When Characters Overlap Too Much — Three Questions

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1053

I’ve got a character problem. Maybe you’ve experienced it too?

The rogue in my Barbossa campaign is being subsumed by other PCs and the emerging campaign style:

  • Monk and bard are also good at stealth.
  • The rogue is a halfling. So is the bard.
  • Last session there was no combat. So sneak attacks became null and void. For the foreseeable future, sessions will be lean on combat, as well.

To make matters trickier, the campaign’s razor is the TV show Lost meets Isle of Dread. The PCs are stranded on an island. So contacts and other relationships from the rogue’s backstory don’t apply.

I don’t want a game where every PC fits within a tidy gamified slot like D&D 4E.

Overlap in abilities is ok.

But I do want each character to have unique aspects and options. Players should not feel overshadowed by their peers.

So my approach is to ask my players three questions.

I’ll use the answers to help me develop the campaign for better spotlight time.

The answers will also help explore and develop unique aspects for the rogue character.

The Three Questions

Q1. Why did you become a Ruin Seeker?
Q2. What is your character’s role in the party?
Q3. What do you want to explore with your character?

Why did you become a Ruin Seeker?

This speaks to the character’s motivation.

As part of the campaign premise, the PCs started out with a one-year contract to an elite mercenary guild in my homebrew world of Duskfall.

By digging into what made each character choose such a dangerous life, I might get insights into what drives the character.

I can then present situations in future sessions that tap into these drives.

This creates internal differences between characters.

It doesn’t matter if character abilities overlap if, in players’ minds, they’re pursuing their own distinct character arcs.

What is your character’s role in the party?

Here we learn about what identity each player holds for their PC.

Characters of the same class can play and feel unique if players roleplay different identities.

For example, one player might see their PC as a burglar. Stealth meets technical skill. And another player might see their PC as a con man. Social manipulation meets careful planning. Same character class, two identities, reduced overlap.

Answers might also come in the form of game rules or combat jobs. If so, great. We can talk about such roles as a group. We can spot overlaps and figure out if that’s ok or what needs to change.

What do you want to explore with your character?

Now we get into player motivation.

What do they want to experience during the character’s campaign arc?

What kind of situations and struggles does a player want to test their PC against?

One player might want to acquire a powerful enemy and try to defeat them. Another player might want to trick their PC out with the coolest special items and magic.

In cases where player motivations differ, you can GM to that and create a wonderful and unique campaign experience despite sharing character abilities and roles with other party members.

Three Questions to Dig Deeper

When PCs overlap, go beneath the surface to figure out how to make the game experience different for each player.

Story, roleplaying, and player motivations can turn seemingly identical characters into unique personas at the table.

Such personas are fun to play regardless of mechanical overlap.

Try the three questions to get further character distinction and separation.

Have you run across this issue in your campaigns where PCs overlap too much? Hit reply and let me know how you sorted it out.