Concept: Guest characters
Tested in: The One Piece campaign, The Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl, the Worldwound campaign
What it is: In D&D, players build characters and control them through adventures. That’s the elevator pitch and core concept of the entire game. There are rare circumstances where players don’t build and control their own characters, like convention one-shots where the characters are built beforehand, but that usually doesn’t happen in ongoing campaigns. DMs rarely create characters, hand them to players in the middle of an ongoing story, and say “this is who you are today”. It kind of defeats the point. But sometimes it makes sense to temporarily look at the story from another standpoint, and players don’t always have the time, knowledge, or inclination to design separate characters for what is essentially an in-continuity one-shot.
We’ve had several instances where players had characters largely handed to them by the DM for short bursts of play. In the One Piece campaign, the DM had us play the arc villains for a session so we could understand more about them and develop their personalities, live at the table. In the Worldwound campaign, the DM let us capture monsters and control them for an extended combat against enemies too powerful for us to risk fighting ourselves. And I’ve previously talked about building characters to supplement the PCs as they split up. In each case we did it for a different reason, using different methods, but in all cases the players drove NPCs for a session while the characters they intended to play sat on the sidelines.
What we wanted: Set-piece sessions that worked as a break from, but still contributed to, the campaign in ways we couldn’t do with the normal PCs. The players would use the freedom of the short-form sessions to try something new and give personality to a character who wouldn’t otherwise have one.
How it went: The best results came from the One Piece campaign, where we still tell stories about those villains. Our time playing them made them more colorful and fresher in our minds, and it made fighting with them (and, later, allying with some of them) all the more satisfying. The Eight Arms and Worldwound versions were slightly less successful, and part of that was because the characters we played had no effect on the campaign beyond their individual battles. But the main issue was probably Pathfinder. The One Piece campaign used 4E, where everything you need to know about a character fits on half a sheet of paper as long as they don’t have a dozen powers. In Pathfinder, character and monster complexity tends to increase geometrically with level, so we had to either accept a huge cognitive load to play high-level guest characters or settle for lesser, easier-to-play options. It was still fun, but it wasn’t the same rousing success.
What we learned: Guest characters need to be simple and straightforward, but not so much that they’re boring. They need one reliable, interesting mechanic (or maybe two) they can use regularly if not constantly, like a new movement mode or a fun attack, and everything else should be easy to understand. This gives players something to latch onto, something they can’t do normally, and make everything else open enough for them to figure out what they want to do, not what they think the game expects. The DM doesn’t want to inundate players with new rules, just give them enough to make an NPC their own.