I’m not going to lie. I really like it when my players have a problem. When they’re unhappy, I always have plenty to write about. Not only am I going to write about one of my players’ problems this week, I’m going to tell you about his character and several of mine. I think I’m a bad person.
This past week, one of my players told me he was having a lot of problems having fun playing the character he made for our now 4-session-old campaign. His last guy, while full of personality, was a fairly straightforward “kill it with arrows” fighter. This PC was fun for him to play. His new one is a bit more complicated. He’s a cleric that wants to be a fighter (or, at the very least, wants to make everybody think he is). In practice the guy isn’t good in melee, being more of the “spells” kind of cleric and not the “mace and shield” kind. This PC is driving him crazy. This guy is a really good roleplayer, but he can’t seem to play this guy in a way that resonates fun. He even tried last week to focus mainly on combat and not to roleplay much, and (knowing this player, unsurprisingly) that totally did not work in a spectacular way that nearly destroyed my dining room in an explosion of Anti-Fun.
I’ve had several PC’s over the years that I knew, after a couple sessions, were just plain not going to work. I always hate it when I think I have the coolest and most off-beat PC ever, and then in the third session I’m making repeated Will saves versus making my character point a wand of Fireball into his eyes like an idiot teenager in a Radio Shack. The dual-class monk/druid whose unshakable nature and zen wisdom created the roleplaying game equivalent of eating unflavored tofu. The non-combat-oriented necromancer who would frequently go down in the second round due to being the pinnacle of deoptimization.
Some PC’s don’t work and can’t be fixed. It just happens. It may be the setting, or that they just worked better in theory, or a hundred other things. That’s OK. Most DM’s will let you roll up something you do like playing (or that won’t be a giant lead weight to the party when the umber hulk guano hits the blade barrier). That being said, what do you do when a character you like stops being fun and you don’t want to ditch them?
Leomund’s Positive Peer Pressure
Lumbar was my battle-cleric in a campaign I played in about a decade ago. I decided early on I wasn’t much interested in healing anyone or really doing anything aside from wading in and trying to cave in skulls with my great flail. He had a low CON score, so the running joke is that he had a “delicate constitution” and it contributed to him getting knocked the eff out nearly every fight. At one point I realized he wasn’t as much an asset to the group as he could be as long as I played the whole “all fight, no support” thing to the hilt, and I was starting to dread combat as a result. So, I started to tailor his spells and abilities more toward a traditional cleric role.
That’s when a funny thing happened.
Lumbar’s backstory involved him never having passed his tribe’s rite of manhood, and the reason he was all fighty and reckless is because he wanted to prove himself. Making him work better with the team caused them all to look differently at him. That wasn’t a surprise. The thing that shocked me was when, looking through his eyes, he started to think of himself differently. Our group would blog journal entries about the previous week’s session, and the tone of Lumbar’s entries changed dramatically over the course of the campaign. Things became less about personal glory and more about his shared experiences with his brothers and sisters in battle. His confidence and self-esteem grew.
Lumbar matured as a person over the course of that campaign. I think I matured as a player, too. It was the first time that had ever happened to me, and it changed D&D for me forever.
The second time I’ve come to this sort of crossroads with a character was with my bard, Bat Loaf. I was lucky enough to play through two whole campaigns with him. His backstory involved him being a washed-up entertainer, and he spent a nontrivial portion of his first campaign being an alcoholic and attempting to bed any creature that would have him in order to relive his glory days. He found his way out of the bottle and back on stage by the end of the campaign. It was awesome.
Less awesome was when the second (epic) campaign was about to begin and I found myself not really knowing what to do with Bat Loaf. I felt like his “road to redemption paved with sex and electric lutes” story was played out, and I was a little bored with the whole “sing songs/buff the fighter” mechanics after 20 levels of barding it up. Though I loved playing him, doing it the same way wasn’t going to be interesting anymore. I was bummed.
So I didn’t.
I decided his days of booze and sexual conquest would be over, so he went back to the first tavern we ever visited in the first campaign, married the barmaid we met in the first session of that campaign, and trained her in the bardly arts. Fighting evil and saving the world gave him a sense of purpose, so he and his bride started a militia and school for heroes (the Academy of Rock Justice). I found a prestige class called the Seeker of the Song, in which your bard can do utterly metal music-based elemental attacks. Now I had a lot more combat options to play with that fit the direction I wanted to go with Bat.
No longer did I have a broken man seeking redemption. I had a reborn metal warrior fueled by the power of true love and rock and roll, respected by the people, feared by the forces of darkness. This change of direction gave this PC a whole new life for me, and having his prior experiences to draw upon made it that much more fun to play him all over again.
Ask Your PC What’s Wrong
Why did I just regale you with tales of characters past?
In real life, people constantly struggle to discover who they are or to become something they want to be. It happens in all sorts of facets of life from careers to romantic relationships. This can be a great thing. It can drive a person to reach their goals and it can give them a sense of purpose and balance if they reach it. It can also roast them slowly on a pit of anger and resentment if it goes wrong and they stay the course.
This happens in roleplaying too, although on a much smaller and simplified scale. Many times, people come up with a character concept that they can’t let go of even when it’s not working. I’m a firm believer that putting yourself in your PC’s shoes is a good way to figure out how to have more fun playing them. If I’m not having fun playing, I need to figure out either what is pissing me off or what I’m missing. I can look at this as a player and figure out what’s mechanically wrong with my character or how my interactions with my group aren’t making me happy, or I can think about how my PC feels in the current situation and what might make him happier. The answer, I’ve found, is usually pretty similar between the two approaches. If my problem is that I’m getting creamed every time we enter a fight, I’m thinking “this PC is ineffective in combat” as a player and my PC is thinking “I’m going to die the next time I fight something and everyone thinks I’m incompetent”. At that point, I can consider different ways to build the PC or to play him differently. It may simply be that I’m not really invested in the story of the campaign, or that my PC’s motives don’t mesh well with the overarching plot. Then, I can figure out if my PC needs to change direction. And there’s always the option to discuss the issue with your DM, which may bring some issues into focus faster than you can do alone.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember it’s your PC and you can give yourself permission to deviate from the plan you made for them when they were created. It’s your plan. Nobody will come beat you up, and you’ll likely have a lot more fun. Hopefully my friend can talk to his PC and have fun again. If not I’d be more than happy to drop some extremely compassionate rocks on him and we can tell the other PCs that he just went off to college to explain why his brother shows up next session.