Tactics and Tips02/07/2006

Sibling Rivalry, Take Three

DM: Okay, gang, the new campaign is set in the savage arctic wilderness. A few tribes of humans and dwarves cling to existence in the face of marauding goblin hordes. Priests rule the tribes, though the new discovery of arcane magic has begun to shift the power dynamic. Ironworking is unknown to the natives, who defend themselves with bone clubs and obsidian axes. Dennis, what kind of character will you be playing?

Dennis: Feast your eyes on Ithmargax, the half-red-dragon elven psionic swordmaster!

Because it can't be helped... though it can be appreciated. For a comic look at another "Dennis" -- one involved in an epic tale of world-rebuilding -- you might consider this recent Order of the Stick.

Andy: Every group of players has a "Dennis" in it -- someone who inevitably comes to the table with a character concept that doesn't fit the game you've envisioned. (Sometimes they're even named Dennis.) It's like they can't wait to disrupt the careful balance you've so carefully created, introducing a character who doesn't even begin to fit the mold you've set up for the PCs. Don't these people understand the beauty of a perfectly designed world? I tell you, sometimes I think our job would be easier if it weren't for those blasted players mucking it up.

Greg: For those nomenclaturally challenged out there, I'll be playing "Dennis" for this column. When it comes to the start of a campaign, players rarely think of the advance work a DM might have done to customize the world to his or her vision. With so many character options available, a player instead sees a blank canvas ready for the next work of art. Sometimes that art is a Dadaist masterpiece in an Expressionist world. After all, a player has to "get along" with his character for the length of the campaign (barring any suicidal tendencies). Dissatisfaction with a character can be a player's first step toward dropping from a campaign.

Andy: But as a DM, isn't it my campaign? It can't be unreasonable for me to ask everyone to create characters appropriate to the game world, can it? I'm the one who came up with the idea, after all -- shouldn't all of you just be happy building characters that fit with my vision of the game?

Greg: In a word, no. It's our campaign -- it belongs to the DM and players together. I come to the first session with a plan, and if two other guys have the same idea, I'm going to browbeat them into other choices so I can be who I want to be.

Andy: Hey, play nice with the other kids.

Greg: It's all about party roles. You can't have four crackpots in your party -- everybody knows I'm the crackpot, so what are they doing treading on my turf?

The decision of what character to play is the most important one a player makes -- and certainly the one he has the most control over. After the story starts, he's much more at the whim of the DM. Say the campaign's heading into the jungle and I don't like fighting yuan-ti -- there's not a lot I can do about that as a player. But when I have those 4d6 in my hand ready to roll up attributes, I'm in control.

That's not to say I'm going to be completely oblivious to a DM's framework. If I want to play a half-dragon psionic swordmaster -- or an illumian incarnate or whisper gnome ninja or whatever odd combination I can come up with -- I need to have an idea of why my character exists. If I don't have that in mind, the DM has more of a right to slam the hammer down on my hopes and dreams.

Andy: And it's a really big hammer. Probably with a nasty crit multiplier, too. Why else would I be hammerin' all over this land?

Greg: Playing a race or class a DM hadn't envisioned in his campaign doesn't have to be a negative. Getting invested in an "outlier" characteristic is a great way for a player to work with the DM to develop that mysterious backstory. You'll immediately feel more involved in the setting, and you'll be helping your DM with the (potentially) onerous task of world-building. That "different" character instantly gives the DM a bunch of plot hooks. Are psionics rare? Perhaps a secret cabal tried to rid the world of psionic races, and now they have the PC in their sights. Dragons died off thousands of years ago? What events changed the world to allow draconic heritage to be reintroduced in the form of my character?

Andy: Now that you mention it, I guess it'd be cool to add some dragon legends to my world's backstory. Maybe your half-dragon is seen as some kind of prophet, or even a bizarre throwback. It'll give me some good excuses to have some NPCs interested in the character and his allies. And one psionic character doesn't really wreck my vision of the campaign -- but does that mean I have to learn all the psionics rules? That seems like a lot of work for me just to accommodate one character.

Greg: Nobody said the job of the DM was easy. If you don't learn the rules, how are you going to find that nasty critter to be my character's nemesis?

Seriously, though, the psionics rules aren't that complicated. I'll show you what my character can do before the first session, and I'll keep you posted on big changes. I'd be happy to be the gaming group's expert on psionics. Other players will wonder what my character can do, jealous of my hidden powers. And for once the be-all, end-all rules knowledge might not come from behind the DM's screen.

Andy: As long as I don't have to be the expert on psionics, I guess that'd be okay. I know I can trust you to play the character fairly, and I'm sure I'll pick up the basics as we go along. And maybe you have some ideas as to how psionics might fit into the campaign world as I've described it to you.

Greg: As any good player does, I'll bring plenty of ideas to the table. If I don't, how am I going to quest for my mother's legendary psicrown? It's my birthright, and I am going to hunt down each and every one of those psion uncarnates who stole it.

Andy: I'm not saying that you'll get to rewrite the campaign history, but maybe you'll have an idea or two that I can incorporate into the world's backstory. It's always nice to have a few more legends and rumors to throw around, and if it means I can lead the characters into an adventure by offering something other than gold, that seems useful to me as well.

Remember, DMs, "your" campaign world belongs to the players, too. They're not just actors performing predetermined roles in a story you've written -- they're helping to write the story that all of you will enjoy over the coming months (or even years). Not only do they need to know that their decisions during the campaign are significant, but that their decisions before the campaign -- that is, creating characters -- are also theirs to make.

Greg: This "different" character also puts pressure on the other players -- in a good way. It forces them to develop their characters' personalities outside the narrow focus the DM has put on the campaign. Do they have prejudices against this new race? How does the party wizard view psionics? If the paladin hears a telepathic "voice" in his head, does he think it's his deity? Ah, if I can mess with the paladin, I'm all over that.

Andy: When a player comes up with a character idea that doesn't quite fit your world, don't just reject it out of hand. Talk to the player. Figure out what makes this character concept so exciting. It may be so interesting that it causes you to rethink some of your assumptions about the campaign, but even if it isn't, do what you can to accommodate it. The setting of the game may be your dream, but every PC is that player's dream. Rejecting a character concept because you're too selfish to share your world with the players is the D&D equivalent of taking your ball and going home because you don't get to play quarterback. The game depends on everyone participating and contributing, and that can't happen without a little give-and-take.

Hey, I just realized that this'll give me an excuse to use that "ancient illithid frozen in a subterranean block of ice" image what's been hauntin' me nightmares recently.

Greg: On second thought, maybe I should be a dwarven fighter . . .

Andy: Too late, sucker. Now I've got psionics on the brain!

Game Resources: To use the material in this article to its fullest, check out the following resources: Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual, Player's Handbook.

About the Author

By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?

As a D&D player, Greg Collins has been taking whatever older brother Andy can dish out for more than 20 years. Recently he took a seat behind the screen to exact his revenge upon his brother for killing his first character by washing him down a flight of stairs. In his time spent away from D&D, Greg is the events producer for magicthegathering.com.

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