Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Don't Change The Character, Change The Story

This is part of a 2 part series. This part, the first part, is addressed to the GMs of the world and is to address something I've seen a lot of new GMs do when trying to get their games going. Tomorrow's entry will be to the players, and address the opposite side of the issue. The idea? To get both sides on a similar page and working together towards a better game experience for everyone.

The Problem
The problem that I am talking about here is one that a lot of inexperienced GMs fall into in the early stages of GMing. If not addressed it can then turn into a worse problem later on in life, and can lead to a group of people not wanting someone to GM. In a lot of ways the idea of this post inspired my Thursday post last week as to who owns what in a game. The problem? A lot of GMs modify the PCs in their game to fit the story, rather than the story to fit the PCs.

What I Mean
In some contexts this problem is known as railroading, but it can be a lot more insidious than that. Let's take a super hero game for an example. I am running a super hero game, and in my plot I want everyone to be playing a teen hero for whatever reason. Maybe I state this to the group, maybe I don't, but either way one of my players comes to me and says they want to play an older hero. I agree with this, approve their characters, and let them into the game. Three sessions in however I hit them with a "Reversion Beamer" and turn them back into teenagers. The characters are now stuck back in their teens, with the issues being a teen brings with it, and my plot continues on from their.

Why Is This A Problem?
Now, if I do it right, the players may not even notice what I've done...this time. However, what I have done is use plot and in game devices to modify two PCs to fit what my story needs. Stated plainly, I am sure some of you are raging against this railroading, but at the same time I bet most of us are guilty of it at some point in time. Like I said, you do it right and people don't even notice. You can hide it. "Oh, if only you'd dodged that. If only he hadn't crit. If only you'd made the save." But be honest, when you look at it, you know what you've done.

However, it is subtle, so why is it a problem? Well, at the core the problem is that you have used your power to control your PCs in a way that the players may not have wanted. Now, if being a teen is a temporary thing...then hey, it's just a silly side one shot, but temporary needs to be very temporary to save this feel in an RPG, not a "when you beat the final boss you can go back." The real problem with this though is that those players likely had a reason for wanting to play their character the way they were, and whatever that reason is it has just been taken from them. Sure it happened in game, and that is "fair play" but it is still a change, and can make a player suddenly be less than happy with the game or their character. Ultimately the real problem forms though when this becomes habit forming on the GMs part. When, over the course of the GM's career, all 'outlier' PCs are brought into the fold to conform to the plot. If you're going to go that far, either communicate it clearly before the game ("I need characters who are mutants with X type power sets for the story I'd like to run") or give them pre-made characters that they then modify slightly to fit their wants as a Player. Otherwise, you're just doing them a disservice.

How To Handle It
So how do you handle this problem? Modify your story, or as I said above, be very clear with your players what you want for the game. If you plan on running a Cosmic hero game, then you should tell your parents. I doubt you want to bring your friendly neighborhood Anti-Mugger into my game about saving the universe. The scope is just way too different. At the same token, if I'm running a game about the social woes of mutants in modern society, I probably am not all that interested in having a Batman type character in the mix. As the GM my options are to not allow those characters, and to explain what I do want in the game for the world/story. At this point, if the players want something else we can talk about what the group wants and things can be modified from there. This will take compromise, yes, but the end result should be a game where everyone is at least aware of what they're going into.

To finish my example, the teen hero game with the two adult PCs could easily be modified to have the focus for the adults be the pains of becoming mentors, or just to contrast the difference between life for the teens and life for the adult characters. I can talk to the adults about things I expect for them, and how - since I said I wanted a teen hero game - that I'm going to let them start off stronger, but the teens are going to pass them by at some point, or at least catch up, since it is going to involve "coming of age" plots. We can all then work together for a really fun game that will hopefully be memorable for all.

What If I Can't Avoid It?
First off, I'm not sure that this topic can even be accurate. As the GM, you have a lot of control over the world, so I'm not sure how you can end up in a situation where you can't avoid something. However, when that is the case, you should - as always - talk about it with the players who will be affected. You should also strive to make sure that you don't end up in a similar situation again. It happening once in a while is fine, it happening consistently across multiple games is a problem. Just remember, even if the GM starts the story off, and runs all the NPCs, the PCs should be the stars of the show, and the players get to have a say in what happens as well. You shouldn't be changing their characters without talking to them. 

Do you agree? Do you disagree? When discussing this with my own group I got a myriad of opinions, and am still not sure how clearly I'm stating my point. Tomorrow I am going to be talking to the players with the same thing (why you should play into the GM's expectations at times.) Still, I would love to get the debate going early, so sound off in the comments.


  1. I've just written a post about how my GMs can do a lot of outrageous things to my character when I know that a good story will come out of it. That would include railroading, but there's a limit to it. If I feel that my character is forced into things he would never do, I'd baulk. But challenges, uncomfortable decisions and problems: bring it on.

    This requires some trust in the GM. I've had GMs who I couldn't trust not to mess things up, where I'd feel uncomfortable when they tried something like this. And then there are GMs I completely trust because I know there's a reason when they do something like this.

    So I guess my opinion is: as a GM, ask yourself why you want to do it. If the answer is: it's easier for me, then don't. If the answer is: it will be a good story, the characters will get something from it: go ahead.

  2. Very good points Jebediah. There is a lot of wiggle room youget as a GM when you and your players trust each other on this kind of thing. At the same time, once you know a rule and why it is there, it is generally ok for you to break it because you'll do so for the right reasons. That doesn't mean it isn't a rule though.