You know how sometimes a character takes Dwarvish as their second language but you have no dwarves in your campaign? Or a Cleric specializes in killing undead when your campaign revolves around bandits?

It happens from time to time and I usually handle it by just throwing something in only they can handle. For example, adding a necromancer to the bandit party so the Cleric feels important or finding a Dwarvish chest with warnings/directions written on it. But I feel like this can feel a little forced.

How can I make them feel like their character specializations matter without altering the story/encounters to cater to their abilities?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I didn't put a specific game because this type of scenario can happen in virtually any RPG. The solutions I've come up with so far are pretty universal: drop something in to make them feel important. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 21:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are mechanics for this kind of problems, which exist in some games. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 21:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ The way this comes about and needs to be addressed, the expectation of what you're supposed to do with it, whether this should even be possible or indicates some serious gameplay malfunction occurred, and which “universal” remedies even make sense, all vary from game to game. Asking about this without any detail of game system means we don't have details we need to work with and, frankly, will probably only get D&D/PF-targeted answers anyway which are very much not universal. Please specify the system you're trying to resolve this problem in. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 22:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I find these opinions interesting as a very good answer was given that is rather system agnostic - to use a Session 0 to help prevent it in the first place. There may be some game where for some odd reason a Session 0 wouldn't help, but it looks like this is a cross game answer, which is exactly what I was looking for. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 23, 2018 at 23:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ I do believe it is the full question. I have come across this issue in every RPG I've played. Regardless of mechanics and setting there is always the potential to have a player build a "useless" build. I am not looking for a D&D answer, nor a Palladium, Call of Chtululu, Dresden Files answer, I'm looking for an answer to the problem as a whole. Should I list each RPG this could possibly apply to? Or should I use different tags/specify this is not about mechanics and more about player interaction strategies? I mean no disrespect and am actually very curious. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 0:50

3 Answers 3


Session Zero is supposed to help with this

Short summary: A "Session zero" is there to help get players and the DM on the same page for character designs, what the campaign is about, house rules, and other such matters. More on that in the link or a quick search online.

That doesn't help me?

Well, when your Player says "Hey I want to maximize my Undead Damage" and you know that you're not going to supply any undead, and infact there haven't been undead in a thousand years; it's relevant to point that out to the player right then.

Certainly if you're already underway with a campaign where a character is very unfitting you need different advice, but most importantly is to try and keep this from occurring in the first place with a good Session zero.

I get it captain hindsight, anything else?

Ah, well.. as you wish.

Allow them to repair their character

Aside from your good suggestion so far and the existing answer, consider allowing your player to refactor/retcon a bit about themselves and redo their character a bit. This is the most effective and simplest answer; with the caveat that you will have to accept a little bit of immersion disruption.


I imagine that the answers to this question will largely be subjective, but I'll try to be thorough. My examples will be based on Pathfinder, since that's the system I know, but the spirit of my answer should be true for all RPGs.

The Facts

You, as a GM, are only required to make the game fun for your players (I believe you're required to do your part in making a fun game. Otherwise, what's the point?). You do not have to cater to every design choice that your players choose to use. You don't ever have to have the party go up against Undead when you have an anti-Undead Cleric (a powerful but narrow build). You don't have to make every language the party takes relevant (relatively inconsequential). You don't have to put living, breathing NPCs up against your Smoke Bomb Ninja (a mediocre build that fails to gain any steam in a semi-optimal party).

It is the player's responsibility to understand that their build choices have an opportunity cost. The generalist will have limited answers in difficult situations that a specialist could trivialize or make doable. A specialist will fail to perform well under circumstances that do not fit their speciality. The Smoke Bomb Ninja is losing out on stealth-related ninja tricks or combat feats that could put their damage output into powerful ranges. The players should understand that the narrower their build is, the less effective they'll be in most situations. While every PC should have a certain level of general use to their kit, having a specialty or quirk in your build can be rewarding.

Some Anecdotes (and why I'm so fixated on Smoke Bomb Ninjas)

With all that said, you should take some opportunities throughout your game to make random knowledge or your player's specific builds shine, if only for a moment. It's a satisfying feeling to know that making a Smoke Bomb Ninja paid off in the exact moments you needed it to work. The Ninja in my party for Rise of the Runelords (a DnD 3.5/Pathfinder adventure path) never threw a single smoke bomb for their entire first 14 levels. It was book 6 (the last book) before they threw any smoke bombs. That book, they threw 2 smoke bombs. Each bomb shut down a mini-boss (2 different mini-bosses) that were threatening to overwhelm our party, a party that outright killed a 250 HP enemy at level 7 in one round (decently optimized Gunslinger/Inquisitor and a Holy Nuke Paladin with the charge that lets you pump your Lay on Hands as damage into an evil Smite target). That player was, in that moment, happier with how their character performed and more hyped about the game than any of us had been up until that point. Not only that, their build choice came into play exactly when the rest of us faltered.

My character (the Gunquisitor) was pretty satisfying to play throughout most of the game, but I had the most fun the one time I was forced into melee. I specced to have 14 STR instead of more CON or WIS, with the intention of randomly being able to fight in melee, well before I had plans to make them into an Inquisitor. My random melee ability allowed me to effectively fight a rogue that snuck past the party to attack me and used Step Up when I tried to 5 ft step back.

In our current campaign, my character got punished when he was the only person in the party that could read Elven and read inside a spellbook that said


"I prepared explosive runes today."

The trap was inconsequential, as it was a low level spell against our 12th level party and my character healed himself immediately and was in no danger otherwise, but it was a fun jab at his excellent literacy. I should also note that this has been a running joke between us for almost 2 years and never actually happened in game before now.

My Answer

My best answer, while not directly an answer to your question, is to add in parts to your encounters and stories where narrow builds or build quirks matter. To your example about the Necromancer and the Bandits, why wouldn't you run the encounter like this? Diversifying your enemies makes for more rewarding encounters for the players (in a fun sense and for a diversity of loot sense). A supporty necromancer with Fighter Bandit leader and a few bandit goons and a couple skeletons/zombies can make for an interesting encounter, much more so than a handful of bandits. While you don't NEED a necromancer in the encounter, why wouldn't there be one?

If you can justify why you could include an enemy and it plays into a party member's strengths, then do it. If you can justify putting in a trap that only a certain party member can handle, do it. These make for feel-good moments for your players. If you're all having fun, that's what's important. I ask that you be more open and willing to modify your game just a little bit to create these moments. Sometimes, they'll be small. Other times, the table will jump for joy. These are the situations that make forum post stories.

Not all systems are created equal

Let's also consider another RPG, Second Darkness. Second Darkness, in my experience, is much better run in a manner agnostic to the builds of its PCs. In such a system, player-catering would indeed feel forced. Player satisfaction in being successful in encounters is much more based on player competency and use of their available tools than simply being allowed to use your tools.

This system is much more about creating plot points and allowing the players to figure out how to tackle them. The open-ended nature of the games it supports allows players to build however they want and to find places to make use of their abilities. No action needed by the GM.


The examples you give seem very different to me. I probably wouldn't worry much about whether a character's second language is useful (unless the player specifically said they want it to be). But having a player build his character for a purpose that is not useful in your campaign is a pretty big deal.

You have several options:

  • Encourage the player to change. Easiest at the beginning of the campaign, but you could consider retroactive changes. The risk is that the player won't want to change, or it's too late to do so easily.

  • Ignore the issue. Maybe the player doesn't really care, as long as they have fun. Or maybe you told them up front certain options wouldn't be useful, and they chose them anyway. The risk is that the player will not enjoy the game if they can't use abilities that are important to them.

  • Throw them tidbits, as in your examples. You say this can feel forced. I guess it can, but weigh that against whether it gives them more satisfaction from being able to use these abilities. Maybe you are worried the other players will be unhappy about having something "obviously" tailored to one character? Hopefully you can address that by giving every character an opportunity to shine.

  • Make a bigger change to the campaign. Consider that the players may be signaling to you what they are interested in. If you include those things, they may enjoy the campaign more. You could argue this makes sense from an in-world view as well: Why would that undead-fighting cleric be around, if there's no undead to fight? Why would a character learn Dwarvish if there are no Dwarfs around to talk to?

In the worst case, the game the player is interested in isn't the game you want to run. You should talk to them to find this out, and be honest about it. Maybe they need to find another game if they are very attached to something


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