Oh yes, I’m back with one of those. This time the heading might be way too long, but there we are.
I wonder how many hours of work have I done on different characters before I get to play them over the years? How many times have I used a lot of time on a character only to find out that it didn’t fit into what the GM had in mind at all?
Sure, this is only a problem with certain kinds of games. Often the GM let’s the characters sandbox or gives a lot of leeway on how to approach problems, but I’m not saying every GM makes every mistake I’ve listed. But I’ve seen this one quite a few times during my three decades of roleplaying. I like to try a variety of characters. Instead of going for the obvious archetypes, I like to be creative with my characters.
Now, I have, in the past, tried to ask the GM if this is something that would be feasible and the answer has pretty much always been yes. Sometimes this is because the GMs don’t understand their own limitations. They like to think everyone will have their place and will be able to shine, but in actuality their games might just be a series of combat situations, which often leaves certain characters completely out of the picture.
Of course, you’ll often hear the argument that its the players responsibility to find angles for their characters, but at the same time many GMs work against this by putting the characters into very confined (from the narrative point of view) situations. Usually just combat or if they are doing something different, they have very well defined steps they want players to take. I’ve also ran into situations where the GM expects me, as a player, to do something I feel is very stupid and unintuitive just so that I would be doing something (of course I would fine with this, if it was part of the game, but that has not been the case). Often they just shut down any situation where the players try to do something they didn’t think of beforehand.
There are deeper problems in this situation, but one place to start is with how GMs approach character creation. If you aren’t going to use plan anything based on the characters, don’t force the players to make their characters before they know what’s going on. This isn’t anything new. I know two games that enable this (Fate Core and HeroQuest), so there must be others out there. Both of these games do want you to have a concept in mind when starting out, but you don’t need to fill everything out at the same time.
This is an excellent way to do it. Remember one of the most important rules in writing fiction: Show, don’t tell. If you look at the TV series or movies, you don’t have a section in the beginning where all the characters are explained (although there is such a section in many plays and some books like Good Omens). Of course the characters will do something that explains them somewhat, but no one gives you a list of abilities or a detailed family tree.
Letting your players form their characters during play will allow them to find cool ways to integrate them to whatever’s going on. They can come up with ways to make it personal themselves, nevermind being able to choose skills and abilities they’ll actually be able to use.
Of course, this requires quite a bit from the system as well, because in many systems there are interconnected parts that need to be handled with care, but… well… you can always drop those games. They are probably not very good systems anyhow.