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Hot Button: Are Characters Cool Just Because Players Say They Are?

Posted By John Arcadian On March 2, 2012 @ 12:54 am In Hot Buttons | 22 Comments

imageI’ve come across this phenomenon a few times as a Game Master, and it has always presented a new and interesting challenge in how to resolve it. I recently came across it again, so I figured I would write it up as a hot button and see what our Gnome Stew community has to say about it. Picture this scenario:

Player: Ok. I’ve got my character all set. He is a badass who used to work for the mafia. He left in a blaze of glory and took out 50 of them. He’s known as Invincible Joe, but his real name is Chuck Van Damme. Nothing flusters him and he’s never been defeated. I statted him up at first level like you asked, but that is his backstory…

Game Master: Ok, remember it is a low level game. So you’ll still have to roll.

The First Session Gets Underway, and then a problem occurs.

Player: The guy should be cowering before me! I’m Invincible Joe! This guy should know who I am.

Game Master: Well, you didn’t get the reputation feat, you aren’t in your home city where your name might be known just because of your backstory, and you still haven’t rolled to see if you can intimidate him.

Player: But my character is te uber!!!!! I shouldn’t have to roll!!!

Ok, so that is a dramatic (very dramatic) reenactment, but what do you do when a player builds their character to be awesome and assumes that alone makes it so.

The Dilemma, A Problem Of Expectations

I’m a believer in playing up to character paradigms. If the player has designed a character to be a tough-as-nails ex mafia enforcer, then I’ll generally work with that and play it out. But then there are the times when the player just isn’t playing the character that way at all. The character is supposed to be a badass, but it just isn’t clicking with how the player is doing it. A big component of roleplaying games is getting to be someone we really aren’t in real life, but how far should you go as a Game Master to enable the character? There is a fine line between helping a player enjoy his character and creating a problem.

Should you let Invincible Joe blow over a no-name NPC to get some information they would have given up anyways? Should you do it to help enforce the character concept? What happens when the player expects that to be the case when something important is actually on the line? The player might expect their character’s inherent awesomeness to keep up. They didn’t have to roll before, why should they now? Other players who have more toned down concepts might take a bit of umbrage at the “gimme gimme” nature of Invincible Joe, but more so at the play style and the player behind it.

This isn’t always a problem, but it is when expectations aren’t the same across the board. The expectation on the problem player’s part is that Invincible Joe will blaze through like Awesome McBadass and the NPCs, situations, and rolls will all fall into place, despite what the Game Master, other players, or scenario had in mind.

Depending on which game you are playing, Invincible Joe might get to be an over-the top badass just because he says he is, but not every game uses that style of roleplaying. You also have to factor in the expectations of the other players and what type of challenges they are facing.

So How Do You Handle It?

This is  a very tough question, and the major reason this is a hot button article. How do YOU handle it? This is a common situation in the gaming world, and there are many different ways to deal with it. Sometimes you talk with the player to try to smooth over the issue, sometimes you let the rolling deflate their expectations a bit, sometimes you encourage the good aspects of their character, sometimes nothing works. This is a very situational problem, but one ripe for discussion.

So, how do you handle it when a player expects their character to be cool just because they say they are?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Hot Button: Are Characters Cool Just Because Players Say They Are?"

#1 Comment By lordbyte On March 2, 2012 @ 3:27 am

I’ve introduced quite a few people to the hobby as their DM, so I’ve had this often from beginning players. I make it clear that while they can put stuff like that in their background, it’s use in game will be limited (as you clearly state among others, being very localised).

I explain that it’s for balance reasons as well as the fact that among “low-level” people he might be a bad-ass, but there are always much more powerful people out there.

Another possibility is that (and this is dependant upon the player) they can ham it up for their character. Their character genuinely believes he is a bad-ass, and may have exaggerated the story a bit (or got really lucky without him noticing it, think Naked Gun), but noone else seems to think so. This can be funny as well as dramatic, but is very dependant upon the player. (I did something similar for a player who wanted to be a “bad guy” but without ruining the game for everyone, so we agreed he genuinely believed he was a bad guy, and every positive decision he made he would justify to himself as having a higher “evil” purpose).

#2 Comment By Lord Karick On March 2, 2012 @ 6:17 am

I would say that the player has misunderstood the concept of low-level character and explain to them that their character is at the beginning of their career. In other words, I wouldn’t allow the back-story as it didn’t match the clear instructions I issued for chargen.

Players’ expectations often derive from the portrayal of heroes in films or books. Such heroes are often at the height of their careers with a back-story that took place off-screen. They have had a chance to accumulate skills and reputation that a starting character haven’t. All good things come with time.

#3 Comment By mercutior On March 2, 2012 @ 7:01 am

Perhaps the issue here is the over the top background concept. The character described sounds much more like a character that has developed over hours, if not years, of game play. Invincible Joe has already had a career many beginning adventurers only dream of. Most characters are wet behind the ear youngsters seeking adventure and the loot that comes with it. They are not usually wily veterans with years of experience.

When I create a character with a background like Invincible Joe’s, I invest in feats and skills that reflect his “talents.” Often, I might add, these feats or skills are less than perfect for game-play, but they justify the background and the character concept. They also give the GM a game mechanic rationale for allowing those special moments where he or she lets your character steamroll the rules for the sake of the story. I believe that if a player is truly invested in the character concept, they should demonstrate it within the character build. This idea should continue throughout character development. If Invincible Joe wants to be a badass, feats of subtly and finesse don’t fit, unless Joe has had an epiphany and his character concept is changing.

As a GM, I admire players that are willing to sacrifice feats, skills and whatever else to support their character concepts. When they do, they deserve to be rewarded… When it makes sense within the story and the game. For me what it really comes down to is a simple “smell” test. If it smells rotten–the player is trying to get the best of everything by saying he’s a badass, as a way to trump play without investing in the game mechanics, so he or she can max other skills, then that’s no good. If on the other hand, the player has (and continues) to invest in that concept, he or she should be rewarded for their dedication and hefty background.

#4 Comment By XonImmortal On March 2, 2012 @ 7:45 am

How do I handle it?

My game system puts a lot of emphasis on backstory. Backstory determines which background advantages a character gets. But they get a limited amount of points for background advantages. This leaves the player with a decision: do they pare down the backstory, or do they pay for it with a bunch of background disadvantages?

Or as I put it to one player: “Okay, so your character is a god. You want to pay for that, and not have any points left, or do you just want to say he’s delusional?”

I’ve told players over and over: No. You have a 1st level character. Or we can just let you sit it out until everybody else is at the level you want your character to be.

Backstory lets you explain why you spent your points the way you did. It doesn’t give you extra points, extra powers, or a cheat-mode.

#5 Comment By Norcross On March 2, 2012 @ 8:25 am

That background is simply not appropriate for a first-level character. If the player really wants it as a backstory, then that happened because the character got lucky once, not because of the character’s inherent awesomeness. They might get some fun roleplaying the character having to face his vast overconfidence the next time the character gets into a fight and can’t handle himself, but should get no mechanical benefit.

It really is no different than someone making a first-level fighter character with a backstory of how he personally slew twelve dragons with fireballs and lightning bolts, then complaining that the GM is preventing him from casting high-level magic even though “it’s in his background”.

As for the intimidation attempts, if he wants his character to be so intimidating he should max out his Intimidation skill. He should no more be allowed to intimidate NPCs automatically without spending skill points on it than he should be allowed to automatically hit them in combat without rolling just because his background says he has never missed a shot, and therefore missing would ruin his character concept.

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On March 2, 2012 @ 8:41 am

I’d use the Batman analogy. Say, “Look. Batman is awesome right. Justice Leaguer, right up there with Superman and Wonder Woman. But everynight, he patrols Gotham, and in Gotham, even every street level thug thinks he’s got a chance to take down Batman. So he has to prove himself, night after night, always knowing that even one shot from the lowliest thug could take him down. So, if there’s a chance, that means Batman has to roll. If Batman has to roll, so do you.”

#7 Comment By John Arcadian On March 2, 2012 @ 9:36 am

@lordbyte – Yeah. Beginning players tend to fall into this kind of trap much more readily than experienced players, but I’ve seen it from them as well. I have one player who is engaging in this sort of behavior right now, but he is skirting the line of it being acceptable. He doesn’t expect things to just go his way, but he definitely sees the character as a badass ready to take on all comers. When the rolling doesn’t work in his favor, you get see the player’s idea of the character as a badass slowly being chipped away and a few issues with sharing the spotlight pop up. Nothing major, but semi-annoying when playing in a group.

@Lord Karick – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the action hero thing. People new to the hobby don’t think of things in terms of games, but more in terms of story. The easiest reference points are action movies, and those characters are over the top and at their peak. John McClane was definitely not 1st level, but new players often want to skip to the Die Hard portion of the story, not the Beat Cop Busting Muggers part of it.

@mercutior – I try to nip over the top character concepts in the bud when I can. “Invincible Joe” is of course an extreme example that never happened, but I did have someone do something recently. It was a one shot one-on-one adventure and the game system encouraged heavy backstory, so it got a bit out of hand. Investing in a good character concept is incredibly important from the player perspective. I prefer to see characters who are well fleshed out and have flaws, not “Invincible Joe” type characters who only emphasize the good parts.

@XonImmortal – Yeah! Cheat mode occurs when you buy the GM pizza and beer!

@Norcross – That’s a great point! I agree with you on the concept that the character should have the skills to backup the concept. If they are a crack shot who never misses, they should definitely have as great of a shooting skill as they can. I like using things like action points or story points in these instances. If Never Missing is so important to the character, spend a point to not actually ever miss. Otherwise, I’m going to make you play up that first miss and how it shatters your confidence.

@Troy E. Taylor – I really like that analogy to describe this issue. In fact, I’m going to start telling my characters “If batman has to roll, so do you!”

#8 Comment By XonImmortal On March 2, 2012 @ 9:47 am

I think some of the “Storytelling” games (and you know who you are) enable this kind of thinking. The whole “dice rolling is never required, go with what is more dramatic” stuff encourages players to create characters that have more experience than experience points.

Case in point: during a game of one of those “ST” games, one of the players had a character that had, during character generation, beat the Prince of the city in a duel.

Both the “storyteller” and the player thought this was a good idea. I didn’t get to play at all, because the player had to intimidate and manipulate every NPC in sight, prior to me even being introduced.

I don’t do “storyteller” games anymore. I tell my players: We’re not telling a story, we’re writing it. So your character had better put his skill points where his mouth is… and leave the mouth at home.

#9 Comment By Svafa On March 2, 2012 @ 9:50 am

I handle it by working through chargen with the other players and helping guide their choices. If a player comes with this sort of background as his character concept then I work with him to make it work within the system. That might take some fudging, but I don’t think this one would take any exceptional rule-bending to work.

Give him a slight buff to his ability to Intimidate. Possibly make it a situational buff that relies on his reputation; thus outside his home city, district, country, or gang it might make no difference. Ok, maybe he left in a blaze of glory taking out a good many on the way – maybe 50 is an exaggeration, maybe not – but now they have a contract on his head so he needs to stay on the move and keep a low profile or risk assassins and bounty hunters.

And if it truly is a no-name NPC that is going to divulge the information regardless, then yeah, I might use his character’s rep as an explanation for why they get the information so easily. It might even be a situation where I take the information they would be given in a dossier from their employer and instead have it wrung out of some two-bit. So long as his character isn’t the only one being highlighted with these sorts of character scenes, then I don’t see an issue with it, and at least in my experience the players love it. You get to stroke their ego a little bit and let them show-off and all you really did was give them some personalized flavour text.

#10 Comment By HappyFunNorm On March 2, 2012 @ 10:35 am

I would point out that you’re using a system that has more firm mechanics than a cooperative storytelling game. He is a bad ass only so much as the mechanics agree, otherwise he can think he is a bad-ass, or he can claim he is, but would not actually be.

I would tend to disallow background information like that, anyway. I would allow them to say that they left a syndicate on less than agreeable terms, but not with those specifics. If they wanted to do a pre-game one-off playing their back-story, I might allow that, but the outcome would be completely at the mercy of the dice.

Essentially, PCs can define things they THEY have done in a backstory (I was a sailor and left the navy to become an adventurer) but NOT that they were a seal that was promoted to real admiral before they resigned, as that dictates actions made by a 3rd party (the navy in this case). So a Mage PC could claim a particular teacher, but could not claim to be that teacher’s master student, or could not claim that the teacher said they were the most gifted they’d ever seen.

In your example, the player has made a lot of assumptions about other people’s actions, not the least of which is that a large, organized syndicate would be populated by so many low level (really, fractional level NPCs in this example) that they could be defeated by Joe. He could also not claim to never be defeated… that just doesn’t even make sense in a world with leveled PCs/NPCs/divine avatars/etc. unless he wants to claim an incredibly sheltered upbringing (in which case I might allow something like “I was the best shot in my dinky, little, backwater settlement” but then, as was suggested earlier, really play up the realization that they are not the best in the world.

#11 Comment By Toldain On March 2, 2012 @ 11:39 am

I’ve played in systems, such as Hero and the more obscure Noir, where it is quite possible to build a character who can intimidate just about any normal person. Systems such as these don’t envision that all characters are “just starting out”. But the problem still occurs. Such “one trick pony” builds will have lots of other weaknesses, and there’s always that possibility of rolling three sixes (in Hero Systems terms), or a natural “1” (in d20).

What’s needed is to encourage players to embrace the imperfection of their characters. That’s where the real fun is. Superman is boring, they had to invent stuff like kryptonite just to keep it interesting.

One of the GMing techniques that helps players embrace this is the notion that players get to narrate their own failures. Ok, just what happened? Did you get the hiccups while staring someone down? Something wildly improbably happened, what was it?

Another thing would be to throw them a bone now and then. Put in some mooks that they can scare the everloving snot out of. They’ve signaled to you about something they want to do, find a way to say yes.

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On March 2, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

I would have handed back the backstory and said “That is what you want the character to become. Now write up the backstory for Chuck Van Damme on day one of his mafia experience. That is when this campaign takes place.”

#13 Comment By BryanB On March 2, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

I think it is important for the background story of any character to be a collaborative effort between the GM and the player; in fact it gets even better when it is a collaborative effort as a group.

I also think it is important for the GM to ask specific questions that each player can answer about their PC. There is nothing wrong with starting off as the big cool action hero (ala Spirit of the Century), if that is what the game is going to be about from the start. But there will have to be compromises and collaboration decision making for games where that isn’t necessarily the case.

I also agree that it is cool to give characters the opportunity to shine. Just as they probably won’t intimidate the coniving Sith Lord with an army of minions, they also need the chance to show that they are a definitive cut above the average night custodian at the Jedi Library.

As in all things…. balance and moderation is the key to making things run smoothly. What I wont allow is for a player to have the “any and everything” kind of background. Why would that type of character even be working with others if he is James Bond at the start? That isn’t exactly going to be fun for the rest of the players at a table.

#14 Comment By Silveressa On March 3, 2012 @ 1:48 am

In my games if someone wants to be “bad ass” from the beginning of a low level campaign they are advised to take the edge of reputation, and dump plenty of skill points into intimidation.

Otherwise I’d give them the over confident flaw and tell the player: “Given your lack of any skills or edges to support his claims, Joe only thinks he’s a bad ass, and the rest of the city has yet to agree with his view of reality.

As for taking out 50 guys in a blaze of glory, no one really believes that Joe did it alone, and even fewer believe Joe was even involved, especially all of the participants dead and all, making for poor witnesses.”

Much like real life, what actually happened, and what people “think” happened are rarely the same.

Usually though when players try to start off with a major rep in a low level campaign they are trying to get around the restrictions of a lower level campaign, and gain an unfair advantage over the rest of the players.

As anyone who’s gamed for long knows, players that pull such stuns on a GM who’s been playing for a while usually pay for it in game, painfully.

Another method of handling the “bad ass:”

Any true “bad ass” is going to be constantly harassed by other thugs looking to make a name for themselves, (such as the infamous gun fighter of the wild west being continually “called out” by every two bit punk with a gun.)

Anyone looking to make rep is going to set their sights on the “local bad ass” and take him down to prove they’re “more bad ass” resulting in the character being the preferred target by many thugs in combat, other thugs attempting to sabotage his ride, stake out his home, and otherwise ambush him when he least expects it to take him down a peg and earn that “bad ass” title for themselves.

Or as I would tell the player: “You might be a “bad ass” when the game starts but keep in mind you’re only “bad ass Machine gun Joe” until you lose a fight (or appear to lose one) and then whoever kicks your butt will be the new bad ass; and this city has no shortage of up and coming wanna be’s.”

#15 Comment By Kyle Wende On March 3, 2012 @ 9:16 am

This has probably already been stated in other ways, but I would cut the problem off at its source by getting more involved in character creation.

One problem I had as a new DM way back when was that I couldn’t get my group to act like a team. I didn’t understand it–we were great friends, all having a good time with pizza and soda, but we weren’t a TEAM in the game. I pondered the problem for a couple weeks and stumbled across a Gnome Stew article (okay, so I’m not that old) about different types of players. I figured this must be the problem I was having, so I tried to incorporate that wisdom into my games. It didn’t really solve the problem. Each player was still wrapped up in his or her own character as an individual.

I realized the answer while I was rolling up a few villain characters. As it turns out, a player uses different basic assumptions in character creation depending in his or her environment. If you send him (I’m just going to say him because I’m a guy and I’m lazy) an email with a list of character generation requirements, and have him show up on game night with his character, you have NO control over that environment. That character is going to show up with whatever biases the player had the night he rolled it up. He might have been watching a shonin anime, or a badass no-rules cop drama. If the player was influenced too heavily by the main-man-hero stereotype so common in film and television, you’re in trouble. If you have your player build his character in isolation, he’ll make that character cool in isolation. You want all the players’ characters to be cool as a team. The answer is therefore pretty simple: have them build characters as a team.

The first session of a new game or campaign in my group is always character creation night. I tell the players the basics of the campaign setting, and what they need to know, and I only ask that they show up with three ideas of what kind of personality and backstory they want their character to have. They decide as a group how to divvy up party roles so we never end up with four wizards and a fighter, and I fill in the details they need from my backstory of the setting. I also like to throw in a couple contrivances that amusingly enough make the team more organic. One campaign a couple years ago I told them right off the bat that two of the PCs had to be siblings, and the rest had to explain how they knew each other because they were all from the same town. I made one exception for a traveling ranger, but only because that player was notorious for her lack of ingenuity. I was shocked at how effective it was. The two players who decided to be brothers played it out to the T. The older brother was a paladin and was overprotective and constantly chiding his younger brother the rogue who wanted to run away and be a pirate so constantly acted out. All I said was someone had to be siblings.

So that’s my longwinded explanation of why this problem can only be curtailed if you get more involved in character creation.

#16 Comment By Silveressa On March 3, 2012 @ 9:22 am

@ Kyle:

Excellent solution, generating characters as a group is always the best way to go about it when possible. (Much more difficult for online/forum based games however)

This also lets you cut the “bad assery” off at the nub before the player has the background fully fleshed out.

(It’s always easier to interrupt their background with a “but unfortunately during _____ X,y, and z happens” when they’re telling it to you ad lib then cut apart their pre-written history piece with fates whims.)

#17 Comment By XonImmortal On March 3, 2012 @ 9:33 am

@Kyle Wende – One of the nice things about the TMNT game was that there were special benefits to creating team players (except it required the characters to all be the same species and have certain other traits in common). On several occasions, I have tried to get players together to create characters as a team. This did not work, because only one of them felt like showing up for character creation night.

What I did the next time was hand out the character suggestions, with a second sheet of bennies. As soon as each player started chortling over the bennies, I took the sheet back, explaining that those were only available to people who showed up for CharGen night.

It worked. That was one of the best teams I’ve ever GMed (except for that one person – there’s one in every group – that had the ingenuity of a corkscrew).

#18 Comment By Kyle Wende On March 3, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

Um…what’s a benny?

More importantly, don’t hate on corkscrews. They’re brilliant. Far superior to the player who only ever plays a female elf ranger, regardless of the campaign. She didn’t even learn her powers when we switched to 4E–too afraid of change or something. It’s been a while since I’ve played with that group, but I began to suspect she didn’t really care about the game. She was just there to hang out with her friends (the rest of us).

Back to the point, your “bennies” are the positivist way of doing what I did. You said “come to character creation night and get cool stuff!” I said “come to character creation night or you don’t get to play in this campaign.” Then again, I didn’t really need to give an ultimatum. My people would have showed up anyway, because that’s what we did on Thursday nights.

#19 Comment By unwinder On March 3, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

I don’t personally agree with the idea that a first-level character has to be young and inexperienced, and at the beginning of his/her career.

I do expect them to be less actually skilled than a high-level character, but there’s nothing impossible, or even improbable about being a notorious badass at a low level.

In real life, a person’s strength and experience only go so far in determining his success. Even if you’ve never been in a real fight before, the possibility of catching your opponent with his guard down is always there, and it’s always possible that you’ll be better prepared than him, or just get lucky. Maybe Invincible Joe just managed to sneak a machine gun into a banquet full of unarmed mafia bosses. Maybe he found a really good sniper position. Maybe he spent a year planning a series of car bombings. If a player says he killed fifty guys, I’ll accept it.

BUT, this doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to suddenly be afraid of him. If he doesn’t have the charisma and intimidate ranks to back it up, then he won’t match up to his reputation. When he goes up to a low-level goon and says “Give me the information! You’d better be scared of me! I’m Invincible Joe!” the goon is just going to laugh him off, and say, “You? Invincible Joe?! Don’t make me laugh! I heard that Invincible Joe is six foot seven and has red eyes!”

And then Invincible Joe will have to prove himself all over again.

#20 Comment By Alton On March 5, 2012 @ 6:03 am

I don’t mind if a player thinks his character is the most badass ever; he still has to prove it in gameplay. Badass to me is just tough talk (like a mafia boss). His character sheet must reflect the background they have made up for themselves.

That’s how I see it.

#21 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On March 6, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

This is a player problem (not necessarily a problem player). IMHO, this requires more than mechanics or story to change his or her expectations. The solution is to either change or replace the player.

This isn’t difficult, but it does run counter to the “we should all get along” approach that so many of us gamers tend to have. The GM basically needs to Have A Talk with the player. Calmly but firmly explain the situation, offer a few compromises or solutions, and ask the player how he or she wants to handle it moving forward.

Hoping that the examples of the other players, the implications of the rules, or the already-forgotten discussion of player power level will change the player’s expectations will just build the frustration level.

#22 Comment By Roxysteve On March 7, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

The best way, in my opinion, to get a bunch of would-be rpg players to get “in the groove” is to introduce them to FIASCO! and have a night of that before getting into the rpg chargen.

No other game in my long experience (I was four when Gagarin circled the Earth) has the ability to crystalize players’ role-playing chops. The game has the object of getting players to think on-the-fly, play often to the detriment of their characters and to glory in the story rather than their part in it (though it can be played very tactically by experts), and it is the essence of a pure RPG – the dice do not perform the role most people would expect during a game.

The real trick to RPGs isn’t immersing oneself in one’s role as much as it is in immersing oneself in everyone else’s roles. This is neither self-evident nor intuitive. Nor is the fact that the really interesting things in life are not the characters in a story but what is happening in the spaces between them. FIASCO! brings this aspect of storytelling into the harsh light of day in a way everyone can see and understand.

I doubt very much whether your mileage will vary.


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