In a previous article  on running a game with minimal prep I mentioned that
“Players build their character’s classes, skills, and special powers based on what they want to do in the game.”
and Rafe pointed out in the comments  that this was one of the most fundamentally important things that a Game Master can realize. I hadn’t really thought about that sentence as that major of a concept until Rafe pointed it out. It seemed like something that was just there; part of the scenery and common enough to be taken for granted. It was advice that I’ve seen in some form in multiple places. Robins Laws of Good Game Mastering  talks about determining what various personality types players fall into and what types of characters they like to play, Chris Chinn  has talked about recognizing and making use of player flags, something Martin has followed up on in his own articles , and those are just a few examples. This advice certainly isn’t new, but it is important and it is easy to forget. Forgetting it is also one of the most detrimental things that a Game Master can do to his or her game.
The Character As An Expression Of Unfulfilled Potential
When a player sits down to make their character they aren’t creating a new game piece to make use of in a game, they are creating a virtual avatar to experience a new world with. They are taking a blank stick figure and making it an interactive tool through which they can utilize a new set of skills and abilities, and they get control over what skills and abilities it can have. While in real life learning a new skill requires years of study and practice, gaming allows us to mark a line on paper and build a person who can do that thing, even if it is only in a pretend world. That concept is powerful. If you could rebuild yourself using the standard character creation rules for a game system, how much different would turn out?
For the normal person, this is a chance to do things they can’t do in real life, even if they aren’t that relevant to the game. Have you ever placed levels of skill or ability in a musical instrument on a character sheet even though you weren’t going to make use of it, but just to know that it was there? A player’s character can be a chance to act out those elements they find lacking in their life. Not the most athletic? That doesn’t mean your character can’t be. Not the most eloquent of a wordsmith? That doesn’t mean your character can’t be. Not able to walk? That doesn’t mean your character can’t.  Characters in Role Playing Games are capable of fulfilling fantasies that we have about what we want to do in life.
The Character As An Expression Of A Player’s Wants
Whether or not a character is an expression of things that a character can or can’t do in real life, a character is an expression of what a player wants to do in a game. We all know of players who always play the same type of character. It might be a sneaky rogue in a fantasy game, a stealthy street-ninja in a futuristic game, or an ex-thief espionage expert in a modern game. The thing about all these characters is that they aren’t what is really important to the player, the concept they are built around is. Each of these characters expresses the player’s desire to subvert obstacles by sneaking around them and being unnoticed. The player who always plays a combat oriented character likely wants to face challenges in the game head on. The player who always plays a character with diverse skills and the ability to fill many rolls enjoys being able to handle many challenges.
This isn’t of course just relevant in a characters abilities or class, it is in the back story and personality that the player chooses to portray for their character. Is the character brash and cantankerous to town guards, maybe the player wants to buck authority in a safe and controlled way that won’t really get them in trouble. Is the character crafty and cunning, finding ways to pull cons on NPCs and maximize profit? The player probably enjoys the intricate and detailed interactions necessary to pull off such in game effects. Is the character a paragon of virtue, selflessly saving the innocent? Maybe the player enjoys the spotlight and the feeling of righteousness that acting through a well stipulated ideal brings.
The thing that must be noted is that everything about a character conveys something about what a player wants to do in the game. The couple of ranks thrown into a semi-useless skill says something about the personality that the player is building inside his or her mind. The ethnicity of the character, especially if different from their own, says something about how they want to experience the game world. The apparent lack of characterization and tons of effort piled into optimizing the attack bonus says the player wants to do really well at combat and have epic battles. Even the lack of attention to any kind of detail says the player might just enjoy game for the sake of hanging out with friends.
Reading A Player Through Their Character
So how can you determine what a player wants to do based off of their character? That’s an easy one, just look at anything on the character sheet or backstory and ask yourself “What does this player want to do with this in the game?”. This is as much about the player as it is about the character. Watching people play the same pregens in multiple convention games over the past 6 years has shown me that a player’s personality will always shine through. I’ve watched one minimally detailed mechanically adept combat capable dwarf be played as action hero, mechanical genius, james bond-esque spy, diplomatic warriorpriest, etc. with the same set of skills and powers each time. Each player made a different character out of the same stats and skills. We can’t forget that the character is always a puppet for the player. The more control a game gives a player in character creation the more the character tells you what the player wants to do. In games that give players choices between predefined templates pay attention to what roles the templates fit and how the player modifies them.
At this point you might be saying that this all sounds pretty common sense. Well, the best advice is, but what this has all been leading up to is this:
Your Adventure Should Have Character Shaped Holes In It Or Your Players Should Be Able To Make Their Own
Being able to determine what kind of things a player wants to do in a game isn’t going to be much help to the Game Master or the players if the players don’t have opportunities to flex their characters skills and abilities in interesting ways. While adventures can be written around the players and have challenges that fit their abilities exactly, this doesn’t have to be the case. Making small modifications to a game so that it takes into account a characters’ abilities, or allowing players to overturn situations with unexpected use of their abilities will make players feel like their character concept was crucial to the game, and thus make it more fun. If a character tries to make use of their shape changing ability to blend in with the bad guys and get a surprise attack in, it should work every so often. Even if the rogues methodical sneaking and scouting slows down the game, it is something they want to be effective at. Build encounters that could be aided by this. If the talky character wants to try to negotiate before combat begins, work it in. Don’t give the game to your players, but make it one that they can feel engaged in because of their character building choices.
So what do you think? What kind of character concepts have players built that told you something about their desired game right off the bat? Have you ever seen a time when a player wanted to play something completely different from how they build their character? Do you think choice of game system has an impact on this theory, or does it work no matter what game you play?