Making the Party

You’re about to run a game with a new group of characters. You’ve put a lot of work into preparing your game, which is good, but if the party isn’t good, the players aren’t going to enjoy themselves and all your preparation will be worth about the same as none — which is none.

It is essential that players like their characters. The character is the lens through which the player experiences everything in the game.

It is also essential but no so obvious that they have to like the other players’ characters as well.

An ideal party is not so much about balance as it is mutual appreciation. The members of an ideal party appreciate each others strengths and even their flaws.

Party creation is a social activity. You will have much better luck if everyone creates characters together than if you let them make characters separately and just reveal them at the table. But social interaction leads to it’s own issues. Here’s what you are in for:

stage 1 — “I want to be a dark elf”

Or “I want to be a speedster.” Or “I want to be a cocky star pilot.”

Players start coming up with the concepts of their characters.

At its creation a character is not a complex collection of experiences (it hasn’t experienced anything yet), it is a concept. A player gets an idea, an image, which could be a look, an attitude, a style, a detail. “He’s a pirate.” “She’s an escaped slave.” “He laughs in the face of danger.” “She carries a really big trident.” “He looks like this drawing I saw.” This is the first seed of the character. During the character creation process rules will add details, but the starting seed is very basic.

This doesn’t happen as quickly for each player. There is always someone who gets their idea before anyone else (statistically, it’s unavoidable) just as there are always those players who just can’t find something that really grabs them.

In many ways the first responder is making a critical decision for the whole party. That first character idea will inevitably influence all the other players, as they try to come up with something that is complimentary, just as interesting, and which doesn’t undermine. It sets the stage for the party as a whole.

So if you, the GM, think that the first character idea a player throws out a bad idea, or (more often the case) it’s a fine idea but it doesn’t fit with the kind of game you are trying to run, now is the time to say so. Immediately if not sooner.


The worse thing another player can do is create a character that undermines another player’s character concept. Even if it’s unintentional, which we’ll assume it is since a player would have to be a real jerk to do it intentionally, it robs the first player of the whole joy they envisioned in playing that character concept in the first place. Worse still, if they do not just ditch or change the character they will start the game feeling irritated and alienated. Disenfranchised.

There a few angles towards undermining:

I can do that too — You carry a really big trident as a token of your mysterious fish-god? That’s a pretty effective weapon, I’ll take one too. Your concept is that you are a really good tracker and huntsman? Oh yeah, I took some levels with that. I had some points left over.

not me you won’t — Your concept is that you are an obsessed avenger of the night, an impressive and intimidating figure to all who gaze upon your dark cape? My character is immune to intimidation and makes fun of people who take themselves too seriously. And I do it constantly.

stage 2 — “If I wield two tridents, I can do twice as much damage!”

The core concept has been established, but now the details need to be worked out, and suddenly so many opportunities for improvement pop up. It’s just so hard to resist them all!

Once the cold hard light of the rules is brought to bear, elegant concepts may begin to slip in favor of statistical advantage. A certain combination of classes sounded quite nice, but closer examination shows that they don’t stack very well after all. Being a martial artist is great, but maybe a bullet proof vest would be a good addition, just in case.

Tweaking for power is not necessarily about being power hungry. At this stage the players really don’t know what they are in for. They will have the urge to hedge their bets and make sure they don’t wind up with characters who are useless or underpowered in the game. It’s just caution in the face of the unknown, insurance to make sure all the time put into the game isn’t wasted by being ineffective. You can’t blame them.

On the other hand, some players really will be trying to sneak in more power than you think they should have. Them you should swat.

Some of this buffing up will also be a reaction to what they see forming on the other character sheets. “Your character is Class D with electronics? I’ve only got Class B in my skills… (scratch scratch scratch).” They are not necessarily insecure they will be too weak for the game, but that the other characters will overshadow them, particularly if the trait they are looking at is something that relates to their core character concept. No point thinking you are a master swordsman only to discover that everyone else in the party has a higher sword skill than you do.

What should you do about it? Establish the norms. Steer the players towards equitable abilities, where no one player gets too far ahead. Enforce some distinctions of quality — give them a clue how good of a swordsman a good swordsman should be, and how much weaker a more average swordsman should be. Let them know it is okay to have a few human weaknesses, or conversely that they should gear up for a merciless slugfest.

stage 3 — “I guess I could play a cleric.”

Most players are largely done making their characters, but a sad few still have no idea what they want to play. And they’re depressed about it. Probably by now everyone else has given them ten or twenty suggestions about character ideas they should play. If you’re lucky one will stick.

The trick at this point is to get that player settled with a great concept that they love. No more kidding around, it’s serious now. Eleventh hour stuff. If you don’t, they will probably still play but it is going to be hard to get them involved in the game.

You can’t just force an idea on the player. They will probably play anything at this point for the sake of the team, but they won’t enjoy it so it doesn’t solve the problem. You need to work with them. Ignore all those other players who are 90% done and are trying to get your attention to ask about some tiny detail about a skill they want to take. Establish a dialog with this one player. Questions and answers. An interrogation that will lead to a character they can get excited about playing.

Let’s be honest. It’s not that you are such a genius that you can tell what they will like even better than they can. You probably won’t. You are finding a concept that they can go along with, a concept they can believe they might like, a concept they can believe they might get excited about. They _want_ to buy in to a concept, you are just getting them to settle on one under the premise of optimism, not compromise.

It helps to know the player, but that’s such a truism that we could just plaster it was rule 1 of all GM Craft, so let’s move on.

A common problem among experienced players is “been there, done that.” They’ve played every class in the book. They’ve done all the stereotypes and the variations on those stereotypes and the subsets of the variations of the stereotypes. They can’t get excited about playing another hard-boiled detective with a drinking habit who has a secret arcane gift. If this is the problem you might relax perceived rules a little bit. Suggest something that would normally be off limits but which won’t wreck your game. Tired of half-orcs? Let them be a lizard man. Bored with superhero norms? Let them be a paroled supervillain. Just the process of bouncing unusual ideas instead of looking at “the list” of standard concepts might get their juices going.

Finally there is the “trust me” option. Set the player up with a simple character, but with the knowledge that there is something the player does not know about the character. The character may know there is something mysterious about themselves, but they definitely won’t know what it is. The player knows he’s a humble country preacher who’s troubled by strange dreams, but doesn’t know he’s really a werewolf. Or he thinks he just a hard-boiled detective with a drinking habit, only to discover later he has a secret arcane gift.

The extreme case is the blank slate, tabula rasa. The character is an amnesiac or has some other reason for knowing nothing about themselves. Frequently you’ll need to give the player some kind of basic surface stats to work with (which may prove to be wrong later on) and reveal “the big secret” as the game goes on.

The “trust me” is the court of last resort because it is risky. It is critical that players like their characters, and yet here you are giving a player a character which is an unknown. How can that work? Well until the player finds out what the mystery is, they can project whatever they want onto the character, making it oddly easier to like a mysterious character than one where everything has already been spelled out. The break point will be when the mystery is revealed — if it turns out to be something the player doesn’t like, all their interest in the character will go south. The other problem is that you have to come up with a secret that doesn’t derail or distract from the game you want to run. Take your time coming up with it, and don’t be afraid to change it part way through the game (before it is revealed that is) if you realize something else will suit the game and the player better.

Where were we?

stage 4 – “oh wait, maybe I should put that point in Stealth?”

The last minute tweak. The final adjustments. The serious concern that you have overlooked a critical rules detail and built a really bad character.

This can go on forever, but realistically the players will split between those who are “done done done” and eager nay impatient to play, and those who are still fidgeting, tweaking, second guessing.

At this stage you should be reviewing characters for final details, but if you’ve been paying attention during previous stages (mainly stage 2) you shouldn’t be surprised by anything. There will always be one or two items that someone tries to slip in at the last minute, again often out of concern they will be underpowered.

A little bit of second guessing, double checking, etc. is not a bad thing, but you really have to gauge the mood of the room here. Like all democracies, you have to protect the minority from the majority but keep everyone happy. Don’t let the impatient people rush the tweakers, but don’t let the tweakers delay the game. You want everyone to be as happy with their characters as possible, but at some point you may be stuck going forward when someone is still unhappy just to keep the rest of the players in the game.

Another facet of the last minute tweak is the player who finished their character a while ago and already got bored with it. Now they’ve come up with a whole new character concept they want to do instead. The impulse is to stop them, but you might be better off mentioning that they should stick with their original character, but letting them work on the new one to keep them busy. So long as the first character is done, this will keep them from harassing the other players to hurry up.

And now, hopefully, you have a party that is ready to game.

    Ben Robbins | November 29th, 2005 | | show comments