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Fair or Foul? Rewriting Characters

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On June 18, 2012 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice | 22 Comments

A few years ago I decided that I wanted to run a superhero game with a “Silver Age” feel. I wanted low-powered heroes in a world where superheroes and supervillains were just emerging. I spent a great deal of energy describing exactly the type of campaign I was looking for and printed handouts for the players. I spent a good part of the first session explaining what I was looking for and everybody agreed to it. We devoted the rest of the session to designing characters.

The players completely ignored me and came up with bizarre concepts that would raise eyebrows in a typical “four color” campaign, much less a silver age one. I tried to steer them back on track to no avail; by the end of the session, I held new heroes in my hand that bore little resemblance to the guidelines. I told the players that I’d be making some adjustments between sessions.

Frustrated, I ended up tossing the PCs, as I didn’t want to waste another session on PC design and I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about redesigning the campaign to accommodate the generated PCs. I took the kernel of an idea from each one and designed a new PC that fit the guidelines. I then carefully wove their back stories together in order to make them interesting to play. I was very satisfied with the result.

Predictably, my players were less than pleased with their new characters. They soldiered on, but they plotted behind my back to end the campaign as quickly as possible (one of the players was eager to run a different campaign). When the time came to decide whether to continue or suspend the campaign, they voted to start the new one.

Ironically, they had a blast with the campaign and, to this day, consider it the most fun any of them have had with a superhero game (it was my favorite superhero campaign as well). It’s been great fodder for “picnic talk” over the last few years and we all lament that we never could get back to it. It’s obvious that the enjoyment of playing simply couldn’t outweigh the hard feelings over the rewriting of characters.

So, fair or foul? Should I have redesigned the PCs?

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




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22 Comments To "Fair or Foul? Rewriting Characters"

#1 Comment By Ben Scerri On June 18, 2012 @ 5:21 am

I would have to say “Foul”…

Whilst you clearly defined what kind of game you wanted to run, your players obviously wanted something different from the game than you did. However, that being said, were I in your situation (and I sort of am currently) I would have and are annoyed at those players who have gone off the agreed upon style.

But again, it is as much the players game as it is the GMs, unfortunately :P

#2 Comment By Thammorn On June 18, 2012 @ 6:31 am

I designed a campaign like yours, and asked for the same type of characters. What I got was, well, more than a little different. I decided that, since they made characters that had a tendency to deal some critical damage, I would take into account collateral damage. By the time the first session’s foiled bank robbery was over with, one character was responsible for two robbers’ deaths and the death of a bank teller via heart attack (He used M&M’s “frightful presence” in a room filled with robbers, tellers, and civilians.). The police made the characters liable for the actions of that member, and pulled them all down to the hoosegow. Legal repercussions kinda taught the players the consequences of the high-powered campaign they wanted versus the street-level campaign (and lesser collateral damage) campaign I told them I wanted.
Your problem? Kinda “foul,” but trying to steer them back on course usually takes some rather severe actions.

#3 Comment By mcmanlypants On June 18, 2012 @ 6:53 am

Foul. You told them what kind of game you wanted and they clearly didn’t want that game. I think the thing to do at that point would have been to say, “OK, I don’t think this is going to work – what kind of superheroes game do you want?” Open negotiations might have gotten you to the same position you were in but without the hard feelings. If I devoted a game session to creating a character I looked forward to playing only to be handed a different sheet and told that my new character was the same idea only “better” in some fashion, yes, I would feel tremendous resentment.

#4 Pingback By Why I Won’t Rewrite Your Character | Triple Crit On June 18, 2012 @ 7:34 am

[...] Today’s article on Gnome Stew seems more than apt to describe the inner conflict I have brewing in my own campaign right now, but serves as a reminder as to why I had to let the players choose what they wanted and not force any particular character (or in this case, race) on them. [...]

#5 Comment By Trace On June 18, 2012 @ 7:48 am

Foul.

You obviously didn’t have your players’ buy-in on your idea, and so they tried to make it something they did want to play. Then you went over their heads and remade their characters into something you knew they didn’t want. Then you seem to be surprised that they were unhappy with this course of action.

Personally, if I were one of them, I just wouldn’t have played in the game at all.

#6 Comment By black campbell On June 18, 2012 @ 8:49 am

A little of both. They were obviously not on the same page for the game world and level at which point either you roll with it, or you guys compromise. I have had players however, whose goal was to scotch a campaign they were not interested in, but the others were. At this point, I would have tweaked (and have done) the character.

Fortunately, the players trust me not to screw up their characters, and most like me to pre-gen based off of what they like to play.

#7 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On June 18, 2012 @ 9:08 am

Thanks for all the replies!

First off, I figured this one would skew heavily towards ‘foul.’

To clarify, my players ‘bought in,’ or at least that’s the impression they gave me. Had they simply said ‘we don’t want to play this’ then I’d have scrapped it.

After the change, I knew they were initially disappointed but I thought they moved past it. The campaign itself was very enjoyable and, if nothing else, I’m glad to have had those experiences. It’s just unfortunate it came with a high cost.

#8 Comment By danroth On June 18, 2012 @ 9:13 am

I call foul. Sure, they said they agreed with the concept, but they obviously did not actually want to play the game.

I think what you could have done is used the characters as they made them, but change the setting around to accommodate the feel that you had in mind.

I say that the game being one of their best for stories is just a lucky coincidence. It could easily have been their worst ever.

#9 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On June 18, 2012 @ 10:15 am

I totally get the frustration on both sides. As a GM I want player buy-in as much as the next guy, but as a player, I want my character more or less intact. I wrote about a similar issue from the player’s POV here: http://www.gnomestew.com/gming-advice/you-asked-for-player-input-for-a-reason

Maybe in this sort of situation, pre-gens would have been useful, or maybe having the original characters completely overpower the world for a few sessions, then mysteriously disappear, changing the focus of the game from butt-kicking to finding what happened to the PCs may have worked.

All that said, however, why CAN’T your group go back to it? If they realize now that it was a fun game, it seems like things might run better this time around.

#10 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On June 18, 2012 @ 11:30 am

@Matthew J. Neagley – The old gang isn’t together anymore due to a number of circumstances. We’re lucky if we can get together for the occasional barbecue.

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 18, 2012 @ 11:51 am

Tough call. On one hand, you rewrote the only stake they had in the game. On the other, they completely ignored all the directions, and went their own way.

Sure, maybe you could have gone the over-the-top four-color route with their uber-toons, but that’s not what you had set up, not what you were jazzed to run, and not what you had their agreement on.

A better solution? I don’t know your group, but (where’s that deceased equine?) it sounded like y’all didn’t have a real consensus on the campaign, and needed to go back to the pre-game discussion to define the campaign in everyone’s mind.

#12 Comment By TheHydraDM On June 18, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

I’d say both.

It was foul of you to simply thrust upon your players a campaign they clearly were not actually interested in playing conceptually. Campaigns with private tables require buy-in from the participants, and while it’s important that the person running the game has the highest stake in what gets run, that doesn’t give them authority to just say “we’re playing this, you guys let’s go” with a closed table. At a convention? On the internet? As a general call to arms? Sure! But with existing players, not so much.

At the same time, their foul was to ignore the spirit of the campaign proposed and instead do their own thing, and it was fair of you to fix their characters. However, I feel you should’ve worked with them better, and individually, to get this result, not to simply say “hey, by the way, here’s your new characters because those ones that you made weren’t any good!”

It was overall a more foul situation than a fair one, but the concept of rewriting PCs to fit the setting better isn’t bad in and of itself – it just could’ve been handled better all around.

My 2 cents, at least :)

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On June 18, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

I recently took part in a Song of Ice and Fire game in which the GM wanted a certain approach to the challenge. I asked if I could play a certain character type or would it interfere with the game. The true answer was “not much scope for him” but the GM said “sure”. Then proceeded to saddle me with prerequisites that made the character so specialized he wasn’t suitable for the purpose.

The only thing left for me to do during a session was to roleplay, since dice-wise it wasn’t going to happen. I picked a couple of aspects of this guy’s profession that I actually knew a little about and proceeded to attempt to play them.

The GM did not appreciate it and did not a little passive aggressive pushback of the type familiar to us all. I tried to let it go but the other players wouldn’t drop the subject, whicjh made me mad and made me dig in my heels.

From my perspective I had been saddled by a nerfed character and could not actively join in the game at hand. The stuff I was doing had zero net-effect on the game (and I speak as a GM here who had actrually assessed the potential damage and worked to nullify it) but the others made it a big deal, so I quit.

How much better would it have been to say “nope, that character won’t work for me” and work with me to make someone who would have fitted his vision?

So while it wasn’t a foul, as such, the outcome was entirely predictable Walt. Never eff with the players’ characters. They are the most jealously guarded IP in the world.

As an aside, I’ve actually given up trying to convene “low key” games because the players these days want AWESOME from their games (after all, they get low-key from real life). There’s lots of talk at my LFGS for doing 1st level D20 games, no support for them whatsoever when the casting calls are made on the store website.

#14 Comment By Silveressa On June 18, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

After some consideration I’d go with fair actually.

You laid out what was wanted and the players blithely ignored you and presented chars not in line with what you wanted.

You then tried to give them re-envisioned concepts of their characters and when presented with the new versions they seemed to accept it and agreed to play.

Seems fair enough really.

At that point they should have spoken up and said if they didn’t like the new characters and worked with you to reach a consensus, or made it clear they were unhappy and not interested in the game.

If a player accepts a pre-gen or reworked char sheet when I hand it to them and agree it’s something they want to play I take them at their word.

To sabotage the game is just self defeating given everyone is there to have fun, and ruining the fun doesn’t really benefit anyone.

@Roxysteve

I tend to have just the opposite problem in my games when it comes to power level. Getting players to roll up characters with high end powers/ability is damn near impossible.

I ask for a supers game with chars of the power level similar to the fantastic four, I get street level punisher and catwoman style characters.

I ask for high powered Rifts characters, (Juicers, T-men Russian Shock Borgs, glitter boy pilots etc..) I get city rats, operators and covert ops specialists.

It can be a real pain reworking an adventure to fit with lower/higher power PC’s then intended, but the end result is usually worth it if the players enjoy playing their chars the game is usually a success.

#15 Comment By recursive.faults On June 18, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

I’m gonna say, “Fair” with a huge caveat.

The caveat is this: The DM shouldn’t rewrite the characters. It feels invasive, no matter how good the game winds up. Instead I would try to provide pre-gens or templates to base off of.

I generally don’t mind people reworking their characters as needed. I find that most of the time people start with a concept that doesn’t always work in the reality of the game. So I meet in the middle and make sure the game focuses on the characters, and give the players/characters room to adjust to the game.

#16 Comment By Necrognomicon On June 18, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

Foul on both the GM and the Players.

Players’ Fouls: They ignored the setting/theme/tone and made characters that weren’t suitable. They should not have accepted the rewritten characters if they did not want to play them, though there is any number of reasons why a Player might do this, especially with a group of friends. (They just want to start playing, the new characters are ‘OK’, they don’t want to upset their friend the GM, etc.) Trying to sabotage the game is definitely unacceptable behavior though…

GM’s Foul: You changed the Players’ characters without consulting them. As Roxysteve points out, Players are very protective of their characters and understandably so. In most games there is little to no collaborative worldbuilding, and character creation is usually the first concrete form for Player agency. You rewrote characters around what *you* liked about their characters, and you wove a backstory that *you* thought was interesting to play. The Players may have been enamored with something about their characters that you just didn’t see.

Take Rogue from X-Men:
A Player might want to play this character because they want to roleplay a character whose powers complicate the mere act of touching another but the actual power mechanics of why she can’t touch someone is of minor importance.

The GM may think the coolest part of Rogue is her ability to steal powers, but perhaps fears it is too powerful for the campaign.

A quick rewrite later and the GM has a character with a less potent power-stealing ability that she can turn off at will, and the Player has a character they have no real interest in playing.

That this is “the most fun any of them have had with a superhero game” tells me little without some context:
Are they seasoned superhero gamers?
Fantasy gamers running supers for the first and only time?
Did they only play once before this with crappy GM at a Con?
Do they hate the FASERIP system and really like ORE?

And most importantly:
Did they have fun because of the changes you made or despite those changes?

#17 Comment By KnightErrantJR On June 18, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

I’ll say “foul” with a side of “I can sympathize.”

I think sometimes supers gaming is one of the first genres where we learn that some people see RPGs as, first and foremost, games, and some people see them as storytelling exercises, and working past a certain point as far as theme and tone gets lost in the shuffle.

I’ve had gamers play in supers games where they aren’t really supers fans, because they are part of the group. I’ve also had players play in the game where they are fans of supers, but of genres that aren’t quite what you have in mind.

“We’re playing a game that’s kind of like the Avengers in tone.”

“Okay, I’ll make a guy whose primary power causes people’s heads to implode.”

“That’s a little dark and violent. I really wanted to go with Avengers as a guideline.”

“Yup, I’ll be the guy on the team that crushes people skulls with my brain.”

I’ve also seen people make up characters that, for any other genre would be an interesting roleplaying experiment.

For example, a game that a friend of mine GMed was suppose to be fairly standard supers action, and one of the players wanted to make a character that could only use his powers when he was high on heroin, and he wanted to play up the sadness of him doing good things while destroying himself.

I think the answer to your question was in the same post that you made. You said you didn’t want to waste time making the characters over again, but if you don’t want to put in the effort to work through the differences in expectations, then you need to roll with what you’ve got.

That having been said, yeah, I’ve never seen so many disconnects between theme and tone and the GM’s expectation and the player’s interpretation as I’ve seen in supers games.

#18 Comment By SmokestackJones On June 18, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

Foul on both sides, as some people have said. I myself as GM wouldn’t have the cojones to just rewrite the characters. I gotta respect what the players did.

At the same time if the players are gonna be either such cowardly, inconsiderate dolts for not telling you they weren’t interested in the type of campaign you wanted to give them or passive/aggressive jerkasses as to ignore your desires for the campaign I’d say they’re not worth the pain of running it for them. If it was me, I’d just hand GMing duties to another person in the group.

Sorry about the ire but my sympathy is for the GM in this case. Even though you took steps I wouldn’t as a GM, you DID lay it out for them what you wanted to present. The onus is on them.

-SJ

#19 Comment By Piikki On June 19, 2012 @ 12:04 am

Definetely a foul from players side. GM spends a lot of time preparing things for the game and basically asks only from players to make characters with in certain parameters and be there to play. It should not be too hard to do.

About rewriting the characters…I would say that it is not a foul. Roleplayer can as easily play a character written by someone else than one that he made up. Sometimes this even might be more fun! (and it seemed to be fun in your case). It sounds like players were acting like sullen teenagers that could not get their favorite candy.

#20 Comment By Shinhakkaider On June 19, 2012 @ 8:22 am

Foul on both sides, although I’d say more on the players than the GM. If I say I want to run a heroic game with no evil characters and the players come back with a bunch of CN aligned PC’s who proceed to act like CE jerks then that’s the players fault.

It’s their fault for not voicing exactly what they wanted to play when I specifically outlined the type of game I wanted to run and prepare for. If it was something that they weren’t interested in then THEY SHOULD SAY SO at the outset and not act like passive aggressive children after the fact.

But some of the fault is also yours. I’ve been into situation like yours before and I would NEVER re-write characters around concept. I’ve done so as a character AUDIT to make sure that points and feats and skills match up but never for concept. I would have handed the players back their characters told them what the issues were and said try again. I would have lent them silver age comics or pointed them toward episodes of Justice League or Super Friends *shiver* in the hope that they’d get it. But re-write their characters? Yeah that was not cool. As a person who mostly GM’s this would have been akin to one of my players reaching over my DM Screen during a combat encounter and saying “yeah….Uhhhhhh we’re not going to fight those mind flayers today. We’re fighting flumphs instead mmmmkay?”

#21 Comment By Orikes On June 20, 2012 @ 12:50 am

I’m also going to call foul, but the players are not blameless in the situation. The tell is probably in the fact that GM intervention in their characters curbed their enjoyment of the game. It sounds like it ended up becoming a favorite campaign, but only after they had time to gain distance from the disappointment of having their characters changed on them.

Somewhere along the line, wires got crossed between what you wanted as GM and what the players decided to make. Maybe it was a simple misunderstanding on what Silver Age actually meant. If I’d been in your shoes, I would have been incredibly frustrated, but I wouldn’t have changed their characters without talking to them about it. Something like that would piss me off as a player.

One thing I might have tried would be asking the players to save those characters for a potential alternate modern game, but revamping them to better fit a Silver Age concept. After all, many of the comics that started during the Silver Age have also gone through the various styles since. It’d be kinda fun to reverse translate a character from one style to another. Of course, that’s only if it’d work for your game.

#22 Comment By Skitty On July 20, 2012 @ 7:40 am

I don’t quite get why ALL of the players turned in characters that were so out of line with the stated idea of the campaign. Especially if they were working on those characters during a session with the GM?

If my character was thrown out by the GM between sessions, I think my first question would have been “You had an entire session of character design. Why didn’t you say anything then?”


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