One phrase from a player that strikes fear in the heart of a GM is, “I don’t really like my character.” A player who does not like his character is an infection in the group. If left to fester too long, his commitment to his character and the game starts to break down, causing disruptions in the game. Worse, his discontent can make others start wondering about their own characters, leading to total campaign collapse.
It is a problem that is a balancing act. On one side you need to address the player’s discontent. On the other side you need to protect the fabric of the campaign. Too radical of a change, and you may disrupt the believability of the campaign. At the same time, you cannot ask the player to play a character he doesn’t like. Something has to be done, and as a GM it’s up to you to do it.
Before you put your pen to your notebook, let’s look at where the PC transformation comes from, how to create one, and where to place it into your campaign. First thing, don’t blame your player, because the whole thing is Gandalf’s fault.
Gandalf The Grey White
While it cannot be proven, the origin of the PC transformation goes back to one of the literary foundations of our hobby: Lord Of The Rings. I imagine it went something like this:
Player [to GM]: Oh man, I was just looking in that new Middle-Age’s Magic supplement, and they have the coolest class: White Robed Mage. Can Gandalf be one?
GM: What? No man, you are a Grey Robed Wizard, right from the core book.
Player: Yea, but they did not have the White Robed Wizard in the core book. The Grey is ok, but it does not have all the cool white magic powers.
GM: Well we can’t just go back and make you a White Robed Wizard, there was that whole story arc with Bilbo and stuff, remember?
Player: Yea, but is there some way he can change into a White Robed Wizard?
GM: Well not right now, you are in the middle of that Dwarven dungeon, remember? You’re taking that ring to the mountain to destroy it.
Player: <groans> Come on! It’s such a cool class, and I don’t want to wait until this story is done. Couldn’t you somehow write it into the current adventure. It’s what I always wanted to play.
GM: <thinking> Hmm…well there is that bridge encounter… Ok, I think I have something, that might work.
Joking aside, the dialog above highlights the crux of the player’s issue, which is: he does not like his current character build, and would like to make large-scale changes to the character like his class, powers, feats, quirks, etc. The changes proposed will have profound changes on the character, the group, and the whole campaign.
There are a number of ways to deal with this issue. The character can leave the group, he can die, you can ret-con the character to fit better, and finally the most radical: the PC transformation, and the focus of today’s article.
The PC transformation is different from the PC ret-con. In the PC ret-con, the GM allows the player to make some edits (often minor) to the PC that take place in the past which the group agrees to overlook. In the case of the PC transformation, the PC’s past is left intact, but something happens (the event) that causes a change in the PC (the transformation). The end result is that the PC emerges from the event in a new form and the campaign continues forth.
When To Transform?
The PC transformation is not always the best solution to a player who is unsatisfied with his character. A PC transformation works best when:
- There is sufficient history in the game, so a PC ret-con won’t be believable.
- The character is pivotal to the campaign, and having him leave or killing him off would cause a disruption in the game.
- The game has elements to create a transforming event that will not cause player disbelief.
When those criteria are met, the PC transformation becomes a usable plot tool. Because the PC transformation is such a radical plot device, if the first two criteria are not met, you are often better off performing a ret-con or writing the character out. If the first two criteria are met, the next thing you need to do is to determine if your setting and your campaign has elements that support a transformation.
The Transforming Event
The PC transformation will take place through an event where the old PC will be taken and transformed into the new PC. You need a mechanism that can fully transform the PC and account for changes in class, powers, feats, etc. Here are some suggestions that can work for a few different genres:
- Magic—A powerful spell can be a catalyst for transformation. The more dramatic the change, the more ancient the spell or artifact. The beauty of magic is that anything can be changed in the body of a spell.
- Divine—In games where the gods play an intervening role in the campaign world, divine intervention is a great tool for transformation. In these cases, the deity often re-creates the PC into a tool for its use.
- Genetics—Genetic alteration is a more modern tool for transformation. The genes of the target are altered, most often by a vector like a virus. This can account for physical changes, but it may be tougher to describe changes in trainings, skills, etc.
- Nanotechnology—Nanotechnology is comprised of small nanomolecular machines that can re-arrange genes or tissue in a mechanical way, producing a transformation. This is much like genetics, but is a more futuristic description, and works great for sci-fi games.
- Dimensional—This is a bit more radical but something coming through from another direction. Unless your campaign has existing dimensional story components, this is a very disruptive event. This gets dangerously close to goatee-wearing PCs, so be wary.
- Radiation—This is a bit old school, but a good burst of gamma rays or cosmic radiation has been known to do the trick. Radiation exposure triggers genetic changes.
The most important thing about the event is that the mechanism used for the transformation is believable for the system you are running and the campaign you are playing. Take some time to think about the transformation, and don’t be afraid to combine some of the options above to make something unique.
Planning The Transformation
Once you have decided how the transformation will occur, you then have to plan for the transformation and fit it into your campaign. The difficulty here is that you want the transformation to occur soon, because you want your player to start playing his new PC and get back to enjoying himself. At the same time, the transformation needs to fit into your current story, and by the nature of the event, it is not one that is trivial. Three suggestions are:
- Just before the climax—In this part of the story, the transformation occurs in time for the new PC to join his friends to enter the climax of the current story arc displaying his new abilities when it will count the most. This is best used when you want the new PC to be able to show off at the height of the story.
- During the climax—In this part of the story, the transformation is part of the climax of the story arc. You will need enough time to sow the seeds of the transformation into your story early enough for them to bear fruit at the climax. The one risk is that the transformation is going to take the PC out of the action for all or part of the climax, which could be frustrating to the PC. This is best used when you want your new PC to come save the day, right at the height of the climax.
- After the climax—In this part of the story, the transformation occurs in the twilight of the climax. It is possible that the actions within the climax have triggered the transformation. As the players are basking in the completion of the story arc, the transformation occurs, and the new PC emerges. This becomes a natural transition: the old story arc and the old PC have both reached and end, and the new PC and the next story arc lies ahead. This is best used when you want the PC transformation not to interfere with the story arc, or when the transformation would take too long to reasonably fit within the story arc.
Making It Happen
Once you select where you want to place the transformation, you should review your plan with the PC, and get his input. Don’t be shy about having the player help the transformation storyline along by taking certain actions in upcoming sessions. The player is going to be very motivated to help bring their new PC into the game.
You will also want to start discussing with the group the upcoming change. The new PC is going to be a change for the whole group, and getting their input and helping them transition will be just as important in maintaining the stability of the campaign.
Transform And Roll Out
The PC transformation is a radical story tool for allowing a player to change elements of his character while preserving who the character is and without altering past storylines. With a little thought, planning, and care, the PC transformation can be a dramatic moment that removes the infection of discontent and puts your campaign on the road to recovery.
I would like to dedicate this article to Sargon, my player who has made me an expert in the PC transformation after many campaigns, and just as many transformations.
Have you performed a PC transformation before? If so, what techniques have you used, and how did it go?