Tuesday, August 30, 2016

You Don't Get Brownie Points For Building Ineffective Characters

This week's title is a bit incendiary, but it's an issue I think we all need to have an open, honest conversation about. Because, on the one hand, our characters are special to us. As players, we put our minds, and our hearts, into these constructs of lightning and imagination. We invest in their stories, and in many ways we view them as extensions of ourselves. When they succeed, we triumph. When they fail, part of that failure laps around our knees like a salty, lukewarm sea.

The thing is, though, this isn't a playground game of make-believe where you can just out-imagine the monsters to win. Roleplaying games are about story, but beneath that story is the underlying bones and muscle of the world in which we're playing. The same material that you need to build your characters from in order for them to function. And if you take all the gooey story-flesh, and slop it into a pile, it isn't going to stand up. You need to have the bones, and that is something a lot of gamers simply do not want to hear.

What do you mean I can't start this game with three dragons that do my bidding?

You Need One To Make The Other Work

I'm going to tell a story you've probably heard before. While the details may be different, you may even have a tale like this of your own.

Years ago, I joined a table that was running Shackled City in DND 3.5. I knew the others at the table casually, and I'd played with the DM before. I noted our lack of a front-line meat shield, and asked the DM if he would allow me to build toward the Frenzied Berserker, or if he thought that would be too broken. He gave me his assent, and I started going through the options, and assembling the usual suspects. Power Attack, Cleave, Combat Brute, Shock Trooper... we all know how this dance goes. The goal was to assemble a barbarian/fighter who could do his job, and buy the rest of the group time to do theirs. This was aided by a bullshit set of stats where my dump stat was a 10, but my Strength, Dex, and Con were all nearing superhuman levels.

That was when two options presented themselves. Options that shaped the flavor of the character, and explained his mechanical monstrosity.

You going somewhere with this, boy?
The first was that Arius wasn't, in fact, human. He was a half-orc who was passing as human (something my DM offered as an enticement because he wanted a half-orc in the party). The second was that this campaign gave us a background trait we could take. I took nightmares, which made me immune to the fatigued condition. So I had a barbarian who couldn't be fatigued.

Where does the story part come in? Well, Arius's mother had been captured by raiders, and had never told her husband what they'd done to her. Arius was born from that violation, and the boy suffered awful night terrors. He'd often wake up screaming and howling. His parents sent him to the temple of Kord, and though they didn't cure him, they channeled his energy into fitness and prowess. Arius was a prodigious weight lifter, a canny wrestler, and a brutal swordsman, because whenever he couldn't sleep, he would train. He didn't ask what kept him awake, and he didn't want to know the terrors that lurked in his mind. But when his Rage manifested, he fought in his sleep. The things in his dreams filled him, and made him a monster that knew no fear, no pain, and no mercy.

Now, I told you that story to tell you this story.

There was another fellow in the group who opted to play a cleric. A good choice, since every group needs a cleric, and they have a lot of options when it comes to what they can accomplish. He also opted for a non-human race, the problem was that the player chose a winged, half-bird race with an equivalent character level. For those not familiar with 3.5 rules, that meant he'd always have fewer levels than the rest of the party, because he gave up several levels in order to trade for the race. Much like how you could play a frost giant, but you'd be a level 1 fighter, while the rest of the party was level 14.

The primary appeal of this avian race was that he would, eventually, get functional wings. Eventually was the key word. This meant that the player gave up several levels of spellcasting in exchange for an IOU on flying a handful of levels from the start. That's not an inherent problem. It became a problem, though, when he expected to be able to waltz into a fight, and swing around the sort of numbers Arius was capable of. The cleric couldn't crack skulls the way the secret half-orc could, anymore than Arius would gain the ability to fly. But the player had an image of his character as a warrior priest, and he wouldn't be dissuaded no matter how many times he got his ribs kicked in when it came to melee.

The Unicorn of Optimized Fluff

In the above example, the player behind the cleric was getting quite frustrated after the fifth or sixth time he had to be fireman carried off the battlefield. So, when we had a gap in play, I asked why he kept rushing into melee, when he saw it clearly wasn't working. His reply was that his character was a fighter, and he was going to stand up for what was right. I asked what mechanics he was using to make that work, thinking perhaps I could make some suggestions on feats or strategy, and the response was a scoff. He was convinced that an out-of-the-box cleric, fighting with one arm tied behind his back, was the equal of a monster truck that ran on the blood of innocents.

And he just couldn't figure out why I was cleaving a bloody trail, while he struggled to take down a single enemy by the end of the fight.

You're adorable.
Rules matter. Even if your DM completely re-writes your game manual, and you have a 3-ring binder full of house rules, you still have to build your characters, and play them, according to those rules. And, while you should make a deep, compelling, interesting character, that doesn't excuse you from following those rules.

By extension, if you spend your resources frivolously, you don't get roleplay brownie points for it. Mistakes aren't magically transformed into roleplay decisions just because you did them for story reasons. You're shooting yourself in the foot, and then asking everyone else to tell you how brave you are for struggling on through your newly acquired disability.

Play To Win (But Not How You Think)

Player characters exist to accomplish goals. Whether you're raiding a fire giant stronghold, sniffing out a spy, or keeping the peace in the city's slums, your character has a job to do. As a player, it's your responsibility to make sure your character is built in such a way that they will be effective as a part of the overall team. Or, at least, that they have certain things they can accomplish which will explain their presence in the story, and as part of team protagonist.

The safety is coming off.
For example, you only have a certain number of skill points to spend every level in Pathfinder. Even if you have a high Intelligence score, and you play a class that gets a lot of skill points, you should make sure the points you spend are going into skills you're actually going to use. Say, for example, that your character is highly dexterous, so you invest points into Sleight of Hand. That's not a problem, but if you're spending those points, you are declaring that this is a skill you intend on using. Not just in downtime, or between the scenes, or just for flavor, but all the time. If you aren't the kind of character that will be picking pockets, or who intends to secrete weapons on his person in case you get captured, then this may not be a useful skill for you.

But what if your backstory is that you grew up as a pickpocket? Don't you have to spend ranks in Sleight of Hand to justify that? Not really.

This is where flavor and practicality come together. Say your character is a brawler who grew up on the streets, and she was a thief until she became a cage fighter. You aren't required to buy Sleight of Hand just because you were once a sneak thief. It would be far more likely that you'd have skills like Intimidate, Acrobatics, and Escape Artist. After all, you haven't been a sneak thief for a long time, and after countless matches your knuckles are more effective for cracking skulls than they ever were at riffling a purse.

Being "Well-Rounded" is Often a Defense of Poor Budgeting

One of the primary arguments on this topic is players who say they want to play "well-rounded" characters. That they would rather go into a game having a wider set of skills at a mediocre level, then one or two abilities that they excel at. That's a fair opinion to have, but ask yourself if you were hiring someone for a specific job, would you hire the guy with the specialized degree and field research, or the person who's worked in a bunch of different areas, and who has a smattering of skills?

Jeff is a great camp counselor... but I wouldn't hire him to re-wire my house.
No one character can do, or be good at, everything. The mechanics of any RPG are set up so that the choices you make when you invest your points define your areas of expertise. As such, you need to know what you want to do, and you have to realize what goals you have for this character.

We do this all the time at lower levels, but for some reason many players turn their noses up at playing the long-game. If you're a level 1 character in Pathfinder, and you want to deal a lot of damage in melee, the feats you'll take are likely Power Attack and Furious Focus for a Strength-based character, or Piranha Strike for a Dexterity-based character. If you're going to operate at range, you take Point Blank Shot and Precise Shot, whether you're a ray specialist, an archer, or someone with an unhealthy love of throwing axes. If you're going to multiclass as a spellcaster, then one of the best traits you can take is Magical Knack, because it helps keep your caster level on an even keel.

Does that mean there's only one way to play a character? Of course not! But you need to know what you're going to do, and how you're going to back-up that concept, if you are going to get the results you want. Can you play a hedonistic privateer on a mission from the gods who has a parrot familiar, and who is out to become the governor of his island in order to protect his people? Sure you can! But you need to know what abilities that character has to have, and you have to incorporate them into your concept.

Lastly, talk to your DM. Make sure your concept works the way you think it works, and be sure that what you want to make will actually be useful in your game. A swamp-dwelling druid who wrestles gators for fun might be a deadly grappler, but if you're playing a highly political game in the big city, with lots of backstabbing and innuendo, you might feel as useless as a fish with a new bicycle.

Thanks for reading through this week's Moon Pope Monday post. It's on the longer side, but I had a lot to say. If you enjoyed it, and would like to see more, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little support? Even $1 a month goes a long way, and there's some free swag in it for you! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, now would be a great time to do so.


  1. Well covered. I've had cases where I've wanted to build character concepts that were atypical for the system I thought were cool, but I knew I'd need to put some thought in how to make it viable. This is one case where you can use the minmaxxer's powers for good: Get tips from them.

  2. i wanna ask so many questions as i read thru this.

    1. Ask away! You'll get faster results messaging me on Facebook, though.

  3. nice article resented the initial reference to improved initiative. Essentially in getting two attacks with backstab damage and easier hit numbers before the other side moves. Its a feat i almost always take for rogues combining with backstab in 3.0 and above, but understood the concept. I do say that general rogues are not a very good character for higher levels because skills seem to be less effective and its always a game im-balance. Eg. i have a 25 trap detect skill, so what some magical device does the same thing for you, you dont get blown up from magical traps and lust like an mmo the fighter is going to barge in first and is going to mess you up anyway. Thanks Leroy!

    1. Your fighters barging in is a facet of your player group makeup, not the game system. You'll want to let them take the beating, retrieve their corpse, sell some of their gear to pay for the raise dead, then repeat as needed until they get the point that some thought might help.
      As for rogues / skill based not being useful at high levels... if you don't think they are, you're stuck in 'win by 20 minutes or FF' mode, or you're Just Not Doing It Right. I've had a Rogue (with 1 Fighter level to get Falchion proficiency, which I *could* have gotten less effective ways) dealing out MASSIVE damage by combining ridiculous amounts of Intimidate with Shatter Defenses to lay Sneak Attack + Power Attack beat downs on people without worrying about the lack of flanking from 'won't think tactically to save their lives' party members.

  4. Maybe I'm coming from the wrong perspective, but what if the story is the ultimate goal of the game? I realize that you're writing in this the perspective of a D&D/Pathfinder gamer, but what of story games? Is it still an issue when the game is focused purely on story?

    1. The only thing that's focused purely on story is a novel. If there is a game going on, there will be rules. They might be more open-ended, free-flowing rules, but the rules will be there nevertheless.

      The point I'm making is that if you're playing the game, the character you bring to the table has to match the character in your head. If you bill your character as a master of fisticuffs, but he doesn't have the requirements in your system for fighting with his fists, then you're going to run into problems.

      In a novel, you can just say that your character lands a knockout punch, wins the drinking contest, or delivers the perfect, charming line. In any RPG, you need to use the rules (which are there for conflict resolution) to show that you have come out ahead in this contest.

  5. Maybe I'm coming from the wrong perspective, but what if the story is the ultimate goal of the game? I realize that you're writing in this the perspective of a D&D/Pathfinder gamer, but what of story games? Is it still an issue when the game is focused purely on story?

    1. What he's saying is "make sure your character is suitable for at least some of the challenges you will face, as well as the tone of the story". You don't have to be good at EVERYTHING, but you need to be good at SOMETHING and ideally that something should be relevant to the challenges the GM places before you.

  6. Whatever the game system, you need to build your character to match both systems and story. If you're playing a fate variant, for instance, you still need to have aspects that support your character concept, and which allow you to gain and spend points. To expand on the first example from the original post, if you want a heavy hitter in combat, you can't just pick "Healing Words" and "The Ground Is Optional", you'd also need to have something like "Unstoppable Fists; Unmovable Body".

    If you're playing an entirely mechanicless game (which I have, and which are quite fun with good players), then no, you don't have to respect the mechanics that don't exist. But even there if you want your character to be tall, you had better write 6'8" on the character sheet and not 2'2".

  7. I enjoyed the article, as usual, but my question... what happened with the cleric player?

    1. He kept foundering for the short length of this particular campaign. He wasn't a particularly good healer, he wasn't a good scout, and he was a mediocre combatant (which could have been changed with different feats, and a more strategic use of spells). The game ended at the end of the first arc, sadly, but the player has moved on to other games. He has improved, but still falls into shiny red ball syndrome from time to time.