I'm a firm believer that virtually any character can work in a campaign. Lots of folks like making hard-to-kill barbarian lords, ultra brilliant mages, and rogues with outrageous amounts of dexterity. A lot of the times, players get bogged down in the stats and don't focus on the character itself. A beefed up warrior can hack his way through a dungeon, sure. But it might be more interesting to see how a quirky warrior with a common strength rating and a broken sword would approach the Caves of Doom. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Character development is what makes the difference between roll-playing and role-playing. So one of the things I do as a GM is to try and keep guys focused on their character, not their stats. One of the methods I use to do this is through what I call sidebars.
I'm a firm believer that virtually any character can work in a campaign. Lots of folks like making hard-to-kill barbarian lords, ultra brilliant mages, and rogues with outrageous amounts of dexterity. A lot of the times, players get bogged down in the stats and don't focus on the character itself. A beefed up warrior can hack his way through a dungeon, sure. But
it might be more interesting to see how a quirky warrior with a common strength rating and a broken sword would approach the Caves of Doom. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Character development is what makes the difference between roll-playing and role-playing. So one of the things I do as a GM is to try and keep guys focused on their character,
not their stats. One of the methods I use to do this is through what I call sidebars.
Initially, character development is up to the player. Danny Boy makes a half-orc assassin who's on the run for having killed the wrong target. Rather than slaying the boss's mistress, he accidentally kills the boss's daughter. It's an easy mistake to have made; they were both trollops. Anyway, Danny has now laid down some back story for his half-orc, Sonny. While on the run, Sonny gets involved with a crazy wizard and they go explore a bunch of caves and take it upon themselves to save the kingdom of Taltia from dark forces.
After a few games have been run, Danny starts to get a feel for how Sonny should be played. He's amoral and not too sociable and, as a result, doesn't have many friends and doesn't always get involved with all the banter. But, he's more intelligent than he appears and has a keen eye for detail. Danny wants to keep Sonny true to character, but he also wants more
involvement in the Game Proper. What to do?
For cases like this, I implement the sidebar. A sidebar can be anything that helps get a player/character more involved in the Game Proper. It can be a quick aside while the guy that plays the crazy wizard is in the bathroom. It can be an email Danny reads before coming to the Game. It can be a note passed to him during Game play. It can even be a quick
narrative about Sonny and his past. A sidebar can be anything.
Here's an example. Sonny was involved with a gang of adventurers who were getting prepped on exploring some ruins in the middle of a harsh desert. One of the NPC's had been growing more and more disturbed as a result of his exposure to a strong, psychic menace. Sonny, being the observant type, noticed this and became concerned about it. Everyone else, however, was
more concerned with counting the torches and getting the watch rotation sorted out. We closed down shop for the night, and everybody went home. But the next day I sent Danny an email which established a run-in Sonny had with this disturbed NPC. We traded a series of emails, back and forth, and worked out a conversation Sonny had with this crazy NPC. When everybody got back together the next week, Sonny took the other PC's aside and explained he'd discovered some of the troubles that plague their NPC buddy. But Sonny being Sonny, he didn't relay the entire story.
This little sidebar accomplished a few things. One, it gave Danny a chance to play Sonny in a behind-the-scenes manner. This worked well for Danny/Sonny because Sonny is a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. Second, a rapport was developed between this particular NPC and Sonny. For the next few adventures, they stuck close together and watched each other's backs, moreso
than they would have had they not had their little one-on-one. They even took the opportunity to scoff at some of the other adventurers -- and some of the players started to scratch their head and wonder why Sonny and this NPC were so close. Third, it gave Danny and I a chance to flesh out more of Sonny's character without having to interrupt the process of the Game
Proper. We could have taken 15 minutes and made everybody watch us chit-chat back and forth, but we did it "off-camera" and without interrupting the game flow. Furthermore, we got to do it without casually stating "Sonny gets to know him better and you become friends." We actually had the conversation, we actually worked on the character, and we added an extra layer to the game that made it more enjoyable for Danny and myself. And it was indirectly fun for others too. Like I said, they started to wonder about Danny and this NPC and a few suspicions got aroused. If this had been a DVD, this would have been something included in the special features menu.
That's what sidebars do: they give a little extra depth to the game that hopefully makes it more enjoyable. I often use emails to enact sidebars, but there are other approaches. Like I said, you can pass a note to the player during the game. If I'm introducing a new player/PC to an on-going game, I often type up a sheet of notes for the player to reference -- that way, they're not coming in completely cold (unless they want to) and they'll be able to hold their own with existing players regarding legends, lore, history, politics, and Bahamut's Top Ten Most Wanted. When we meet Lando in Empire, he already
knows some things; because Lucas had already given him a list of notes to act off of, follow? Sometimes I use sidebars for narratives to describe "off-camera" events. For example, my players recently had to abandon one of their fellows when fleeing a prison. Two weeks (in terms of game time) after the jailbreak, while the players are enjoying dinner, I described a scene where they realize their buddy (call him Kyuzo) is still rotting in jail under the hellish tortures of their old foe. Suddenly, they drop their forks, bow their heads, and realize maybe their dinner isn't so great after all. That's a sidebar.
Sidebars can be useful tidbits to enrich your games by simply giving your players a little something extra to do. They should be used, but with reason. It wouldn't be fair to have the gang camp out at night, but take Player X on a series of 10 sidebar games and have him return to camp the next morning with 3 more levels of XP than before. You don't want your
sidebars to get too complicated, either. If Player X does go roaming at night (for argument's sake, let's say he doesn't need to sleep), you don't want him to get so wrapped up in a sidebar adventure that it becomes impossible for him to return to the camp by morning. And, you dont' want to start so many sidebars that you can't keep up with them. Sidebars shouldn't radically favor any given character nor should they introduce dramatic changes to the story. They're tidbits. Extras. Cookies.
My main goal with sidebars is to get players more interested in their characters and not their stats. If a player is having trouble getting his character to work, throw a few sidebars at him to get him more involved with his character. Take him on a quick tour of the Green Griffon Inn. Have him explore a simple crypt that has a strange stone in it -- maybe this stone
will become important three campaigns down the road. Have a message delivered to him that has something to do with his mysterious past. Describe a strange dream he might have had, a dream that might foreshadow a direction in which the game will go. Describe a street fight he witnesses between two goblins so he'll have a better idea of the goblin mind-set.
Character development is predominately in the hands of the players. Game masters can only do so much to help their players develop their characters. Major events and character points can be addressed during the main game, but sometimes you have to work on the subtleties, the finer details. There are several different approaches you take, and the sidebar is one of them.