I have done a bit of RPG with rules sets that have character generation procedures designed to produce only characters that are suitable to the particular genre and template adventure that the game is specialised for. D&D, for example, produced only “adventurers” who killed monsters in dangerous underground complexes. James Bond 007 generated only intelligence officers working for MI6. In Nomine produced only angels and demons engaged in a war against each other and bitter political struggle among themselves. Werewolf produced only idiosyncratic “garou” etc. etc. But most of my experience has been with rules sets that allowed a very wide range of settings, genres, and paradigms of adventure, which necessarily required a very wide (if not always universal) gamut of generatable characters. These games could not possible be designed to automatically generate only suitable characters. They always required that the group agree on or accept a specification of the range of suitable characters, and that the character-generating players use the chargen rules with taste and good sense (and sometimes creativity) to generate characters that would be suitable to the campaign agreed upon.
When I, usually as GM, have issued such a specification I have at least tried to lay it out in such a way that the sort of characters that will be most suitable for the template adventure and most fun to play in the genre will be near the middle of the specified domain, with a margin around that for differences of taste and to allow differences and mutual contrasts among the PCs. But when players generate their characters they don’t seem to aim for the middle of the spec. And this does not seem to be because they are leaving room within the specified range for other PCs to be distinctly different or to provide mutual contrasts.
In one example I issued a specification for the PCs to be social and planetary scientists who would make first contact with lost colonies on scattered planets in an interstellar SF campaign. One player grumbled that he wasn’t really feeling it to be a social scientist and could he be one of the support personnel who landed with the explorers, the naval officer piloting a landing shuttle. I naïvely agreed to that and ended up with two naval officers, two marines, a roustabout, and no actual explorers whose duties involved making contact with the premise of the campaign.
In another, I issued a specification for the PCs to be teaching staff and grad students at Walpurgis University (the kind of place that Indiana Jones, Professor Challenger, or Herbert West would have tenure) in the 1920s. I got a janitor, a bootlegger, and a perpetual undergrad: no actual researchers.
I’ve had any number of campaigns in which just one or two players have obtruded, say, an embedded reporter into a military or police campaign, or a mysterious government agent into a campaign of the tall stories told by emeritus professors in the faculty lounge at Walpurgis U. In another GM’s campaign, in which we were supposed to play diplomatic and military officials in the human mission to Tschai (following Adam Reith’s return to Earth at the end of Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure series), one of my friends insisted on playing an interpretive dancer who had been sent along to appreciate the experience by the influence of an eccentric senator).
This sort of thing does happen to me when the players have been fully involved in picking one campaign specification out of a slate of offers.
It seems to me that there might be three phenomena occurring.
A lot of my players might be used to constrained optimisation problems in various fields, in which is it usual for the extrema to be found on the production or consumption possibility frontier, if not at one of the vertices of the feasible set. It is simply an ingrained reflex when confronting a set of constraints to push hard up against at least one of them.
They might feel that it demonstrates hip and creativity (or less sympathetically, edgy truculence) to come up with something that I haven’t thought of, but that also works — and then not put enough thought and effort into the “also works” bit.
They might feel afraid of not being able to play the characters in the middle of the specification.
So. Does anyone else have this problem? Does anyone have a better solution than to gently but firmly say “no! bad dog! bad dog! no!” and whack the players with a rolled-up newspaper? Does anyone have another suggestion of what might drive this behaviour?
How can I get more players to aim happily for the middle of the specification?