CRB is a repository of all the creative things that float through my mind about the RPG Pathfinder. Two major features are random character generation and building characters based on the god they worship. Anything that seems like it adds to the creative aspects of the game will pop up from time to time, including location descriptions, adventure ideas and even short stories. CRB won't just be my own creativity, it will open the floor to anyone who has an idea sparked by what I present to you.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Best There Is At What I Do

Dealing With Characters That Are Really Good At A Thing

Illustration by Luis Perez
I saw a topic on Facebook this week that got me thinking about some things as a GM: How and when do we as GMs let our players shine, and why do some GMs feel cheated when their players are really good at one specific thing? Not just in combat but in off the battlefield ways. The rogue who is impossible to get a trap past, or whose perception is high enough to see any foe. The charisma monkey who can literally talk his way out of anything. A character of any class who maximizes their knowledge checks and is always able to identify any type of creature. So how do we as GMs deal with these situations?

When many GMs see this kind of thing from a character, they commonly complain about why the character is so specialized. This actually comes up more when the player is specialized in combat but the sentiment is the same. My answer to this complaint is the same for both combat and non-combat specialization: People who are going to excel at something put their heart, soul, and time into that thing. You don’t just say “I want to be a master swordsman” and then take pottery classes. You excel at being a swordsman through training and hard work.

As a real world example, if someone wants to become a doctor they go to school for years. They optimize their lives in such a way that it revolves around being a doctor. They take their normal classes, they study, they take electives, they do their best to excel. And many times that means giving up that basket weaving elective to stay focused. And the truth is that many people are only going to be really good at one or maybe two things in a lifetime and player characters are those guys who are really good at what they do.

So you have your character who, when buffed up, has a +30 to perception or your investigator who has a +25 to diplomacy on top of which he can add a 1d8 to the roll. So how do you challenge these players in situations where they excel? My initial response is that you don’t go out of your way to screw them. They made these characters so let them shine. Let them flex their muscle at the things they are good at because it really makes the players feel good.

Using traps as an example: If you know one guy is optimized for traps then don’t use them at every turn. Place them in strategic areas even though you know he’s going to succeed. Disarming the trap on the big bad’s door so that the group can enter his inner sanctum will be a huge accomplishment for them. It becomes less so and more boring for everyone if there were a dozen traps throughout the dungeon that he just disarmed every time.

Use the occasional exceedingly difficult challenge in order to test the skill of the player, but don’t try and stump him with every trap. In the Pathfinder AP Shattered Star there is an extremely difficult lock to open which requires six disable device checks. On top of that, any attempt to unlock the door without the key triggers a magical trap. The magical trap has an exceedingly high DC also. Although not technically impossible for the trap-springer in my group, there was a hefty chance he would fail and the results (which they knew about) were so particularly horrifying that they opted to not risk it.

For me this method also holds true in combat. Not every combat should be a chance to kill your PCs. This week my players faced a lot of evil outsiders so our paladin really shined. When they face creatures without darkvision, the shadow knight – Eldritch Knight with a shadow bloodline sorcerer base – excels. If facing large groups of smaller mobs that clump together, our damage cleric of Sarenrae is up to the task at hand. And when they need the world’s smallest doorstop, the Halfling with the insanely high AC can hold a corridor like no one’s business, even if he doesn’t hit real hard in return.

So in short, let your players excel. Let them be really good at something and give them a chance to shine with that ability. When they defeat your monster, disarm your trap, talk their way out of certain situations, or use their abilities in new and interesting ways let them feel like the heroes they are. Being frustrated when the players succeed makes it sound like the game is you versus them, when in reality it is the players and the GM telling the story together.

What do your players excel at outside of combat? How have they used these abilities to overcome great obstacles? How have you as a GM given your players a chance to shine using these abilities? How have you as a player felt you’ve shined in your character’s chosen expertise? Let me know in the comments.

As players and GMs we should both give ourselves and the other members of our group a chance to excel. If the CRB helps you find the inspiration to excel please consider donating on my Patreon. The community of CRB followers grows every day! Your fellow gamers can be found on Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, and Twitter. My inbox on all platforms is open for questions and comment, feel free to drop me a line.

The opening illustration was created by a fine artist Luis Perez. You can find him on TwitterTumblr, and on Instagram at luisperezart.


  1. This is a really great point and I think it highlights the need for gamemasters to see themselves as collaborators with the players.

    One Problem that it doesn't address as fully is in your combat examples. You gave great examples of the strengths of individual characters. Sometimes the problem is when one player made a character that due to poor mechanical choices doesn't really outshine the other characters in any way. In these cases, sometimed a DM/GM needs to talk to that player in how to find a way to let that character shine.

    In other words, letting the character do what they do best is a great idea, but sometimes makes other players feel marginalized when their character doesn't have something they do best.

    1. You raise a good point and perhaps I'll expand on it in another article in the future.

  2. To whittle things down, you're basically addressing two styles of play; one where the GM and the Players see each other as opponents, and one where they see each others as cooperative partners in a grand, fun story-telling session.

    I am definitely the latter sort of player and GM, and when I'm running a game, I actually count on my character's specialties to move story-points forward. The game is supposed to be fun for everyone, so giving everyone something to do - to excel at - tends to garner the best results.

    1. That about sums it up. And I too am the latter sort of GM.