When in doubt, have them grow wings

This is an entry into this month’s RPG Blog Carnival about Transitions & Transformations, hosted by some jerks.

I’ve written before about the many mean things I’ve done in horror RPGs. There’s another technique that I enjoy in any games that I run that ties into that, but doesn’t have to be mean. I enjoy transforming people’s characters.

Now, characters will undergo transformations on their own as they change and grow. Depending on what system and setting you’re running, the characters may gain powers and abilities, have their morals shift, change homes, and so on. And there are the transformations that are parts of the characters abilities, that when you get right down to it, are not that big of a deal. Back in 3.5e D&D, a high enough level Druid was going to be changing shape in practically every combat. That’s all accepted as part of how RPGs work. Even the campaigns lacking in any kind of fantastic elements are going to have the characters change in other ways- that’s the point of XP, right?

I, however, like to toss in extra layers of transformation not necessarily covered by the rules. Let’s take my last 3.5e D&D campaign, for example. Sucilaria’s character found out that she was part-dragon, which eventually lead me to change her into a half-dragon, with wings, breath weapon, and all. In another game, the only way to stop a horrific werewolf rampage was to enter into a pact to become a werewolf. That campaign didn’t last long enough to explore the consequences, but it gave me as a DM another potential source plotlines.

The transformations don’t have to be physical, nor do they have to have any rules. Again in that last 3.5 game, joshx0rfz’s character with an unknown past discovered that he was formerly a bloodthirsty pirate. (OK, I did eventually give him pirate-powers, but that wasn’t the point of the transformation.) In the aftermath of one of my favorite RPG moments, a character was ressurected “wrong” and I let the player play his evil twin for the rest of the campaign.

I recommend this technique for a few reasons. First, it gives the character a more unique feel than just giving another ability, and allows players a more interesting roleplaying challenge. Second, it gives the GM more to work with. These changes don’t happen a vacuum, so you can play with the cause, effects, and even the cure for the condition as part of a prolonged storyline.

One word of caution: this requires a good level of trust between players and GM. A GM needs some level of permission, either explicit (you ask the permission of the player before conducting that kind of change) or implicit (you make it understood that these things will happen throughout the course of the campaign.) You don’t want to make a player act differently than how he wants to play his character- that just leads to frustration. On the other hand, if it is a change they can live with but don’t want for their character in the long term, it is another avenue for stories and transformation of another kind: personal growth through overcoming a challenge. When the transformation back happens, it can be a great story.

Why do I like this technique so much that I try to use it as much as possible in every game I run, aside from the benefits I list above? It’s entirely possible it’s in my blood, but I also have memories of the technique being used when I was still a beginning roleplayer. The first major campaign I was in saw my Halfling Priest of Chaos turned in a Skeleton through use of chaotic magic. He later was turned lawful and lost his chaos spells, but used a ring of spell storing that he had filled pre-change in order to restore his chaotic nature. He later went on a quest for immortality in classic D&D style which he eventually succeded at. Right there were three major, unlinked transformations that challenged me to play a character in a series of new situations, above and beyond the usual D&D level-up and save the world style.

So give it a shot. As purely a though experiment for the GMs out there, try brainstorming what changes might be cool to do to the PCs in your current game. At the very least, it might give you some plot ideas. And if you’ve done some cool transformations in your game, I’d love to hear about them!

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. OriginalSultan says:

    There was also that game you ran where my wizard was transformed into a doll and used guns, based on the character ‘Geno’ from Super Mario RPG. But then he changed back. And no longer used guns. We were younger then…

  2. I have always loved the idea of characters going through such transformations. Unfortunately, this is a narrative mechanic that has yet to translate well to video games, but I know it will happen in the near future – it certainly is the “next big thing” in video games, imo.

    This leads me to another topic I’ve been interested in possibly writing about lately. No matter how popular video games become, Pen & Paper will never go away. P&P is where all the creativity and thinking outside the box is spawned. This is the life blood of story telling. Video games will always look to P&P for inspiration and rip them off completely.

    It is so much easier to improvise and create things on the fly, bend the rules, create the rules, etc… to really do things that aren’t possible within the strictly defined confines of constants, variables, functions, and for-loops (video games).

    Now that co-op story-driven campaigns are becoming a staple of video games, I expect the next big stage will be the sorts of things you just described, Dave. Having the players become an actual part of the story rather than some character in it that discovers the story as they go along. Character progression has always been such an integral part of RPGs – I’m surprised more video game companies (and DMs) don’t use the freedom to throw monkey wrenches into this progression to really turn a player’s world upside down, but in a good and unexpected way.

  3. Thanks. Great read.

  4. I definitely think the character transformations that you work into your games add a LOT. If nothing else, they give a continuing feeling of a changing world, which is a very good thing even if it’s quite subtle in this method.

  5. ^^ Totally agree about the changing world. I think it is one of the key mechanics for giving players of any game a feeling like the world really does revolve around their character(s).

  6. Antious Toxius says:

    <Ressurtected wrong? my Geekness smells a hint of Buffy season six, when her friends restrect her, but somethings a bit different;(a)she is depressed & kinder of pissed off (tends to happen when you drag people out of heaven – good role-play point) your paladin, champion of the people is reciving thier hevenly reward (& 6 virgins) when soqme jerk of a best friend pulls them back to Prime Material. (b) Buffy found that Spike, who due to an implanted chip could hurt humans, could hurt her. Basically, with great “power gifts” there should be a way around, think of MacBeth & the fact he could not be killed “by one of woman born”, however he was killed by one “untimly ripped from my Mother’s womb”.


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