Save My Game
Character Do-overs
By Jason Nelson-Brown

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

To Redo or Not to Redo

The topic for this installment of Save My Game is what to do when some players take more care in developing their characters than others do. Player preparedness shows in combat, and statistically, the characters of players who strive to make the most of their characters' abilities do better than the characters of those who don't. But the players who get the short end of the stick over and over because they didn't prepare may become disenchanted with the game. What's a DM to do?

Problem: Variations in Player Preparedness

How does one handle a group of well-established characters when some of them are well planned and developed, and others -- well -- aren't? Player preparation tends to show in combat and can often mean the difference between character life and death. What's a DM supposed to do when three players have done their homework well enough to make sure their characters achieve the desired results, and the fourth one hasn't? -- Adapted from a post made by Icewraith on the D&D boards on the Wizards of the Coast website

The results of preparation tend to be as obvious in a D&D game as they are in real life. As a case in point, I once added a great deal of supplemental material -- especially spells -- to a 2nd-edition AD&D campaign I ran. One of my players took it upon himself to study the new material carefully and learn exactly what it could do for his character. As a result, his cleric frequently trotted out some new bit of magic that the rest of the party had never even heard of, evoking cries of "How'd you do that?" from the other players. Others who ran clerics (or whose characters had cleric henchmen) did not put nearly as much time and effort into exploring what their characters could do with the expanded material available to them, so they didn't gain the advantages it would have provided.

From the viewpoint of game play, the advantage that the well-prepared player gains is a just reward. It's perfectly fair that a player who puts in the time to study should reap a benefit for it. As far as in-game logic, however, it seems odd that one character is so much more effective than another of the same class and level just because one player has more time to spend on character development than the other. Likewise, why should a henchman be less adept at what he does than a PC just because the player chooses to spend more time working on his own character?

In general, these are the kinds of arguments that players tend to make when they're unhappy about the advantages the well-prepared player earns. Some may accuse the DM of showing favoritism; others may just claim that it's unfair when certain characters constantly come out on top. Such players tend to be proponents of sharing rewards equally, and many are only too happy to cash in on the benefits earned by a better-prepared player if they can.

It's true that characters are not real and thus have only as much life and sparkle as a player brings to them. But what's a DM to do when, for whatever reason, the sparkles don't fall evenly?

Solution 1: Don't Try to Fix It

That's right -- leave the situation alone and let the chips fall where they may. Players are the ones who make their characters, and if they don't like the decisions they've made, that's too bad. They have a wide range of choices available to them when creating characters, and it's their responsibility to choose wisely. You can't create or play their characters for them, and they probably wouldn't want you to. So make sure you're available to give advice when they want it, but otherwise let your players develop a degree of self-reliance.

Solution 2: Don't Punish Players for Making Mistakes

On the other hand, D&D is a game, and it should be fun for everyone. If a player isn't having fun, don't make him play his way through the mess he's created just to prove a point. Sometimes it's better to let him change or even completely rebuild his character -- perhaps with some active advice from you or more experienced players.

Players who have put in the time and effort to develop their characters properly may be annoyed if someone who slacked off earlier gets the chance to rebuild instead of reaping his just rewards. The point is valid, since you are in fact giving the unprepared player special treatment. But before you cave in to the pressure, analyze the situation and try to discern the real source of the complaining player's objections. Maybe she enjoys playing a dominant character and doesn't appreciate weaker characters getting a chance to catch up. Or maybe she simply enjoys the advantage that her superior rules knowledge gives her. If you encounter such a situation, remind all your players that they should be working together to advance, not trying to play petty power games.

Solution 3: New Choices Mean New Regrets

Bringing in new material partway through a campaign can revitalize your world. Play becomes more fun, surprising, and exciting because the PCs no longer know exactly what to expect from their opponents. But when you bring out your latest new rules supplement, it's only natural for your players to want some of the new feats, prestige classes, and so forth too. (After all, you get to use them!) But what happens if the character has already passed the point at which she could have gained the desired option? Are you really going to tell the player that the character would have had to choose a different feat three levels ago to get the nifty new ability? You're within your rights to do so -- that is, after all, what the rules actually say. But how could the player have planned for this option when it didn't exist at the critical time in the character's career? The introduction of new rules can be frustrating for your players if you won't give the PCs a chance to access the new options that their opponents suddenly have available.

Instead, you might offer all the players a chance to "retcon" their characters a bit when you introduce new rules options. Not only does this technique let all the players have access to new options, but it also provides a perfect opportunity for the player who didn't do such a good job with the initial character design to redo it without getting "special treatment."

Solution 4: Experience Is a Harsh Teacher

Sometimes a player designs a character that looks great on paper but performs very poorly in actual play. The problem wasn't really bad planning; the character just didn't work out as well as the player anticipated. Or maybe the campaign just took a different direction than she expected, and class abilities or feats or character concepts that initially sounded cool and fun turned out to be useless, boring, or just a bad fit. Proper DM-player communication can often avert the latter situation, but some problems become apparent only in play. Thus, a good campaign should include a way to fix a character (or dump it in favor of a new one) when player choices just don't work out.

Solution 5: Can We Fix It? Yes, We Can!

You can also build some specific fixes for poor character design into your campaign. The psionic power psychic reformation lets the user partially "reformat" a previous character level by changing skill point allocations, feats, and psionic powers. Don't use psionics? It should be relatively easy to create a spell for arcane or divine casters that would serve the same purpose, and some existing spells might also make such an option available. For example, you could allow limited wish to make changes such as these available, and even let characters change past class choices. By the same logic, wish or miracle might allow even more extensive changes. Spells such as these aren't cheap, but they do offer an in-game mechanism for character redesign.

On the other hand, you could just be a super-nice DM and let players redesign their characters whenever they feel they need to do so. But if you choose this option, always ask why it has to be done. Such profound changes to existing characters shouldn't be random or opportunistic. ("Oh, we're fighting a dragon? Can my ranger change his favored enemy?") So give the player a chance to make an argument for why the change should be allowed, and to explain how the alterations remain faithful to the original concept of the character.

Summary

Differences in player preparedness result in highly predictable variations in character viability. Specifically, the characters of players who take the time to design their characters' capabilities well have a distinct advantage over the characters of those who don't. But is such an advantage logical within the game setting? Why should one 3rd-level cleric know his stuff so much better than another?

Even players who haven't taken the time to learn their characters' abilities well can change that situation and do so. But the players who took enough time to build great characters from the start are likely to come out ahead of the one who didn't, and that fact can cause the time-challenged player to lose interest in the game eventually.

This sort of problem can be insuperable without an opportunity for redesign. You can provide no options at all and let the chips fall where they may, but you may very well lose a player by handling the situation that way. Alternatively, you can simply let the player redesign his character, but such "special treatment" may evoke complaints from the other players. Introducing new game material is a good opportunity to let all the players redesign their characters at once without seeming unfair. Or you can build opportunities for redesign into the fabric of the campaign by introducing magical or psionic ways to alter past choices. Finally, you can just allow any player to redesign a character at any time, but only with a good reason and only in a way that remains faithful to the concept of the character.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.


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