Tabletop Ruts

Thursday, November 7, 2013

I love tabletop games. Pathfinder has been our game night staple for almost two years now and we've all had a number of different characters in that time. If you're familiar with Pathfinder or any other tabletop roleplaying game, then you're probably no stranger to some of the common issues faced by regular groups. Scheduling, module selection, DM rotation, all these things can end disastrously if not handled well. I think there is a more dangerous problem common to groups everywhere. Let's talk about comfort zones

It's a terrible term to use for what I'm actually describing, but it is the most reasonably appropriate term on hand. When referring to comfort zones in this case, I am specifically talking about players' propensity to play similar characters in similar ways across multiple adventures.

In any group that has been playing for a while, people naturally fall into a regular role. A player may begin to play the same or similar classes across multiple modules. They may choose characters that seem to speak and behave exactly as the previous or several previous characters. In previous groups I have known one player to build fighter after fighter, almost exactly the same way for over a year. That amounted to more than ten different characters, each  one almost indistinguishable from the last. 

This is an extreme case, yes, but it illustrates my meaning very well. It's my opinion that an unvaried group is a bored group. It is within a DM's power and responsibility to create an exciting and dynamic experience for the players. In cases where a player has fallen into a character rut, it's important to address the issue. Institute rules governing how often players can play the same class; talk to the player or players about a different class; randomly assign classes to players. There are numerous ways to break the cycle of class ruts.

There isn't a player out there that hasn't fallen prey to this habit. Many of us aren't even aware of the behavior even while in it's thrall. Every player wants to be a productive member of the party, but it's important to switch up roles within the group to allow players to grow and to keep the experience fresh. 

To the same effect, it's also vital that the characters' personalities are not forgotten. Too many time, I've built a character with specific abilities or capabilities in mind, only to end up with a nameless and featureless character. Personality, history and behavior are very important in making your games more entertaining for everyone involved. 

I have one primary rule when it comes to this. If I can't make at least five significant distinctions between my new and previous characters personality, I start over. This may be a bit too extreme for some, so perhaps start nudging your stubborn player with something lighter. The background traits in Pathfinder are great tools for constructing interesting and varied backstories. By asking each player to pick one or two before beginning (many of Paizo's adventure paths recommend this already) you can add a lot of variety to your games.

Experiment with new ways of breaking your players habits. A varied group is more likely to try new and unexpected things. That kind of play is far more interesting than the "everyone in their place" kind of play that strict adherence to party roles and behavior foster. One more subtle method to add some variation to your groups play is to build encounters or adventures that play to the party's weaknesses. A more difficult (not impossible) situation can create some very interesting and memorable moments in a campaign. Allowing "stuck" players to find unconventional solutions to their predicaments sets a standard that will help