Save My Game
So Many Characters, So Little Time
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!

Problem -- So Many Characters, So Little Time

Me and my friends have a rather large problem when it comes to making characters. It's not that we can't think of one, it's that once we make it, we play it for 3 or 4 sessions, then come up with another character idea we want to play. My question to you is, do you have any tips on making characters with diversity and staying power?

-- Mitchell, AskWizards.com

You're asking two separate questions here -- how to make characters with diversity and how to make characters with staying power. In one sense, the first is the enemy of the second. Your hunger for diversity in your characters may be feeding their lack of staying power. By definition, no one character can do everything well, so in a continuing effort to try different things or achieve different combinations, you keep stirring the pot by introducing new characters. You need to decide if what you really want is diversity or staying power, because these can be opposing goals.

Every Day Is a New Adventure

The Lost Caverns of TsojcanthFor diversity, you might run your regular D&D game as a series of one-shots. In the olden days of D&D, most of the published adventures were derived from tournament adventures. There was no real sense of sequence. You could very well play D&D that way. If your group honestly does not want to play a single cohort of characters through an extended campaign, the solution may be to abandon the entire ongoing campaign concept. Everyone may have more fun playing stand-alone adventures. When you finish an adventure, you set those characters aside and start a new adventure with new characters. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with playing D&D this way.

Character Trees

Another approach to the same idea is the 'character tree' concept from the AD&D Dark Sun setting. Each player has a cluster of characters, each of which knows the others in a vague or distant way (not necessarily friends or family -- in a more traditional campaign, they might all be members of the same adventurers' guild). Each player plays just one of those characters in an adventure. The others are inactive during that time -- resting, healing, working, practicing, researching, or having minor adventures of no importance. If you are in the mood to play a cleric at the start of an adventure (or if the DM insists the group will need a cleric along), then you play your cleric for that adventure. If you were in the mood for something else instead, then you played a different character. You could switch characters under certain conditions -- generally, if the group was in a safe location where you could rationally explain the other character's presence. No fair switching in the middle of a fight! But if you hit a nice little oasis, the half-giant could wander off shortly before the elf strolls in. Besides giving players more variety in their characters, this also provides a smooth mechanism for introducing backup characters when a primary character die, regardless of whether the slain character ever returns to play.

Bingo! You get diversity and flexibility while still retaining a sense of cohesion. You could play a one-shot adventure with one group of characters, a second adventure with a different group, and a third adventure with a mix of both groups. Not only do you get variety in your personal character but in the group composition, too. This is similar in some ways to the 'every adventure is a new campaign' idea mentioned above, except the old characters don't just disappear into never-land. They stay on call and can pop back up again repeatedly.

The character tree allows players to tailor the party to specific missions where one kind of character is more needed than another (certain missions, for example, might place more emphasis on fighters while others emphasize wizards). Players can replace characters from their trees when those characters becomes boring. Finally, the Dark Sun rules included a mechanism that allowed one of your lower-level characters to also gain a 'free' level when a higher-level character advanced. That way, one favored character didn't outstrip all the others and wind up being the only seeing play.

Limit the Number of Sourcebooks

One reason why people want to continually try new things is because new things are continually available to try. New books keep coming out with interesting options. It's natural to want to explore options that didn't exist before. One solution is to limit the number of books allowed in the campaign. Either the DM mandates or everyone agrees on the set of books that will be used in the campaign and that's it. No new books means fewer temptations to dabble and experiment. There are plenty of things a player can do within the scope of the core books themselves, and you may have fewer headaches if you aren't worrying about new lists of feats and spells, or entire magic systems, every month or two.

If something comes along that several people in the group (which may include you) find really interesting, you can discuss bringing it in, but that should be the exception rather than the rule. In general, the best time to introduce new options is when most or all of the players are creating new characters.

Rebuild vs. Replace

To keep the same characters in the campaign but still allow variety in the form of new rules and new tastes, make some allowance in the campaign for people to change their characters midstream. The Expanded Psionics Handbook has the psychic reformation power that lets you change known feats, skills, and powers. You could presumably use a wish or miracle (or even a limited wish for minor changes) to achieve the same effect. Player's Handbook II has an entire section devoted to creating in-game rationales and methods for people to reshape parts of their characters, sometimes down to fundamental changes such as race and gender.

If you don't care about the in-game consistency of character changes, just give players the option to redo their characters, changing around classes and feats that don't seem to be working or that aren't as much fun as they seemed they would be. This shouldn't be a regular event, and any reshaping is subject to the DM's approval so that it keeps the tone, feel, and personality of the character intact. Avoid wholesale changes -- reshuffling the building blocks instead of using all new blocks entirely. Knowing that a character is not set in stone may incline players to work with the character a little more rather than just pitching it when their concept changes a bit.

Consider the Campaign Flow and the Way You Deal with Replacement Characters

Another reason why people replace their characters frequently may be because characters die easily and quickly in your campaign. In a high-lethality campaign, players often feel less attached to their characters because they have a strong sense that the characters won't last. Back in the 1980s, there was a comic book series called Strike Force -- Morituri. A central theme In this series was that characters could gain superpowers, but the process would kill them within a year. Every few issues, a character would be gone. Readers (and characters) knew that no character would last. Players in your game may have the same expectation.

Or they may feel that their characters are not really involved personally in the campaign story. They might be interested in it, but if their characters aren't really connected to it, then characters are basically ciphers -- any other hero would do just as well. Characters become placeholders in the campaign. Soap operas often treat settings and characters as constants but actors as interchangeable. The same character may be played by a succession of actors, and the show just keeps on rolling as if nothing changed. Viewers know it's a different person, but it ultimately doesn't matter because it's just a role.

Finally, replacing a character with a new character may make economic sense in the campaign. Bringing someone back from the dead costs resources -- money for components, travel time to reach a place where the spell can be cast for you (especially if you hate the level loss and look at coming back from the dead as "true resurrection or nothing"). Instead of getting your old character back with a lost level or with the party (or the character) out 25,000 gp for true resurrection, it's tempting to just bring in a new character. If you allow PCs to buy their own equipment up to the typical PC wealth value in the Dungeon Master's Guide, a new character may end up with better stuff than the character who died -- and stuff that is better optimized for the new character's particular strengths. I say all this to make clear that it may be to a player's advantage to bring in a new character versus bringing back an old one.

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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