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PC Transformations: Or How Gandalf Became A White Wizard

Posted By Phil Vecchione On September 21, 2009 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 13 Comments

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?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "PC Transformations: Or How Gandalf Became A White Wizard"

#1 Comment By Jagyr Ebonwood On September 21, 2009 @ 7:33 am

During my longest running D&D3.5 game (levels 1-12), my wife (then girlfriend) decided she didn’t like her character. Well, she liked the character (a cute kobold), but she didn’t like her abilities as a bard (insert “bards suck” joke here).

Soon after her complaint that she wanted to change her character, they had a battle with an enemy encampment and their dragon ally. They defeated the hobgoblin ground forces, but the dragon got away – right after snatching up the kobold!

All of a sudden they had a new quest: rescue their friend. So, they tracked down the dragon’s lair (where there were more goblinoids to fight) and slew it. In the mean time though, the Chaotic Evil dragon was busy torturing the poor kobold, who he viewed as inferior to true dragonkind. All sorts of nasty things, like hanging the kobold upside down and dripping vials of acid into its nose and up into its brain. By the time the kobold was rescued, all of his former abilities had been burned away by acid and trauma, and the immense anger of PTSD allowed him to tap into his true dragon heritage (sorceror levels and dragon bloodline feats), and he assisted his comrades by nuking the hobgoblin encampment.

This was the best thing I could’ve done for this campaign. It made my wife satisfied with her character again, and gave an in game explanation for the change, which also provided a quest and illustrated that “transformation” comes with a cost.

The only caveat I have for other DMs, is that this campaign only had two players – they each had two PCs each. So, when the kobold was captured, my wife wasn’t sitting out waiting to be rescued; her dwarven fighter was still an active PC. If I did this with a four-player group, I’d have to adjust the amount of time that the PC is held captive for – enough to emphasize that “change has cost” but not enough to make the player feel cheated.

#2 Comment By B4Z00K4 J03 On September 21, 2009 @ 8:15 am

I’ve actually had to do this several times in my 4E campaign recently, mostly related to balance the party with roles. My party is made up of college students, some who are in town for the summer and some who are in town for the whole year and so our party looks pretty dramatically different half the time. Over this summer, we had the entire party available and I had 3 strikers on the team and no controllers, so when our elven ranger got back from school he had had an experience with the nature god who was calling him to defend his world and connect with the trees.

Then about two months in, we were incredibly controller heavy and had zero strikers. At this point, he had to miss a session so I sent his character on a slightly different route in the dungeon where he encountered a character from his back story who gave him his mighty bow and returned his dire weasel companion. BAM, beastmaster ranger is born. So my character transformations have mostly existed off screen for characters and are part of the back story I have them write when they level up.

#3 Comment By Razjah On September 21, 2009 @ 8:45 am

Never done a PC transformation. We have done the replacement. My girlfriend had a Swashbuckler/fighter/ranger Pixie that she didn’t like. When the PCs became pirates that character became the NPC captain. She brought in a catfolk warmage and had a great time fireballing everything that moved or didn’t move.

#4 Comment By Zig On September 21, 2009 @ 9:44 am

I have had to do this in my old long running 1st edition Shadowrun game.

One of my players when he made up his character wanted a skills heavy “pure strain human” (harkening back to our old Gamma World days) which meant no magic and no cyberware.

As the game went into its initial dozen or so game sessions he was wishing he had made a physical adept, but he didn’t want to start a new character as he liked everything else about his current character (he was becoming a folk legend in the Seattle barrens).

The agreement we came up with had him go down a long and difficult path to become an adept. It would cost him karma as well as requiring role playing and sacrifice.

At first his uncle’s ghost trained him, but after a while he had to find a living master. This old geezer taught him more (his magic attribute has been going up the whole time) than his uncle was able to. With his new master he had to learn the 97 steps (stolen from a book by the same name). As game sessions passed he got further along the 97 steps. After some great role playing on his part he mastered the 97 steps and was a full adept with 6 magic points.

After that I had fun killing off his master which drove my friend’s character to seek vengeance and further role playing and story arcs.

I had a great time as the GM for this and my player I believe had a good time growing in power. He had to do a lot of role playing, go on a quest and other things that made the transformation fit into the campaign. He basically earned every point of magic in my opinion.

The only other time I can think of is my currently running 2nd edition D&D game where the 5th level half-elven ranger wanted to be a spell slinger like her mother. Now normally that’s not an acceptable multi-classing, but who cares. If it’s something that keeps the player engaged in the game I say bend the rules.

He didn’t want to start a new character so I had his character freeze the ranger levels and start out as a level 1 mage and not able to use ranger abilities until she reached 5th level as ranger or else take an XP penalty). At which time he could decide that the character would be a dual class freezing the ranger level or do it multi-class and split XP between the two classes from that point forward (he chose to multi class).

It was a bit difficult at first. The group lost an effective archer and gained a 1st level mage…not great for them, but they had fun playing it up. I added some stuff to the game — lessons, master, etc. — to cover the transformation. I liked that this particular player role played some of this stuff. He’s one of my least likely to role play in the group of players, so getting him to role play and be vested in his character was a treat to me.

#5 Comment By robinmotion On September 21, 2009 @ 11:09 am

In a D&D 3.5 campaign using City of the Spider Queen, I was bored with my over-the-top half-orc drow-killing-machine ranger/barbarian/occult slayer. I had heard the adventure was ridiculously hard, so I asked the GM if I should aim for a very tough character, and he said “sure” … but it ended up not being all that tough for a party that worked well together and was prepared for demons and their DR, and my character was kind of at a dead-end, roleplaying-wise. I wanted a way to tone him down, and also give him a little more character complexity, without just having him refuse to use his class powers or make poor tactical decisions.

So when he died on a fluke bad Fort save, I had the druid “steal” his body and take it away to reincarnate it, rather than letting the other characters take it back to town to be raised. The random roll on the chart ended up with “elf,” and then the random roll on the sub-race? Drow! Awesome!

The character now had a lower strength and constitution, bumps to stats that meant next to nothing to him, and had become the very thing that he hated … perfectly answering both the over-powered questions and “what next?” roleplaying questions.

It was great that the random roll provided such an ironic race as a result, but this would be a situation where I would say the GM was well within his or her rights to manipulate the roll to make for interesting story results.

PS – Any time I hear or read “Gandalf the Gray” next to “Gandalf the White,” I think of this: http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/285267

#6 Comment By Swordgleam On September 21, 2009 @ 11:28 am

This just happened in my campaign, but rather backwards. One of the players was running out of second chances. He rolled the d20 after his first failed death save, and it came up a 1. I jokingly said, “I guess you get a preview of Hell.” (He was playing an evil PC.)

I turned away to deal with the rest of the party, and the next thing I know, he’s passing me a note that says, “Is there anyone here I can talk to?” Turns out he’s now one HP away from death and would rather bargain with a demon than roll up a new character.

So now he’s a tiefling sorc instead of a human wizard. I don’t think he had a particular desire to play a tiefling or a sorc before this, but he saw the chance and went for it.

#7 Comment By itliaf On September 21, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

My major 4e transformation so far was changing a halfling rogue to drow wild magic sorcerer.
The PC had had a quest significant magic item bonded to his skin a few sessions earlier, but the player just wanted to try one of the shiny new PH classes. it just so happens that, mechanically, the two character types can get by with the same gear and stats pretty easily. It also was convenient that the party was headed into the Underdark right around the time the player was clamoring to try out a sorcerer, so he and I cooked up some less than coherent explanation about how the character was really a drow all along but had been cursed into halfling form when outside of the underdark.
Also there was a party-based skill challenge ritual to represent the PCs final stage of transformation taking place mid-combat.
I am not going to pretend that any of this went any more smoothly than I am making it sound, but I think my heart was in the right place.
Lesson learned: Never underestimate player fickleness in the face of a shiny new source book; make all macguffins transferable.

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 21, 2009 @ 4:31 pm

I hate ret cons for even the small stuff, and with my current groups I have been working with the players to create plausible transforming events in the game to satisfy their requests.

The dragonborn paladin in one game wanted to change how his dragon’s breath power worked after I acquired Goodman Games’ Dragonborn book. We worked it out and during one encounter his PC was bit in the throat by a particularly nasty and poisonous critter. The injury caused his dragon’s breath to behave differently and we were all happy with the results. There was some great role playing and zero ret conning. It just made the game a lot more fun.

Using the transformation method you get to plan events that demonstrate the PC changing within the game world. It really helps to establish a sense of growth and development amongst the characters. I like how Phil described it, and highly suggest that if you have not tried this approach to give it a shot if the situation should present itself.

#9 Comment By scaurus On September 21, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

Fantasy Flight Games’ Grimm setting for D20 has a built in mechanic that leads to, essentially, whole party transformation. Each archetype (bully, nerd, dreamer, etc.) progresses only to 6th level, and each class has a big jump in power in going from 5th to 6th (especially the dreamer, who can literally undergo a transformation – the dreamer in my game transformed into a flaming hammer wielding angel…)

I finished my Grimm campaign with an extra long session, where the characters had been captured by the BBG. As they were making their escape, they decided this was their best opportunity to tackle the BBG… so, as they rushed the throne room, I leveled them from 5th to 6th.

All my players said this felt just like a movie, where the heroes only realize their true powers just at the last minute.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On September 22, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

In my current 3.5 game, we’ve had a number of transformations as role overlap and other issues squished the joy out of a character for one player, then another. Dieties and visions are great excuses for transformations. Other changes have been more “stat side”– sure, we all know the mechanics changed, but in the game world there’s not a list that can be checked against.

#11 Comment By Swordgleam On September 22, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

@Scott: You bring up a good point about ‘stat side’ transformations. My dragonborn warlord switched into a fighter/warlord, but we didn’t have any in-game rationale because the only thing that changed is that he didn’t fall unconscious two rounds into every fight any more. He’d already been playing like a fighter; there was no difference in what the character was like, only in the mechanical effects.

#12 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2009-09-25 On September 25, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

[...] PC Transformations: Or How Gandalf Became A White Wizard There are always new supplements coming out for the current games. This is a boon and a bane. The boon is new ideas are always flowing into your game. The bane is that the game is not static enough to keep players content. They’re always wanting the latest and greatest classes, races, prestige classes, cybernetic enhancements, prestige classes, feats, skills, spells, powers and so on. How does a GM handle the influx of new ideas into an established game without disrupting the game? There are several thoughts on the matter, and DNAPhil over at Gnome Stew has a solution for you. Go check it out! [...]

#13 Comment By Lavachild On February 18, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

I just had to do this. Our very unwise half-orc barbarian expressed his need to gain some cleric levels. So, he had a religious conversion, was allowed to use his level 4 and 8 attribute bonuses to raise his wisdom to the level where he could cast 1st level spells, and told to build a temple to his god in town. So far, he’s used magic items to get his wisdom up, his temple is almost finished, and he is a raging, praying flurry of religous fury.


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