Customization, Part IV: The World

Of all the ways to let your players customize their RPG experience, letting them effect the world is the most daunting. It also happens to be the one customization every player enters an RPG hoping to make, whether they know it or not.

Role playing games can have many different goals, but they’re based around the concept of telling a story. Stories, in turn, tend to be based around characters and their affects on the world. Even in stories that are based around internal conflict the author has to allow the characters personal descisions to have a lasting affect on the setting.

In the same way, if your RPG players spend a campaign arc rescuing a princess, only to have her killed offscreen in the next session, they will get discouraged. The more freedom your players have, and the more you allow thier actions to change the game world, the more invested they will have to be in the game every time they play.

If characters support a kingdom, make a note that that kingdom should prosper more, or at least be better protected, than its neighbors. If players make a base it should endure, even if the ownership changes, and if they make allies those allies should be reliable.

I haven’t done it yet, but I’ve always wanted to run a campaign, then run a second one set in the same world. Even without running the second campaign, I think it’s helpfull to keep the question in the back of your mind: “How can we change our world this game session?”

Customization, Part III: Home Base

Home bases have always been very populare in every RPG my usual group has played. These bases can take several shapes: spaceships, ranch homes, small cottages, steam boats, or even the spare room in a friendly beekeepers house.

Home bases have always seemed like a great way for players to customize the game world through thier characters. If you’re having trouble bringing your players and thier characters into your world I suggest giving them a base of opperations, even if they’ll only have it for a few weeks.

Additionally, I’d say a good idea would be to give the players a flawed home base. If you give the players a room, maybe it has no curtains or lock on the front door. If it’s a spaceship, maybe it has mechanical issues, no guns, and a room which isn’t airtight. This will encourage players to either set thier characters to work modifying the base, or accept the circumstances and improvise as needed. This is what we did in the ranch home base, where all of our bullet holes were patched up on the kitchen table.

A base is an exellent way to encourage game play though customization, but there are more ways to do this, which will be coming in the fourth and final installation in this series…

Customization, Part II: Physical Appearance

In the first part of this series I mentioned how suprising it was that players are not encouraged to customize thier gear more, as it had fairly little effect on the game overall. Todays topic, characters physical appearance, is a little more complicated to make sense of customizing, but is so personal that I felt it needed to be part of this series.

First off, I think the base physical appearance of a character needs to stay roughly the same, unless you want to make plastic surgurey a prominent feature of your RPG world. That being said, there are still a ton of options for customization, some of the most obviouse that come to mind are changing hair color or getting a tattoo. It’s not nescessary to go even this far to make a substantial change though.

I like to draw on TV shows or movie series for inspiration. Consider Luke Skywalker from the original Star Wars trillogy. As the movies progress, in each one his hair gets shorter and he holds his jaw more firmly. If you saw a picture of just the actors face, you could tell which of the movies it was from. TV shows tend to do the same sort of thing, slightly altering the characters appearance from season to season.

I like to think of my RPG characters lives in “seasons”. For instance, I have a character in a western rpg, who’s on the run from a wizards guild, trying to hide out in the frontier as a gambler. For his first “season” I described him as looking very put together, with a black suit and well combed hair. During that time he was a little ackward and tended to panic in danger. I view his first season as ending in our last campaign we played, which involved a botched heist in a big city, a lot of running away from gaurds, and then my character being suprised and blasting an innocent gaurd in the chest. After alot of debate the gaurd died, and I feel like that’ll have a huge effect on my character.

I plan on describing him as looking a little less put together, with his hair always just kinda in need of a cutting and his jacket unbuttoned. I also intend on playing him as resisting his panic and trying to think in danger.

I don’t think physical appearance gets enough thought in RPG’s after the initial setup, so I’d encourage players to bring it up to thier GM’s or GM’s to ask every few adventures “Do these last few events make your character look any different?”

Customization, Part I: Weapons and Gear

Last week I began work on my character for an RPG a friend of mine is starting. My thought for the character is a sort of “tomb robber” archetype, someone fast, clever, and very knowledgeable about artifacts and lore.

As I looked at this new character I began to wonder about his equiptment. The dagger made sense to me, it seemed like the weapon my character would most prefer. However, I also had a bow and a shortsword. The sword I could explain away, he ackwardly carried it befause his mentor said that he had to. The bow made sense for hunting but seemed kind of bulky for tomb raiding, so I decided that I’d describe it as a very small bow, even if the GM gave me a penalty for that. I came up with quite the custom design for this bow, and because of that I feel more attached to the character.

I’ve noticed a trend in RPG’s both those I’ve played and those I’ve listened to, that during character creation the GM will allow a lot of gear and weapon customization, so that players will get more invested in thier characters. Then, as the game progresses, GM’s tend to resist customized gear. Shops only offer simple, standard weapons and equiptment. Customizing weapons is costed out, either with time taken, risk of failure, or actual gold cost.

Based largely off of how much customizing this characters weapons has helped me visualize him, I want to try to allow more creativity throughout any games that I run. Easy examples of this are giving simple, cheap oppertunities for costume changes, having shopkeepers ask things like “Ya want anything engraved on the blade?”, and allowing players to work on gear without much chance of destroying it.

One easy way to allow custom weapons that I’ve though of would be to allow players to embed jewels in the hilts of daggers, swords, and revolvers. I GM’ed a game in which I rolled on loot tables. Very quickly the players accuired s few small bags of gems. I had no ideas for them other than “Trade them in for gold at the next town.” The gems were a bit of a disappointment to get in that campaign, but imagine how much fun it would be to have a customized sword hilt, or bow, or gauntlets. A player could decide to make a certain gem part of thier characters “theme”, and might even rejoice when they get that last ruby they needed to craft a complete set of ruby arrowheads.

Fun Limitations vs. Character Flaws

First off let me say that I’m slightly annoyed at the terminology already used by D&D, because it makes diferentiating a error in character abilities from a playable limitation difficult. What D&D refers to as character flaws I would call a limitation: Your character is afraid of snakes? Very good, have fun playing with that characteristic.

What I would refer to as a character flaw is a character whose game balance is flawed. If your character cannot hit an enemy, notice any object in a room, recall any information, or survive a couple of enemy attacks, then I would call that character flawed.

I’ve been playing a Dwarf scholar in an RPG called Adventures in Middle Earth for several years, and when the character was at his first level he was flawed. In the first two battles we played he was almost totally useless, and in the next two battles he came very close to dieing. Fortunately our DM saw this issue and realized it for what it was, a flaw in the characters balance. To remedy it, he gave my character a more powerfull weapon. I still didn’t hit very often, but when I did I could take out a significant chunk of the enemies health. I now had a chance of removing enemies before dropping unconscious.

We played Adventures in Middle Earth again last week, and I took a moment to appreciate that my character has some limitations, not flaws. My character can’t talk very well, but insists on trying. It results in alot of fun, but he can easily be overruled by other players. My character can also hold his own in a battle, sure, he might get down to single digit health points, but I know I can deal damage and heal myself, battles aren’t frantic attemps to survive anymore, they’re fun.

When RPG Night becomes Poker Night

Last weekend my brother and his girlfriend came over to play thier second session of D&D ever. We’ve been working our way through the Lost Mines of Phandelver starter set, and after some reconissence last session they were ready to plan their assault on the goblin leader.

However, the hotel my brothers girlfriend works at was having a crazy week, losing employees, getting late deliveries, etc. My brother had just worked his first week at a new job, and was trying to fix his “new” used car.

We kept getting distracted by real life, talking about our own little adventures and plans. After three hours of sitting around the table we’d only actually played for twenty minutes, and we realized that playing an RPG wasn’t going to work that night. But we didn’t get upset about it. Instead we broke out the cards and chips to play poker.

There are some times when game night is about losing yourself in a seperate world, but there are nights when gaming is about the real world, approached over a gaming table.

Why is My Character Starting in Prison?

For an upcoming one-shot I’ve been told that the party will be starting the game in a prison. I don’t know if the GM will be telling us why we were all arrested, so just in case he doesn’t I’ve been brainstorming a few reasons and thought I would share them here.

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Buying RPG Dice for Beginners

Don’t Buy a $50 Metal Dice Set… Yet

The first reaction of many people I’ve introduced to Role Playing Games is “I want to get my own set of dice.”

I personally love this sentiment. I started buying polyhedral dice years before I played an RPG.

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Using Mental Stats

An Incomplete Education

Your party sits in the restaurant, anxiously awaiting the governors arrival. He walks through the door, attendants on either side of him, yellow robes billowing behind him.”

I stand immediately!” the Bard blurts. At last, this is his big chance to put all that charisma to use. The rest of the party follows suit much less eagerly, but even the Barbarian knows that this meeting is important.

Very good, the governor sits at your table.”

Governor Basho, thank you for deigning to hear our petition. Would you like anything while we talk? Food? Drink?”

The Barbarians player rolls his eyes at the Bards speech and wonders how long he spent preparing it.

The governor fixes his gaze on you and smiles thinly. ‘I would like a glass of warm wine, that is all.’ he says in a clear voice.”

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