With contributions from Ian Mackinder, Ian Gray, Steven Beekon, Saxon Brenton, & Blair Ramage

This article has been sitting around in my to-do stack for a little over three years. I simply never got around to finishing it – until now. I do find myself wondering if the additional experience has given the contributors any changed opinions or anything more to add, though.

Every DM would like to think that they make every PC unforgettable to the players who operate it. Sadly, even the best of us don’t always succeed, though it happens more often than not. But what can we do to help players take the next step, and make a given PC a favorite character – the type of character that they will bring up as a reference over and over again, and always recall with fondness?

I got to thinking about this when, in my reply to a comment about an article here at Campaign Mastery, I referenced one of my player’s favorite characters from a long-moribund campaign (you can read about Tetsura here).

While I had some personal opinions on the subject, I decided on this occasion to go to the horse’s mouth and solicit additional suggestions from my players, many of whom are GMs in their own right. They all immediately agreed that (i) it was a very tricky question, (ii) that it was a very interesting question, and one worth an attempt to answer!

As I see it, the GMs role achieving this goal comes in three varieties: Things they should encourage, Things they should actively Do,, and Things they should avoid doing at all costs.

Things to encourage

Okay, with 34 ‘rules’ to get through, there’s not going to be much room for fluff; explanations will be short and succinct, or we’ll be here all day! The first 14 ‘rules’ are all things that the GM has no direct control over, but has the capacity to encourage and assist in developing. Some are, at least superficially, in direct contradiction; it’s in finding a way through those contradictions that the GM can directly influence the process of a character becoming one of the player’s favorites. This also explains just why this is so difficult to achieve – it’s capturing lightning in a bottle, it won’t happen every time, or even often; but if you know what to try and achieve, you can’t help but better your chances.

1. Favorite Characters are easy to play

If a player has to stop and think about the personality of the character all the time, the effort gets in the way of it becoming a favorite. That means that the personality has to emerge naturally from some aspect of the personality of the player.

2. Favorite Characters have depth

Cardboard cutouts taste like processed wood pulp – cockroaches and mice might like it, but that’s where the list ends. Achieving depth requires the character to have an original perspective that makes the player aware of subtexts to situations that would otherwise have either passed them by completely or been force-fed to them by the referee.

3. Favorite Characters invest in the campaign

Characters have to act as though they have lived through the campaign background and the events experienced in play prior to the character joining the campaign. The adventures within the campaign are the stories of the characters’ lives, and they have to have sufficient involvement that the player can recall those stories intimately and immediately.

4. Favorite Characters are invested

It’s not enough for the players or the GM to care about what happens in the campaign, the character has to care – and I don’t mean that the player has to pretend that their character cares, I mean that it has to actually make a difference to the character and his future plans and ambitions.

5. Favorite Characters can do something the player finds “cool”

A double-barreled one, this. Every character can do something, and most have at least one trick in their repertoire that someone will find “cool”, but finding something that this player considers “cool” is a bit trickier, involving both game system, character capabilities, player personality and expectations, and what the GM puts on the menu for the game. But there’s even more to it than that; a “cool” gimmick is one that can be used in a variety of situations, and never grows stale as a result – and that’s another very tricky requirement to negotiate.

6. Favorite Characters fit an archetype that matches the player’s preferred playstyle

There are innumerable articles around the net and in old magazines which attempt to shoebox players into different categories. Every time I read one of those articles, I found that I fitted into multiple ‘shoeboxes’, which to me always suggested that the categories were too specific. For my money, there are only two real character types: Roleplayers and Rollplayers, but they each have different requirements; and even within those broad categories, some roles come easier than others.

7. Favorite Characters are unique

Each and every character should be an original in some respect, and not a trivial variation. The longer you play, the harder that is; once a player has tried his hand at all the archetypes, he is reduced to nuancing variations – or to discovering/creating a new archetype. The first is harder to make distinctive, the second is just plain harder – but potentially more rewarding.

8. Favorite Characters entertain

Another multipronged statement – because I’m not just suggesting that they be fun for the player, but also for the GM, and for the other players to interact with (or just to observe in action!). But with the mix of personalities – players and GM and characters – this can be as elusive as a will-o-the-wisp.

9. Favorite Characters become a touchstone of the campaign

There are some characters that become favorites during active play, but most don’t achieve that ultimate accolade until after they retire or are retired, with the benefit of hindsight and fond memories. It always seems, though, that a character who becomes a favorite is one who is constantly being remembered and referred to by other players in the campaign years later.

10. Favorite Characters are more than their statistics

This is a subject for a series of blog posts, but they take a long time to research and write – I know, I’ve tried! This is actually two separate items under the one heading; the best characters reflect their statistics and abilities from root to tip, producing a perfect synergy that enables the personality to shine through in everything that the character attempts; and the best characters also go beyond the game mechanics to capture a concept in play – the statistics are like a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object, they can specify it, but cannot completely capture the essence of the character. That requires words, and imagery, and action, and emotion.

11. Favorite Characters are neither under- nor over-powered

Another big topic. Characters should always be able to make a significant contribution to the problem at hand, but should never be able to solve those problems on their own. Underpowered characters make the player feel like a victim of events; overpowered characters make the GM feel like a victim of the players, to which he usually responds with negative behavior – grudge-monsters, intentional targeting of PCs, ramping up encounter difficulties.

12. Favorite Characters should be strong personalities

They don’t have to be boisterous and shouty, but favorite characters should have a personality that oozes out of every word they say and every move they make. It doesn’t matter how interesting a character is at an intellectual level if they don’t have visceral appeal.

13. Favorite Characters don’t overwhelm the player, GM, gameplay, or campaign

A triple-header, and another subject with room for whole articles under its umbrella. If the character is too complicated for the player, sometimes they will get it exactly right and other times they will find themselves lost in confusion, with the ratio of one to another the only variation. A favorite character is one that 99% of the time, the player can put on like a pair of comfortable shoes and just “wear”.

Sometimes players attempt to achieve this by shunting the harder parts of a character onto the GM, especially true in the case of a roll-player; but conceding that much control over the character means that the character’s personal style is at least partially that of the GM, and that alone is enough to get in the way of that character becoming a favorite of the player – though it may seem for a while that they are, if doing so enables the player to hit that “comfortable shoe” standard. The satisfaction that comes from a character that is completely your own, when you get everything right, makes a ‘shared’ favorite pale in comparison.

Finally, if your character becomes the central focus of the entire campaign, and even trivial choices manifest in horrendous difficulties and committee meetings and loads of angst about the long-term consequences of the decision, it keeps the character from becoming a favorite. Sure, the power and authority can be heady, and even enough to make this character a short-term favorite; but in the long run, this will pale and the character will come to be more work than fun.

14. Emotional Investment occurs in character development as well as in play

A very subtle point with which to conclude this section. The emotional investment is that of the player, who has to care about the character. Characters who have a personal shortcoming and mature beyond it, players who care about how the character will develop and who actively seek out situations in which the player will be forced to grow, are both central to a character becoming a favorite.

This suggests that a positive-feedback loop is at least part of the process of a character becoming a favorite – the players cares enough about the character for his personal development to matter, so that when the character begins to rise above, and/or to make progress in solving or overcoming a (real or perceived) shortcoming, the player becomes even more emotionally invested in the character.

But there is also a danger – solving a character’s problems leaves a vacuum in their wake. Characters can lose the depth that made them interesting to play as their problems are solved. Ideally, every solution will bring with it fresh problems, new perspectives, and fresh emotional landscape for the player to explore. Angst may not be a central requirement of a favorite character, but the ongoing capacity for angst is.

Things the GM should do

Part two of the list consists of a baker’s dozen things that the GM who runs the campaign should be actively doing if the character is to become one of your favorites. A lot of these are simply dramatic storytelling techniques that are to be encouraged in any GM, but we (the contributors and I) want to go beyond simply saying that these should be on the list of things good GMs do and encourage GMs to actively put time into thinking about these on a regular basis, and looking for ways to improve their performance in these 13 key areas.

15. Favorite Characters snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, even when they fail

Temporary setbacks and dramatic reversals are part of any good drama. Every adventure should take PCs up to or even beyond the point where all seems lost – but the good guys should always win in the end, be it in the eleventh, twelfth, or thirteenth hour. Adventures in which the PCs can plod from the beginning to an inevitable victory should be few and far between; they leave characters feeling empty and lost. At the same time, these victories should never be the results of a die roll – even if the final die roll is a failure, the PCs should be able to rescue the situation.

16. Favorite Characters engage in the campaign

There is a difference between characters investing in the campaign (rule 3) and characters engaging in the campaign. The actions that a PC takes should have an impact on the campaign, the decisions and choices even more so. The character should never be indifferent to what is happening around them, they should be involved. I’ve lost count of the number of plot ideas that I have had, and set aside, simply because there was no way for the characters to engage in the plotline. If it’s not going to matter to them, it’s not worth getting involved in.

17. Favorite Characters show what they can do

I’ve twice had characters in other campaigns in which those characters were never given an opportunity by the GM to demonstrate what they could do. One GM was overwhelmed by the combination of laziness and the scope of the background that I had presented – returning it to me after the year-long campaign folded due to his lack of interest, he admitted that he had never gotten around to reading it. His theory was that he could generically each PCs into a different compartment and treat them as generic cogs in the plot. For some reason, none of the players count their characters in that campaign as their favorites, and none of them count that campaign as a favorite, either.

Some plotlines should be deliberate star vehicles for a character, and each PC should get their share on this spotlight merry-go-round. It’s not enough for the Player to understand what makes a character unique, the GM has to understand it too – and then has to deliberately play to it from time to time. Unless both of these occur, the character will never be a favorite of the player.

18. Favorite Characters change the campaign

NPCs should react to the character’s deeds, words, and philosophies. A great PC changes a campaign with his very presence.

That doesn’t happen by accident, or not very often.

Every well-designed character has the potential to change the campaign in this way, so it is not the responsibility of the players to see that this happens. That means playing to the character’s strengths and to their weaknesses, giving them opportunities to manifest the uniqueness they contain, and if necessary, the GM should reinvent the campaign world or elements thereof to make that happen.

19. Favorite Characters are given an early “Moment of Awesome”

If a character has a cool shtick, the GM should look for ways to let them use it. Even if they don’t, the character should be put in a position where he can do something awesome – and not something that’s dependant on a successful die roll (what if the character fails?) Sometimes that can mean injecting the improbable into a situation. It often means playing to the strengths of the player, not just those of the character. Think of these as Hero Moments – each character should get them. The battle with the cave troll in The Fellowship Of The Ring is a good example.

Sometimes, when the sole purpose of an encounter is to permit one specific character to have a Hero Moment, I’ll prolong it even if strict game mechanics mean that the encounter should be long dead if the character in question hasn’t had his shot yet. That may be bad GMing from a purist standpoint; it’s great GMing from a narrative standpoint. And if I have to retcon an explanation into the encounter afterwards, so be it. On other occasions, when strict game mechanics would keep the encounter running, but this would overshadow the Hero Moment, I’ll have the encounter finish early (usually by a misjudgment resulting from the Hero Moment). So it all evens out in the end.

An example from long ago: The PCs were trying to stop some machinery on an engine of doom (a mechanical tank – wheels and cogs and steam-power). Standing between them and the mechanism was a hulking great warrior. Because this was a hero moment for the fighter with the engineering skill, even though he was overshadowed by another fighter in the team, the enemy warrior refused to fall as the more powerful fighter rained blow apon blow down on his back. Bleeding from a mass of cuts, one arm hanging uselessly, all that the better fighter really achieved was the shredding of the warrior’s armor. The better fighter asked, rhetorically, ‘why won’t he fall, I’ve done XXX points of damage!’ to which I answered, “He’s too stupid to know he’s dead.” Finally, the lesser fighter got his chance; one blow – delivered ineptly to a point completely different to the one at which he was aiming. It did no damage but it tripped the warrior, who fell through the blade of the better warrior, severing his head and sending it flying across the room, where it bounced off two walls and the ceiling and landed in the perfect position to jam two vital cogs. The improbability of the warrior surviving long enough to achieve this spectacular demise was forgotten as the table dissolved into helpless gales of laughter. It didn’t matter if the weaker fighter succeeded or failed in his roll – he failed in practice, but had he succeeded the warrior would have inadvertently deflected the blow so that it severed his head.

Such “Moments of Awesome” can seem contrived if you aren’t careful, mostly because they often are. Playing to a character’s unique strengths reduces the frequency and severity of contrivance. And they definitely don’t happen by accident – very often (I’ve seen it once*, though, so you can’t rule it out).

* Really want to know? Okay, in a nutshell: Ian Gray was playing Eubani, a PC who was originally created for an entirely different player and who became an NPC when that player changed his mind about joining the campaign. Eubani and his fellows encountered a civilization of people who seem to blend the races of Dwarves and Halflings. There was a big feast, everyone swilling beer, and the warriors of the clan telling boastful tales of their prowess. So Eubani got to his feet and told of some of the adventures of he and the other PCs – and got an exploding critical on his Perform: Storytelling check. And then rolled another 20, and then 20 again, and so on… he ended up with a total of 145 or something ridiculous like that. What he hadn’t recognized was that this was how the men of that culture attracted the women, a peacock strut being put on by the bachelors present in a bid to woo the hand of the somewhat hot-tempered and flighty princess, who promptly fell head over heels for this dashing figure…

The sooner in a character’s “life” such a moment of awesome occurs, the more it will become a hook for the player to hang his personality on, a touchstone moment for the character.

20. Favorite Characters are given the opportunity to do cool things

This one’s easy: put the characters somewhere where “interesting” things are happening – and then find ways for them to participate. The trick is not making them seem contrived.

The more spectacular something will be if it succeeds, the more the GM should encourage that success. But don’t make every success a spectacular one – you need the really spectacular moments to stand out.

21. Favorite Characters evolve throughout the campaign

Engagement (Rule 16) means that the characters change the course of events by getting involved in them. Character Evolution means that the events in which the character gets involved change the character.

We’re not just talking about mechanical changes, but about personality growth. Difficult decisions, things where the character’s moral judgments have unexpected results, philosophic and emotional conundrums of all sorts.

22. Favorite Characters grow as ‘virtual people’

This is not quite the same thing as rule 21. A character can be a collection of carefully-documented personality traits on the page, or they can live and breathe and extend themselves into areas beyond that documentation. Those personality traits might be generalized high points, but there’s more to them than that.

This is also especially true of characters in game systems that don’t even document personality traits. The Hero System gives characters psych lims, to describe personality traits so strong that the influence the character’s actions. These are at least a starting point. Pathfinder and D&D give no such starting point, instead furnishing racial and character class descriptions that are abstract manifestations of common personality traits – finding an individual amongst this statistical mélange is up to the player.

23. Favorite Characters are only as good as their enemies – but the line is razor-thin

If your opposition is powerful and you defeat them by force of arms, then you are more powerful. If you beat them by clever strategy, then you are more clever. If they have a cool gimmick, it makes your gimmicks even cooler. If the strongest person in the world fights only wimps, they will never have a reputation worth a damn. And unless they have something the players can boast about to each other, they will rarely come to occupy a special place in the players’ hearts – at least that’s the theory.

So a favorite character succeeds against tough opposition.

But never opposition so tough that they make the players feel helpless, or worse, feel that the GM is throwing the PCs victories they don’t deserve. No matter how superficially powerful, the PCs must always feel like they are making progress, that they have a fighting chance – if they can only stack the deck in their favor just right. There is a razor-thin sweet spot that takes time and experience and luck to hit consistently.

This is an especially difficult problem in superhero and pulp games, in which the “good guys” are required to win (at least in the long run), by the rules of the genre. In fantasy gaming, its more acceptable for one of the good guys to get killed by sufficient opposition, especially if their sacrifice leads to the final victory. You can’t have that happen regularly in the Pulp or Supers genre.

A favorite trick to help is to make the villains really tough – but vulnerable, directly or indirectly, to one or more of the ‘cool’ abilities of the characters. The trick is then to get that information into the hands of the PCs without them feeling that you’re throwing them answers from the back of the book. But you can’t do that all the time or it becomes stale. Another technique I’ve used to good effect from time-to-time is to make the villains immune to all the standard tricks of the PCs – but vulnerable to one or two of the less-frequently used abilities.

24. Favorite Characters have background elements which the GM infuses into the campaign

Every player likes to make his mark on the campaign. The more a PC contributes, not only to the present-day action, but also to the campaign background, the more special they become, and the more connected to that game world. If the character feels tacked onto the campaign world, they are exceptionally unlikely to feel achieve the depth of connection with the player required for them to become a favorite.

This is more than the villain-of-the-week being someone the character’s background name-checks. Plotlines and motivations and ambitions should all emerge from the character, and should reference not only what the character was doing then but what they are doing now. The adventures, in other words, should seem to emerge organically from the PCs being who they are.

But there is a caveat – the player must like that part of their character background. An encounter with a villain the player thinks sounds like ‘a cool idea’ who the GM can take to a whole other level? The PC (and that NPC!) are on the fast-track to becoming favorites. But if the GM’s interpretation falls short of the perceived ‘coolness’ of the concept, or the idea is not that great to start with, it can make the Hero feel as lame as the villain.

25. Favorite Characters have a non-mechanical interaction with the game

We’re starting to get into slightly slippery territory here, which is always where the most profound insights are likely to be found. This sounds like a simple thing to define at first – but if you try and put salt on the tail, it slips and wriggles loose very easily. In a way, this goes back to the character being more than just a collection of characteristics, but the catch is that they have to be that ‘more’ both in the eyes of the player and in those of the GM, and those perceptions have to manifest within the game. If both sides can perceive the character as more than just that block of numbers without trying then they have almost certainly achieved ‘favorite’ status.

It often helps if you can capture the essence of the character in a single line of description or two beyond a mere summary. But construction of such descriptions often takes the part of complex and convoluted compound sentences, and that puts them more into the province of a summary than a capturing of a character’s essence. There is a level of artistry, almost of poetry, in these summaries when they work right. For example, contemplate the following alternatives:

  1. A sentient dimensional boundary in the form of a gargoyle who uses his tremendous strength and aggression to expiate his guilt over past failures.
  2. A near-invulnerable brick with homicidal tendencies and the ability to change size and shape.
  3. A man driven by guilt to find redemption for the sins and mistakes of his past.

All three of these are describing the same character, as players in my Zenith-3 campaign will immediately recognize. But in terms of this requirement of a favorite character, only the third one hits the nail on the head; the first is full of compound constructions and is an almost mechanical summary of the conceptual basis of the character; the second is blatantly superficial; but the third gets to the core of who this character is. It says nothing about what the character can do, but is all about what he will do and why. It transcends game mechanics – and, in this case, even transcends genre.

The real reason for the slipperiness of this ‘rule’ now stands revealed – it uses the vague term “game” when it should have used the specific term “campaign”.

Or should it have? Is there not a grain of truth in the first part of version A – “A sentient dimensional boundary” – to which this rule would also apply?

A unique character concept, provided that it is sufficiently tightly integrated with character background and abilities, can push beyond what the game mechanics can envisage to become “cool” in its own right. A fascinating idea may not be enough to carry the character all the way to favorite status, but it can certainly get the character part-way there. And that’s why I didn’t change the “rule” and rewrite these paragraphs.

26. Favorite Characters are in a game where another player is having fun

I’m sure most of you thought that this was going to read “a game where the player is having fun”. But that pretty much goes without saying, and is one of the motives behind this article in the first place.

Laughter is contagious. Smiles are contagious. This is also true of irritability and impatience and unhappiness, though the first two can often overcome the latter moods. It follows that if one player is having fun, the other players can viscerally enjoy that entertainment, and contribute to it, and are more likely to enjoy playing their characters as a consequence. If it happens regularly enough, the character will become associated with that sense of fun, of being entertained – and that gives the player the capacity to discover those elements of their character that can make them a favorite.

I have never found any player’s favorite character to derive from a campaign where someone else was not having a barrel-load of fun.

27. Favorite Characters belong to their player

Each player brings something different to their interpretation of a character. When that difference of expression achieves the point of a distinctive uniqueness, the character is usually a favorite.

I’ve referred to Blackwing as an example a number of times in this article, and the reason is simple: he’s been played by three different players, and each brought something radically different out of the character. Blackwing started out as a relatively ordinary brick in a magical suit of armor whose wearer ‘liberated’ it from a Demon stronghold during a police raid. Instead of turning it in, the character put on the armor and became a superhero. Because the player was new to constructing characters who were more than a collection of stats, his background, as synopsized, had several holes in it – where the armor came from, why the character would choose to essentially steal the suit from the evidence locker, how it gave him super strength and resilience, what Demon were doing with it in the first place, and so on. So I filled in the blanks, but the character was not really a favorite of his creator. Then something happened, and the character transformed into a gargoyle. This was intended to be a temporary situation, a consequence of the additional conceptual material I used to fill in the blanks – a “one ring” style of seduction, and the character’s reluctance to remove it completely, and the way it achieved that power-up. But Nick found the angst of the character appealing, and the concept of being trapped in gargoyle form interesting, and asked to keep the change. The character even changed his name from “Knight” to “Blackwing”. For completely unrelated reasons, a year or two later, he dropped out of the campaign (later to return with another character when the reasons for his departure no longer applied) and Blackwing became the plaything of a new owner. Blackwing version II was totally over the top, a hyper-exuberant shapechanger with wolverine-style morality. He had razor-sharp claws backed by super strength, and he wasn’t afraid to use them. Jonathon had so much fun playing the character that it had to be a favorite, but the time came (as is often the case in really long campaigns) when he had to drop out – and Blackwing was passed to a third player. At first, Saxon struggled to get a grip on the character, but Jonathon had carried it to the point where the real background story was beginning to emerge – the character had hit its lowest ebb and become everything that it hated, and was in a somewhat self-destructive frame of mind. Going through the entire character concept from top to bottom, a few unifying elements (the ‘guilt’ aspect, predominantly) were added and the third definition of the character given above began to emerge. Blackwing is now moody and angst-ridden a lot of the time, but now has complete control over his appearance – he no longer has to be a gargoyle, he just feels more comfortable looking like a monster because that is what he became, in his own eyes. One major plotline in the new campaign is the completion of the rehabilitation of the character in the character’s own eyes. Is Blackwing now one of his favorites? I don’t think he’s quite there yet – but that’s the trend at the moment. It will simply take the right circumstances for everything to ‘click’ to make that step – and another set of ‘right circumstances’ for it to be recognized by the player.

You may be wondering why this rule is in this section and not in the preceding one? What can the GM do to influence this factor?

There are two things. The first is to craft adventures and subplots that permit the player to really explore the character and find aspects of it that they like, to find ‘their own voice’ to use an acting metaphor. The second is to talk to the player about the character from time to time, to help the player get under the skin and inside the skull of the character – then use that information to shape opportunities for roleplay within the campaign.

The better the player understands the character, the more effortlessly he can step into the character’s shoes, and the more he will enjoy playing that character. The better the GM understands the character, the more opportunity he can provide for the character’s personality to find expression in campaign events. Both make the character more fun to play – and that helps make not only that character but every other character in the game, a favorite.

Things the GM should NOT do

If there are things that the GM should encourage the player to do, and things the GM should actively pursue himself, then equally there are things that the GM should not do – or, if they are necessary, at the very least should approach with extreme caution and trepitude.

28. Weaken a Character

“Weaken” is perhaps the wrong term. “Undermine” is a far better verb to describe the action to be avoided.

If a character is capable of bench-pressing a fully-laden oil tanker, and his strength is reduced to the point where he can merely lift an empty one, it doesn’t really alter the fundamentals of that character very much. But if a key element of the character is a sense of exuberant freedom, the last thing the GM should do is force the character to feel trapped and confined with no escape in sight, and especially not without the full connivance of the player. If the character has a shtick that is “cool”, the GM should never take that shtick away from the character. He can render it ineffective against a single foe, but should never remove it – or do anything that removes the “cool” from it.

29. Interfere with a character

A GM can help a player get under the skin of his character. That’s not only fine, it’s recommended. But the GM should never force the character to behave in a certain way against the wishes of the character. The most he is ever justified in doing is taking the player aside and trying to understand why the player thinks the character would behave or react in a certain way.

But there’s more to it than that. Interfering with a character can take many forms; another is to arbitrarily redefine who and what the character is. If there is a problem with what the character can do, get the player’s assistance and approval for any changes before they become rules.

30. Take Over a character

A stronger form of the first two types of detrimental behavior. Telling a player what his character does is a real no-no, and can poison any prospects of that character becoming a favorite. Heck, it can even turn a player off an existing favorite. You can explain context, and perception, and employ logic and persuasion – but NEVER arbitrarily override a player’s choice of action.

Furthermore, the GM should never permit any disapproval of an action to bias him against the outcome of that action. I don’t care if the GM thinks that an Elf will automatically do X under Y circumstances, that doesn’t justify forcing an elf character to fail when he attempts to do Y. The GM can advise “you think that will probably not work”, he can ask if the character is sure of what he is doing, he can even request a discussion of the logic behind the decision (especially if the GM suspects that player knowledge is being used as character knowledge) – but at the end of the day, the GM has to interpret the player’s choice of actions impartially.

There is an exception: if a player is unable to attend a game session, or is going to be late or have to leave early, it may be permitted (even required) for the GM to take over the character. In which case, it is incumbent on the GM to play that character as he thinks the player would have done even if he thinks the right way for the character to behave is differently.

31. Make a character feel helpless

I don’t completely agree with this rule. Now if it read “Don’t make a player feel helpless,” that would be a different story.

I have no particular problem with circumstances occasionally making a character feel helpless provided that the player never feels that way – so long as there is a clear path for the player to follow that will lead to the character finding a solution that reveals that they aren’t actually helpless after all. This is where the GM can divulge some ex-parte player information to the benefit of the campaign – but be warned, there is little more excruciating than the GM dropping hint after hint and the player still not being able to grasp a solution that seems obvious to the GM. Better by far to present the player with a complete chain of logic on a note leading to the ultimate conclusion than to leave the player feeling stupid for not being able to see the blindingly obvious – or the blindingly inobvious, in this case. Presented with the solution, the player can then roleplay past the roadblock.

Oh, and on the same general theme: never have an NPC present a solution that should have been obvious to the PC. It will only make things worse.

32. Make a character look hopeless

A subtly-distinctive variation on the preceding point. If an opponent is so hard to hit, for example, that the combat monster in the party is having trouble landing a telling blow, Never, ever, make it look like its the character’s fault. You can have blows bounce off surprisingly resilient armor, you can have the enemy twist away from the blow by the narrowest of margins so that what would normally be a devastating injury becomes an easily-ignored flesh wound – these both imply solutions to the problem, or at least that it’s because the enemy is impressive, not that the PC is un-impressive. This applies especially to the character’s shtick, the thing that makes them special and earns them their place in the party. Frustration makes no favorites.

33. Let a character dominate the campaign

Warcry had to leave the Zenith-3 campaign, because he had come to dominate it. In order for the opposition to be able to go toe-to-toe with him, they had to be able to take any other PC out of the battle with a single blow. I have seen the same thing happen with other characters in other campaigns under other GMs – there comes a point where the choice has to be made between the character and the campaign. Where time permits, perhaps the character can diverge into a spinoff campaign – but its better for the character to retire with dignity than for the whole campaign to come crashing down.

There are more ways to dominate a campaign than with sheer force, however. It can be just as bad for the campaign to suffer a character who knows everything and whose decisions are therefore the only ones that matter. Or a character who has maxed out every skill in the book.

Every advantage beyond the norm that the GM gives to a character should be balanced by an equally-restrictive liability or disadvantage. In the Shards Of Divinity campaign, the central focus is a character who knows things no-one else does, and that gives the character an advantage over everyone else – PC or NPC. But the character’s contemporary knowledge is lacking, the character is several levels behind his companion(s), and that knowledge is sharply restricted to human affairs – he has extremely limited knowledge of elves and dwarves and other non-human species. Nor does he know anything much about things that were not significant to human history in the past, but that are going to be significant in the future. And finally, the character is capable of both breathtaking insights and bone-headed stupidity. His companion(s) are there to back him up and support him, he is their employer – but the balance in terms of game play is far more 50-50 than it may first appear.

34. Let a favorite NPC or past character steal the spotlight

I, personally, would have split these two points apart into two separate rules – but this is the way the GM who submitted the point phrased it, thinking of two completely separate campaigns as he did so.

Because the senior (NPC) members of the Adventurer’s Club were all modeled on Blair’s favorite Pulp characters from fiction, and were all more experienced than the PCs, the first is something of which he has been accused a number of times. His goal was to ensure that any resource the players needed, they could get their hands on, and that the providers of these services and resources would be competent to handle whatever the PCs asked of them. The inevitable result was that the PCs were overshadowed by any club member who did the same sort of thing that the PC did, because the NPCs were built to a different standard. One of the goals – with Blair’s full agreement – that I stipulated when I first came on board as co-GM was that we ‘humanize’ these expert NPCs. If they are more experienced, they are more famous – so make sure that they have more problems with fame. Give them blind spots and weaknesses and flaws outside their areas of expertise, and make these worse than those of the more fully-rounded PCs. And give the PCs an advantage that the other club members don’t have – the ability to cooperate effectively – then have the NPCs recognize this advantage and come to the PCs for help and guidance. In other words, lower the NPCs and elevate the PCs in importance to the campaign. We haven’t finished this rehabilitation yet – but we’re getting there.

The second part refers to past characters. This is aimed squarely at me, I think – though I’m not aware of any occasion on which a past character has actually stolen the spotlight. In any campaign that’s run for as long as my superhero campaign has done, characters come and go, replaced by younger individuals. This immediately opens the campaign up to two separate blind alleys – the first is to have the PCs so overpowered relative to the campaign concept that the campaign becomes untenable; the second is to expose the campaign to the same problems described above for the Adventurer’s Club. Dealing with this conundrum is an ongoing exercise. For a start, combat fatigue has become a real factor for the senior team. I also subtly play up their flaws, limitations, and weaknesses whenever they are present. I give them problems to deal with that are beyond the scope of what the PCs are generally expected to deal with. A plotline late in the first Zenith-3 campaign deliberately killed off many of the more powerful members and those whose story potential was less than the survivors. Circumstances have given the PCs a particular expertise in a number of areas, and they have now been designated the parent organization’s go-to group for dealing with those problems (this has yet to actually impact the PCs but it will in due course). Extra efforts have been invested in humanizing the NPCs. In the first campaign, the NPCs were given restricted access to campaign events and NEVER got involved in battles (well, almost never). Their role was as mentors and guides – and some were good at it, and some bad, and some a mixture of both. In the new campaign, the NPCs and the PCs approach each other far more from a position of equality – while at the same time, the great killing-off has further reduced the PCs access to the NPCs. All of which makes the PCs more the masters of their own destinies – and the point-people for the problems that their characters confront.

Again, there is an exception to both of these: an NPC who makes the PCs laugh can generally have as much rope err spotlight as he can steal.

Concluding Thoughts

Analyzing why you like something enough to make it your favorite thing of that type is never a waste of time. It puts a GM in touch with the personal strengths that are the pillars of their style, it informs players more clearly of what they want – and what they don’t – and the process facilitates and encourages participation and dialogue.

  • Players and GMs, Who is Your favorite PC and why?
  • GMs, who is your favorite NPC and why?
  • Also, GMs, who is your favorite PC amongst the characters within your campaign – and why?
  • And can anyone think of any additional “rules” that we may have left out?
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