Middling the spec

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?


This does feel to me like a question of explicit player buy-in. It’s why I try to include a “you are X who do Y” in the campaign blurb; “you are X” is an important part of that. (It doesn’t always work. I have one regular player whose universal mode of writing is complaint, and I find it impossible to tell his “I will grudgingly go along with this” from his “I hate this”.)

A 1a for your list, or possibly a 3a: it’s very boring to be just the second-best something in the party, and particularly if players have varying levels of character-design skill in a system like GURPS, that’s quite possible. In a system that doesn’t give you niche protection, if you go for something relatively odd, you lower the chances that another player has done the same thing.*

In GURPS, templates can help. They can also hinder; the I-Cop package in Infinite Worlds, for example, often seems to bestow lots of skills that are irrelevant to the campaigns I run while missing out useful ones. But a template written by the GM who knows roughly what’s expected in the campaign, perhaps in another system expressed as “to pass selection, you must have (list of skills) at (list of minimum levels)”, might help; it’s not just “this is the sort of character you must play”, it’s “these are the minimum skills/etc. that a character will need to be fun to play in this game”. (GURPS Action 4 has a “basic action template” which is very much in the class of thing I’m thinking of.) Thought of in job-interview terms this might also include “you must have this background”. Which may be drifting perilously close to your rolled-up newspaper.

How does your character generation happen? With the Cambridge group, since we prefer GURPS, it tends to be: once the new campaign is picked, the GM describes any constraints (verbally or on the group’s mailing list); the players go off and generate the characters; they run them past the GM for approval, and at the next meeting we start playing. (Because meeting time is precious, and running up a GURPS character is about half an hour of head-down even if you know what you’re doing.) Generally people will float at least their rough character concepts publicly, so that we all know that Phil’s playing a techie and John’s playing a witch so probably Bob should go for something different from those two.

With Whartson Hall, we tend to run simpler systems and do our character generation as a social event (and even release it as “episode 0”), which gives even more opportunity for players to make sure they aren’t overlapping in their PCs’ areas of expertise.

* My working theory is that Nazi and Soviet aircraft design worked on a similar principle: we can’t talk to the other designers, but if we and they turn out to be doing basically the same thing, we’ll get merged with them. So we’ll do something really weird.

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I’m pretty sure that in several instances I had explicit buy-in from everyone that the group should be as specified, with the unspoken reservation on the part of at least one player that his character should be interestingly different.

That was pretty usual, and I often found that what we called a “chargen session” back in the Nineties (but which is colloquially “Session Zero” now) would drag on and peter out with approximately all but one player saying that they weren’t finished or weren’t happy with what they had, and had to do more work at home that they promised would be done (and which almost always was done) by session one.

I think that any solution is going to look like a heavy-handed GM. I’m afraid that my general approach to this kind of problem is to talk with the players explicitly about what I’m looking for, because the campaign brief clearly didn’t define things closely enough.

Given any group of players, getting everyone on the same page can be difficult. Many players will agree to the campaign premise because they want to play with the group, but may not have full buy-in and start pushing against the premise at the time of character creation. Or maybe the player just doesn’t understand or have an appreciation for the expectations of the genre, setting, or type of game. I have sympathy for players who push against convention, but for the game to work, there probably should be limits.

And then, of course, there are the special players who always want to be the exception to the rule, the unique snowflake* who isn’t like everyone else. They know what the conventions are, they know what the premise and goal of the campaign are, they know what kind of characters are being asked for, and they don’t care. They’re special. And they tend to skew the game to highlight their characters. These players annoy me.

  • Using the term in its original, non-politically charged context.

I tend to use a combination of (1) providing a number of pre-gen PCs (players x 2) which the players can use or modify (so rather like templates) and (2) just saying yes to the extreme characters and finding a way to make them useful

If you say, “You’re all going to play social scientists doing social science things,” and all or most of your players say, “OK, but I’m going to be someone else,” what it probably means is that nobody wanted to do social science in the first place and they only agreed for some other reason: to be polite, because they wanted any game, because they didn’t really believe that was what an RPG could be about, through slack-jawed inertia. In that case the social science game is probably doomed no matter what characters you force people to play.

Okay. “Stop running campaigns that the players don’t like” is obviously good advice.

Getting feedback from players is something I find really hard. Even in a campaign that’s running, they will very rarely say “I’d like more of this and less of that”. In a campaign that hasn’t started yet, you can add that the blurb won’t be a perfect representation of the campaign so they may not realise that (thing they don’t care for) is a key part of your vision.

I think this is a very major part. Even in DnD, massive amounts of effort have been put into making characters colorfully different but awesome and roughly equally capable at dungeon bashing.

I have seen many a campaign prospectus flounder where it is not obvious to the players why the PCs will be different, awesome, and capable. When you present a novel product, you have to explain to most folks why they want it.

I know party sizes have shrunk since the double-digits of the very early days; I wonder whether this wish for differentiation was one of the reasons for the AD&D subclasses (paladin, ranger, druid, illusionist, etc.).

These days standard party size is 4 and there is still a huge demand for variant classes etc., despite the fact that in-class customization has been expanded so much that a 4 PC party of only human fighters using the standard stat block could easily have 4 very distinct characters mechanically. (RP differentiation is also desirable as well, of course.)

Folks crave diversity for it’s own sake, at least in RPGs.