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In my game, one of the player's characters is a bit... too much. It's not easy to describe, but I think she's a somewhat more subtle example of the Mary Sue archetype: a character who is perfect, and therefore dis-interesting bordering on annoying.

The character is mechanically normal; the problem is solely in dialogue and the way she's played.

My writer's instincts tell me that the best course of action is to make horrible things happen to the character, thereby causing her to develop and be interesting instead of annoying, but I'm not sure this is going to work as well in a situation where I can't really control what comes out of the characters mouth, and the player will wonder exactly why her character is the one who got sent off to the gulag.

I don't want to upset the player; she's not doing this on purpose, plus she's very valuable since she knows far more about the setting (Victorian Europe) than I do. Having a chat with her about it might help, but I'm not sure how to approach doing that.

I think the other players are picking up on it too- the Paladin just gave her a very subtle and polite in-character pwning.

How should I approach the player to fix this? What solutions should I offer?

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It would help if we knew what kind of things she's saying and doing that are causing the problem - there's a lot of Mary Sue archetypes, you know. With that in mind, I'm gonna toss in an initial answer just to help address your idea of having a chat with her about it. –  Lord_Gareth Feb 26 '13 at 15:03
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Well, for example, our very first bit of character description says "she lacks the wasp thin waist so commonly found, nor does she wear one of the extravagant hats currently en vogue. Both of which do nothing to dimish her beauty, but rather accentuate its naturalness." Most of her descriptions read like that; any semblance of a flaw is followed up by 'But she's not!' –  Schilcote Feb 26 '13 at 15:30
    
@Schilcote Okay; let's go with that. Does she do the same things with her good qualities -- does she downplay her strengths to make something of an average? (You said that she's mechanically normal, so I'm presuming she's not ignoring Flaws or Disadvantages that the system rewards her for.) Many systems don't have an "appearance"-related stat; does yours? If not, is there a harm in letting her declare herself as being "attractive in a natural, not fashionable, way"? –  Jadasc Feb 26 '13 at 15:59
    
GURPS is the system. No, she doesn't do the same things with her good qualities. Anyway, I sent her a message and it turned out pretty well, she gave an outline of her plan for the character and I'm satisfied with it. –  Schilcote Feb 26 '13 at 17:03
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ask the player : "What would happen to an annoying little perfect girl in victorian europe?" –  Markus Mikkolainen Feb 27 '13 at 8:09

7 Answers 7

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Talk to the player about why they are playing this character this way

Does the player have a larger purpose? What's the point? Is there a story they are trying to tell. Try to understand what's going on in her head about why she's approaching this character in this way.

She knows a lot about Victorian Europe, perhaps this is a typical archtype for this period. Perhaps she has an idea of stories you can collaborate on that will develop her character beyond the outward perfection. What's her dark secret?

Give the character hard, but interesting choices

Think about great movie moments. The first one that comes to mind for me is about half way through the Dark Knight. The Joker places Harvey Dent in one warehouse and Bruce Wayne's love interest Rachel in another. Batman has the opportunity to save one of them.

This kind of choice is interesting because it either requires batman to do what's good for the city (save Dent), or good for himself (save Rachel). Further complication is added in the movie by the Joker giving Batman incorrect information.

But lose-lose choices are good character moments for characters, especially ones who are used to perfection. Can they get their act together in time to save both? What kind of choice do they make.

Steal a page from Dread and issue questionnaires

The game Dread starts off with issuing each player a questionnaire that becomes their character sheet for the whole game. The questions on the sheet are often leading (why did you kill your childhood pet? what dark secret are you keeping from the rest of the group?). The questionnaires are then handed to the storyteller so he can read them and get to know the characters. The Dread book has hundreds of these questions running along the footer of the entire volume.

This provides some instant back story for the characters and may help you understand what's driving her besides her perfection. This may be an in character way to approach the problem if you're not comfortable talking about it out of character.

Above All Communicate

RPG is a collaborative experience with a group of people. Ultimately if the people at the table aren't communicating well then your group is continue to have dysfunctions like this. Try to talk it out and see if you can resolve this either in character or out.

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+1 for all the lovely specifics. So many good ideas. –  KRyan Feb 26 '13 at 15:11
    
I was going to basically say this, but add asking each PC before entering the game, "What is your deepest, darkest secret?" –  Pulsehead Feb 26 '13 at 15:22
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Not every character (in RPGs or RL) actually has a dark secret they wish to keep from the world at all costs. This may make it harder for the GM; but such is life. –  TimLymington Feb 26 '13 at 22:39
    
When we start a new campaign we get everyone to write up a character background for the DM and have a questionaire with simple stuff like aims in life, favourite colour, nature of family and such but I do like the idea of asking leading darker questionas sounds like from the Dredd game. Think i will do it next time I run. –  Duncan Feb 26 '13 at 23:00
    
@Duncan obviously with Dread the questionnaires are darker as it's a horror game, but leading questions to set up some kind of narrative conflict should be good opportunities for a GM to write side quests, main plot lines and just extra flavor bits that give individual players a chance to star. –  wax eagle Feb 27 '13 at 0:19

Is this really a problem?

Mary Sues in fictions, especially fan fiction, are annoying partially because the world warps to suit them, in an RPG that will not happen (or at least not in the same way) becuase the other players and the GM provide elements that are out of the hands the person running "Mary Sue". Mary Sues also tend to be too perfect in ways that are reflected in the mechanics (good at everything, or the youngest something ever), but this also doesn't come up in an RPG.

If you mean the character is being played as overly friendly, tries to hard to be likable, and has no character flaws, that might not be too much of a problem. Some people at least try to be like that in real life. The Archtypal paladin is highly charasimatic, strives for justice, and a natural leader. And if the fantasy they want to play out is a character that is almost immune to temptation and too perfect then it might not be a bad thing to let her, especially if it fits the character concept.

Moral Choices

As others have mentioned, one way to help make the character is to start placing her in positions where she has to make hard choices. Give in to temptation to advance her own power, or take the high road? Save the child, or the villages one and only healer/doctor that the whole village will worry about? Hard questions help define and solidify the character. Mary Sues in fan fiction either tend to not face a hard choice or they come up with some miraculous way to satisfy everyone, in an RPG with constraints they can't do that and need to make the choice.

Talking to her Out of Character

I partially agree and partially respectfully disagree with KRyan on this. I would certainly talk to her before trying to do anything drastic to her character, but that isn't necessary if your approach is to present the character with hard choices and isn't even necessary to do things like have NPCs react to her realistically, but in a way that shows how the character can be annoying to them too. Its then her choice to alter the way she plays or not.

In Go, some teaching games are playing with very few words uttered. Instead, the teacher plays in such a way that that highlights how the novice can improve. This is often a much better way since it encourages the student to figure it out and they tend to learn the lesson more deeply that way. Now, of course RPGs are different. In Go it is possible to objectively say that one play is better than another and that is hard (impossible?) in an RPG. But the concept is similar. Highlight in character the consequences of certain things through NPCs, and present opportunities that will help develop the character.

Talk to the Group

If you single her out, even if you do it when no one else is around, its hard not to make her feel singled out. But you can approach the group as a whole and just make general statement that you want to improve the roleplaying and can hand out articles about doing it well to everyone. Also, you can praise others for doing the things right that you think she could improve on. Some people take criticism well, some don't. But praise is easier to do right. And you can also have a vote for best roleplayer for a session, so the praise is coming from the entire group, not just you. But they have to explain why that person is the best for the session and that will naturally highlight the things everyone else can do better.

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+1 for "Is This Really A Problem" - so a character acts annoying and perfect in character. So what, that's called "roleplaying..." –  mxyzplk Feb 26 '13 at 23:26

Absolutely talk to her out-of-character before doing anything in-character

There may be in-character things you do want to do with this character to make her more interesting, but you need to talk to the player first, to explain your position, offer her the chance to counterargue the point, and let her know that you’re not just ganging up on her, the player.

The Paladin has, I think, helped you here a lot. You can reference what he did as your evidence that the other players have picked up on this too, which should help give you some “legitimate” authority – since this is her character, being DM doesn’t really give you authority, it actually gives you a very big reason to stay hands-off. So it’s helpful that you can cite some examples of how her play is making the game less interesting than it could be.

I would try to focus the chat on developing the character, though, not on what she’s done wrong. You can literally ask straight-up about flaws she has or errors she’d be likely to make. Ask what sorts of situations would have her reacting faster than she could really think through her actions. What sorts of issues would cause her to be stubborn and recalcitrant. What makes the character mad. That kind of thing.

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Is it a significant problem if the character is dis-interesting bordering on annoying? Perfection (by any definition) is woefully hard to find in real life. So are dragons and lightning bolts used offensively.

There is no particular reason why stories are less interesting with Mary Sue characters than without. Sure, it causes the story to lose one type of drama or tension, but there are good stories without sex, without anyone getting stabbed, without a deep mystery, etc. etc.. Maybe the player just doesn't think working through the personal issues of their character is a good time; maybe the character's got it together already, is a nice person, and knows what they want to do.

You can still have fantastic roleplaying opportunities with conflict, mystery, exploration/discovery; and if you want anguish and soul-searching, set up a situation where there is no clear "right" answer, modeled on any number of real-world conflicts (two countries each of which seem nice enough on their own yet which are at war with each other for historical reasons; conflicts over resources where there really isn't enough to go around; conflicts made difficult by the flaws and unreasonableness of other people; and so on).

Now, it may be that the player would like to have a more human-seeming character; one with more flaws and feelings and so forth. Or it may be that the other players are fine with the fantastic elements of the setting but not with a character who is Mary-Sue-perfect, and the player doesn't realize that it's causing friction. If you're not demanding that the character be less Mary-Sue-perfect, but just pointing out that the character in fact is, and it's often more engaging for everyone to have a character who is not, the conversation will hopefully not appear at all threatening and so won't be awkward.

This really isn't any different in my mind than "how can I make my players roleplay their characters being frightened"-style questions. Maybe they don't want to roleplay being frightened, and maybe that's just fine!

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+1, I totally agree... if thats the personality she wants to roleplay, I'm not seeing what the problem is. There's plenty of areas for drama. Her background might not be exciting, but certainly her adventuring career will lead to complications that can be drawn from. –  GrandmasterB Feb 26 '13 at 21:04

This Is Not A Problem

Mary Sues are a problem in other media because the plot bends unrealistically to how great they are.

They are a problem in gaming mainly when a GM brings in a Mary Sue NPC/GMPC and bends the world to fit their "coolness" at the expense of the rules and/or story as well.

A player in a trad game, however, who lacks narrative control over the world, can NOT be a Mary Sue as defined. They can act like a "miss goody two-shoes," or otherwise try to act perfect. Great. So what? That's their character. If their stats and powers aren't "perfect," then they'll just be acting like their poo doesn't smell after critically fumbling that fireball or whatever.

When running a RPG session you need to put your "writer's instincts" in a can on the shelf. You're not creating a story, you are facilitating a group of players who are creating a story. Not liking their characters' personalities is unfortunate but inappropriate for you to take action to change.

Now, sure, a good GM will create plots that play both to the strengths (so they can shine) and the weaknesses (to create dramatic tension) of a character, but it's not "putting them in their place" or "fixing them."

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+1, this is a natural 20 right here –  GrandmasterB Feb 27 '13 at 5:07

I'm a newbie to this site, so I hope my answer isn't too shallow... ;)

You could suggest to the player, OOC, that she add in some sort of a twisted past, one which she has been trying to conceal. Example, when she was six, her eight year old brother was taken to the asylum, where he lived in nasty conditions and died four years later. Now the character secretly wonders if she might be affected too?

So, she actively /tries/ to be perfect, although she sometimes has little slips that make it through to be observed.

Hope this is helpful...

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Can you bend the "script" a bit to include her perfection as part of the adventure?

I.e., obscure cult takes an interest in her, either as a sacrifice or as a possible reincarnation vessel for some important figure from the past, because she fits the Sacred Texts description to a T.

Depending on your moods, and the reactions from your players (including the Mary Sue player) you can decide where to set the slider on it: it could be farcical, with the cult being just a plot complication a bit like Kato's attacks on Clouseau or becoming a real threat.

A possible alternative: immensely powerful and rich guy (maybe replete with his own European micro-state) just wants to have her (as a wife/concubine). Make him a vampire or some other kind of supernatural critter if it works in your particular context.

In this way you will be using her own distinctive mark (as a character) to create interesting plot complications, and may even nudge her to try to make herself "less perfect" trying to lower her profile.

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