How to help character-players out of their character-generation ruts without making anyone play a crock

Continuing the discussion from My strength is as a strength of 10 because I am average:

The characters that I play (other than NPCs, of course) tend somewhat to repeat themes. Some of those themes are my favourites that I enjoy and actually prefer to play, others are forced on me either because my comrades will not discharge certain functions when I am in the group or because GMs familiar with my play insistently present me with certain types of challenge, and some I suppose must be because of lazy habit. One way or another, I never [ get to | successfully | bother to ] play PCs that are of low rank and status or that are diffident, young PCs, PCs who are other than tough and hard-hitting in combat: I’m always the grizzled field officer with the SMG, never a sniper or a lowly rifleman. I [ get to | successfully | bother to ] play brainy bricks.

When Tonio Loewald designed a semi-random character-generation system for ForeSight he was partly inspired to do so I think by DragonQuest, an RPG that he enjoyed, but his avowed purpose was to jar players out of their ruts, to spur them to explore parts of character space that they would not habitual play in. It didn’t work, and we players soon replaced the character generation system with a point-buy procedure called “the Purcell Conventions”. I think the reason that we disliked the semi-random system so much is that it made some characters just better, much better, than others: characters who rolled high ages got more generation points, more years of education, and more money than young characters, and faced the same chances in rolling attributes. I think the reason that it didn’t work is that it seldom decisively kicked you out of your rut and had no systematic tendency even to suggest a clear alternative. I think that that might have been a difficult thing to implement in an RPG that doesn’t represent characters are examples of defined types.

I think I’m not alone here in preferring RPGs that do not have character classes in them, and that do not mechanically support characters being defined as one of a range of distinct types. I prefer detailed and expressive character representation systems that can be used for genres, settings, and mash-ups that the designers might never have thought of. So I wonder about ways to help character-players out of their ruts that reliably and decisively

  • spur players to leave their well-worn grooves,
  • suggest a specific alternative rather presenting a daunting infinity of unspecified possibilities with the admonition to play anything at all other than what you want
  • avoid saddling players with characters that are strictly worse than or redundant in company with the rest of the character party
  • avoid producing parties that lack a capability that their ethos requires.

My best thoughts along this line, so far, depend upon doing this by means of the craft and good will of the players, rather than on trying to build good results for any possible campaign into either an ingenious set of constraints on character design or an elaborate random generator. That is, the players (perhaps acting in collaboration) first design a party and a set of character concepts, then assign specific concepts to individual players, then (perhaps acting individually) implement those concepts using a suitable set of character design rules. It seems to me that such an approach can present everyone with a “here’s a role: play it!” sort of challenge without imposing a crock of no-fun onto anybody.

Here’s a blue-sky thought, little considered and completely untested, and that I would certainly want to work on a bit before I used it.

  1. The GM first makes sure of how many character-players there are going to be, and then either considers the cast calculus for that number, notes that number of core capabilities required by the party ethos, or that number of schticks for iconic characters in the procedural that will be serialised. That is, in a suitable space the GM chooses a number of character cores equal to the number of players.
  2. The GM notes each character core on the top line of an index card.
  3. The GM makes a list of different aspects or features of a character that might be useful in characterising or distinguishing characters in such a party as is being constructed.
  4. The players gather around a room or table, and the GM deals out one card to each character-player.
  5. The GM announces a cue for an aspect or feature from the list they made at step three, such as “age”, “physique”, “home world”, “profession”, “circumstances of their teen years”, “favourite recreation”, “football team supported”, “sex, gender, and orientation”, “spouse, lover, or dating habits”, “NPC friend or contact”, “religion”, “foible”….
  6. Each player considers what is already on the card they have, and writes on a new line a response to the GM’s latest cue.
  7. If the GM’s list is incomplete, GOTO 5.
  8. Starting at the GM’s right and proceeding around the room or table to the right, each character-player may suggest one more cue.
  9. Each character-player writes a response to that cue on their card, and then passes the card to the left.
  10. When each player has had one chance to offer a cue the GM collects the the cards, shuffles them, and deals one to each character-player.
  11. Any players who wish to swap cards may.
  12. The character players go away and generate characters to fill the part specified by the top line on the card they have. They may take anything else written on their cards as a suggestion, if they wish.
  13. The player whose character design incorporates the most of the suggestions off their card receives no prize.
  14. Players may swap characters if they wish.
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My own roleplaying tends toward playing an entirely different concept each time. Looking back, I have played a Vietnamese-American college student who gained the ability to turn into a dolphin and a delphinoid humanoid; a middle-aged ship’s master gunner who was going deaf; a Dzur nobleman modeled on Bertie Wooster; an elderly pooka who was a habitual liar; and a teenage Hispanic girl with heightened speed, agility, and senses who had taken up superheroism after having to give up fencing. I like to come up with a character concept that I haven’t done before, to challenge myself.

I’ve had some players who did the same, so far as they were able: one is one of my two best roleplayers ever, one is good, and one is adequate. But I’ve also had players whose characters are all very much of a type: for example, a woman who habitually plays combat monsters, and a man whose characters tend to be (a) former Catholic priests (b) who ride motorcycles and play the guitar and (c) come from Irish backgrounds (yes, that’s a really specific set of quirks!). I’m not sure it would be workable to get the latter type to adopt different roles; at least in my case, if I notified them that they would be doing this, they would probably choose different campaigns.

I see the point of your exercise in the step by step list, but I have to confess that the thought of having to come up with those things when prompted, instead of working some of them out, leaves me with a sense of imaginative paralysis; I probably would turn down a campaign like that.

On the other hand, I’ve amused myself with the idea of having all my players design characters, and then hand them off to other players, though I would have to determine the handoff by some random process (with six players, roll a d5 and have them handed that many steps to the left, maybe). But I’d have to trust the players to make up characters who weren’t designed to shaft the other players!

I’m not sure I have a productive solution to the problem you pose. But I do think that relying on “the craft and good will of the players” is a sound starting point.


I am becoming more and more inclined to think that writing rules to constrain the presumed malice and reckless caprice of players (while implying that they can to do their damnedest within the rules) neither prevents the worst nor brings out the best in us.

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GURPS point-buy character generation clearly doesn’t always generate characters of equal utility for the same budget. There may have been some notion of it in the very early days but even in different campaigns in the same overall setting abilities will have different relative utilities. And of course GURPS character construction is in itself a skill, which is why when I’m setting up a GURPS game I like to talk back and forth with the players about what they’re doing.

But what it does do is stop things being egregiously out of whack. If your PC is better with a sword than mine, it’s because I’ve put some points into something else that you don’t have. You may turn out to have made a better choice than I did based on what we encounter, but that is to me much more satisfying than “you rolled better”.

In a gaming sense, that cast calculus (thanks for the link) feels a lot like niche protection and the job a character has: for example infantry and artillery, then you add medics and scouts for the Classic Four.

I’ve never played with someone who always built the same sort of character. I know they’re out there because I hear about them occasionally (e.g. the Robin Laws “Specialist”), but I’ve never knowingly met one. GURPS has some attractors (the charismatic talker, the sneaky infiltrator) but even at that level of resolution none of my regular playing partners is in a rut.

So perhaps the first thing I might ask of people who have met them is: is it the right thing to push people out of their ruts? Consider also the Robin Laws “Casual Gamer”: if that player is happy participating lightly, and if the Specialist is happy playing each setting’s closest equivalent to a ninja or a combat plumber or a gleaming-toothed defender of the weak, where’s the harm in simply letting them do it?

The system sounds interesting, but for me a whole lot of no fun, because one of the things I like to do when presented with a new campaign is mull over several character ideas and decide which of them I’d like to play, and this takes that decision out of my hands even to the extent of the basic party role. I like to have that discussion that ends up with “OK, I’ll be the artillery wizard this time”, and then take it away and come up with an interesting person who can fill that role.

(What are my own ruts? Smart independent women. Techies. But neither of those is a majority of my characters.)

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I don’t know about “right,” but it’s not something that I’ve ever tried to do.

In my limited experience, they don’t tend to like it. The ruts I have observed are not so much in adventuring niche as in mindset: some players prefer a particular kind of personality and don’t like trying to think differently. However, when they talk themselves into playing a different personality, the results can be good. For example, Commander Hodgson in Infinite Cabal was one of Owen Smith’s most interesting characters.

Personally, when much younger I observed that I wasn’t good at playing some kinds of characters and tried to broaden my range by observing players who could. That worked fairly well, although I’m still conscious of aspects of myself that show up in all my characters.

Something I find frustrating is players who lack knowledge of a setting, and don’t want to go to any effort at all to learn about it. Thinking about that gave me a very silly Idea:

Blackadder V
The never-made fifth season of Blackadder, set on a V-Bomber base in north Norfolk in the early 1960s. The characters have a mixture of motives, but their life is essentially a soap-opera with flying.


I don’t consciously recognize any specific types of characters I’m not good at, but I’ve followed a similar strategy, trying to play characters who were (a) very different from me, (b) not types I had played before, and (c) not obviously falling into a niche role of their genre. That gave me Bertran (not very smart and habitually clueless), Edward Gray Wolf (habitual liar, bullshitter, and trickster), and La Gata Encantada (speed- and agility-based combat monster). But the strategy doesn’t always work; I’ve sometimes tried to play characters and not gotten properly into their heads, with results that leave me unsatisfied.

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I rarely hit that problem, although some characters don’t turn out to be very interesting as people. I try not to completely define a character before starting to play them, preferring to let aspects of them emerge from the interplay between ideas and events in the first few sessions.

The character I started playing on Wednesday was an example. He’s a GURPS Dungeon Fantasy “Knight” with some tweaks to the template. I knew his advantages, disadvantages and quirks, and had a few lines and ideas ready for how he’d behave, but it was all pretty vague. He’s very physical (DX 15, ST 15, IQ 10), and I didn’t really know how he’d react to problems. Then it gelled quite quickly. He’s alert to physical details of the environment, and sees movement as his way to solve problems. The meanings and reasons for things … are not really his field. The intelligent people can solve those.

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I think any rut I am in has three aspects to it:

  1. Character role (for instance combat monster, or hacker)
  2. Character personality
  3. Play style

They sort of intermingle and collide, but there are some things which are deal breakers. Like no matter how much you tell me it would be challenging and interesting and would break me out of my rut to play a murder-hobo, I am not going to do it. I have zero interest in playing a murder-hobo. That area of RPG character phase space is dead to me. There are, of course, other examples, like a wizard (role), an airhead girly girl (personality) or a back-stabbing bastard (play style PvP).

Then, of course, there is the problem of other players driving me back towards my rut. :slight_smile: I have in a few campaigns set out to play (for instance) the irresponsible PC who acts without thinking or the cowardly PC who hides at the back. Only to discover that the game is perpetually in danger of derailing because I’m not playing a planner; or stalling because I’m not playing a role/personality who chivvies the other PCs towards the plot. So I’ve had to revise the way I originally wanted to play my character.


Hmmm. Those are character types I’ve consistently avoided. Maybe I ought to try one of them next time I’m a player.

That’s a cogent point. There’s nothing to gain by inspiring or cajoling me into playing an inexperienced and trepidacious youngster who is flighty and softhearted and looking for leadership, or a socially withdrawn technician who is oriented towards objects and avoids dealing with people, if I find (or imagine that I find, I suppose) that a group with me in it won’t make a plan and act on it if I don’t step up and that the NPCs approach me for serious talks.

I wonder whether some of this is the long shadow of the adversarial GM. If I get a party with a “let’s go and do something right now” bias, I try to slant the game such that it will have some chance of success, rather than kill 'em all.