Underlying the Rules Part II: Adjusting The Spotlight

And to continue this series from Part One

Commandment The Second: Playing Time Is A Very Limited Resource: Thou Shalt Neither Waste It Nor Demand An Unfair Share Of It.

Now if one player is a particularly entertaining fellow, or if someone is confronting their nemesis in a dramatic battle or something extra time may be quite justified – but such situations tend to be strictly temporary; the spotlight will move to someone else soon enough.

Similarly, most groups have no problem with the occasional digression – although tolerance varies.

There are a lot of ways of not doing this though.

One superhero player (in the same game as the killer werewolf actually) specialized in making weak to useless characters who then needed to be babysat, or rescued, or have the game master tailor situations to give them something to do, or have other players invest a lot of time and effort in finding ways for them to be useful. When the other players found routine strategies to make one of his characters useful… he would either make a more useless one or refuse to advance the character so that they became progressively more useless as everyone else gradually improved. Either way, he still expected the party to haul his characters around because “he was a player character!”. It was a negative way of being the focus of attention.

Oddly enough, his characters kept suffering weird accidents that gave them useful powers that they couldn’t turn off or refuse to use until the player gave up on the tactic.

The opposite approach – designing hyper-optimized characters that outshine every other player character or who don’t need the party at all because they can do everything better anyway – is a lot more popular. A lot of players who think of the games as something like chess or monopoly (instead of as being social events for the antisocial) even convince themselves that this sort of thing is a way of showing off their system mastery and is thus “winning”. It’s actually losing of course; you’re busy alienating yourself from the social group rather than enjoying the gathering – but that can be hard to get across to someone who’s embraced this style pf play. After all, the idea of “winning” a social role-playing game makes about as much sense as “winning” watching a movie with some friends – and they’ve already swallowed that notion. In fact, such players often become extremely defensive when others simply, and correctly, consider such behavior as “being an a***ole who’s missing the point”.

That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t build underpowered or hyperoptimized characters. The trick is not being an attention hog.

Thus Kevin, the (literal) god of pet-spamming, is quite capable of deploying a hundred million high-powered minions and basically limitless resources in pursuit of his goals. What he actually DOES is deploy minions to gather information for the party to act on (allowing game master exposition), have them guard the camp and paths of retreat (benefiting everyone else equally – and offstage), assist his allies (giving his friends their own minions), handle enemy minion-swarms so that the struggle can be between the heroes and the major villains, and so on – keeping them and the vast power they represent entirely out of the way of the players getting to do the important bits. Soon the vast majority of his minions were off on social-service assignments designed to both vaguely do good in the background and to feed his addiction to recruiting minions.

When the game focused on the minions it was change-of-pace time (most often when the main characters couldn’t proceed because players couldn’t make it that week) and everyone took a minion of two to play.

Orin Markala was designed to provide all the support services that a company of mercenaries or an adventuring party could ever need, and was optimized to the point of absurdity. At level five he had AC 30, 78 HP, +6 Initiative, two spell-storing spirit fetch companions, extra actions for throwing up defenses, could spontaneously invent and cast spells of up to fifth level in fifteen different (if relatively narrow) spheres, could absorb and negate incoming spells, create relics, cast spells as a fifth level cleric, had Witchcraft, was a ritualist, had an extra fund of spells to cast as Hearthcrafting magic (providing supplies, clean clothing, and comfortable campsites), and could cross dimensions. His companions could store a total of 196 levels of spells for him and release them on their own, effectively letting him cast four spells per round. He could maintain communication, transportation, and spell-sharing links with a dozen other characters at a time at transdimensional range (so even death could not stop him from providing support) and each person so linked got a choice of four boosts (including +2 enhancement to a chosen attribute, save bonuses, extra hit points, mage armor, shield, +2 to all skills, movement bonuses, or +1 to BAB) – as well as everyone linked receiving the benefits of a personal set of charms and talismans and any protective, healing, or boosting spells that he actually cast.

And yes indeed, that’s pretty ridiculous.

Yet Orin was played in several games and never provoked any complaints from any other players save for a Priestess of Asmodeus (who got upset because he kept telling the kids she was trying to recruit about the drawbacks of worshiping archdevils), a seductive changeling character (who said that he was no fun since all she could get from him was morality lectures and cautionary tales), and a Mystic who insisted that saying that she either had to go with the group when it teleported a few hundred miles or find some other way to get there before she could join up with them again was an infringement on her right to play her character as she wished. (No one ever did make any sense out of that unless she just felt that – since it was fantasy – her “location” was wherever she wanted to be. No, her character had no such power).

The reason for that was straightforward; Orin provided protection from the stuff that the fighters and rangers who made up most of the party could not handle in the background and boosted and healed the entire party – but it was still up to the more conventional martial and stealthy types to decide on the party goals, make the plans, and do the actual fighting. He stepped forward to act as a missionary and spread his faith when a chance for that came up – but that was a role that no one else had any interest in save for the ones who felt like being converted.

The afore-mentioned Priestess of Asmodeus, however, proved to have a rather problematic player. She decided to use her own private version of Asmodeus (loosely based on a description from another third-party setting in another edition of the game), insisted that she represented him as a god of inviolable law and contracts while freely disregarding her own promises and contracts, argued with every plan that did not center on her, took restrictions and limitations on her characters abilities to get more power and then tried to ignore them, and insisted that any attempt to get her to pay attention to the game rules, the setting, or what any of the other players wanted to do was an infringement on her right to play her character. In essence, she attempted to force the game to focus entirely on herself and how enormously special she was while refusing to let anyone else do anything.

As it turned out, she did indeed have the right to play her character however she pleased – but no one else was under any obligation to play with her, and very soon they didn’t.

On the other end of things several players have had a lot of fun playing “familiars” (minor animal characters who attached themselves to particular “masters”) throughout several campaigns. Fred the Pseudo-Dragon, the Healing Turtle who only communicated through interprative dance, the Sarcastic Steed, and even Amilko the Squirrel were all played as characters with minor magical powers and rather ineffectual combat abilities who made their marks though cleverness, aiding other characters at critical moments, and not being major targets – at least until they were much higher level (both Fred and Amilko made it to epic levels – and tremendous power – eventually).

Basically they were weak characters who exploited the social impact of their unexpected intelligence and looked for critical moments to contribute effectively. They didn’t run into the “babysitting” problem because they weren’t big targets in the first place. They weren’t as useful as having another normal character around would be, but they didn’t want much treasure or bring in extra opposition either.

For that matter the blue whale werehuman was incredibly tough and an awesomely powerful mage in some specialized fields – but readily yielded the spotlight to the others when it came to almost any other topic since adventuring rarely involved swimming around and filter-feeding.

One player was simply obstructionist. She never provided any plans, but was always full of objections to whatever someone else proposed – and insisted that every one of her objections be answered to her satisfaction before her character would budge an inch. After a little bit, the rest of the players simply started saying “OK! we’re starting! Come if you want too!

That led to the player simply sitting and sulking for several weeks while being ignored – but she eventually gave up on that tactic too.

One previously-mentioned player made (or demanded that the game make for him) a second level elven necromancer for a Forgotten Realms game. He wanted to be outcast due to knowing necromancy, to have his first instinctive act of necromancy to be reanimating pets, leading very shortly to raising an army of fairly powerful undead to defend his village as a child, to have his undead be friendly helpful things that he did not need to control, to be accompanied by various undead pets, and to have enough personal special powers to call for an epic-level character.

After much persuasion, several experimental builds, and far more time than it was worth, he at last agreed to settle for a character that could actually be built. In actual play… he demanded that the game master tell him how to make his character relevant and effective, kept going on solo side trips and demanding that everyone else wait while the game focused on him until he got back, demanded simultaneous affection (for being a wonderful person) and fear (for being a necromancer) from both PC’s and NPC’s, demanded that his character be able to use powers and abilities that he did not have because they “fit his conception”, constantly interrupted any attempt to do something without him, refused to pay any attention to what anyone else was doing (often leading to him “discovering new information” that the rest of the party had found, evaluated, and gone past two or more sessions ago), and tended to try to simply narrate his actions without actually rolling or checking the actual situation – thus assuming that he always automatically succeeded. In essence, he felt that everyone else was there simply to support his one-man-show.

He didn’t really last all that long. It eventually got through to him that he was accomplishing nothing and was getting all the respect that accomplishing nothing earned him, and so he left to seek out another game to try and suck the life out of with his necromancer. He was a near-perfect / spectacularly bad example of the narcissistic type – but pretty much everyone is familiar with “it must all revolve around ME!” players. Don’t be one.

In general, not paying attention, telling long irrelevant stories, engaging in futile arguments, saying “my character wouldn’t do that!” without saying what you ARE doing, sulking, editorializing, or pointless planning and theorizing, (Chat is a great way around this one; you can write out your diatribe, plan, or theory while everyone else continues with the action), is best regarded with caution. A little is fine, and you might be good enough at it so that everyone else enjoys it, or you might have a group full of people who love to theorize and speculate or tell stories or whatever – but the tolerance is never infinite. And if you don’t pay attention to when you’re reaching – or exceeding – that tolerance… then you’re back to being a greedy, selfish, !@#$%^&*.


One Response

  1. I hope this isn’t too much to ask, but I would REALLY like to know what exactly the Elven Necromancer wanted. I can’t shake the feeling that some Rune Magic and Necrocarnum could’ve done the trick (plus maybe some Ancestor-Favors and Action Hero: Stunt for the occasional weirdness).

    Also…Orin really doesn’t strike me as likeable. That’s probably because I’m dealing with a player who constantly gives me trouble for playing a Devil-Worshipper too, but I can feel that priestess’ pain.
    It’s for situations like this when you may want to invest a bit into Create Relic and Enthusiast… Specifically making a Legendary Immunity against Orin to show the children the drawbacks of being a !@#$%^&*, namely getting beaten up by the person you are being a !@#$%^&* to.
    Of course while having a wand of CLW at hand. You just want him to get the message that he should shut up when no-one asks him, you don’t want to kill him.
    Alternatively, show the benefits of worshipping an Archdevil by getting Channeling (Infernal Powers) and Conversion (Devil-Summoning effects). If I read the Practical Enchanter right, you should be able to summon a CR 11 Devil if you corrupt it and possibly higher Devils if you are entirely serious about it.

    Then again, maybe it’s my dislike for a character in my group who’s basically Orin and I’m overreacting here.

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