What to do with players who always want unique, off-the-menu characters?

Here’s the situation. It has happened repeatedly. I don’t necessarily mind it but I could handle it better.

I gather what kind of game the players want. I intersect it with what I’d want to run. We end up with (usually) a selection of PbtA games, since I like the ease of GMing, GM moves, fluid spotlight etc.

Then inevitably more than half the players want some wild shit that isn’t one of the playbook. It’s creative. It gets them passionate.

I want them to play as that.

They’re also not very interested in reading lots of rules or almost any.

So what we end up doing is hacking together a playbook, which can be work I don’t always want to do, or playing a game I’m working on, which is in constant playtesting and not a battle-proven, sure-to-be-good game.

How do I handle this? What game handles spotlight fluidly, is easy to GM, allows for wild and unique crackheads PCs, while still providing enough direction and crunch to feel like a game rather than total freeform? One-page or 200-word RPGs don’t attract me too much since I always feel like I’d have to add Harm Clocks or something of the sort. I’d still end up making a new game.


Sounds like Fate to me.


I thought of that too, but I think I like the fluidity of the PbtA spotlight. I’ll keep Fate in mind. Any others?

City of Mist is a good PbtA that encourages players to come up with batshit crazy characters.

Honestly, given that you like PbtA for “ease of GMing, GM moves, fluid spotlight” but aren’t attached to a specific style of story (genre). It sounds to me like you want a generic PbtA game.

When I think of a generic PbtA game, I think Simple World, Simple World - Buried Without Ceremony. It might be at least worth looking at.


I’m curious to hear some examples of these character types?

Also, I’ve personally started to volunteer less of my time to players who won’t reciprocate my effort. So, if they won’t read any rules, I don’t go out of my way to make as many accommodations as I used to. I remember what that was like, and it can be draining.


Couldn’t you run Fate with a PbtA-style spotlight? The system is pretty modular – for example, Fate Condensed uses an alternate initiative vs. Fate Core. In my opinion, it would be a pretty natural change to make, barely a hack.

Troika comes to mind. Custom skills can have very flexible names, so it’s sort of like assigning a number to “Barbecue Maintenance,” or whatever zany skill you want to represent. I don’t have much experience with Troika, but it seems pretty adaptable. (That or Kriegsmesser, for alternate resolution dice.)

Edit: adding Vagabonds of Dyfed to the list of possible systems to look at. Fairly freeform, and similar to City of Mist in the way it uses tags, although a good bit simpler.


Now I don’t run games with Playbooks, but classes seem similar enough. If someone wants to play something that’s not exactly a class, I just fit it into the classes I have. Using the classic B/X classes for example Alchemist = Magic User, Hedgehog Knight = Dwarf, Parasitic Crab replacing the face of a sailor = Whatever the crab does, Fighter, maybe Cleric?

Point is that there’s two reasons players want to play odd things, usually they just like the idea that came to them, they aren’t so interested in the abilities or rules, but more just want to inhabit this odd idea they had - snap it into something that exists, more or less fits and they’ll be fine. Rarely someone thinks they have an idea that’s unstoppable and will break your game in some way that brings them joy. Snap that into an existing set of rules and take away their ability to ruin everyone else’s fun.


Yes, absolutely! I think your B/X example can extend to characters made with the flexible backgrounds in The Black Hack (2nd Edition, p. 17; this may or may not be the same as the first edition). Or classless games like Knave.

I also think there is another type of player, to add to your example above. These players – after I’ve explained how to reskin another class to fit their idea – they simply aren’t *convinced that those mechanics will be “accurate enough” or “detailed enough” to match the very specific fiction in their head. I’ve had 2 or 3 in the past year where this was the case.

In some cases, I’ve agreed, but usually, not so much. I have a feeling this might be similar to what @Gardens is experiencing in the original post?

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Oof, this is interesting. I think first and foremost I’ll say “If it’s not a problem, it’s not a problem”, but given that you’ve come here, it probably is a problem in some way. I’ll also mention that ordering off-menu is definitely a privilege and not a right. We’re not talking about subsitutions, we’re talking about straight up “can the chef of this itallian restaurant make me an enchilada?” here. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, and there’ll be some spare tortillas back there, but it shouldn’t be an expectation.

I don’t want to be pessimistic but it sounds to me like your goals are at odds. PbtA is about very directed experiences, and wanting that to be both crunchy and unconstrained is kind of at odds. PbtA is by definition a very constrained system. I don’t want to be so reductive though.

I think there’s a really interesting question about “okay, how weird are we talking, here?” There’s a spectrum of “violating conceit” that can occur, and while all of them are workable some are definitely more work. For example, in a Dungeon World game, a player that wants to be a parasite that has taken control of a human host is easy. Fictionally tag it, play a human fighter. Go for it, mate. Alternatively, a player who wants to play a time-traveling robot sent back to murder the mother of a resistance fighter in Burning Wheel requires significantly more work, to the point of drafting up a whole new subsystem and a stack of life-paths.

The reason I ask is that…well, there’s a real question of who’s doing the work here. Some real the customer is always right shit (see above re:Italian enchiladas). If you’re setting up the prep and the game and the GM duties and all this, are you also expected to write the new rules and the subsystem to cater to their varied needs? If as a group you’ve decided to play X, why is it anyone’s role but theirs when they want to play Y? (And again, if this is work you love doing and can sustainably do, this isn’t a problem. But the OP makes it sound like it is?). If they want to violate the conceit of the game, why are they so uninterested in engaging with the rules in a way that benefits them (as in “not very interested in reading lots of rules or almost any”), and expecting you to fix it? I’m sure they’re lovely people and very good people to play with, but it sounds like they’re asking a lot.

Then inevitably more than half the players want some wild shit that isn’t one of the playbook.

It sounds like you’re all deciding to get pizza, then half the team are ordering steaks. My suggestion would be: They didn’t really want pizza in the first place. If you lay out the playbooks of any (decently written) PbtA game, and they can’t see a character type they want to fit, they don’t want to play that game, in my opinion. They just might not have the words to describe that.

I wanna stick with this pizza analogy though (jeez I must be hungry with all this food talk): If you all agree that you’re going to buy them pizza, or you’re all going to pitch in or whatever, and someone says “I want McDonalds”, like, dude that’s fine, but you can organise your own delivery. We’re all getting pizza. Now, if the delivery lines up, you can still eat (play) together, but if your pizza arrives in thirty-minutes-or-less and the Maccas takes an hour (ie if your game and their character are wildly different in tone, agency, or goal), then either you’re gonna eat cold pizza, or they’re gonna be pissed you’re eating without them (ie someone is going to be disatissfied).

If more than half the table wants McDonalds, like maybe you just get that instead. Or if one wants maccas and one wants Hungry Jacks, and one wants curry, and one wants a kebab, and then there’s two of you waiting on Dominos…like maybe you need to choose between eating together and getting exactly the meal you want?

What game handles spotlight fluidly, is easy to GM, allows for wild and unique crackheads PCs, while still providing enough direction and crunch to feel like a game rather than total freeform?

None well. Very few at all. Crunch is a function of choice and direction. Fluidity is a function of shared intent. Both are at odds to “but I want to do something different”. As much as I love your goals and your intent, I think you’re going to be really disappointed with most anything that lands at your feet. I do hope I’m wrong and being reductive. Good luck to you!


Yes – very excellent explanation, SidIcarus. I think being overly accomodating, like in your metaphor (someone orders an enchilada at Italian restaurant), is exactly the kind of thing that creates “forever GMs.” It’s common and often isn’t negative … *unless the GM really does want to relax and just play a character every now and then. I hear about this pretty often in the #Beggars community.

Having healthy, proactive, and transparent communication goes a very long way. Sometimes this includes discussing the labor involved and/or explaining that some customizations are easier than others. (Sort of like asking for extra napkins or an extra spoon with your meal, which is no big, vs. asking for barbecue sauce when the kitchen may or may not have it on hand, so contextual.)

I also hope I’m not overstepping, and hope things go well for you at your table, Gardens.


My first go for a system like that would probably be Over the Edge. It has player-defined traits/abilities/whatever, but each character only has a few of them, so it’s fairly freeform but not like totally just make everything up.

But honestly I would probably not play with them. If you sign up to play a game and then don’t want to play that game, just don’t…

Out of your original post, these two sentiments stuck out to me. I love your enthusiasm to have your players get fired up but their lack of rules-understanding means they have no idea how PtbA really works or the amount of work they’re really asking for when they try to order off-menu. This is rather unfair to you.

One way I have sidestepped this in the past is to either to try to workout a fiction solution (like the fiction example above) or to say they can have their custom character but they will have to earn it through a quest and play something standard in the meanwhile. Often, particularly if it’s a game they haven’t played before, they’ll find their current character fun enough that they’ll let go of whatever power fantasy they cooked up.

@Gardens would you mind expanding on this? I think I have a different idea of what spotlighting means and didn’t want to assume we were talking about the same thing. :slight_smile:

Ultimately, PtbA’s “GM moves” are simply general gm principles laid out for you. You can easily Offer an opportunity, with or without cost or Reveal an unwelcome truth in any game and any system (which is why I commonly recommend PtbA as a place to start for newcomers to the hobby).