Well, crap. Zundar the Barbarian just got wasted by that revenant…guess it’s time to write up a new character…

But what if Zundar and his companions are victorious. What if they’ve bested the Great Evil, or freed the realm from the clutches of whomever, or killed the dragon and saved the day? What if, after three years and however many levels, Zundar and crew aren’t that interesting anymore? They’re a bit too powerful to be fully challenged, or their story arc has been described — what now? Do you play them some more, but the heart is gone. Like watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull there’s just no point to the next go ’round.

We all love our characters. They’re often not just our creations, or an avatar to run through a computer generated RPG, but a real character that you or your mates can believe in. We enjoy watching their antics. Some people love an archetype so much they play the same damned character in every game, regardless of genre. But sometimes, they’ve played their part. The story is over, or the magic is gone. You got bored. Maybe you just want to try something new.

Old soldiers never die, they just fade away… General Douglas MacArthur famously uttered this phrase, and it’s often true. Your character has survived multiple encounters and is getting older. Slower. All the wounds sustained start to ache all the time. If they’re lucky, they got wealthy or powerful. Time to put the sword down.

Retirement is a good way to happily ever after your character. They won. Better yet, they can occasionally be revisited as a bit player in the game — maybe they have a bit of information, or there’s a reunion, or you need a small favor (like a place to hide out)…you can have the ol’ boy show up for a cameo for a night. Or perhaps there’s only one person for the job…just this one last time. (Look at all of Stallone’s old characters…)

Success has its own problems… You finally got a kingdom of your own, defeats the evil empire, got all the money and success your stomach can handle…but keeping it, that’s another thing. All of a sudden, instead of slaying monsters or fighting bad guys, you are locked into the day-to-day minutiae of running a city or nation or planet. Remember when you had all that free time when you were walking six months to a volcano to get rid of an evil ring? Wouldn’t you love to give it all up…but you have a family, and responsibilities — you’re a grown up now! — you can just traipse off on an adventure. But here’s a list of a few of my old contacts…

They took my hand!!! Instead of getting everything you wanted, maybe the character was so tashed up that it made sense they would loose a limb, or some bodily functionality. Who needs a cripple when you’re fighting to save the world as we know it? The sad fellow that you still visit from time to time to remind you of the good ol’ days and to give the players a reminder of their characters’ mortality (or that there is a fate worse than death…)

Join me! Another good way is to have your character switch sides. Maybe the Dark Side has captured their imagination, maybe they were tempted by power, or maybe there was some ideological shift that put you at odds with the others. In this case, it’s usually better to pass the character off to the GM, but it can be made to work where the player continues to play the character in concert with the GM as opposition to the others.


We’ve all been there: The game party encounters an obstacle, even simple one, and proceeds to spend the rest of the night trying to figure out what they are going to do. It’s never something simple. Everyone wants a piece of the action. Everyone’s got an idea how to overcome the thing…like opening a door.

The most egregious example I can think of from my gaming was a fantasy campaign in which the players ran across an enemy patrol camped out for the night. Stealth up and rush them? No, that would be to KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Nooooo…there was a series of convoluted plans to keep the guards from raising an alarm, using just about every off the wall trick but the most obvious — use cover of darkness, sneak up stealthy-like, and liberally apply blade to exposed throats. After an hour of nonsensical planning, one of the characters threw a rock to distract the baddies, alerting them to their presence, raising the alarm, and blowing all of their meticulous, but contradictory tactics to hell.

How do you manage this, as a GM (or even a player?) As a game master you’ve got several good options:

1) Put a time limit on it. You’ve got so much time to plan before the guard comes back, the roof closing on you crushes you, the bomb goes off, the bad guy can complete the last component of their diabolical plan. Time it so the players only have that much time.

2) When the action is happening and players start to get analysis paralysis, give them a countdown. “You’ve got ninjas closing on you and they’ll be on you in moments. You can fight, jump over the cliff into the water below, surrender, or [enter other idea they’ve thrown out] — three! two! one..!” This works great in the midst of combat or some kind of action set piece where people wouldn’t have the leisure of sipping their beverage while considering all their myriad options. Make it happen or get sliced up.

3) Give them parameters. In a game where the players are part of an agency or military, or whatever, there is the possibility (probability) they’ve got some kind of rules of engagement. Maybe they have to have zero contact with the opposition, maybe they are not to use lethal force, maybe they have to protect the [McGuffin] at all costs. Having parameters tightens the decision tree and allows the players — while still maintaining autonomy — to make faster and more appropriate choices.

This last one can be difficult for players coming from hack-and-slash campaigns, where everything is on the table, to a universe where there are laws and fairly serious consequences for breaking them (like a modern setting campaign, for instance.) I’ve found players not used to a different purpose than “kill the monster, get the treasure”, often have trouble with the notion that “you just can’t blast civilians while chasing a bad guy through the streets of Miami…” but setting up those expectations ahead of time can hone their decision-making.

4) Give hints. “That’s railroading!” No, it’s not. Now go read some indie games with clever rules for how the players can come together to write a story about combing your hair. Sometimes, there’s only going to be a few options. You’re trapped in a room with two exits. Bad guys are coming through one. Stand and fight? Climb out the other exit? Some variation on those themes..? “You’ve managed to piss off the contact you need to get information from; what do you do?” [Player hems and haws…] “You want to rough him up? Apologize and try being less a douche? Bribe him? Let the player that does this well take over?”

As a player, you can aid the group without being to pushy. Don’t start acting like a commanding general. “Hey, Seth, you’ve got a high charisma, right? Why don’t you talk to the contact instead of Bob. If that doesn’t work, Bob can do the rampaging dick thing and try to beat it out of him.” Or sometimes it’s a bit more direct. During a recent play session of Firefly, I played Zoe, but one of the others wanted Mal…and was really not equipped to do so. I would occasionally point out things on his sheet. After all — Zoe is the captain’s right arm. I tied some of my suggestions into the characters’ patter, building off of the show. (For other game settings, you might point out something from a past adventure that seems more appropriate to the character’s past actions. “You’re not going to do X again, are you, sir?”

The main thing to look for as player or GM is when the game bogs down because of disagreement. Take a few minutes break, clear out the cobwebs or put aside personal style issues, and get back to it.

This post came about from my thoughts on the graph in Runeslinger’s Spectrum of Play  article, as well as his Right Way to Game posts. The first has been reblogged here on The Black Campbell, but you can pop over to his Casting Shadows page to read more. His YouTube channel is probably even more useful.

There’s a lot of thought and opinion spilled into the series of tubes on how to play role playing games. The main point of contention is between those who like a game with a defined plot versus the “sandbox”, or a style of play in which the environment and the players’ actions (hopefully) give rise to some kind of adventure.

…we each will have our favorite ways to go about [gaming], and among the voices talking about them there may be some strident calls for one way over an other…The next step was to address the nature of the play environment itself with a look at the concepts of the sandbox and the defined narrative

The quote is from Anthony Boyd (or Runeslinger), over at Casting Shadows. He has cobbled together a rather elegant continuum of play styles that address this argument. He separates the issue into matters of player agency — how much effect the player has on the narrative and outcome of a game; and defined story spectrum. I found the chart instructive in that if well describes how the the power  relationships of a role playing game between players and a game master/storyteller/etc.. or between players, is dependent on how well defined the story is. 


I found this chart particularly pertinent after my recent post on a comparison test of the Firefly (Cortex) and Serenity (Cortex Plus) rules from Margaret Weis Production. In that test, we found that aspects of the system designed to spread narrative control, while fun, seemed to hamper the coherency of the story. 

He points out that …we like what we like, and given choice, we tend to pick our favorite options over the rest… Some new game may draw us in with its setting, but push us in a new or formerly avoided direction with its mechanics…” This was certainly part of the issue the gaming group had with Firefly — we’ve run Cortex for quite some time and have found it (mostly) to be an excellent set of rules for creating nuanced characters and handling most scenarios for an adventure. When it falls down, though, it tends to do it hard. One of those genres it did not handle well was superheroes. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying may have been a busy system with a lot of moving parts, but it emulated the flavor of comic books near perfectly. Firefly we all wanted to like…but we like what we like, and in this case, for not over the top science fiction, we like Cortex (the Battlestar Galactica or Cortex 1.1 version.)

But why was that the case? Partly it was a preference in most of the group for stories that have some kind of defined plotline to an episode and the campaign overall, while still allowing for character action to sharply change the outcome of the same. Firefly — like Fate and many of the new wannabe-artsy “indie” games — does that, but the ability of the players to set complications and assets added new visions of the plot that aren’t necessarily well-meshed with what has been ongoing.

To use a cinema or television analogy, you have too many writers in the writers’ room and not a strong enough head writer or executive producer to contain their disparate visions of the story or universe. All those shows that “jumped the shark” by wandering off course badly; nearly ever movie you’ve seen where you leave saying “it was so close to good!” is the result of multiple writing teams working to please a different audience in the production or direction staff of the show or movie. (Case in point: Spaight’s excellent draft for what would be Prometheus versus the disaster of Lindelof’s final script, coupled with Scott’s last minute changes.) Too many cooks, as the expression goes, spoils the soup.

In the chart above are two bands of specific points along a spectrum of implementation options ranging from ‘none’ to ‘total.’ I believe if you let your eyes roam across these bands, it should be pretty easy to spot roughly where your basic preferences lie. With a little effort, it should also be possible to spot where specific games require you to be to run them as intended. This might be useful in assessing if a game will be suitable for your group, or if an idea you have for a game will flow like you want within its confines, but I feel it has better uses yet. From my  perspective, it might offer a hint as to why a given campaign or group is or isn’t working for you, but will really shine when used to help add a new kind of scene, scenario, or mood to your toolbox of techniques.

This point is particularly well thought out. A quick look at the chart puts my gaming style at 3-4 on the player agency and the narrative of the chart. This suggests that the indie, GM-less systems aren’t going to be my cup of tea. The main reason: I really cut my teeth as a GM on espionage games where the villains had a specific plan, the players would investigate to uncover and stop it, and to emulate the spy movies we were aping, I had to design (and still do from time to time) my adventure around specific action set pieces, exposition scenes, and a denouement that was usually quasi-planned out. Player actions might cut some of these scenes, force me to add others, or change the ending, but there was an outline of “things that should happen…”

Think of it as similar to building rooms in a dungeon. The players can choose where to go, in what order and manner, but the very definition of the space and the hazards is essentially a plot based on action set pieces. So despite the appearance of a sandbox-like environment, dungeon crawling is in many ways the most restrctive – story-wise — an RPG can get. Players can have almost total agency in what they do, but ultimately the act of wandering the space of the adventure constructs action.

The sandbox gaming style is much more collaborative and reduces the role of the gamemaster or storyteller to an equal, or “but is more equal than others” position wherein they act as referee at most. This certainly has its place, but I have yet to see this style of play hold together a long-term campaign outside of LARP circles, where the gaming environment and the larger number of people require a more cooperative approach to character interaction.

The idea that your play style might dictate the sort of game you will like should seem self-evident, but is it when you are looking over the games in your LGS (or more likely perusing DriveThru these days…)? Firefly is a setting all of our gaming group enjoy, but the mechanics forced us further right on the player agency spectrum that most of us were comfortable with. I found it didn’t so much effect my style of gamemastering, but the complications mechanic forced me into narrative corners I had to duck and weave to get out of.

I’ve played in campaigns — a Shadowrun game leaps to mind from the ‘90s — where it was mostly sandbox. We were nearly all the way right on the narrative — there was a proposal put before the group we could take or leave (but wanting to do more than hang out at the bar and trade quips, we took the job) and we had to plan and execute the job with no GM input. The GM style was so hands off that the guy disappeared for about an hour and we found him working under his old project Porsche 911… Not the sort of engagement that brings folks together. The players were fully in control of the narrative for the session, and what happened is one or two of the people at the table naturally took on the “leader” role from the GM so that when he came back to the table and tried to referee the big action scene, he discovered we had managed to plan it out well enough to overcome the opposition with ease, and he obviously started moving the goal posts. It was frustrating for everyone — too many cooks in the kitchen. A modern GM might have allowed the success to happen and tried to set something up to go wrong later, or with a system like Fate tossed a complication in that would bite the players later.

In the end, is there a right way to game? No…but there is a right way for you and/or your group to game. It’s worth venturing out of your confort zone from time to time to see if you like something that isn’t quite what you are used to. I’ve been on a mission to try and like Fate, of late — both Atomic Robo and Mindjammer use it, and I like the settings…but the mechanics just don’t jive with how I or my group tend to play.

And that’s alright.

I’ve been pretty lucky to have adult — psychologically, if not physiologically — at my gaming table for the last thirty years or so (Am I really that old!?!), so this hasn’t been much of an issue for my games, but judging from some of the gaming boards and Facef#$% — I mean Facebook — discussions this is not the case for others.

That most cootie-rific of issues: romance!

I’ve covered a lot of the issues connected to romance at the game table in a few posts from the past —

1) This was a response to Dom Mappin’s piece on Gnome Stew in which I discuss the issue of romance between players. While the piece still has some good thought and advice, my opinion on it has matured to a 1) It’s none of your business what the players are doing together, and b) It’s none of your damned business what the players are doing together…but it can still screw up a group’s dynamics.

2) As to romance between characters: Just do it. Especially if you are looking for good motivations for characters, or for a more realistic world for the players to game in. Which naturally leads to sex and romance — where do you draw the line? G? PG? R? NC-17? That depends on the players and the nature of the game.

As with anything, romance in-game means you have to know your audience — who are the players and what do they want or abhor? As to romance between players? It’s going to happen, and it’s none of your damned business.

Most game designers are very concerned with the notion of “balance” in the games they make. Systems that use a point-based creation mechanic for character creation often have levels of generation points that allow a player to customize their character, yet are all bought for the same “level” — being it novice or beginner, experienced/whatever, or expert/master, etc. In Dungeons & Dragons, characters used to start at 1st level and work their way up, but later iterations allowed for starting at higher levels…but you still had the same approximate range of abilities.

Until you hit the min/maxers and rules lawyers that can manipulate the system to build a character more effectively than other players. (I have a mathematician in the group right now who is an expert at this…)

The point to this notion of “balance” is “fairness”. Young players, players that use gaming to vicariously experience success or greatness, often don’t like the notion of having a player be weaker or stronger than others in a campaign. Everyone wants to be the hero, and balance is supposed to push the players toward a more ensemble model, where everyone is equally important to the game. It’s a nice ideal — and one that I subscribed to for a long time — but it’s not really achievable.

Problem, the first: All players are not created equal. Maybe your characters were all created for X number of points, but you have a rules lawyer that has made a character perfectly tailored to the sorts of adventures you will encounter, making them the “go to guy” all the time. It’s great for that player; they’re almost always now the center of attention. Even if, somehow, you managed to have characters that were all highly specialized and had their particular spotlight moments in a game session, some players are more passive, and others more active — one guy may spend all his time in his room inventing things, and only becomes a factor in play when the fight is on. Maybe a player is particularly clever at using a “weak” character to achieve greatness. Maybe one of them is just too funny to reign in and makes the game enjoyable. These players are going to capture most of the airtime.

Problem, the second: It’s not the way good storytelling works. In books, movies, and television — even with ensemble casts — there’s normally a lead or two that the stories focus on. For example, let’s take any of the Star Trek series from The Next Generation on…there’s an ensemble that sees the whole cast get some screen time, but normally, the focus is on one or two of the characters per episode, and often over the course of the series. Let’s look at The Lord of the Rings (books and movies) — Frodo is the main protagonist on the quest to destroy the Ring, with Sam as his sidekick, but arguably just as important. But Aragorn is the lead for the portions involving the return of the king and opposing the forces of Mordor. Frodo is in no way Aragorn’s equal (and arguably not up to that of Sam, either…) But he is the lead and the lead not need be the biggest bad ass of the bunch. Even Merri and Pippin are stuffed into the middle of great conflicts, and probably couldn’t resist a late-night mugging in any modern city. It’s not about being bad ass; the interesting part of characters is their weaknesses and how they overcome obstacles. Simply hacking your way through a problem like Schwarzenegger might have a certain appeal, but it’s not especially memorable after the first hundred kobolds, is it?

Problem, the third: Not everyone wants to be the bas ass. I have a player whose real interest is in the politics and social machinations in nearly every game we play. He often winds up being the politician, ship captain, leader because that’s the sort of thing he likes. Even when he had action star-type characters, he would often use other characters as proxies in fights. Some guys thrive on being the ass-kicker and trying to suss their way through a mystery is either boring or taxing…they like to sit and wait until it’s time to break the “in case of emergency” glass on their barbarian and let the carnage begin.

So what’s the point of attempting game balance, other than an attempt to preserve some sense of Harrison Bergeron-esque enforced equality? I’d submit none.

Here’s an idea — when in the planning stages of a campaign, there are a few things the GM and players can do to create engaging characters that are appropriate to the sorts of adventures in store for them. On the players’ side is arguably the harder job — letting go of the ego long enough to create characters that have a reason to be together, more than focusing solely on your cool concept.

Example 1: I had a player that had his high concept character — a Starfleet engineer who was super-talented, so that he didn’t have to play by the rules and regulations. Great idea, save for a few points: 1) everyone in friggin’ Starfleet is smart, educated, and competent, 2) the character’s purpose is to spotlight hog and create artificial conflict (specifically with the GM and the adventure itself, I suspect), 3) he’s got no logical reason to be there, other than to annoy everyone else at the table.

Example 2: In a short-lived Supernatural game, one of the players decided to play the overweight, stereotypical hacker/geek that ran a supernatural conspiracy website. He was the outsider of the group, but was useful (and played very amusingly) enough that he was essential in the investigation portions of the adventures, but was completely out of his element once they found the creature of the week. The spotlight then shifted to the other characters. They meshed, even with the built in conflict between the characters because they needed each other, and — after a few encounters — wanted to work together.

The first example was built to the same number of creation points as the other characters, but was specialized in away that, while it could have been highly useful, was mitigated by the assholish persona of the character. No one went to him for help. The players and characters hated the character in question.

The second example created highly memorable moments in the game that were fun enough that the other players gladly gave up their moment just to watch the hacker have his long-winded, hysterically-funny meltdowns. The characters might have hated the guys (and there was one in particular) but the players loved him. He fit. He was built for less points than the bad-ass exorcist priests that were the “leads” of the game.

A last example might bring this home: Most of the players in my last pulp game were built by the GM (me), based on character concepts the players had and I fleshed out to make work better. (This was more a function of my knowledge of the period and the manner of game I was planning.) They were all customized to play to the concept. The brick was a combat monster and utterly useless in other venues…yet was played with such joyful idiocy that he rapidly became our “Jack Burton” of the game — in the center of things, but clueless. The archeologist lead was built for more points and was talented in almost everything, but tended to use the first character to get the action bits done because a) it gave the other players stuff to do, and b) the player is risk aversive and uses the others as meat shields in almost every game.

It was the character of an 11 year old street urchin, however, that was the surprise. Built to be much less experienced, talented, and having a lot of the social and physical downsides to being a small Chinese girl in 1936 Shanghai, she was nevertheless highly effective outside of her niche of thief because of out-of-the-box thinking by the player as well as an obvious delight at playing a unique character. Everyone had their niche, got their airtime, but also frequently worked together in ways that were memorable and unexpected.

So…what’s your point?

Build to a character concept and their role in the game and to hell with stat and/or skill advancement (except where applicable to the story), and focus on how these characters interact.

For instance, our current Battlestar Galactica game saw characters generally built at “veteran” level — the median for stats and skills, then given assets and complications that made them unique. But the commander was built to a slightly higher level — somewhere between the veteran and seasoned veteran. It made sense for the commander to be more experienced and talented…his role of leader might put him in a position of power over the other characters, but also limits his ability to participate in some of the action. Unlike the captains of Star Trek, BSG captains (andreal military leaders) tend to have to stand powerlessly in their CIC while they listen to their subordinates succeed or fail based on their mission plan. One of the lead characters in the ensemble is a viper pilot. She’s great at flying and fighting in the cockpit. She’s also a gullible prat who acts before engaging brain. It’s appropriate to the character. She was built with less points than the commander, but her role is such she sees much more of the action. She’s just not in on the big decision-making…that’s not her role.

By building characters and playing them to the role and concept envisioned, you can craft a group that all work together and enjoy the story, even if one of the characters is more of a lead that others. I frequently see one of the players’ characters as the “lead”, with the others as the main supporting cast, and try to rotate that central role between the players per campaign. But if you play one game (looking at you Pathfinder folks!) for thirty years, rotate who is the lead in a particular adventure — maybe Bumbo the Barbarian was the lead in the last couple of sessions, seeking revenge on the man that killed his family and burned his childhood village, but for the next few, he’s helping his thief friend Sticky Fingers snatch a valuable McGuffin. He’s the sidekick for this one.

For players, this means giving up the spotlight and being the sidekick from time to time. For the GM, it means making sure everyone gets to be the hero every once in a while.

The last two sessions of our game have been particularly brutal for the players’ characters — in two session, we’ve lost three PCs, almost lost another, and scads of popular NPCs, to boot. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of players lose characters, either to bad rolls, bad decisions, a hostile GM, etc. Their reactions have varied from one player that claimed he was haunted by his character in a dream (the character [read, player] thought his death heroic, but he had actually done something incredibly stupid) and was upset that he wasn’t getting respect; to players who were overjoyed that their character went down doing something incredibly heroic, and just about every variant between. No matter the event, losing a character that you’ve invested a lot of time and effort on breathing life into, that you have used to vicariously experience danger, adventure, and heroism, can be a traumatic experience.

There are a few key points for players and gamemasters to keep in mind at point. First the players:

1) It’s only a game. It’s fantasy. It might not feel that way; good role playing can make the characters seem as real (and sometimes more so) that actual people in your life. But they’re not. And like all good things, they will eventually pass, as well, if the game goes long enough.

2) It’s not personal. Sometimes the dice screw you. (As infamously cried by a player in one campaign, who dropped to his knees in a moment of frustration and bellowed, “My dice are fucking me!”) Sometimes no amount of tweaking and hand waving by the GM is going to save you — as in the six, count ’em, six botches a player rolled trying to get control of his fighter in the middle of a massive battle, only to punch out and get humped on that last test, as well. Sometimes…it’s your time.

The same goes for when you make a bad tactical error in the game. Maybe you shouldn’t have read from the Book of the Dead. Maybe aggressing that company of Martian warriors armed with harsh words and stick wasn’t the epitome of strategic brilliance. Maybe taking that turn at high speeds on that twisty road by Lake Como in the spy agency’s Aston Martin was ill-advised. (That’s how they killed two DBS sedans while driving them to the shoot for the initial chase sequence in Quantum of Solace. Not while filming it. While commuting.) Sometimes…it’s your time.


2b) It’s not personal…except when it is: Yes — there are the old school DMs that take an adversarial pose in relation to the players and their characters, but that’s less common today. Your GM is (probably) not gleefully killing characters for his own enjoyment, then ritually burning your character sheet or keeping it as a trophy in his death room like some serial killer. Unless he is. Then it’s either time to find another person to play with, or it might be insanely cool in a freaky sort of way. YMMV. And on that note –A GM obviously looking to off your character might indicate an out of game issue that needs to be brought up and resolved.

Just don’t do it in his character death room.

3) If you are so torn up over a character’s death or incapacitation, or their failure, or their losing a loved one… you should reconsider your hobbies, at least for a little while.

As to the game master side of the equation:

1) If you are looking to off your player’s characters as a punishment for not showing up (more on this in a moment), or because you had an argument over whatever, or you’re just a malicious jerk like the lead character from Zero Charisma — see point 3 for the players. You’re not creating high drama; you’re being a jerk.

2) Try not to kill players’ characters when they are not there that night. a) It makes you seem like a jerk, b) the player is likely to see it as “punishment” for not attending, c) especially if they’ve been playing the character for a while, it makes the player feel they’ve been stripped of their agency. “I wouldn’t have done X” is a common refrain here.

This is one that I try to hew to, but inevitably, there’s going to be that “big fight” night that one of the players — usually one that’s going to be in the thick of things — doesn’t show up. At this point, I try to use GM fiat to avoid putting them in the crosshairs, but sometimes that just doesn’t work. I think we’ve only had it happen thrice in the last two decades that someone’s character was topped while they weren’t there. (Last week being the second time.)

3) Try and give the player some kind of “moment” in exchange for the loss — maybe the hero got blasted by that narco hit squad, but remember that grenade..? Good thing he had it to do a last action and save his team mates, huh? Or as their starfighter is coming apart around them, they set the nose toward the bad guy’s ship and do a bit of damage (or destroy it, if they roll well enough…) Or in the case one of the characters the other week, he last action before dying was to unlock his phone so the others could gain access to his notes on the bad guys. Or even just a nice dramatic death — something cool to go out on. (Think Tom Hanks’ shooting his .45 futilely at the German tank in Saving Private Ryan…useless, but damned cool.) I remember an early D&D campaign where my fighter had died, back to a tree, surrounded by bad guys — but he had provided a distraction for the rest of the team to achieve the victory over the Big Bad. This sort of thing gives the player something to hang their memories of the character on.

Characters’ deaths can be a hard moment in a gamer’s life, but it can also be a heroic memory to frame the character and campaign. Even useless deaths, in the right kind of game, can provide the proper tenor for campaign — “I can’t believe he’s gone…it was so useless!” is a very appropriate thing for a Call of Chthulu game, for instance, but sucks for a Hollow Earth  or other pulp style game. And while the character might be gone, there’s no reason you can’t reskin him or her with a slightly modified personality or stats — there are plenty of gamers who play the same thing (kinda like Harrison Ford or Paul Rudd…if the formula’s working, no need to change it.) There are gamers who like new and interesting challenges — character death gives you the opportunity to try something new.

In the end, it’s just a game.

I’ve already talked abouthow a gamemaster can try to “sell” his group on a new campaign, and how players can attempt to aid the success of a new game by how they design their characters. However, not all (or most) campaigns will come out of the gate running on all cylinders, with everyone happy about things are progressing — this is okay; it’s normal. So how do you work around the birthing pains of a new campaign? I like to use movie and television as a framework for this sort of thing, as readers of this site know by now…

The first adventure is a pilot. This is the ultimate sell on the game, much like it is on a television show. You’ve sold the premise to the network (your players, in this case), and now you have to sell it to the audience (in this case…the same people.)  Pilots, let’s be fair, often suck — especially when dealing with large plot arcs. Your best bet is to start small: the pilot is your chance to show off the world you’re playing in, and introduce the characters, and much like a TV pilot these may need some tweaking.

First, maybe the GM had an idea for a galaxy-spanning political space opera for a game (you can tell I’ve been reading through Mindjammer, can’t ya?) and it becomes apparent that your initial set up tended toward a more focused campaign dealing with the corruption of the characters’ home planet or organization…you can still do the former, but turning your attention toward what grabbed the players might require you to do a bit more development of a world or organization than you planned on. Or you were planning on playing in an established universe like Firefly, but the players are more interested in the cyberpunkish core world you presented, rather than playing at space cowboys on the Rim…retool and focus on life in the Alliance, and slowly introduce the down-on-their-heels worlds as a counterpoint.

Second, maybe your Big Bad isn’t that inspiring, or the players disappoint you by blowing the villain that was supposed to be a recurring character into his component DNA… Who was his boss? Create a more compelling bad guy. Don’t be afraid to steal your favorite baddies from movie, Tv, or books and reskin them for your game. (I’ve always been a fan of using Hilly Blue from Trouble in Mind — the character just clicked for me.)

But the big element, third: Characters often change between a pilot and a full launch of a show. That’s because their concept might not have been fully realized, or the character’s stats didn’t quite play out properly, or some aspect of the character just wasn’t clicking. For the first adventure (for us usually two or three sessions), the players are allowed to retool their character stats, etc. to match how they are playing the character. (Here’s a post on “fixing” a campaign that ties into this pilot model for a game start…)