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I have been a GM for many years and have experience with many different systems and settings of different themes and moods, but my current group seems to be having issues I've never had to deal with before. Their characters have wildly different themes and tones, most of which even run counter to the game(s) we are currently running. It doesn't matter what theme and mood we use, from nihilistic horror to slapstick comedy, they always make characters that don't "fit".

How do I encourage the players to make characters appropriate to the system and setting? I feel bad just telling them their idea doesn't work, but the games suffer due to this lack of cohesion and identity. What I'm looking for most is what has worked and what hasn't in similar situations.

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Talk to your players and ensure that everyone is on The Same Page

Your players may be creating characters contrary to your setting because they may not realize that your style of GMing is not the same as another game they have played in. Making a Socialite Noble bard in a kick-in-the-door style of game, or a Lich Wizard in a Good aligned campaign are going to stick out like a sore thumb. So it's important that prior to having all of your players create their characters you give them one very important thing. Perspective.

Give them the perspective they need to create a character that fits in with the setting you're trying to create. Explain to them the primary characteristics or common traits you would expect to find in a PC in a game that you're playing, and once you smooth that out you can let them read between the lines and make their characters.

You can also ask the players to give you three or four different concepts for a character that they would like to play and choose one that fits your train of thought.

If all else fails and the players refuse to listen, you can politely set guidelines on what a PC can't play so that you ensure that you don't see it during the game. Tell them that playing an Spellcaster would get them burned at the stake because the people of your game world are deathly afraid of magic to the point of burning anything that even seems magical.

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The Same Page tool is often wheeled out as the solution to this type of problem, and it is extremely good at what it does. However, I wanted to talk in more general terms about what needs to happen here.

If you have decided on a tone and theme to the game you want to run, you need to...

  • Communicate this as clearly as you can to your players before you do any type of character creation.
  • Make it clear what kind of character ideas will not work in this setting, and that appropriate ideas will be important in making the setting work at all
  • Initiate character creation as a group activity rather than allowing players to go off and create their 'baby', which they will be intensely defensive about, making it difficult for you to change their mind about
  • Collaborative group character design also generally ensures that the individual characters will work as a group. You get oversight of the process so you are able to identify certain issues early on in the process and talk through why they might cause problems and possible compromises that will keep players happy

If you follow this process through to the point that at the end of it, every player has a completed character, you have a very good chance that the group will work together as a whole, and will fit within the genre and mood of the game you want to run.

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There are many good nuggets of information above. One thing I would like to add that I haven't seen is Use Pre-Builts/Templates. Spend half of the points for them so it steers each character in a certain direction, but allows them some freedom to make it their own special brand of "weird". I've found this especially useful in games that require niches to be filled. For example, getting the framework together for the witch-hunter so that when they start encountering said (evil?) witches, they can do something about it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a good answer. If playing a point-based system, and a Tolkien-esque came (for ease of explanation) then the attributes that make up a Dwarf cost X points individually, but .8X if taken together, as the "Dwarf pack" as I call it. Then if the player wants this Dawrf to be a warrior, she takes the "physical combat" pack, which provides the basics for .8X of the ala carte cost. The more people stick with the "packs" (which in fact define the 'reality' of the game') the more effective they're going to be. And there should be left-over points for the sake of penalty-free individuality. \$\endgroup\$ – Tony Ennis Jun 27 '15 at 12:48
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  • Before character generation, communicate to them clearly what theme you are going for. They can not make characters when they aren't aware of what to expect.
  • Give them restrictions on character creation. Give them a list of properties their characters must have or must not have. The most extreme restriction would be to design some player-characters yourself and have the players pick from them.
  • Have a character creation session together with the players where you give them feedback on their choices about how they fit or don't fit into the narrative. When they want to give their characters traits which don't fit at all, reserve the right to veto their decisions.
  • Deal with it. When someone wants to play a time-traveling half-elf space pirate vampire stranded in a present day zombie survival campaign, let them have it and explore how such a character would adapt to this unfamiliar situation.
  • When your players like to design weird characters, why not approach it the other way around? Let the players design their characters without a specific setting in mind. Then make up a setting in which all these characters would work.
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From your comment "It doesn't matter what theme and mood we use", it sounds as if you are constantly starting new campaigns. That may be necessary, but it's never good; and it's hardly surprising that the players don't know 'what will fit' in an entirely new system and setting.

What I would recommend is something that is always useful when starting a new campaign, though it may not be practical; have a 'taster session', using pregens. The characters will presumably be well-suited to the encounters, since you designed both at the same time, and everybody (including the GM, of course) gets an idea of how this campaign is likely to work. Assuming the players like it, then for the real campaign they can keep the same character or another from the pool (probably with some minor changes), or design their own with the added knowledge of what is expected. An added bonus is that you now have half a dozen NPCs who are useful and known to the party, in case they need help later on.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ We're actually a role-playing club at a university, so we have a lot of shorter campaigns, campaigns mapped to the academic school year, or even just multiple games running at a time for different people. I tend to end up running most of the games due to wide system experience. \$\endgroup\$ – VampTheUnholy May 12 '17 at 1:45
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Ask them to. When they don't, tell them why the character doesn't fit the campaign and help them change it. It's obvious, for instance, that you wouldn't allow a Space Marine in a D&D game, and this is just a lower key version of the same thing.

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