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That Cool Thing Your Character Does

Posted By Phil Vecchione On February 1, 2010 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 7 Comments

One of the challenges in a new campaign occurs when the players discover that they do not like their characters. Given time, the lack of excitement on the players’ part will degrade any efforts to sustain the campaign and ultimately lead to its collapse. Even the greatest plotline or the most richly described world will not hold your players at the table if they have no passion or love for the character they run.

As GMs starting a new campaign, one of our first jobs is to help the players in the creation of their characters. Consequently, we are partly responsible for how much a player likes his character. We must help to advise the player to create a character that he likes and that is not a disruption to the party.

What often happens is that we spend a great deal of our effort during character creation guiding the players away from Min-Maxed builds (vow of poverty monk), disruptive personality types (kleptomaniac thief), and just plain weird concepts (Ewok Jedi). In all that effort, we typically leave the player to his own devices to find a likeable character build.

Why Don’t They Just Like Their Character?

There are a few major reasons why a player may not like his character. The list below is by no means comprehensive, rather, it has been drawn from my experience with my players:

  • Mechanics did not work as expected—The player thought that the character build was going to do one thing, but after more fully understanding the mechanics of the game, he realizes that the character does not work as expected.
  • Underutilized concept—The player has made a character with a purpose that is not often used in the game.
  • Campaign concept not supported by campaign world– The GM has allowed the player to create the character he wants, but the campaign world makes the playing of that concept difficult.

As GMs we need to make sure that we help guide our players past these pitfalls by counseling the player as he makes his character, asking questions, making suggestions.

I have recently been inspired by reading a few games that deal well with players’ desires, especially in character creation: Burning Wheel’s Beliefs/Instincts/Traits system and Houses of the Blooded Aspects. Both of these mechanics attempt to codify the players’ desires as mechanical aspects of the game. Once elements of the game, they are available for the player, GM, and other players to utilize in play.

That got me thinking about games that do not codify the players’ desires. How do we, as GMs get from the players that list of desires they have, and if we had the list, just what should we do with it?

In my years as a GM, I have asked players a lot of questions about their character concepts, but I recently discovered that there is a very obvious question that I have never asked so bluntly to my players:

What are the cool things that your character does?

The cool thing…it is the thing that when the player closes his eyes, he sees his character doing. It could be delivering a great speech to the senate, or holding a bridge against an army of orcs, or casting a great spell to smite his enemies from behind a line of fighters. In most cases a player will have at least one thing, but likely a few cool things.

The cool things are the things that the player thinks of before he even rolls up his character. They are the mental images that form as the GM is making the pitch for a new campaign. They are important, because every player forms one or more cool things in his head, if they are aware of it or not. The cool things in the player’s mind are what will lead him to certain character building choices. It is these choices that can sometimes cause issues.

Whatever it is, it is our jobs as GMs to do everything in our power to get that list of cool things out of the player. By knowing what those things are, we are in a better place to help the player achieve them.

Cool Things Are Not A Character Concept

To be clear, the cool thing is not the same as a character concept. A character concept is often a very high level description of who the character is: an elven fighter, a playboy jewel thief, a vampire who only preys on criminals. It’s an important element of character creation, but it is so high level, that we really don’t know too much about what the character does.

When I first starting thinking about this, I talked with some fellow GMs, and we came up with a good example to differentiate character concept from cool things. It goes like this…

Two characters want to make superhero vigilantes whose own families were effected by violent crime, and now their characters hunt down criminals. It is a straightforward character concept. When the GM asks the two players what is the cool thing that their characters do, they reply:

Player 1:  My superhero uses his detective skills and gadgets to outsmart and defeat his enemies.

Player 2: My superhero uses guns, lots of guns, to shoot his enemies dead.

Player 1 has created Batman and Player 2 has created The Punisher. Both players have the same character concept, but based on the cool thing that the players see, they are two totally different characters.

What Makes Cool Things So Important?

The cool thing can tell us all the things we need to know about the character the player wants to create. It takes our understanding of the character past the high level concepts and reveals to us not only the intentions of the the character, but more importantly the way he wishes to play his character.

As the GM, we can then take that list of cool things and check it against the known reasons why a player may not like his character to see if there are any warning signs of potential problems:

Mechanics Did Not Work As Expected
The cool things are often a list of actions that the character wants to do. Compare the list and the player’s initial character build choices to see if the powers/feats/etc. support those ideas. This calls on us to be a good source of the mechanics and rules of the game, especially in the area of character abilities and powers. This can sometimes be tricky if this is the first time you and your group are running a system.

For example: A player says that the cool thing he wants his character to do is fight hordes of creatures at once. If you are playing Iron Heroes, you might direct the player to make sure he invests a lot of his feats into the Cleave Feat Tree, so that his character can attack multiple opponents. In D&D 4e, you might want to refer the player to look for powers with the Close Burst attack range.

Underutilized Concept
Knowing what the player wants to do with his character lets you, as GM, see if those cool things are things that are likely to come up in the campaign. If they are not going to be common, there are few things you can do:

  • Increase the frequency – change the campaign in a way that allows that type of action to occur more frequently.
  • Take a backup role—if the campaign cannot be changed to increase the frequency, then encourage the player to take some skills/powers to support an additional role in the group, so that he has something to do in the meantime.
  • Encourage a different character build—if the other two options above are not possible, then ask the player to come up with another concept. It’s better than letting him proceed and be unhappy.

For Example: A player comes up with the concept of a hacker in a modern special ops game. The GM was not picturing a lot of hacking in the game, rather, mostly squad-based combat missions, but he could add some more hacking opportunities for the player:  terrorist laptops, security systems, etc.  The GM could also encourage the player to take some hacking skills, but to also be the communications specialist, so that when there is not a computer around to hack, the character has another way to contribute to the team.

Campaign Concept Not Supported By Campaign World
Often a GM can find the character concept to be interesting, but then when he hears the way the player wants to play the character, problems arise. The problem arises when the cool thing clashes with the campaign setting. In this case the GM and the player need to find that middle ground; either the player changes the cool thing to better fit the campaign world, or the GM alters the campaign world so that the cool thing does not clash as much.

For Example: Going back to the example at the top of the article, the player has a concept of a superhero vigilante, which the GM likes, but he wants to be The Punisher, and plans on shooting his way through his problems. The GM wanted a more “heroic” type of game, where the police would find villains tied up and not shot up. After some discussion, the player decides to keep the concept of the vigilante, and changes his cool things so that he comes out more like Batman.

If They List It You Must Write It

Now that you have used the cool things to help the player in character creation, they can now become a list of scenes you can use in your upcoming session. While many of us create scenes based on player types (such as the Robin Laws character types), the cool things are even more specific ideas.

Yes, your Butt-Kicker likes to crack skulls, and his cool things list said that he wanted to hold a narrow pass from hordes of monsters. So, give it to him. In a future session, find an excuse to put a narrow pass, and throw a horde of creatures at the party. Rest assured that your player will know just what to do.

By using the cool things for each of the characters, you are giving them those spotlight moments that every player desires. Even better, you are giving them exactly the spotlight moment they want. Those kinds of scenes are the things that make players fanatics about a campaign… the kind of fanatics who show up each session ready to play.

As for being original, there is no shame in taking ideas from your players and incorporating them into your campaign. You are still going to have to come up with the where, how, and why for the scene.

Now Testify!

Starting a new campaign is never easy, and there are no guarantees that it will last. By understanding the players’ cool things, you have one more tool to help build your campaign before the game begins. With players who know that their chance to do the cool thing is looming on the horizon, you build up their anticipation, creating committed and engaged players. All these things dramatically increase your chances for a successful and long-running campaign.

So, have you ever asked the cool thing question before? Do you know what the cool things are for your players?  If you are a player, have you ever shared your cool things with your GM?

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.




7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "That Cool Thing Your Character Does"

#1 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 1, 2010 @ 10:12 am

Nice insight. I’ve never put it quite that way. As a player, I’ve always had strong visual images of my characters in certain scenes, and presumed that every other player has those images as well. Some may not. Some may, but might not be able to communicate it gracefully. And some may not know how to realize their concept through the rules.

There’s definitely a fine line between advising on character builds and doing it for the players. Tread lightly…

#2 Comment By d7 On February 1, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

This is timely! I’m doing some conversions of existing characters in an established campaign to a different system in order to run a “pilot” of another system. (Burning Wheel.)

The character generation system has a lot of up-front complexity, but the core system is what I want to show off in the pilot. I want to make sure that the character sheets that I sketch out are going to feel right to the players. Asking what makes each character cool to the player will help me translate the characters faithfully. Thanks!

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On February 1, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

I like this approach; it’s something that we often seek, but not this directly. Asking for actions and scenes taps a different part of what motivates players– and you might pick up great scenes that aren’t obvious from the character sheet.

I would worry about asking players to take backup roles– often that’s only a temporary solution at best. Keep a careful eye on the player, and make sure they find fun in their new roles.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On February 1, 2010 @ 11:35 pm

Redesigning the character is another way to make sure the character is one the player wants to play. Though if you combine that with asking for a cool thing they want to see… you might drift the character to something that excites your player.

#5 Comment By Omnus On February 2, 2010 @ 11:50 am

You forgot one other thing that causes character disenchantment: the other PCs. If a character rolls well and comes up with a cool concept, then bellies up to the table to find that the other players have rolled unbelievably powerful characters, the enchantment over the new character can vanish in a cloud of character envy. That’s a much harder obstacle to surmount, as it means you’ll have to find ways to include the weaker character and his strong concept in your game that the powerful characters may try to dominate.

In the game of Dark Heresy my group just started, I rolled below-average for my character’s stats, but I came up with an interesting concept (a scum fallen noble with charisma to spare and good observation skills) but the opening night showed all too well the deficiencies of my character. He has no future: the combat is brutal, and with no armor or serious weapon skills (picked the entirely wrong campaign to choose combat skills as the dump stat). But the other characters all were made with combat in mind, and they’ll continue to shine in 90% of the game scenarios since the GM has to make the game that entertains the most of us at the time. Rather than sticking with a lame duck (and honestly, it’s the first time I’ve gotten to play, not run, a game in years) I’m abandoning the character for a new one now that I know the game mechanics and the thrust of the campaign itself. Was the character bad because of the not-so-great rolling? Not at all. But as in the article, the “cool thing the character does” turned out to really be a non-issue, and after talking things over with the GM, my character would never be all that relevant for what he had in mind, despite what we had talked about earlier int he pre-game.

#6 Comment By tommy the gangrel On February 3, 2010 @ 9:57 am

I like the idea of writing down the cool things of your character very much. But as the story goes on, players may have different iedas of their characters, so the cool thing will change as well. I think it would be better if the GM replace the cool things with a more general question: what pleasure do the player want to gain from roleplaying his character? Try to write some words (not complete sentences) to describe his pleasure briefly. It is a more flexible way for the player to build a character he likes, and for the GM to arrange some plots that fit the character well.

#7 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-02-05 On February 5, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

[...] That Cool Thing Your Character Does When I create a character, I always examine the rules to see if I can find one or two things within the rules that I can do well. It could be exceptional movement, a special power, the right combination of skills/spells/feats/perks/flaws that make me special. I also, of course, come up with a character background that explains, among other things, why my character is so extra special in these areas. Sometimes the plan works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In a recent D&D 4e expedition, I ended up with an elven predator power druid that had a move of 8, which is fantastic. I also included many “shift enemy” powers that I thought would make me unique. It turns out that many of the other characters in the group had similar shift enemy powers, so I wasn’t extra special in that department. I didn’t have time to read all of the powers of all of the other classes, so where I thought I would be special a lot of research would have told me otherwise. I was disappointed at not being special in that regard, but that’s OK. I still had fun with the character for the short time that I played him. [...]


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