It’s a new group for my friend. I don’t know anyone in it but her, so I can’t say if the guy’s a prick, but based on her description, he is. To compound things, he’s the GM’s housemate, so it would be very difficult for them to kick him out and still game at his house.
@Sarlax: That’s awesome! After seeing that half-elves can take a power from another class, I wondered why anyone would want to play anything else. Playing 4e as classless could definitely work.
You will find the following very interesting: http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/109/making-the-party-wedge-issues/
He explains a method on how to make 2 players with the same character concept different enough so that the players will be happy and give each of them something different to explore.
Very good sugestions.