It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission, but it’s far harder to clean up after the former when it comes to gaming and character gen.
Playing gatekeeper as a GM means that you make sure you filter everything coming to the table, and its importance can’t be overstated. Closely scrutinizing characters prior to your first session is a lot of work, but it will pay huge dividends in even a short-run campaign. Problems caught before a PC hits the table are infinitely less of a pain to deal with than those that come out two months or even two hours into the game.
Think of all the things that happen early on in a game, psychologically speaking: the characters meet and interact for the first time, form a (tentative, possibly violent) bond with one another, find their niche within the group and generally cohere.
At the same time, your very human players get to feel out the cracks in their own character ideas, test out their combat or skill-wise capabilities, learn what the other players are playing and plan out how to react to one another as a team.
Now imagine that, two weeks into this delicate formative process, you discover that one character’s concept is deeply out of whack. Perhaps they’re a private sociopath. Perhaps the one-liner on their sheet about having a criminal record includes an Interpol file for bombing an overseas flight. Perhaps their skills, harmless alone, form a deadly Voltron-like combination that is unstoppable and effortlessly outshines all others at the table.
For whatever reason, changes need to be made.
Now in addition to explaining the out-of-character problem (“I’m sorry, no, your mech cannot grow to the size of a brown dwarf in one round, I don’t care what that splat book says…”), you have to ret-con the in-character world to account for the sudden vacuum in what was there.
Worse, if it’s an issue with who the character is and how they interact, they may prove completely unplayable as they were, and integrating a new character is enough of a challenge that we wrote a whole article about it. Often the player being told “no” will feel singled out and even resentful. Couple that with a character they now care less about, and you can quickly wind up with a dangerous level of destructive recklessness sitting across the table from you.
All the more reason to catch problems at the start, before anyone has a chance to form real attachments to their ideas or the ideas of their fellow players.
I call it the Land Shark Rule: knowing what you’re letting in the door before it bites you in the ass. What it means is, in any game, there are three criteria you want to use to evaluate your PCs before you let them hit the table: numbers, motives and mu.
…Bear with me on that last one if you’re not a physics nut.
Numbers is the obvious one. Make sure your PCs are balanced within the system. It’s important to first balance them against what you know to be “normal” for the system, and then balance them against each other.
If everyone is a little overpowered, you can account for that equally. Likewise, if no one’s optimized, it’s not a problem. Issues start when some PCs are brilliantly built, and others are duct-taped paladin-wizards with gloves of dexterity.
When you’re looking to balance by the numbers, consider the following:
Limit customizations wherever possible. Work with your players to find ways to accomplish the same end within the rules of the system. Try to avoid bringing in any additions or breaking any rules, because they will have to stay broken for everyone, and that may throw off your other players later in unexpected ways.
Limit the range of material. You get to decide what’s in, whether that’s core books alone, splat books or even tertiary content like Dragon magazine or Dump Shock forums. Don’t be afraid to disallow any source you’re not comfortable with (or don’t have access to directly), and remember to tell the other players when you include another source because a given player wants to make use of it.
Consider everythingin thecontext of your world. If you’re setting up a wall-to-wall zombie game, a paladin of Pelor with a mace of undead smiting might merit more consideration that he would in your average Greyhawk campaign. Even if the numbers themselves aren’t unbalanced, their application to your campaign might make them seem that way to the other players, and that’s reason enough for scrutiny early.
When it comes to motives, you can’t always guess, even with players you know, what their motives will be for this game and these characters. I recommend handing each player an index card and asking them in person what their plan is.
What are three things that terrify their character? What’s the one thing they’d want to have, or have happen, by the game’s end? What are three things they absolutely will not do under any circumstances?
Some players will fight you on this, so be prepared for it. If they absolutely refuse to give you this, there’s a chance they’re a bad fit already. You want to avoid what one of my players calls the Teflon Psychopath: someone to whom nothing will stick, who is really just there to set things on fire and watch them burn.
Everyone else should be able to whip up a short five or six word answer to the question of basic motivations. Some players will honestly thank you for the chance to quickly define for themselves what their characters are really after. It can help them solidify things in their own minds before hitting the table and trying to do it with their feet moving.
Also poll your players about their own desires. Ask them to rank basic things within a game, like “combat,” “intrigue” and “humor.” Ask them the movie or book they’d like to see your game resemble. Give them examples to start from.
For instance, if you’re doing a Shadowrun campaign, find out if your players are looking for the tone of an Ocean’s Eleven caper-style game, or a gritty Mad Max hyper-futuristic meat grinder. Their answers will help you pick the right tone for the entire game from the start.
Lastly, mu. Greek letter, used in physics to describe the coefficient of friction. And now everyone should have an idea where this is going.
Figure out the pain points between each character and the other characters at the table. Use the motivations you’ve gathered and see where they run at cross-purposes to each other. Figure out from the start where your friction is going to appear first and loudest, so you can head it off before it kills the fun later.
Your players may thank you, but more likely, they’ll never know you’ve done anything at all. If everything goes smoothly, that should be thanks enough.
If this all sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. It is. It’s also worth it for any game that last longer than a session or two.
In the end, you’re left helping your players navigate what they might see as a “sea of no’s” between them and the start of your campaign. Remind them that it’s not about keeping them from getting what they want, it’s about making sure they (and everyone else at the table) can enjoy what they have.
And that should hopefully be worth a lot more than a brown-dwarf-sized mech.