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Solving the problem of ineffectual character builds.

Started by Altaem, October 02, 2008, 04:57:08 AM

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The Problem:

I'm interested in what solutions people have used to prevent players creating useless, flawed or otherwise campaign incompatible characters.  I've come up with a number of solutions myself so the question is slightly rhetorical.

In Game Example:

I'd like to analyze one of the worst RPG experiences I've ever had.  Please be aware that it was around 5 years ago so the details may be a little sketchy or inaccurate.

We were playing White Wolf's Werewolf.  I'm a player, with is unusual for me, and I know nothing about the background.  Clans and moon phases were determined randomly, but other than that we had total freedom for our characters. 

I play a Get of Fenris Ragabash; that is a bloodthirsty barbarian trickster.  I create the image of a lightweight warrior-poet with high strength and speed, but relatively vulnerable (by werewolf standards) to damage.  In battle I would change between my various forms constantly to maximise the confusion of my opponent.

Play starts and eventually we run into our first combat.
Turn one: I announce I'm changing into battleform – I fail the transformation, apparently with my low stamina changing form is difficult.
Turn 2: this time I manage the transformation – the GM declares I've shredded my clothes in the process.  He's grinning at me; "what did you think would happen?"  WTF?  Gangrel Vampires can change between wolf, human and even bat swarms freely and always have their clothes untouched when they return to humanoid shape.  Same publisher, same world, I had expected the same rules.

The GM did explain that there is a skill in Werewolf that assists in transformations and that there is a charm that allows transformation without damage to clothing.  Had I asked during character creation question time I could have started with both these abilities.  However since we had started play my character was set in stone.

Due to my knowledge of Gangrel transformations (automatic success, clothing magically vanishes and reappears) I had no idea I needed to ask the questions.         

Game play went farther downhill from here though that's not really relevant to this post.

The point is that despite my best efforts I had created a character that not only was rather ineffective in the game we were playing.  Far worse he was completely incapable of fulfilling my own description of his capabilities.
"Damn! I should have turned invisible." - Stephen Moore aka Altaem
"...there are more watermelon-sized potholes nowadays than ever." - another Stephen Moore
"Passion Fruit: Alchemy of the Egg" - yet another Stephen Moore


I've used this one in a couple of campaigns I've run.  It works in any system where characters are generated by spending points and truly shines in larger groups as the GM does not have to pay close attention to each player.

Essentially build the characters as normal, but only spend half the skill points.  During play any player may add to their character on the fly by spending points on skills as they are required.  The only conditions are that the addition is used to enrich the characters background.  Also it must be a totally new skill that the player has never used before.  Once a skill has been gained in this matter it may only be increased by spending XP.

Party interrupts a mugging and drive off the attackers.  Unfortunately they were unable to prevent the victim being stabbed and without immediate first aid she will bleed to death.  None of the players have first aid currently on their character sheet.

Agile Thief Character (ATC): I know basic first aid, I can save her.
GM: You're joking right! You dropped out of high school and have no educational skills whatsoever, where did you pick up first aid?
ATC:  I never wanted to learn it, I can't stand the sight of blood, but it was a requirement for my black belt taekwondo exam.
GM: fair enough, add one point of first aid to your character sheet.  You know how to reduce bleeding, resuscitation, can deal with sports injuries and even splint a broken limb.  You know nothing about medication use or other drugs.
ATC: oh &^$$% she's bleeding all over the place.  I apply pressure to the wound to slow the bleeding.  Quit standing around guys, I need some bandages if she's going to survive the trip to hospital.

Result: maybe the victim is saved, maybe not.  Note that even if ATC fails the first aid roll another player can develop their character and try another attempt.  Regardless generating a single skill point has resulted in a fleshing out of the ATC with more background and personality.

Some people may find this system a little like cheating, but I've found it enriches gameplay and cuts down character generation time by around 60%.
"Damn! I should have turned invisible." - Stephen Moore aka Altaem
"...there are more watermelon-sized potholes nowadays than ever." - another Stephen Moore
"Passion Fruit: Alchemy of the Egg" - yet another Stephen Moore


I don't think the above example is an issue of an ineffectual character build, per se, but an issue of an asshole GM: "You didn't ask during character creation! Too bad! Now I gleefully screw you. HA!" My solution to this sort of problem is to talk to the GM about the problem -- that it isn't fair to me to play a concept that doesn't work because the game system either a) doesn't support the idea or b) I was ignorant of rule nuances or misled regarding the rules and this prevented me from building the character I was attempting to play -- and to leave the group if the GM proves to be one of those types who isn't interested in working with me to ensure maximum fun, but in lording his power over me.

An ineffectual build, to me, would be a D&D warrior maxed-out for combat trying to play through a political scenario. Which, honestly, I'm not sure much can be done about from the player's side, assuming the GM has done his job and either let the players know up-front what kind of game it will be and what optimal skill (etc) choices would be, or tailored the game to the characters the players have created (as individuals and as a group) by using scenario design techniques like Flags.

Though in games where asshole GMs aren't the problem, one of the things I've seen in some games (such as 1st Edition Immortal) to help prevent this is to start the characters as blank slates who are revealed through play. Rather like the revelation of a character in a novel, the very basic details are given first, and then fleshed out in play -- usually by spending character creation points and adding skills, feats, powers and whatnot up to the maximum for a starting character. You flesh out and optimize the character in play based on what is happening in the game, which usually ensures a decent build for at least that scenario and possibly a whole campaign under a particular GM.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

David Artman

I like Altaem's notion, but that's a workaround, not a patch.

1) Know the rules. Yeah, it's a bitch. You'll be glad you took the few hours to read, though, when you are able to build a balanced character. But to do that....
2) The GM must honestly and thoroughly present the scope of common situations. He or she needn't spill the beans on some nefarious plans (nor be totally constrained to that and unable to adjust or break out occasional surprises) but knowing what the game will be about 90% of the time makes it far easier to build a "balanced character."


A) Play a game in which the player's choices drive the situations and challenges, not the GM's plan (or railroad). Many, many games use things like Keys and Traits and Affiliations and Beliefs (etc) to fuel actual play and drive situation--ask around here.
B) Play a game in which there is no GM (or even no individually controlled PCs) and build the game you want to play as you play it. Universalis is your guide, here (and others, but it's the Big Dog of shared narration and agency).


I) Smack the piss out of the GM, tell him or her that you're re-spending points on the fly to keep your clothes on, and glare menacingly at him or her until your will is accepted with contrition and apology.
II) Get up and walk out--there's a million and one other (far better) GMs out there. Why waste your time with some tool who is getting their jollies off of your frustration? You into S&M or something?


α) Find some real grognards online and have them look over your write-up and advise you on min-maxing your build. Your example sounds like something that even a junior grade grognard would have caught, much like if you'd made a Sorcerer in Burning Wheel with a Forte of 2.
β) Quit your whining, turn lemons into lemonade, enjoy the twists of fate caused by your character's less-than-optimal background, ability set, and training and enjoy the stories that creates--remember: creativity comes from constraints.

...I think that covers the broad base of options; anything else will be nuances of the same problem solving (or patches designed to repair dysfunction on the fly). Enjoy!
Designer - GLASS, Icehouse Games
Editor - Perfect, Passages


Maybe I chose a poor example.  Without a doubt the real problem was the "Asshole GM" as greyorm stated.  In truth it didn't turn out to be that big a deal for the campaign.  My frustration as a player shaped my character into a ferocious berserker.  Something that may seem childish in many systems, but in Werewolf it fits fine.  With the points I'd saved in stamina I had a load of strength and could dish out more damage than any other party member.  At its most insane I recall throwing a fridge at my own spirit guide, who was disciplining me for slaying another werewolf.  In my defence it had attacked us first, though that didn't go down well.  (I can't for the life of me recall where I acquired a fridge from; we were battling on a grassy plain)

Quote from: David ArtmanI like Altaem's notion, but that's a workaround, not a patch.

Neither actually, it's an alternative.  I see my example not as a problem to be solved, but more of a catalyst which has shaped my own GM style.

Quote from: David ArtmanKnow the rules. Yeah, it's a bitch.

Obviously that's the best case scenario, but it many cases impractical.  Most of the time the GM owns the sole copy of the rules.  In larger groups It'd take a delay of months for every player to read them, not to mention that every group has members that just can't stand homework.

When I GM, I make sure I know the rules backwards, it's never a requirement that the players know them at all.

Quote from: David ArtmanGet up and walk out--there's a million and one other (far better) GMs out there

That many?  That's roughly the population of the city I'm in.  I've left that particular group long ago.  Though that has more to do with there constant tangents to discuss wrestling and firearms (two topics I have no interest in) rather than roleplay.
"Damn! I should have turned invisible." - Stephen Moore aka Altaem
"...there are more watermelon-sized potholes nowadays than ever." - another Stephen Moore
"Passion Fruit: Alchemy of the Egg" - yet another Stephen Moore

Anders Larsen

Altaem, I like your idea. I think it will solve the problem you are talking about in some cases. But you also risk just stepping over some deeper problems in the way the group plays, that would be better to solve in a different way (as other here have pointed out). And as so many other problems in role-playing, the solution is not to add extra rules to the game, but to do some social engineering (basically talk to the other people in the group).

Problem like the ones you describe normally appears when you do not talk about the game before you play it. I have seen many times GMs who are reluctant to talk about their campaign before the game starts and players who are reluctant to talk about their character before the game starts, which is the best way to make sure that nothing fit together when the game starts, and therefore no one's expectations are really fulfilled. It is not so bad in group where the people have played together for a long time, because they know each other very well, but in groups with new members it can create a lot of problems (especially for the new members).

In many games it is a good idea to do a lot of work up front, before the game starts. At minimum I prefer: The GM tell about his campaign to a degree so the player will be able to make character that fit nicely into it. After that the players take turn describing for the group what character they are thinking about playing, so they can take input from the GM and the other players. Normally it is necessary to take a few rounds where the players refine their characters, before everyone are satisfied.

Of course it can be hard to dictate for a new group that this is how it should be done. But I think it is ok to be just a bit annoying and ask a lot of questions like "what can I expect to do in this campaign", "I want my character to do this and this, is that possible" and so on.

There are some people who prefer to refine their character after the game has stated, and sometime it is also nice to be able to "fix" a character, if it did not turn out as you wanted, and in these cases your method will work well. But be careful that you are not missing some deeper problem with how the game is played.

- Anders

Kevin Smit

Discussion with the GM pre-session could have saved the situation, sounds like.

We had a house rule that if your character tried something new, and rolled a "critical" or whatever the system equivalent was, your character instantly gained a point or two in the skill.

Tom Garnett

My favourite GM seems to have been killing time at work today by writing up a guide to making effective characters for Exalted.

I mean, it's a bit tongue in cheek, but most of the advice ("Buy Essence 3" "Dex 4 is a functional minimum" "You must have a perfect defence to count as a combat character" "Skill 4 is 'competent', skill 5 and a double specialty is 'reasonably skilled'", and it goes on in that vein) is basically mandatory if you are playing with a group reasonably good at systems, and reasonably experienced.

Now, I know Exalted actually has some frank advice on character-building in random sidebars somewhere in the text, but really... Exalted just seems to have a big-ass learning curve in terms of how to make powerful characters. There seems to be a factor of two power difference between someone's first character and their third.

I think it's pretty much the nail in the coffin of Exalted for our group; we love the flavour, but... ugh.

For simpler systems, as GM, I've always said 'feel free to rebuild your character after the first couple of sessions, as you find out who they are, and what the system does' - but even that isn't enough here.

I think it's basically a case of System Does Matter, and it's pretty much impossible to avoid there being suboptimal combinations in high-crunch systems.