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Hot Button: The Specialist

Tori sat at the head of the table behind her GM’s Screen. Today was the start of her new post-apocalyptic campaign and the group would start by generating characters.

Tori: Okay, what are you guys thinking of playing?

Marc: I want to play a scavenger that kitbashes vehicles and equipment.

Gina: I’m going to play a merchant with leadership skills.

Brandon: My guy is going to be a gladiator that fights in village arenas for money.

Tori: Okay, those sound like good concepts. What about you, Jimmy?

All other players, in unison: I’m going to be a badass loner with a katana!

Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering describes a Specialist as a player that always plays the same type of character. No matter what the genre or system, this player always adds the same signature characteristics to his characters. Even when forced to play something different, the Specialist will either work his signature characteristics back in (e.g. the shifty, back-stabbing “noble knight”) or grudgingly play the new concept with decidedly less enthusiasm.

Over the years I’ve heard plenty of GMs and players complain about Specialists. In my own circles, we really did have a player that would work a katana into every character that he could. I have another player that always wants to play a psychic. One player is a constant chaotic (always throwing in the monkey wrench when she could). Other players usually roll their eyes when the Specialist introduces her new character and often pre-empt the Specialist (“and let me guess, she’s a ninja”).

So what should you do with a Specialist?

On one hand, there are strong arguments to leave the Specialist alone. We all game to have fun and if being a psychic or wielding a katana makes the game fun for the Specialist then why take that away? Why force her to play something she doesn’t want to? As long as her character is a good contributing member of the party then what’s the harm? There is something to be said for allowing players to stick within their comfort zones.

On the other hand, there are strong arguments for breaking the Specialist out of his comfort zone. One is personal growth. Maybe the Specialist always creates a combat machine because he never tried, and would ostensibly enjoy, playing a negotiator (and perhaps his insistence on combat machines limits the scope of your adventures). Another is role ownership. If the Specialist always plays a priest, then no one else at the table (especially in small groups) will ever get to play a priest. Challenging the Specialist to play something different can also shake up and freshen the table dynamics, as your other players have likely gotten into the habit of treating the Specialist the same way in every campaign.

What say you? Do you have Specialists in your game? If so, do you tend to encourage them to play different roles or allow them to remain in their comfort zone? Does the type of Specialist or other factors weigh into your decisions?

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Hot Button: The Specialist"

#1 Comment By itliaf On August 20, 2008 @ 7:08 am

One of my players seems to only be comfortable playing superfast superacrobatic monk types. Most of his forays into spellcasting have been largely unsuccessful. It’s generally more of a problem for the party if he is not pulling his weight in a role he doesn’t like. Having his specialty character around also makes it certain that any unusual terrain in an encounter is going to get jumped over, climbed on, or tumbled across. In other words, if the dm puts the time into designing a three-tier chasm, he knows it’s gonna get some use.

That said, I can see how, depending on what is being specialized in, the specialist can quickly become a liability. What do you do for the guy who always wants to have a mount in a standard dungeon crawl?

#2 Comment By LesInk On August 20, 2008 @ 7:13 am

We’ve had a Specialist in our group with a rather keen interest in Rangers (D&D). No matter what game world we were in, the Ranger always was created and came along for the ride. Part of the problem was that the player never got to take the Ranger to high levels due to the GMs constantly changing campaigns. But part of it is, as you put it, a problem with a comfort zone.

The attempts to get him to play something else usually failed and we just accepted him for his character. The key to our acceptance was this was a younger less experienced player who wanted to fully explore this singular character. Therefore, although we snickered and made little jokes, we did not stop him.

We tried to encourage him to try other characters, but in the end, it was ignored. That was what he wanted and he was going to stick by it. For the rest of the group, who did want to try different characters, it was really only minor annoyance. We went on and enjoyed the games.

As a GM, I would do what I could to make the character different by setting up a different history and provide different plot related elements. For this player, he did pick up on the plot leads and explore them, so even though it was still always the same character, he at least had different events defining the character.

One other point: Some players tend to do the Specialist because they have a vision of an ‘uber’ character they they can always ‘win’ with. They keep going to the same type because its is the same min/max scenario in their head. Getting them to play something different may also be equivalent to asking them, “Do you want to try something more challenging?”

#3 Comment By PatrickWR On August 20, 2008 @ 7:38 am

The scenario you describe at the very outset actually happened last time we sat down to make characters. Long story short: We have a specialist. He plays Wolverine. In every. Single. Game.

It’s impossible to get him to roleplay outside of taunts and trash-talking. He boasts, but his characters aren’t optimized to back up his boasts with in-game performance. So he misses a lot and gets the crap kicked out of him regularly. Which, of course, reinforces the notion that he should play more of a badass character, as if attitude can in some way affect dice rolls.

Lately we’ve taken to “daring” him to play outside his comfort zone. When we sat down to play Dark Heresy, we dared him to play a Tech-Priest — and he took us up on it! Same with Wild Talents — we dared him to skip on playing the quintessential uber-commando kill machine, and he did — he played a pulp scientist instead. These characters still try to back up poor in-game performance with dice rolls, but at least he’s getting some experience with different character abilities and roleplaying scenarios.

#4 Comment By Micah On August 20, 2008 @ 7:49 am

I would definitely differentiate between the badass loner / Wolverine / Drizzt Specialists and all others. IMHO, that’s a sign of an immature player who doesn’t understand the group aspect of the game. I’ve made it clear in every one of my games that badass loners will die…alone. Don’t be surprised when the other PCs that you’re constantly trash-talking don’t come to your aid when some NPC finally teaches you a little humility.

If someone always wants to play a cleric or diplomat, where’s the harm in that?

#5 Comment By Rafe On August 20, 2008 @ 8:13 am

Specialists can be alright so long as the group is fine with it is willing to work around it (ie, they know what role is filled and they complement it or at least don’t go for overlapping characters). The issue only really arises when another player wants to diversify and try the Specialist’s style of character or if the group is just sick of roleplaying with the same old, tired concept while the rest are fresh and provide new game/roleplaying opportunities.

One way to break a Specialist out of that mindset is to present 3 or 4 concepts to the player with one of those being their typical build. Highlight the differences and great abilities/possibilities with the different concepts and then rehash the Specialist’s typical concept. Many Specialists emerge because it’s something they started with and they’ve just stuck with it. Often, though, a Specialist emerges as such because he or she hasn’t really taken the time to consider other roles. Present them with lots of emphasis on their strengths and give them a known example of that role, either from a book or movie.

You could also impose restrictions designed to slowly move the Specialist away from their class: “Sure, you can play the katana-using character but you can’t be a loner type or a trash-talker.”

Personally, I don’t really have this problem in my groups. Most people go with different things every time or take a new spin on a concept/class (human ranger who doesn’t know he’s of noble blood vs eladrin ranger who has been wandering human lands because his home town has been sealed off behind the Feywild).

#6 Comment By Target On August 20, 2008 @ 8:53 am

After reading this post it occurred to me that I may have specialist tendencies. No matter what party role or character class I take on, I always feel the need to be in the thick of the fray. My clerics all tend towards the martial (including the current campaign where there is no backup). I tend to play fighters in the Aragorn mold (dexterous melee fighters w/ competent ranged ability). I get frustrated by rogue types if they can’t hold their own in combat. I have disliked every mage type I’ve ever tried (I tend to find spell lists too limiting to enjoy; always find the job more about resource management than blasting opponents to oblivion).

I think a lot of this comes from my enjoyment of combat sequences. I tend to be a strategist (with a few butt kicker tendencies). I’ll have to keep an eye on this to ensure that I’m not holding myself or the the group back.

Thanks for posting another great food for thought article!

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On August 20, 2008 @ 9:54 am

Lesink touched on one reason some people return to a role again and again: because they didn’t complete that character’s story. So they create the character in a new system and try to play out the character’s story again– but if the campaign is cut short, of if their character exploration is not supported by their group, they try again.

Of course, there are other reasons to return to a character. One of our players really identified with her first character (a bow ranger) and just couldn’t adapt to playing a different character in the next campaign at all. She tried playing a monk, but just didn’t enjoy it.

System mastery is another reason. As Itlaif points out, if you don’t enjoy the complex parts of the system, you might get restricted to “simple” fighter types again and again. While that doesn’t prevent you from coming up with a new personality each time, you might continue to build a character the one competent way you’ve found. [If your group has ever swarmed a newbie with advice on feat/spell selection on leveling, you might be encouraging this– I’ve been guilty of being intrusively helpful myself.]

A decent way to solve the problem might be to talk with the player outside of the game. It’ll probably take a lot of talk, but you might figure out the underlying cause– limited system mastery [which you as a GM could help them with], an unresolved story [if they give you details for their core story, you might build it into your plot so they can finally complete the character’s story], or just comfort with the one concept and reluctance to embrace any other [embrace their fun, maybe suggesting a new personality or a different flair for variety].

#8 Comment By Swordgleam On August 20, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

I think I might be guilty of this. No matter what I play, they’re always a combat-crazy fast-talker. I like to think that I put enough of a spin on it to keep it fresh, though, from the unusually charismatic Man-at-Arms who initially took bluff just to enhance his intimidate rolls, to the sneaky and sly smuggler who had a tendency to end up back-to-back the Bothan sniper in a field full of stormtroopers, to the swashbuckling pirate who can never say no to a fight or a pretty girl. Granted, the smuggler was initially supposed to be a selfish coward who spent most of her time hiding behind the Wookie, but… apparently, I just can’t play that.

Many of my gamer buddies seem to do something similar. There’s usually some core concept, be it “sneaky” or “has a cause” or “highly specialized” that always comes through, but everything else is different. I think that’s probably the key to dealing with specialists: encourage them to put enough of a spin on their concept that it’s a new character, without having to change the part that’s most important to them. If they always play a priest, and someone else wants to try the role, well, what about a priest do they like? Maybe the could play a similar character as a paladin, or a cleric or a monk.

I think I have to agree with Micah that the “I always play a badass trash-talking loner” type are a whole different animal than the guys who always want to be sneaky or clerics or diplomats.

#9 Comment By nblade On August 20, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

No matter what, I think we all fall into the “The Specialist” trap on some level. Even if it is just some limited aspect. In many DnD games, we all have our favorite classes and races. However, I do agree that there are some people who take things to the extreme. I think it can get really bad, if the specialist in question is the GM. Once had a person, whose NPC or PC were basically one of three types; the dumb fighter, the slap-happy thief, or the necromancer trying to take over the world. Of course the last one was 90% of his PC characters. This of course is a problem. In the poor gentleman’s case, its one of reasons we had to stop gaming with him. His requirement to play some variant of the necromancer template, finally got to everyone.

I think when its done in the general sense say maybe just class and/or level, its really not a major issue. It when the character is practically the same right down to the color his/her underwear that we have a problem.

I think Swordgleam has it right. Its only a problem if “the Specialist”‘s concept causes interpersonal or other gaming problems.

#10 Comment By Lee Hanna On August 20, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

I consider myself something of a Specialist: there are roles I just can’t get into, like priests/clerics/what have you, or Evil PCs. I’m more comfortable with wizards (not necessarily Blasters) and fighters. I’ve been trying some roguish types recently, and they all die rapidly.
OTOH, I do know some ninja-lovers or berserkers. I try to play with them in small doses. Most of the time, it’s harmless, unless one half of the players make combat-lite characters, and the other half just want to blow up stuff (my last Serenity game).

#11 Comment By RoboSheep On August 20, 2008 @ 8:33 pm

I’ve considered with the role system in DnD4 writing the four roles of controller, striker, leader, and defender on some paper and making my players draw for their roles, they can choose their class after that. I think it’s an idea I’ll hold onto for a but.

#12 Comment By Virgil Vansant On August 21, 2008 @ 6:53 am

I have one player that has some Specialist tendencies. It’s not too bad, but it’s almost always some form of gung-ho holy warrior with the same sort of personality. What I like to do is run some short mini-campaigns with pre-generated characters. This moves everybody a bit out of their comfort zone–me working in a brand new world, the players with different characters than usual. It’s worked out well so far. One of the last times did this, I ran a sci-fi campaign. I made him a character that was a cross between a religious figure and a political officer. He still had a bit of that holy warrior that he loved, but with the gung-ho portion toned way down. He had a lot more options for interactions and role-playing, and he seemed to enjoy it, too.

#13 Comment By Dasis On August 21, 2008 @ 9:03 am

One thing i did to help my specialied friend was play a role directly connected to him. I played his best friend, brother or other role that connected us immediatly. I am a very tactical person and a role player, so i was able to overcome there short-coming combat if there were some and be there straight man/ comic relief/ whatever they needed to help there character change a litte. The friend i helped was always a ambious fighter type, with me he played a savy illusionist, rogue kobold. Doing this allowed him to explore a new role, with out being weak, and having somone to bounce the new personality against with it falling flat.

#14 Comment By Scott Martin On August 21, 2008 @ 9:15 am

Dasis: That’s a great way to handle it. Even the same old same feels different if there’s a different relationship and attitude toward the world.

Virgil: I’m also a big fan of one-shots and short series to shake up the routine. It’s a lot less threatening to try something new if you know you’ll only be “stuck with it” for a short time.