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The Weirdo Card

Posted By Phil Vecchione On January 17, 2012 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 27 Comments

What do Data, Odo, and the Pathfinder Gunslinger class have in common? Why is it that playing Amber with new players is so much better than with players who have played before? Why is it that splat books almost always dilute, if not ruin, the games they are made for? What the hell is the Weirdo Card? Want some answers? Lets get started.

Note: I am going to make some sweeping generalizations. Take them with a grain of salt. Its done mostly to make my point. I promise at some point this article is going to make sense.

It’s About Netflix and My Gaming Group

So for the past few months I have been watching a lot of Star Trek, mostly TNG and DS9. The truth is that I am slowly building up to a Star Trek campaign later in the year, but that is not what this article is about. So, in both TNG and DS9 there are lots of aliens and people with different occupations (in DS9 more than TNG), but for the most part they are pretty normal for their setting; except for Odo and Data. In both series, Odo and Data are not like the other characters on the show. They both have very unique backgrounds, and in terms of the main cast they are each one of a kind. You see it as well in Voyager with Seven of Nine, the only Borg crew member. Keep that in mind.

Now, about the Amber:Diceless RPG. When new players make characters for this game, they tend to make characters very close to the characters in the novels, because it is comfortable and its based on the original setting. They all wind up mostly human, with the Pattern ability. The second time players make characters for the game, they take advantage of the unlimited expanse of possibility within the game, and the parade of half-angels, humanoid whales, and blue tiger-striped men all start rolling in. Rather than taking the Pattern power, the very staple of the game, they all try to invent their own powers and constructs. There is this irresistible urge to be something different and unique, to move away from the core rules and setting in the most dramatic way possible. The end result is a group of players that look nothing like the characters in the novels (default setting) and at times become jarring to the setting, though perfectly fine in terms of the mechanics of the game.

Splat books… ugh. I really am not a fan of most splat books, with some noted exceptions (Corporation, I am looking at you). For the most part, the splat books for any game introduce fringe classes that are kind of like the core classes, but a bit different. So the Paladin gets the Samurai, the Rogue gets the Ninja, the Ranger gets the Gunslinger (sorry Pathfinder, I am not singling you out, just making a point). Because these characters are different and have new abilities, players pounce on them like cats on a mound of catnip.

Players Love Weirdos

So if players love making unique characters, and splat books fuel that urge with more classes and options to do so, we run into a case where a group of experienced players, especially those who have played the same game for a long period of time, start to make characters that are stranger and further from the norm for the setting. Away goes the party of the Cleric, Wizard, Fighter, and Rogue. In come the Shaman, Warmage, Knight, and Ninja. Then add in variant races and the true freak show begins.

There is a tipping point when the party composition becomes silly, when everyone is so focused on being unique, that it can be disruptive to the continuity of the setting. How is it that the Dwarf Ninja joined the same party with the Half-Fiend, Half-Elf Knight? Unless your setting has brought these people together by divine intervention, there is a lot more work to explain how these people met, than how the halfling rogue and the human Wizard crossed paths in a typical fantasy setting.

Where Star Trek Gets It Right

Now back to Odo and Data. The writers for both shows understood that tipping point, and created a party (cast) that is mostly normal for the setting. In TNG we have Picard, Riker, Worf (different but not totally out there), Troi, Crusher, etc. Most of them are human, all of them are Starfleet officers. Added to that party is Data, a unique android who is the only one of his kind on the ship (yeah I remember all about Lore). In DS9, the GM is a bit more relaxed. The cast of characters are a mix of Starfleet (Sisco, Bashir, Dax, Worf, etc) and non-Starfleet characters (Kira, Quark, Garak), but for the most part they are pretty normal for the setting. Then there is Odo, the only Changeling character in the group.

In both cases the majority of the party is pretty normal; standard to the setting. Each has a unique character in terms of what fits into the setting. It adds a dash of spice, without interfering with the believability of the setting.

Now what if we had a show with a starship crew made up of: one human Starfleet captain, an Android, a Changeling, a Borg and a reformed Jem’Hadar? Would that work in the Trek universe? Possibly, but its really pushing the boundaries of believability for the setting. The writer (GM) would have to work pretty hard to explain how this group fits into the framework of the overall setting.

The Weirdo Card

So, if all players have that drive to be the unique character with the more unique (read: strange) class and/or race, and too many of them can strain the believably of a campaign, how do you keep this from toppling a game before it starts? You could ban splat books. I have done it and its not bad, but not always fair, since things in moderation are often not bad. Inspired by Start Trek, I decided to take a different tack. Rather than banning the fringe classes and races, why not just limit them so that the majority of the party is pretty standard (they can be unique in personality, which is more of a challenge than doing it via mechanics), and allow a player (or two depending on the game and size of your group) to be the fringe character.

So I created the Weirdo Card …

Free for general use

This is a card that I made and laminated, which I plan to give to my players before our future Trek campaign. The card allows one of the players to be the weirdo, the fringe character. Everyone else will stick to the core books to make their characters. How the players determine who gets the card for this campaign, and for future campaigns, I will leave up to them. They can roll for it, they can debate for it, etc. The end result will be the same. One weirdo for the campaign.

The holder of the card gets to pick out a class, occupation, race, etc, which is in the fringe category. As the GM, I will then work this character into the campaign to make it fit as best as possible. I will also make sure that there are no other concepts like this player’s concept. After all, they are the unique snowflake. For some level of campaign protection, the GM does get final approval for their concept (no Vow of Poverty Monks…none).

How Many Weirdos Are Too Many?

You may not approve of my approach, and to be honest, I won’t know how well it works until I launch my Star Trek campaign, but I think I might be on to something. There are many ways to address this issue, and this is just one of them.

How do you deal with the weirdos in your group? Do you limit splat books? Do you use a group template to make sure there is a purpose for the party? Is there something in your social contract? Do you limit fringe character ideas? Or do you just let your weirdness flow and go with it? Would you hand out a weirdo card, and what would your players do, if you did?

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.




27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "The Weirdo Card"

#1 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On January 17, 2012 @ 6:54 am

Two other systems spring to mind.

ShadowRun used to have a system where you prioritized race, stats, skills, etc… and the higher you ranked something the more of it you got. So if you ranked stats high but skills low you’d have lots of raw potential and not a lot of training. How this fits is that race was ranked as well. In order to be a troll, you had to rank race as A, so you were weaker in all other character aspects than someone who put race into their lowest rank (and was thus human). Essentially, being a snowflake cost you in terms of build points.

Similarly, the D20 minigame “Hijinx” that was published in Dungeon Magazine #99 (modeled after the 70′s cartoons where a group of plucky teenagers wandered around solving mysteries and rocking out) allowed each player to take at most one background feat such as “The smart one” “the tough one” that gave you some bonuses and helped define your character. One of these “The real weirdy” allowed you to be a completely bizarre entity, your group’s Scooby Doo or Jabber-Jaw but you got NO mechanical benefits for it. In addition, only one person in a group could take the same background feat. Thus, the snowflake was necessarily unique and mechanically weaker than the rest of the group.

IMHO, these games got it right. They knew that this problem existed and by setting it up to cost a player mechanically they dissuaded all those that didn’t want it badly enough.

#2 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On January 17, 2012 @ 6:58 am

OTOH, I have found a solution to the “everyone’s a weirdo” problem that allows everyone to be a weirdo without making anything odd. If you declare that the area in which the adventures are set to be the singular place where adventure can be had and that everywhere else is civilized and secure, then by necessity, all seekers of fortune MUST come to that area. So the reason the dwarf ninja and the half-fiend corsair are hanging out is because they have no where else to go and no one else wanted to hang out with the pair of oddballs.

#3 Comment By Hairball of Doom On January 17, 2012 @ 7:22 am

I had a similar system for this sort of thing when running a Werewolf: the Apocalypse LARP, called ‘crazy slots’; but I found that when you had an extensive list of players having only one ‘slot’ available was a bit restrictive. After some tweaking me and my admin team found that 1 ‘crazy slot’ per 10 people was a good balance of character oddity vs setting.

#4 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On January 17, 2012 @ 7:23 am

GURPS has the Unusual Background advantage, where it costs character points to be something beyond the norm for the campaign (i.e. a samurai in a fantasy Europe or a Technomage in a Babylon 5 campaign).

The GM sets the cost based on how unusual the background is and always has the option of disallowing the concept entirely.

One thing to watch out for: if your RPG penalizes PCs for rank advancement, then lower-ranked PCs can get parity by spending points on “android” rather than “captain.” That said weirdo PCs are usually lower on the totem pole so it kinda works out.

#5 Comment By Liack On January 17, 2012 @ 7:29 am

While thinking of weirdo card and slot, I thought, perhaps it could be expended a little. Have some sort of default set (race group, power source, location origin), and each element out of the default set costing points. The more farfetched, the higher the cost. Having all player start with a little amount of points, and having that weirdo card in play allowing one player to be out of those constraints. Sure, that would seem a lot of “railroading” from character creation, but it would stop a party of opposed race, and have some unity among the party.

The last party my players made, in 4e, was a dwarf fighter, mining in xendrik, a shardmind bard, a genasi wizard from the land of dragons, a dragonborn paladin proclaming the church of Dol Arrah in Sharn, and a half elf ranger from a forest in Breland. The card of weirdo might have been a good idea then >_<

#6 Comment By Norcross On January 17, 2012 @ 7:55 am

Ever seen “Revenge of the Nerds”?

No, it would make no sense for every party to be made up of completely mismatched misfits. But… presumably those misfits do exist somewhere, and if no other groups want them, they have nowhere else to go other than to each other. So it does make perfect sense for there to be at least _one_ group of weirdos in any world (just as in our world, every school has one, any corporation that is large enough will have one, etc).

Look at the backgrounds of the players in your group. If you were running a game with them as characters, it might be hard to come up with a reason for them to be together, but in reality you are – _because_ there is something a little different about you (ie, you play RPGs). The PCs are usually exceptional characters in the world – why not let them be the ragtag band of misfits?

#7 Comment By Clawfoot On January 17, 2012 @ 7:59 am

Oh, I wish someone had given me this idea years ago, when I was still cutting my GM teeth. I once wound up in a high fantasy campaign with a lion-taur (half human, half lion instead of a centaur), a half-giant/half-drow mage with a talking frog, and a man who occasionally woke up to find himself made entirely of radiant cheese (an uncontrolled wild mage). Stuff like that can be fun, of course, but not when you’re in the mood for straight-up swords and sorcery.

Although to be honest, I find those who are attracted to the weirdo characters are the newer players, not the veterans. Most new players I know want the half-dragon catgirl ninjas, and most seasoned players choose the human clerics.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On January 17, 2012 @ 9:30 am

I call this the “Northern Exposure Syndrome”. First season everyone is normal with maybe a couple of eccentrics in the cast. By season three everyone is bugnuts off-the-wall looney in some way and the show is about as much fun as a tax audit.

I like the snowflake card solution. I also like a table that expresses the rarity of certain character types in the world that players must roll against. If you don’t get a rare type, that’s life.

Of course, this used to be the norm in RPGs. It was reaction to never getting the table result that let you play the character type that enthused you most that caused such tables to fade away like a bad memory.

One thing you didn’t mention was your proposed group size for this experiment, Phil. Would a larger group influence you thinking on this snowflake idea?

#9 Comment By Trace On January 17, 2012 @ 9:53 am

In my Vampire: The Masquerade games, I used the Merits & Flaws system to solve this. Anyone could play the Normal clans, Sabbat clans were a 3 point merit, Independent clans or any Antitribu were a 5 point merit, and any lost clans or weird bloodlines were a 7 point merit.

#10 Comment By DireBadger On January 17, 2012 @ 10:28 am

I’ve been thinking about this too, particularly in the context of Vampire the Masquerade; the Weird Clans particularly.

I think if there’s only a Weirdo Card, that’s a bit hard to divvy up, so how about having several cards (about Players+3), that the players each take one from. Each card allows something not allowed to the other characters. If a character dies, the player returns the card and must select a different one for his new character. This is intended to allow a measure of rotation of these cards, preventing one player from hogging the Weirdo Card character after character because it only becomes available when he dies, and multiple deaths at the same time are rare.

Some other cards in Vampire could be:
* Older: a bit better Generation (blood strength) and you’ve been around longer, with a few more skills.
* Better ties to the Establishment: one character has a good bond with an authority NPC, like being the vampire childe of the vampire Prince.
* Unusual/Out of Clan Discipline: you’ve got access to a Discipline (magical power) not normally available
* Unusual Clan: you’re a member of a non-standard clan for the local setting
* Supernatural Ally: you’ve got ties to a different supernatural species altogether
* Immune to the Blood Bond: you can’t be magically enslaved by vampire blood (something that everyone else must watch out for)
* Indistinguishable from Human: unlike most vampires, you seem to be alive and well.

These are all Special Things, and it’s annoying if someone else takes them as well, because it cheapens your Specialness. So something like this would divvy them up more equitably, and even (if several PCs die) shift them around a bit, pushing people to try different things now and then.

#11 Comment By danroth On January 17, 2012 @ 11:13 am

How about drifting the Hindrances from Savage Worlds? If someone wants to do something from a splat book, they need to take a hindrance (or more, on DM discretion)

#12 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 17, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

The mechanical reason splat books generate weirdos is that they provide add-ons that negate the advantages inherent in the core race (i.e. humans, for D&D and Pathfinder). Another way to deal with this is to continue to make the core race/class more desirable. In other words, keep the bonuses and exceptions on their side of the build sheet.

#13 Comment By Knight of Roses On January 17, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

I run a deliberately wide open setting yet in my current campaign I only have one player with a non-standard race (ironborn) and one player with a class from outside the core Pathfinder rules (an alchemist) among eight players. Not sure what that says about the group or the game though.

I have played weird characters before, but I get far more satisfaction (and roleplaying opportunities) by playing a traditional role, such as a human cleric, well. Weird character tend to be very two-dimensional by their nature, who needs an interesting personality when you are the only X in the world? That is not to say that they cannot be played well but that it is easy for only the concept to be the character.

#14 Comment By Lugh On January 17, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

I want to expand on DireBadger’s idea. The weirdo card is a bonus, even if it has no mechanical bonus. If it is the only bonus you have, people will feel slighted if they don’t get it.

Instead, have several similar cards:

Legacy: You come from a line of heroes/captains/etc., with a reputation to either live up to, or live down. (Riker has a bit of this, and Paris in Voyager.)

Prodigy: You are talented well beyond the norm in your chosen field. (Wesley in TNG or Bashir in DS9.)

Outsider: You are outside the main command structure, given you a certain amount of freedom. (Guinan in TNG, Neelix in Voyager, Quark in DS9.)

Family Man: You have a family that love you, support you, and are protected from any serious plot consequences. (O’Brien in DS9.)

I think you get the idea. If you’re going to restrict hooks, you need to give out ideas of other hooks that encourage high degrees of uniqueness without being weirdos.

#15 Comment By Tiorn On January 17, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

Didn’t the old FASA rules Star Trek RPG require a 1 on a d10 roll in order to play a Klingon? Seems like we always played it that way anyhow.

#16 Comment By Lee Hanna On January 17, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

I like the Weirdo card, I wish I had one before now. I don’t mind one player going gonzo in his PC choice, but it needs the others around, in order to stand out.

The tendency towards odd stuff for mechanical reasons was part of a conversation about 4e D&D I had yesterday with my 13 year old. He saw many players going for dragonborn, and that eladrin had eclipsed elf, and tieflings were everywhere.

#17 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On January 17, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

I’ve got a few things to throw into the pot:

Why does the player want to be weird? Some possible reasons:
Spotlight time – The odd man in the group gets all the attention.
Personal attention – From “I like being different” to “I like fucking with other people’s games”.
Mechanical advantage – “Power Creep” or R2-D2.
They’re bored.

Regardless of the reasons, I usually have a chat with the player about why they want to play the weirdo. Few are brutally honest about it, but it’s usually easy to pick out if they’re trying to leverage spotlight or mechanics. If the character doesn’t make sense in the context of the campaign, I usually tell them about the downsides of their choice, from “We don’t take kindly to outsiders”, to harsh RP requirements (see: Vow of Poverty), to various penalties that they may have overlooked. I rarely negate their choice entirely, but we usually come up with a good compromise.

Another way of handling it came from a conversation with Peter Adkison, of all people. He ran a campaign where he came up with a series of attributes (races, classes, relationships, magic items, connections, backgrounds, etc). Each player could pick one attribute, then pass the list on to the other players. After every player had one attribute, the list circulated again. While limiting, two of the players told me this was the most fun they’d ever had in a game.

#18 Comment By Shriss On January 17, 2012 @ 10:39 pm

My current group is composed of two half-dragons (strange ones at that, we had to make up rules for them), an orc mercenary, and a high elf diviner (2nd ed AD&D) This particular campaign is the most fun of any game I’ve ever played. It’s on it’s second year now.

We tend to run homebrew worlds though, it makes it easy to modify things to incorporate whatever the players are looking for out of a session.

To be honest these unusual characters are making material for me faster then I can use it.
I did have to pull just about everything out of my DM’s bag of tricks to keep things believable, but the result has been an EPIC story.

I have had groups of weirdo’s before that were useless and totally un-fun.
The elf ninja never really did get along with the wemic ranger, the winged minotaur was a complete flop, and the less said about that married couple who wanted to play a faerie-dragon and a psudo-dragon the better!

It won’t stop me from allowing oddness in my games. In these cases it was WHO I was playing with at the time that was the problem. Those players seem to have wanted to create issues. I believe they would have become a problem even if I they were pushed into more conventional races and classes.

To sum it up, with good players you probably have a lot more leeway and weak players probably should be limited. I remember now…I usually steer groups of noobs in the direction of more conventional races/classes, cause I learned the hard way…

#19 Comment By TheHydraDM On January 18, 2012 @ 7:37 am

The campaign I’m running right now takes a page out of Matthew Neagley’s book – it’s the only place where adventure is to be had, so everyone’s there because if adventuring is in the cards for them then that’s the place to go.

But in a less site-based campaign I definitely get where this article is coming from. It’s one of the things I tend to struggle with: on the one hand something like 1st edition D&D has a very clear flavor and there aren’t really any player options outside of that flavor – the weirdest thing possible is probably the slightly tacked-on psionics rules. But if you fast forward to 3rd edition (and even 4th edition, which toned this back a bit by restricting multiclassing) it turns into this blurry pot of non-iconic super-customizable avatars. I don’t want to restrict player options but at the same time I do want a very clear flavor to the world. This article definitely presents a really cool compromise between the two extremes and it’s something I’ll consider using in the future!

#20 Comment By Charlie On January 18, 2012 @ 8:53 am

I turned D&D 3.5 into D&D Star Trek with my Far Keep Nine campaign. I let my best friend play a snowflake–a warforged psionicist. Written like that, I now cringe.

The roleplaying idea was that he was Odo and his warforged people ran something like the Founders in DS9 (complete with other Eberron races). In reality, my friend and his snowflake dominated and ultimately destroyed the campaign in an orgy of min-maxing and monster mind domination.

I had hints it was coming, and I tried to stop it, but I was too late. He didn’t pull out the big guns until 9th level and then it was all over. I was humilated in front of my other friends and learned several valuable lessons.

It was ugly and I would never do that again. So if you let a player do this, beware. The player you think you know may instead take great pains to use his snowflake to stab you in the back. And your campaigns ever after may never be the same (mine never recovered the same zip and I eventually had to start all over again with a completely new group).

#21 Comment By Nice Ogress On January 18, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

I’ve found that Snowflakes tend to unbalance the game not just in terms of powerlevel, but also face-time, plot development, and inter-player development. Licensing a player’s potential to unbalance the game doesn’t neccessarily solve this difficulty.

I’ve found it’s generally best to rein in snowflake-prone players – especially ‘noob’ players – OR make certain *everyone* gets some sort of special bennie, even if it’s not a gonzo character-class, merit or background.

one thing I’ve done in the past is making a ‘hand’ of cards, each with a special benefit or drawback that’s outside of their point buy. Each player gets one draw during character creation, no takebacks, though they can trade with another player if they feel their card isn’t a good fit for their concept.

I did this once for a second Edition L5R game, with brilliant results. Every card had something that was not only useful for the player to riff off of, but was a handle for me, the GM, to introduce all the villains and plots of the story!

I also feel there’s no shame in saying, ‘Well, you can’t have that this time’ to any given player. Not all characters work. Not all characters work in the setting and system you’ve prepped. And if, as a GM, you get a gitchy feeling from a character’s custom background, you should have the freedom to call the player on it *before* it’s a problem.

#22 Comment By Orikes On January 19, 2012 @ 1:59 am

I guess it ultimately depends on the group you play with. I rarely experience too many problems with Snowflake Syndrome in tabletop games, but back in my days of MUSHing, they could be the bane of any sane player’s existence.

I think it’s okay for a GM to set certain expectations at the beginning of a game to limit the crazy. Experienced players are going to want to stretch their wings and try something different, but if you establish what the limits are for the game up front, it prevents too many people from trying to be completely out there. Good players can find ways of being unique without being off-script.

#23 Comment By amazingrando On January 19, 2012 @ 6:57 am

I call this Drizzt Syndrome. Once you can play a drow, EVERYONE PLAYS ONE.

#24 Comment By scruffylad On January 21, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

“Drizzt Syndrome” is about right. I played in an online campaign once that had it bad. I think my human fighter became the outlier character in some ways… so normal, he actually became weird…

Once all the drow started popping in, being all sparkly and fabulous and mysterious of course CN so their players could justify any bit of ridiculousness they wanted… I hate to say it, I’ve never been so happy to see a campaign fall apart. :( We just got overloaded with nonsense, and I think people got bored because their super-special sparkly drow wasn’t special at all–not when there are 3 in the party. (Even if one is masquerading as a surface elf, that just makes that one so much more sparkly…)

So yes, now that that particular bit of ranting is over… I agree that too many weird characters spoils the party, turning it into a traveling freakshow, and frankly, making the special, unique, weird characters just kind of boring amidst the cacophony. When I GM, I hate to limit my players, but it’s usually not too necessary, as I find that they usually work certain things out themselves. Especially in a standard D&D or equivalent (d20, Pathfinder, etc.) type game, they know that the party must have certain abilities, or perish. So I try to let them work that out, and they usually do. (I also let them know that outlier races will be treated accordingly by small-minded villagers, etc., which I see as perfectly fair. No matter how sparkly and non-evil your drow is, the average surfacer is going to see your purple skin and run to call the guards to stick you with something pointy.)

#25 Comment By CapnCrit On January 30, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

I D&D 3.5 I once played a campaign within which nearly every player was a monstrous character. This was just when we were learning the system, and led to several horrendously overpowered PC’s. This led to a campaign that was outright goofy most of the time, whereupon the party split and reformed on several occasions. When your party consists of two constructs, and earth elemental bard, and a colossal purple slime, NPC’s certainly treat you differently.

However one of the longest surviving, most entertaining and as such most memorable characters turned out to be my friends’ halfling rogue.

Ironically, a straight-forward character created using basically just the core rulebook became the wierdo of the group. Part of this was due to the fact that he was constantly placed in situations that no sane rogue would find himself in, and that several encounters that barely challenged a everyone else nearly killed him several times over.

Point is, sometimes the weirdo is the most normal guy in the group. Just thought I’d share.

#26 Comment By BrownBeard On February 4, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

I guess a group that continually finds itself overloaded with weirdos could try running the latest edition of Gamma World. Everybody rolls twice on the Origins table, and the results are almost always weird. Sentient cockroach swarm? Check. Yeti empath? Possible. Somebody rolls “felinoid” and “android” origins? Allow me to introduce the Hello Kitty Assassin Droid.

The fun part is that it’s not the players bucking for weird characters just to troll the table; the default rules invoke the dice gods to thrust these oddities upon the players and tell them to “deal with it.” Everybody gets a snowflake but it’s almost never one they would have imagined themselves playing ten minutes ago.

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