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.

Shaun Welch has been playing RPGs for two decades. He listens to a disproportionately large amount of music from Iceland, and currently lives in Maryland, where he works as a professional unicorn wrangler.

7 thoughts on “Under the Influence”

  1. I’ve also found that while players want to build their character’s stats, they often have more fun with and are more proud of randomly generated stats. It also makes it possible to have a lousy character but given both choices, 2/3rds of the time they pick random generation. It gives them the chance to discover their character more than just have the character built for a purpose.

    1. I know a few players who enjoy random stats, but I am not one of them. Ever since I discovered there were methods of assigning attributes to characters, I’ve used them.

      For me at least, that is the “certain point” Monte mentions. I want control over my baseline character. One or two random, not-entirely-crucial elements are okay, but I like to know what I’m getting into. Beyond that, though, I tend to let the evolution of my character flow according to in-game happenings.

      That all falls completely apart when it comes down to casual or comedic games. Everyone rolls randomly in Gamma World games… EVERYONE!

    2. 2/3? In my circle it’s about 1/12th that prefer random rolls. As for starting point it depends on the scale of the game. We like to start beyond the point where a single bad roll can put you down. On the other hand, they do create interesting characters and not just some clone from a CharOp board.

      One point in all of this is that the character will evolve from wherever they start. They’ll pick up odd stuff and skills and such.

    3. I think I’d like to see a random stat generator that populates a 20 point array into a set of stats instead of rolling for each stat individually. Just a thought.

  2. While I run high-powered games, and PC stats reflect this, my gang still prefers random rolls and starting at level one, and precisely for the reasons presented in the article. To a man they all have more fun with “organic” characters. In a game in which I am a player, I came in when the campaign was at 8th-9th level and had to create an appropriate character. Fortunately, all I rolled was the stats and hps. The DM provided the rest, and it’s a good thing because I have to be creative in how to use the random stuff I seem to have acquired, even having to make up stories as to where I got it from.

  3. Whilst I do dislike the high level character build, my reasons are due to balance. If I’ve created a, shall we say, hmmm, random choice here, I know, druid, and played them to level twelve, they’ll be nowhere as kickass a druid created at level twelve. That uber-druid won’t have to worry about all the skill points I needed to put into stuff to survive long enough to get to level twelve.

    that being said, i doubt it’d be great even if everyone created characters at that level. From a character development point of view; just what the hell were they doing for those twelve levels, and does the build reflect that?

    1. “That uber-druid won’t have to worry about all the skill points I needed to put into stuff to survive long enough to get to level twelve.”

      Exactly! That built 12th-level character is likely going to be the best at what they do, and what they do is whatever the player felt was best. Would my alchemist have four ranks in Intimidate and two in Knowledge (geography) had I built him at his current 4th level? Maybe, because I’m weird like that, but likely not.

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