Character Visions and Designs
There are many approaches to developing characters. Some authors talk about characters who leap into their mind, fully formed and in the middle of an iconic scene, while others talk about characters who “take on a life of their own” as they write. Visual players may imagine their character in a pose and start by sketching their badass hero. System often suggests characters– a Holy Warrior could fit many games, but a Paladin or Jedi is specific to a setting or system. There aren’t many games where playing a Sorcerer is much different from playing a Wizard, but in 4e there are strong role and flavor differences. GMs often like to borrow characters from another media for their NPCs– sometimes with a little reskinning , sometimes stolen whole cloth. Some players, often including me, lack a strong vision for a character and “plug party holes”– creating a street samurai to escort the decker and mage, or a cleric to keep their buddies alive when they descend into the dungeon.
Character visions rarely remain static. You might have had a diplomat in mind, but when your character flubs her first few negotiations you may change and instead portray her as an instigator. When adventures center around specific abilities or skills, players often find their characters growing in that direction– or responding strongly to their inability to compete in the emphasized way. As the game continues, you may find that your character’s skill set overlaps with others, or that the campaign’s emphasis on stealth really discourages the plate mail you’d envisioned. Often though, a little work and compromise can result in characters that are fun again.
Characters are the main lens through which players view and experience the game. If the character isn’t right, it’s up to the player and GM to work together on making the player happy. Sometimes what’s desired is difficult or impossible to achieve; D&D’s flashy magic system makes it hard to model a character using only Saruman’s subtle corruption over months.
There are many ways to change a character and many reasons a player may be unhappy with the character they’re currently playing. Let’s look into a few cases.
Drifting a character is the most common approach to fixing characters. Shifting a character’s focus slowly, over time, is a common way of adjusting character to campaign. If the character was designed as skilled negotiator and swayer of minds, but opponents are mostly mindless and political plots are far apart, you’ll often pick skills more relevant to the campaign you’re actually playing.
If the character is still fun, the player can often drift the concept as the character gains experience, by purchasing skills, powers, or classes that match the campaign in play. At this level of satisfaction, the player can often keep the character fun to play on their own. The GM should remember to bring the original character concept into the story at times so that the character gets to demonstrate their expertise, but the character basically works.
Often a character is created that doesn’t quite fit the campaign. If this becomes clear and the player feels like their character just doesn’t fit, it may be time to alter the character. Other times, a player will pick skills for a system that turn out to have a very different effect than they’d understood, or fail to buy a “must have” skill that’s surprisingly useful.
I often allow players to switch around points for the first few sessions. Some game systems build this in– like Fudge on the fly — where skills aren’t assigned until a roll involving it is called for. Letting players adjust character skills is often good practice– games with long skill lists lead to many players overlooking key skills among the extensive listings. Games with character retraining allow this alteration to be made within the game world (instead of only at the character sheet level).
Sometimes the problem doesn’t occur immediately, but as the game progresses a character’s unique role gets stepped on. This can be due to the addition of new characters, or when another character’s skills start overlapping with the character’s core skill set. (This often happened in older editions of D&D, when a wizard could use low level spells to hide better, open chests better, and disarm magical traps better than any thief.)
Retraining skills or powers can let the character claim a newly unique core  in some cases. In other cases, the new character is just better at some part of the existing character’s specialty– this often happens when a specialist character is introduced, taking away that part of the “jack of all trade’s” role. This can work if the jack of all trades is happy with a new void to fill, but if they lose the core that excites them and don’t care for the new, you’ll want to work with them.
In my 3.5e campaign, this happened a few times to the ranger. The group’s initial concept was a wilderness strike group– so everyone was spending skill points to match the ranger’s focus. A character later joined the the campaign as a cleric and provided the healing that the group had long looked to the ranger to provide. The first case has handled via OOC discussion; the players agreed to defer to the ranger and emphasize her wilderness savvy, letting her take point and revel in being a ranger. For second case, the ranger retrained her healing away, and got a chance to emphasize her wilderness and combat spells.
Options and Variants
While keeping track of dozens of splatbooks (profession, clan, race, or class specific books) is often annoying, these supplements are great at providing alternate approaches. If a player is unhappy with the character’s contributions, it might be worth the time for one or both of you to look through the splatbooks to see if a better approach has been designed. (For the Ranger above, we used the “Mystic Ranger” variant from a Dragon Magazine to emphasize her spell casting when she was crowded from the melee combat role.)
If you’re a tinkerer, as I am, you might reach under the hood of the game system and craft your own solution. If a player hates memorizing spells each day, you might borrow the mechanics of a sorcerer– even if they’re playing a cleric. (Here are two examples [1 , 2]  of the Chatty DM creating custom classes for his players.)
We often assign our players the responsibility of creating characters that make them happy. Sometimes the GM needs to step in and help them get what they want– stretching the system to make sure the character they imagine is recognized at the table, guiding players to skills that will be useful in the game– or at least warning them which skills are likely to be only an accent instead of commonly used. Sometimes it’s up to the GM to create a new class, discipline, or style that fits an unusual character concept.
Have you helped players by customizing classes or world elements to match their concept? Do you allow characters to retrain their skills when they are unhappy with a pile of skills sitting unused? Hop into comments and share any suggestions that you have used to help a character adapt to a campaign– or efforts that your GM has made to keep you happy with your character.