Here’s something that is important for the whole group to pay attention to: Character Roles. The best description of the problem I have read came from Fang Langford when he was working through his description of Scattershot  a few years ago. At the time he called it Sine Qua Non, Latin for “without which not”. [The current version is here .]
It is important to clearly label the core– whatever part of your character that is required to be the character you envisioned– the part that if it was missing you wouldn’t be playing the same character. A lot of interesting things can be that core; sometimes it’s party-role (so a character has something unique it can do), sometimes characterization-role (so everyone’s not the wise mentor… someone has to be the plucky hero who learns), sometimes it involves both party and characterization roles, or even something else altogether.
I find it difficult to meddle with a player’s character concept– players have control over only one character in the game so it’s hard not to give them their space. Unfortunately, not paying attention to overlapping character concepts and letting concept conflicts fester can have an ongoing and negative impact on the game. This has cropped up a couple of times in the games I’ve run; once to deadly effect, and as an ongoing annoyance in others.
A cautionary tale
Once upon a time, I created a Mage: The Ascension game. I invited a few players and they invited a couple more and soon I had a large game. Combine that with very uneven experience with the system, different levels of investment, OOC disputes extending back beyond the years I’d known them, and way too many other factors, and you have a disaster.
One specific element that was “only indirectly” my fault regarded character roles. Two players independently created characters. One was a master of death; an assassin with training in many exotic weapons and an understanding of fate. The other was a superior martial artist, skilled with his hands and weapons, and a respect for the chi flowing through all things.
You don’t even have to guess, do you? The two characters were run by players who had some mild antagonism [by far not the worst in the group, I later found out]. Their characters’ philosophies conflicted [each analyzing the winds of fate/chi in their own way], so the characters fought. It probably wouldn’t have been a terrible fight– a little knocking the characters back and forth– but both players grew frustrated. Each, you see, considered their success in this conflict important. This fight revealed them as having the same character core: kicking butt hand to hand. I scrambled to describe how cool the fight was, how elegant their attacks and parries were, how they’d never seen a competitor of such skill– but none of that mattered. Each had an idea of their character in their mind, a concept of their unmatched competence in the fist and blade fighting arena. This fight undermined the core concept for their character in both player’s eyes.
Eventually the dice provided a victor, but the victor’s unhappiness at seeing their role rendered weak sauce (plus the underlying antagonism and half baked splat book philosophies) resulted in disaster. I’d hoped that, disastrous as the fight might have seemed when it began, that it would work out like a movie. I hoped the characters would come to respect the each other’s tremendous skill. Though this conflict wasn’t planned, if they went with the idea that they’d found an honorable and respected foe/companion it might work out for the best. Their real rivalry could be expressed in game as an honorable rivalry– maybe they’d compete to one up each other in their great deeds.
It was not to be. Because the victor didn’t trust his advantage, he killed the defeated while he had the upper hand. He didn’t trust the dice and system to preserve his victory– uphold his character’s core– and who knew how the defeated would react after another hard fight?
An ongoing concern
My current D&D 3.5e group is filled with sneakers. (Not shoes, stealthy types!) Together they decided to make a party that moves lightly, strikes with surprise, and sneaks away before the flyswatter comes down. They are devastatingly effective. The first sessions of the campaign were rough.
The campaign began with the group responding to a nearby city being attacked by the evil dwarven empire. They gathered their gear and headed north, moving stealthily through the woods to count the enemy. The trouble began immediately. I asked, “What’s your marching order as you move through the woods? Are you sneaking in one bunch, do you have an advance scout… what’s your plan?”
It sounds innocuous, but there was real friction. The ranger proposed that she’d sneak ahead of the group; with her stealth and keen senses, she’d make sure they spotted their foes before they could be seen or heard. The rogue immediately proposed that they split the duties; the ranger could walk an arc ahead along the right side of the party, and he’d do the same on the left. On the surface, this made sense, but it really frustrated the ranger’s player. They were in a wilderness, sneaking… the most ranger like behavior possible, and the rogue could do the same. She felt there was no niche protection at all.
The first combat had similar problems. The ranger’s player had ran a sorcerer in the last campaign and wanted to switch styles and play a front line fighter this time. We rolled initiative. The fighter moved in and started smashing the foe. The rogue’s initiative came up and he moved forward, lining up a flank attack but stopping right in the ranger’s path, blocking the ranger so she can’t reach the combat. Over the the next few combats the fighter often set up the rogue for flanking and bonus damage, leaving the ranger’s hard purchased Distracting Attack gathering dust.
They picked the feats for their two characters. The ranger took the two weapon path, granting two weapon fighting at second level. At third level, the rogue proposed taking the two weapon fighting feat. I suspect you can guess the friction that came from that idea. He backed off, a little scorched by her claim to a whole combat style.
Even though I’ve had campaigns explode due in part to the tensions that come from overlapping niches, I didn’t notice the problem until the ranger’s player pointed it out after the first night of play. We tweaked the characters somewhat to make them more distinct, but it’s still an underlying concern.
You’ve probably noticed that I made it up to my most current campaign and the problem still crops up. I don’t have a good way of figuring out what the core concept of a character IS to the player. I can imagine another group’s rogue/ranger combo shrugging off the problems above– especially in a campaign featuring more city or dungeon fighting, sophisticated traps, etc. I can also imagine a pair of players anchoring their core to entirely different tasks; I can imagine the wizard and the rogue being upset as each tries to fill the practical joker role. Or it’s the bard and the beguiler who compete to negotiate and charm the NPCs, or two different people want to be party leader, or the wizard who casts silence and invisibility to be a more undetectable thief than the thief… you get the idea.
I suspect the best solution is to get people to describe how they view their character. That’s pretty meta though; I know it often takes me some time in play before I figure out what the character is meant for.
One good way to address this may come from Fang Langford’s post on the subject.
When you make your persona, you need to define their Sine Qua Non. The simplest method I’ve come up with when someone is having trouble, I call ‘three up, three down.’ List the first three things you want people to remember about your character, then list the last three things you would let anyone forget. For example:
Ajimiru ‘King Blade’ for Armageddon Engines (a game of giant robot anime)
Three up, three down:
- He’s a hotshot ‘engine pilot who’s never lost a battle.
- He has a tragically scarred, older brother who disappeared in epic battle (and secretly went over to the other side).
- His kitten goes everywhere with him.
- He has the morals of an alley cat.
- Ajimiru is strikingly handsome.
- He’s an idealistic ‘good guy’ out to avenge his brother, regain his family name, and have a rockin’ good time.
Some games have very narrow roles and thrive for it. In Pendragon the characters are all knights; in carry  the characters are all soldiers. By assuming the common ground, you encourage looking at smaller differentiations for the characters. In Pendragon it might be the virtues they value, the weapons they wield, or just the skills that one character emphasizes. The “all thieves guild” campaign that was mentioned in the second edition AD&D books would be another example of lots of similarity (they’re all thieves) but also lots of differentiation (one rogue is the the box man, another the cat burglar, a third the fence, etc.)
Is this problem limited to my groups, or have you run into the same thing before? Do you have a good way to figure out what niche the player really wants to protect? If you’re a player, are you fighting to protect a your character’s core concept from other players right now?