My new players’ PCs feel somehow flat, is there anything I can do as a GM?

It’s my opinion that tabletop RPGs should be fun for everyone involved (including the GM!) but the onus should often be on the GM to facilitate that, since they’re generally the one with the most control and experience.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas about how to draw the best out of you inexperienced players.

Idea 1: Back-story

Ask your players to write & email you a short summary of their character’s life so far. It doesn’t have to be long, perhaps 100-150 words and certainly not more than 500 words. Make sure they include things like family members, important mentors, tragic AND joyous events, difficult choices and things they regret.

If possible, it’s always great to get a short summary of what the characters believe in, their morality and their ideals.

Now you have more fleshed out info about the characters, you can start to play with the adventures to cater to/challenge different aspects of their personalities and ideals. This will help the players & characters grow and develop.

Idea 2: PLOT TWIST

I think it’s important that you talk with the players first and get their consent that you’re going to throw in a plot twist regarding their characters. Not all players like other people adding to their characters. If you go ahead without asking and they hate it, it not only makes the session uncomfortable, but will also make them more likely to check out and stop wanting to role-play.

Once you’ve got a player who’s OK with it, though, that’s when you can start to have some fun. Pick a character from their back-story and make up a cool twist that brings their personal life into the story. Some quick examples:

An old mentor/parent-figure of the PC has been indoctrinated into a cult. The mentor will try to persuade the PC to join them. Darth Vader that shit.

On a similar note: The BBEG is the PC’s relative! Again, Darth Vader that shit.

The PC’s home has been razed and everyone/all but one of his family killed. They must now choose between justice and vengeance. Batman that shit.

The PC is actually a sleeper agent for the baddies. They become activated and must fight the urge to be a living weapon. Hawkeye that shit.

The PC’s dead spouse/best-friend was not dead and has been brainwashed.Bucky Barnes that shit.

The PC’s sibling appears with unfinished business from the past. Perhaps the PC left them for dead or “wronged” them in some way. Sabretooth that shit.

That’s just a few ideas but there’s so many more ways you can bring their past into it.

Idea 3: Freaky Friday that shit.

I’ve done this a couple of times to my players to mix things up when they get stale. The adventure starts normally and then when the PCs get into proximity of the McGuffin of the week, they suddenly find themselves in each other’s bodies. The players swap character sheets and the adventure continues but now they must find a powerful sorcerer to get them back in the right bodies.

This can really make for some fun role-playing, even if the characters are a little boring. Suddenly the snooty mage has no magic and is running around as a charismatic bard; the impulsive barbarian is now in a wizard’s body and has the elemental powers of flame. Lots of opportunity for interesting character moments.


Those are just a few ideas for getting a bit more interesting stuff out of standard or one-dimensional characters.

Remember though, although all their character stuff might seem old-hat to you, new players are just finding their feet in the role-playing world and some standard, cliche’d things might be new and interesting to them.

As long as you keep giving them a chance to deepen and open up their characters, they should start to surprise you and bring cool new stuff to the table.

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Choice and Railroading

I’m planning another piece on Railroading and why I don’t think every game needs to have completely unrestricted choice in order to be fun.

In the mean time, I have a few thoughts on the subject. There are, I’ve found, a couple of ways to handle player choice, depending on the mood of the GM & players, which can lead to tonally very different games but (hopefully!) just as enjoyable play sessions.

 

Story Driven Games

This is what I enjoy GMing the most. Everyone’s aware ahead of time that I’ve made up a cinematic, narrative driven style adventure with a running plot that the PCs are expected to be a part of. If they don’t want to play that kind of game then I tend not to invite them. Or at least not invite them a second time.

Players won’t be railroaded per se but (before the session) I’ll let them all know the background of the world and story and I do ask that they either let me give them a starting character with a compelling reason to want to be a part of the plot or give their own character one that will drive the plot forward and keep them involved. I want their characters to feel driven to be part of the story, the same way a character in a novel or a game or a movie has to have believable and strong motivations.

I’ll also ask them if there’s anything about their character they want to let me know about (lost sibling/love, dark secret from the past, etc etc) so that I can weave it into the story and make sure their characters are truly invested in the state of the world and the outcome of the narrative.

When writing the adventures, I’ll have a flexible timeline that I’ve plotted out of events that will be happening in the world whether or not the PCs choose to deal with them – sometimes I’ll give them a choice on which problem to tackle first and the one they postpone will then progress in the background while they’re dealing with the first.

I think you really can include meaningful player choice in these games but it’s by looking at it backwards, as it were. I like to figure out what would happen if the PCs never existed. How does the entire world fall into ruin without their intervention? How does the baddie win? Then I think of that as the default state, not the “fail” state, of the world.

That way players really are set up to choose whether or not they’re going to save the world because, even if they do nothing useful, the story is still progressing in a way the GM has anticipated and planned for and accepted. Also, they can see the consequences of their neglect on the story world and that might, in the end, be the thing that drives them to save it.


Improv Adventures

This is the complete opposite. We mostly do this when we want a session where consequences are nonexistent and there is zero railroading or even guidance.

No one prepares anything. The PCs are made up on the night, Consequences style, and everyone GMs for 20 minutes in rotation until everyone decides that the story’s done.

The only rule is that you have to respect everyone’s ideas and decisions (with obvious caveats for offensive or unpleasant behaviour – only play this with friends who already know each others’ boundaries, I’d say).

Honestly, if you want purity of choice over plot and complete chaos, this can be a really fun way to roleplay.