Under the Influence

In his article “The GM’s Influence on Character” in Kobold Quarterly #22, famous actor Monte Cook jumps right on out there and says:

Past a certain point, the more influence a player has on character creation, the more boring the resulting character will be.

Heresy! What does an actor know about roleplaying games, anyway? Why I—oh, oh wait. The threatening e-mail the Stargazer has left in my inbox tells me I may not be entirely informed. Let’s try that again, shall we?

In his article in KQ #22, noted game designer Monte Cook says that the more a player influences the creation of a character, the more boring that character shall be.

Specifically, he is writing about the idea of the character build. You know, the one where your Pathfinder DM says “We are playing a level 12 campaign” and so you always give your paladin a holy avenger. Or at least you would, but you’re not playing a paladin because druids are way better.[citation not needed because it is true]

I’m aware it is a matter of personal taste, but I’ve always enjoyed 1st-level campaigns precisely for this reason. Over the course of a few levels I will inevitably make choices that are anything but optimal for my character’s combat abilities, skill rolls, or any other aspect. I tend to choose things because they are either cool, or they are useful at that particular moment in time. My characters acquire abilities like a tree acquires rings. Somewhere in that process, a story emerges.

Even so, I am not immune from attempting to optimize when I have the ability. I recently joined a Pathfinder game and had to create a 2nd-level character. It took nearly three sessions for me to settle on what I wanted out of him. I can’t imagine starting or joining a 12th-level game for that reason! I’d probably have to leave notes for my eulogist to correct my feat choices. “Shaun is survived by his barbarian, who probably won’t get too much utility out of Combat Reflexes, come to think of it. His only regret was that he didn’t roll a druid.”

The original character, developed over time and shaped by actual, in-game experiences will have unique quirks, connections to the setting, odd bits of treasure or gear, and a far more well-rounded set of abilities.

My now-3rd-level alchemist has a hand mirror engraved with the words “To my love, Laura” on the back, which he stole from a house because he suspected it had been used in a demonic ritual. Turns out it hadn’t been, but his “small mirror” is far more interesting than if I’d simply purchased one for him. It even came in handy as we were rounding corners in a mine not long ago. The +1 light crossbow was pried from the dead hands of a man who guarded a cleric as she tried to sacrifice innocents to some crazy machine. I gave him ranks in Intimidate last level because despite his abysmal Charisma I keep trying to scare the bad guys into surrendering.

Monte offers up some advice for when you do build a character at a higher level. Maybe everybody’s sick of 1st-level beginnings. Perhaps your last character died because you made the mistake of not making her a druid and everyone else is 15th level. It happens.

Players should have the freedom to create the character they want. But the GM should get involved too with campaign links, story, and mystery.

I feel the best piece of advice he gives is for players not to pick all of their own equipment. The GM can give items that have story hooks, interesting tales, or otherwise spice up the character who has sprung ex nihilo. Toss in a few random relationships, and you’re good to go!

Just be sure you play a druid, or else you’ll be rolling up yet another PC before long.