Generally, I’m a fan of recycling in all its forms. Yet it took me years to come around to the notion of recycled characters in tabletop gaming.
For a very long time, I simply didn’t get why so many players had their ‘pet’ character concepts that they would recycle again and again across setting and system forever. The same players would often gleefully tell me about the character’s past exploits, which were of course in no way reflected in their new self, as they rolled up stats for a game featuring the same old face.
For whatever reason, I actually felt offended when players would do this, not out of a lack of other character ideas, but because they genuinely preferred a character they had played before getting thrown into new circumstances with new allies and enemies in the mix. Whether I was the GM or just another player, I felt like I was being set up to be the outsider for a great inside joke that would overshadow the novelty of the game itself and the other characters in it.
It was a stupid thought, but it was there nevertheless.
For me, making the new character concept is the most fun part of the game. Hell, I typically make two or three for any game I’m in, which might explain why I GM so often (the NPCs are my canvas – the 3d6, my paint). New characters are like potato chips to me – and like with actual potato chips, it’s probably an unhealthy affinity.
So for years, to see someone equally excited about getting to replay an old concept was simply baffling to me. I finally asked several folks to try and explain it to me:
- They had an old game fall apart, but they loved their character and wanted a chance to actually see it through
- They like seeing how the same concept can be shaped differently by broadly different settings and interactions
- They like the ‘wandering hero’ idea and want to add more pages to a character’s story by pretending all the games are somehow connected
All these notions make sense to me on paper – I can see the logic in them – but they never fully sank in for me, in part because I had seen far too many examples of recycling characters going haywire and becoming a distraction for a campaign.
Here’s the thing: whether players intend it or not, recycled characters (if they saw any previous play at all) are automatically saddled with excess baggage new characters aren’t bringing to the campaign. If the GM and player aren’t on alert, that baggage can weigh down the whole campaign in a heartbeat.
When any character concept, recycled or no, hits the table, it takes shape beyond what the player planned when they designed it in a vacuum. It has stories to tell and quotes to rehash and famous moments that warped it in a unique and clever way. It has a history that grew organically in a way that can never be exactly repeated. A player expecting that they can shelve all that history in an instant and reset the character to the untouched ball of clay they started from is almost universally kidding themselves.
A recycled character has elements that are set now and firm – trajectories the player may expect or hope to see again. That makes the character immediately more stubborn about adapting to the new game and its players.
A recycled character has a history legitimized by actual play and actual challenges overcome, something all those rolling up new characters lack. No amount of clever backstory is a match for a genuinely-forged character life, which can put some characters at a disadvantage from the get-go in terms of their histories.
So when you have a player playing a recycled character concept, set your ground rules from the get-go before the campaign gets moving.
Leave the history at the door, or keep it to yourself. No referencing NPCs or PC allies from past campaigns unless the new game is a direct sequel (in which case, everyone can do it). No referencing old happenings, exploits or adventures that the current PCs don’t share. Stay motivated to make new stories instead of dwelling on the old ones. If you trip across a situation that reminds you of a past exploit, giggle to yourself and move on, or talk about it out of character after the game, not during.
Respect that this game is about these characters and these stories – you are not here as a cameo or a guest star, you’re a new face just like the rest, and you’re worth just as much until you make a name for yourself with this crowd in these circumstances. Anything earned by getting to retry a familiar concept in new surroundings is for you and you only – don’t fan it in front of others and expect them to be impressed.
Jagged up the smoothed edges. A new character should have jagged edges that their growth during the campaign with smooth over. If your recycled character already got smoothed out last time, break them up again to leave room for the new PCs and new adventures to complete them again. Specifically, try to choose new areas to ‘jagged up’ so that you won’t be tempted to try and walk the same path a second time.
If the last game you played a smuggler who grew a heart of gold, don’t just make them an uncaring thief again. Instead, take the gold-hearted smuggler and give them a cause, or turn them into the seasoned curmudgeon who wants to give up their life of crime but somehow keeps getting pulled back in for ‘one last job.’
For GMs who are still worried about letting a player play a recycled character, you can learn a lot about what to expect by how the player talks about the old concept.
If their obsession is the numbers – making an old D&D bladesinger with Dungeon World’s mechanics – then you may not have anything to worry about. But, if all they’re talking about are the old stories – especially if they seem more interested in babbling about the concept with the GM than with the other players beforehand – be sure to emphasize your ground rules and be ready to hold firm on them if the player starts to stray.
In the end, recycled characters are a lot like web browsers: the secret to happiness lies in being sure you cleared your history.