- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

Character Fixes: Making Characters Enjoyable

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 [1], 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.

Character Drift

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.

Character Alteration

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 [2]— 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).

Increasing Overlap

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 [3] 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 [4], 2] [5] 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.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Character Fixes: Making Characters Enjoyable"

#1 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 7, 2009 @ 10:20 am

I have difficulty customizing a race or class, even though I’m an inveterate rules tweaker.

I’m always afraid that I’ll unbalance something, and have to go back and fix it. I’d have ticked off most of the table by giving one player a custom class, and then ticked off that player by nerfing it later.

Which may explain why I like class-less games…

#2 Comment By BryanB On December 7, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

Nice article Scott. You bring up a lot of good points.

I’m inclined to allow players to re-train some things, particularly in a system like D&D 3.5 where a character’s build seems so important, especially when you forgot a feat that turns out to be a major stepping stone towards what you intended to do later on. It happens.

But like Kurt says, that is one of the attractions of a classless game like Savage Worlds, where such character building is less crucial, though still somewhat present in the advancement options. I need more experience with Savage Worlds though before I can draw full comparisons.

I think it is important for the GM and Players to work together to build the character that each player wants to play. I think it is also incumbent on the GM to try and have situations where the player gets to shine in the way that they designed him to as well.

The D&D Rogue that gets turned into a second-class Fighter because the GM doesn’t like having the thief get thieving opportunities or the Star Wars Noble that never has a chance to use his persuasion talents is only going to be frustrating for the player.

You once told me about a frustrating experience where you loaded up on social skills, after being told that the game would be heavy on intrigue and politics, only to find that the game was much more action oriented and combat based. It is my opinion that the GM failed in this case because he set the table one way and then served you a meal that you didn’t order.

If I ever encourage you to build your PC one way and then run things the complete opposite, you will need to toss your tea mug at me. 😀

#3 Comment By Tyson J. Hayes On December 7, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

[6] – Savage World’s has it’s ups and downs for building characters. Personally I use skills to help define a character, and in 3.0/3.5 D&D would take some of the “useless” skills such as profession to round out the character. Savage Worlds or any of the classless systems don’t allow for that.

That being said I running Savage Worlds and enjoy playing it as well, so it’s a different mind set of character building.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On December 7, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

[7] – Mucking around with classes does have more moving parts. Even allocation systems (like Vampire’s disciplines) require recalibrating when you find out that in this GM’s world everyone has lots of Auspex, making your investment in Obfuscate worthless– or in Spirit of the Century, when a cool seeming aspect never comes up in play, for good or ill.

[6] – You’re right; as Martin explains, it’s best to give [8] each session. If you manage that, most players will enjoy enough parts of their character that you won’t have to rewrite much.

There are always strange setups that makes one skill critical, or another worthless– and you often have to play for a while to figure out which is which.

#5 Comment By Rafe On December 7, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

I encounter almost zero issues with the players’ characters in my campaign, mostly due to the system (Burning Wheel). What you use, you advance. Yes, you can “screw up” your initial skill allocation or pick lifepaths you might regret. However, as soon as the characters start out, they’re growing, and doing so organically based on the dictates of the players and what’s happening. As for overlap, it’s often a good thing. Three cheers for help dice! 🙂

I guess you could say the system has built-in drift.

#6 Comment By unwinder On December 7, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

I have been playing a homebrew setting with nothing but completely custom classes for quite some time. It’s sort of playtesting for some material that some friends of mine want to publish online, so tweaking characters is typically a must as we discover abilities that just aren’t balanced. I’ve had characters completely revamp their character sheet at level ten because they realized that their combat style wasn’t very well supported by the current rules.

There are people who abuse this though. There’s a big difference between not feeling like you’re fitting into your character’s combat role well enough and trying to find ways to maximize your character’s effectiveness in combat. I’ve said yes too many times in the past, and the result is that the players who tinker with their characters a lot are disproportionately powerful compared with the players who stick with every character decision they ever made.

That said, I am more than happy to let people edit the building blocks of their class. Rather have a strong willpower save than reflex? You got it. Rather boost your hit dice than have the high base attack bonus? No problem. Want to swap out some class skills for some other class skills? That’s OK, but if you want to trade out skill X, you’ll have to give up skill Y too. Are you sure you want that?

#7 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2009-12-11 On December 12, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

[…] Character Fixes: Making Characters Enjoyable Scott, over at Gnome Stew, has four ways to make your characters more enjoyable to play. Go check them out! […]