Sunday, February 21, 2016

The 4 Major Flaws of Character Building

If you've ever frequented an RPG forum, or spent any time in social media groups dedicated to gaming, you've likely seen your share of ridiculous character builds. Whether it's the warrior with impenetrable armor, the magic user with the one-shot nuclear spell, or the social sledgehammer who can convince anyone of anything, these builds seem like unbeatable titans.

I'll let you in on a little secret, though... most of them are houses of cards.

Quail before me!
The next time you're presented with a seemingly overpowered character build, the first thing you need to do is read the fine print to be sure there were no mechanical mistakes (bonuses that don't stack being added twice, wording that's been changed or interpreted differently from errata, etc.). If all the actual numbers check out, the next thing you need to do is run down this list of flaws which could take a powerful build, and put a big, fat crack right down the face plate.

Mistake #1: Depending on Limited Use Powers

How many bullets does your big gun have?
One of the most common methods of balancing a game is to limit the number of times per day characters can use powerful abilities. Think about every first-person shooter you've ever played, and ask yourself how many rounds of ammo you found for that game's BFG 9000. You know, that ridiculous, kill-almost-anything weapon that was meant for boss battles, but which only had 3 or 4 shots in it if you saved them all till the end of the game?

Some character builds are the equivalent of that gun. Which is why, before you start smack-talking your DM, you should take a look at how many times you can use that big bang. Because it's entirely possible for you to put everything you've got into one, big blast that will send tremors through the very earth... but what happens if there's another big boss that comes after the one you just destroyed? Or if you miss, and can't do it again until you've had a lie down and a full night of sleep?

Mistake #2: Ignoring The Character's Lower Levels

What do you do between levels 1 and 15?
While not every system is level-based, every system does have what's considered a starting point for the average player character. Then as the game progresses and your characters gain strength, you earn experience points, or you're given more power. One of the biggest flaws a character build can have is focusing on what you're going to do once you're a veteran character with a lot of experience under your belt, and not asking how you're going to survive long enough to get there, or how you're going to contribute to the game before hitting your plateau.

The longer it takes a character build to hit its stride, the bigger this flaw becomes. Because sure, if you hit level 20 and you've put all your ducks in a row, then you have a really powerful character. If you're not starting out at your build's sweet spot, though, you need to know what you're going to do until you get there.

Mistake #3: Relying on Rare Equipment/Abilities

Behold, the Sacred Sphere of... what do you mean I can't find one?
Any time a character build requires a character to get his or her hands on powerful relics, or rare powers, it's important to curb your enthusiasm. For example, the book might have stats for the Mallet of Storms, the weapon wielded by the god of thunder, but it is folly to assume that, as a player, you'll be able to find something so rare, much less allowed to wield it. And while it's true that the master of the rare and exotic art of Knoph-Reh can tear an enemy's soul out through his mouth, it's important to make sure that your character will find a master, and be able to learn it before you hinge all your hopes on it.

The easiest way to fix this problem is to sit down with your DM in Session 0 to make sure that what you want to do will be possible within the scope of your game. If you're not sure what that is, then you should check out The Importance of Session 0 in Your Tabletop Games.

Mistake #4: Not Looking For Your Build's Weaknesses

I can totally take that raging green monster!
Everything has a weakness. That's both a truism of storytelling, and a part of an RPG's inherent balance. You're always going to have weaknesses no matter what character you play. It only becomes a problem when you go into the game unaware of your weaknesses, and having no plans for how to deal with situations where your strengths are nullified.

Let's say you have a one-hit wonder; the kind of warrior whose sword can destroy any enemy that comes within reach in a single slash. The problem is that not all enemies will fight fair. So, instead of standing and fighting,the wizard you're fighting floats into the air and out of sword reach. Or, alternatively, rows of crossbow snipers take aim from cover, turning your unbeatable swordsman into a rather shamefaced pincushion. Or you find yourself facing the angry dead, whose insubstantial bodies cannot be harmed by steel, but whose icy touch can sap the life from your bones. Or you could take an example from the other direction. Say you've created a powerful sorcerer who can bend fire to his will... what happens when he has to fight demons, to whom fire is a warm bath? Or creatures of pure elements, who are healed by being bathed in what was supposed to be a torrent of death? Or you have an assassin whose poisons and precise strikes are rendered useless against the walking dead, or creatures from beyond the stars whose anatomies are impossible to understand?

A character should be geared toward a particular end. However, if your big trick isn't going to fix the problem, it's important to have a few other tools in your toolbox so you don't find yourself sidelined. Or, even worse, killed.

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  1. GREAT advice here! This SHOULD help curb the proliferation of Power-Junkie-PCs or PJPCs.

  2. With regard to point #2, there are some RPGs where you really can't expect to see significant advancement in character power as the number of sessions increases. Traveller is pretty obvious in that respect, with an absolute limit to the number of skills a character can have that isn't terribly high. And there are other games where, while your abilities can increase, various flaws will increase at the same time and rate - anything from Call of Cthulhu to Heroquest 2e.

    1. Even in games where your personal advancement isn't going up, you are gaining other things. Your reputation in game gives you access to helpful NPCs you couldn't rely on previously. Your rank in an organization may go up, giving you the ability to use more resources than before. You may gain access to bigger hardware, whether that be eldritch tomes of power, or high explosives. Things that, when you started the campaign, you didn't have before.

      Depending on those things is no less foolhardy than depending on a wizard's one-shot spell to win the day. A good thing if it works, but if the Cthonian monstrosity is still standing after you've fired your rocket launcher, it's important to have a backup plan.