What do Data, Odo, and the Pathfinder Gunslinger class have in common? Why is it that playing Amber with new players is so much better than with players who have played before? Why is it that splat books almost always dilute, if not ruin, the games they are made for? What the hell is the Weirdo Card? Want some answers? Lets get started.
Note: I am going to make some sweeping generalizations. Take them with a grain of salt. Its done mostly to make my point. I promise at some point this article is going to make sense.
It’s About Netflix and My Gaming Group
So for the past few months I have been watching a lot of Star Trek, mostly TNG and DS9. The truth is that I am slowly building up to a Star Trek campaign later in the year, but that is not what this article is about. So, in both TNG and DS9 there are lots of aliens and people with different occupations (in DS9 more than TNG), but for the most part they are pretty normal for their setting; except for Odo and Data. In both series, Odo and Data are not like the other characters on the show. They both have very unique backgrounds, and in terms of the main cast they are each one of a kind. You see it as well in Voyager with Seven of Nine, the only Borg crew member. Keep that in mind.
Now, about the Amber:Diceless RPG. When new players make characters for this game, they tend to make characters very close to the characters in the novels, because it is comfortable and its based on the original setting. They all wind up mostly human, with the Pattern ability. The second time players make characters for the game, they take advantage of the unlimited expanse of possibility within the game, and the parade of half-angels, humanoid whales, and blue tiger-striped men all start rolling in. Rather than taking the Pattern power, the very staple of the game, they all try to invent their own powers and constructs. There is this irresistible urge to be something different and unique, to move away from the core rules and setting in the most dramatic way possible. The end result is a group of players that look nothing like the characters in the novels (default setting) and at times become jarring to the setting, though perfectly fine in terms of the mechanics of the game.
Splat books… ugh. I really am not a fan of most splat books, with some noted exceptions (Corporation, I am looking at you). For the most part, the splat books for any game introduce fringe classes that are kind of like the core classes, but a bit different. So the Paladin gets the Samurai, the Rogue gets the Ninja, the Ranger gets the Gunslinger (sorry Pathfinder, I am not singling you out, just making a point). Because these characters are different and have new abilities, players pounce on them like cats on a mound of catnip.
Players Love Weirdos
So if players love making unique characters, and splat books fuel that urge with more classes and options to do so, we run into a case where a group of experienced players, especially those who have played the same game for a long period of time, start to make characters that are stranger and further from the norm for the setting. Away goes the party of the Cleric, Wizard, Fighter, and Rogue. In come the Shaman, Warmage, Knight, and Ninja. Then add in variant races and the true freak show begins.
There is a tipping point when the party composition becomes silly, when everyone is so focused on being unique, that it can be disruptive to the continuity of the setting. How is it that the Dwarf Ninja joined the same party with the Half-Fiend, Half-Elf Knight? Unless your setting has brought these people together by divine intervention, there is a lot more work to explain how these people met, than how the halfling rogue and the human Wizard crossed paths in a typical fantasy setting.
Where Star Trek Gets It Right
Now back to Odo and Data. The writers for both shows understood that tipping point, and created a party (cast) that is mostly normal for the setting. In TNG we have Picard, Riker, Worf (different but not totally out there), Troi, Crusher, etc. Most of them are human, all of them are Starfleet officers. Added to that party is Data, a unique android who is the only one of his kind on the ship (yeah I remember all about Lore). In DS9, the GM is a bit more relaxed. The cast of characters are a mix of Starfleet (Sisco, Bashir, Dax, Worf, etc) and non-Starfleet characters (Kira, Quark, Garak), but for the most part they are pretty normal for the setting. Then there is Odo, the only Changeling character in the group.
In both cases the majority of the party is pretty normal; standard to the setting. Each has a unique character in terms of what fits into the setting. It adds a dash of spice, without interfering with the believability of the setting.
Now what if we had a show with a starship crew made up of: one human Starfleet captain, an Android, a Changeling, a Borg and a reformed Jem’Hadar? Would that work in the Trek universe? Possibly, but its really pushing the boundaries of believability for the setting. The writer (GM) would have to work pretty hard to explain how this group fits into the framework of the overall setting.
The Weirdo Card
So, if all players have that drive to be the unique character with the more unique (read: strange) class and/or race, and too many of them can strain the believably of a campaign, how do you keep this from toppling a game before it starts? You could ban splat books. I have done it and its not bad, but not always fair, since things in moderation are often not bad. Inspired by Start Trek, I decided to take a different tack. Rather than banning the fringe classes and races, why not just limit them so that the majority of the party is pretty standard (they can be unique in personality, which is more of a challenge than doing it via mechanics), and allow a player (or two depending on the game and size of your group) to be the fringe character.
So I created the Weirdo Card …
This is a card that I made and laminated, which I plan to give to my players before our future Trek campaign. The card allows one of the players to be the weirdo, the fringe character. Everyone else will stick to the core books to make their characters. How the players determine who gets the card for this campaign, and for future campaigns, I will leave up to them. They can roll for it, they can debate for it, etc. The end result will be the same. One weirdo for the campaign.
The holder of the card gets to pick out a class, occupation, race, etc, which is in the fringe category. As the GM, I will then work this character into the campaign to make it fit as best as possible. I will also make sure that there are no other concepts like this player’s concept. After all, they are the unique snowflake. For some level of campaign protection, the GM does get final approval for their concept (no Vow of Poverty Monks…none).
How Many Weirdos Are Too Many?
You may not approve of my approach, and to be honest, I won’t know how well it works until I launch my Star Trek campaign, but I think I might be on to something. There are many ways to address this issue, and this is just one of them.
How do you deal with the weirdos in your group? Do you limit splat books? Do you use a group template to make sure there is a purpose for the party? Is there something in your social contract? Do you limit fringe character ideas? Or do you just let your weirdness flow and go with it? Would you hand out a weirdo card, and what would your players do, if you did?