Playing Your PC Poorly

Dungeons & Dragons is often about the increasing power of heroes who start out capable and get stronger from there. But it wasn't always that way.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Welcome to the Meat Grinder

Characters in earlier versions of Dungeons & Dragons had ability scores that were rolled randomly. Players could select where the statistics went, but a poor score would inevitably bedevil starting characters, which certainly contributed to their likely death against frequently overwhelming odds.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' restrictive requirements for certain classes like paladins required minimum ability scores, so if a player wanted to play a certain class they had to get lucky with their rolls. To get around this, players would roll over and over until they got the right combination of scores to succeed. Eventually, programs were created to mass generate these types of scores. And that led to point buy systems, where the player would just pick scores and not leave anything to chance.

This change meant that players started out more capable than they did in the past. And that changed how players role-played their characters.

Playing a Loser

It was rare in the AD&D days to put too much effort into a new character who might die anyway. Instead, role-play emerged from characters as they leveled up. Once they reached a high enough level to be raised from the dead if they died, players got more comfortable investing in their characters by role-playing them. Additionally, role-play came about from the character's longevity. They didn't have in-depth backstories because the character wasn't fully formed until the player played them for a while.

This is where early Call of Cthulhu branched off from traditional D&D. Call of Cthulhu ability scores were originally similar to D&D's, but rather than fight the vulnerabilities of characters, Call of Cthulhu embraced them. Weakness was a virtue, and heroism was role-played rather than being built into the character. It's not uncommon to find characters with stats of 6 or lower in early adventures for the game.

My ill-fated D20 Modern/Call of Cthulhu game was a perfect example of the collision between expectations ("I'm a hero, I should feel like it!") vs. the game's setting ("you are insignificant and you can only hope to die heroically"). Of all my players in that game, only my brother ever role-played his character Hank as being actually frightened of things. He enjoyed role-playing Hank's terror, running screaming at the slightest provocation; the rest of the party would roll their eyes and have to rescue him. That vulnerability made for a great horror game.

But that's not typical D&D. At least not anymore. And for evidence of how gameplay has changed, we have a more recent example.

We Need to Talk About Keyleth

Keyleth is a half-elf druid from Critical Role who has gotten even more publicity in Amazon's new animated series, The Legend of Vox Machina. There are several moments in the cartoon where Keyleth, a capable druid (and potentially the most powerful caster in the group), freezes up. She doesn't always cast the right spells or any spells at all. A little digging revealed that this is also true to the streaming series, as Polygon recounts:

According to an interview that Ray gave in 2018, Keyleth’s social awkwardness and uncertainty stemmed at least in part from Ray’s own nerves at joining a table full of established voice actors. But she took ownership of that early role-play decision and made it a core part of Keyleth’s character. Her play style allowed Keyleth to experience doubt in key moments, sometimes resulting in an in-game fumble or a moment of conflict ... Keyleth’s anxieties and self-doubt stem, at least in part, from her concerns about her ability to take on the role she is destined for later in life, as leader of the Air Ashari druids. Her fear of failure manifests itself in ways that often have direct negative consequences for the party.

This choice, to play a character who is complicated and uncomfortable with her powers, made her a less effective party member. She's doesn't enter the stage as a fully-formed hero, more a young character struggling to live up to the enormous expectations on her shoulders. It's a narrative choice, but not necessarily one optimized for party survival. In the cartoon, this makes for interesting in drama. But it frustrated critics of the streaming series, who were very harsh on Keyleth and her player, Marisha Ray. And in case it's not clear, Ray is quite capable as a cast member and the company's creative director:

Ray has been instrumental in making Critical Role into the sprawling multimedia company that it is today, contributing as the creative lead for shows like All Work No Play, Exandria Unlimited, and more. In interviews and media appearances, the persona she presents behind the scenes is distinctly different from Keyleth’s brand of awkward deference. Ray appears to command the room, regularly making difficult decisions that impact the entire organization. And yet a core group of toxic fans continue to hold a grudge against her portrayal of Keyleth.

New Players, New Play Styles

In the continual push-pull between role-play and combat, squad-like efficiency are no longer a baseline assumption for all players. Traditional D&D came out of military historical roots, but new players without that background are bringing narrative-first characters, character who are flawed because it's fun to role-play and grow. And that's no less a valid choice than Hank's terror or Keyleth's insecurity. It's just different, and as new players join D&D, we're going to see a lot more of it.

Your Turn: Have you ever played a deeply flawed character who intentionally didn't use their abilities to the fullest?
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Weakness was a virtue, and heroism was role-played rather than being built into the character.
This is the problem with all arguments of this form. This, right here, is the key fallacious idea.

Weakness is not a virtue in roleplaying. That is, it is neither a characteristic to which one should aspire (the common use of the term "virtue"), nor is it a context-specific midpoint chosen between two extremes (the rigorous definition, from Aristotelian and modern virtue ethics).

Instead, the actual "virtue" here is groundedness, which IS a characteristic to which one should aspire (as appropriately grounded characters are easier to relate to and have better ability to communicate ideas and experiences to anyone observing), and IS a context-specific midpoint chosen between two extremes (the deficient vice of ridiculousness, where one cannot take the character seriously at all, and the excessive vice of dullness, where the commitment to relatability has removed everything fantastical or unreal about the character). A good character finds and chooses an appropriate midpoint between being ridiculous and being dull: fantastical enough to be interesting and exciting, but relatable enough to feel plausible and natural.

Further, this oft-repeated line of "heroism was not built into the character" is just a load of pretentious, traditionalist bull hockey. It conflates heroism with competence. Yes, as the game has evolved, characters have become more competent. This has nothing to do with making characters any more or less heroic. Instead, it is the frank admission that, for players of all ages, most fans don't actually enjoy the process of losing two dozen characters before finally getting one worth investing in. Because that's a very tedious, time-consuming process that doesn't really give much reward, other than MAYBE building up a library of experiential knowledge...IF the DM is consistent enough with rulings and doesn't interfere too much with the connection between your choices and the results that occur. (Unfortunately, far too many DMs fudge dice and alter monster statistics on the fly, eroding the player's ability to actually learn from their choices.)

One of the ways to skip this frustrating, not particularly popular process is to just play a character that is assumed to have already survived their earliest adventures. That doesn't make them instant larger than life heroes. It just makes them competent, a little experienced. But even old-school games recognize that this process is a problem element that pushes people away from the game, they just prefer to find a different solution. In a very real sense, they take the idea of "reroll ad infinitum until you get what you wanted to begin with" and run with it, turning it into an actually pretty clever design: the "character funnel," pioneered by Dungeon Crawl Classics, as I understand it.

For anyone unfamiliar (though I suspect most users in this forum will be familiar), the character funnel is an introduction to the campaign where the player plays a LARGE number of characters all at once, half a dozen at least and potentially many more. The "funnel" adventure is some kind of harrowing meatgrinder specifically designed to kill off most characters who attempt it. As a result, any characters who DO survive have "earned their stripes," proverbially speaking; they started off as incredibly green and minimally competent rubes, and have actually managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Of course, their survival in the funnel is almost entirely down to random chance, but if you run enough characters through the funnel, eventually at least one of them will make it.

But, as noted in this very article, the development of "point buy" systems was an admission that people WERE gaming the old system--that people wanted competent characters and would abuse a mechanic designed to keep (most) characters within some reasonable range of balanced until they inevitably got competence. The character funnel is a way to embrace the desire for character competence without totally abandoning the OSR love of minimal control and having to start from damn near rock bottom. It was a designer recognizing that the game as it existed didn't conform to what players wanted, and instead of becoming petulant or insulting, actually looking for a solution that accepts the criticism but rejects the idea that the old way must be completely replaced. And while I don't personally care for that sort of thing (I find it extremely difficult to care at all about a game that tells me not to invest into a character because it will almost certainly be taken away from me very soon, with little ability on my part to control or prevent that from happening), I can recognize good design when I see it, and the funnel is very good design for someone who wants to uphold the tone and experience of old-school D&D while accepting modern audience criticism.

So...yeah. Don't conflate competence and heroism; it is a quirk of old-school D&D that "earned" competence was a prerequisite for heroism, not an equivalence. And don't treat character weakness as a virtue when it isn't; recognize that a character displaying weakness is one potential aspect of an actual virtue, groundedness.
 

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I might very well be wrong about that but I have the impression that optimizing actually got worse in 5E, i n a sense that more people are doing it.
Sure you always had optimizers and in 3E they could pull off some insane things but the number of people who did that stuff outside of theorycrafting was, so my impression, rather low.

It may be true (I don't have statistics) that optimizing is more common in the modern era, due to ease of access to builds on the internet and a relatively low number of 5e splatbooks. But I would posit that 5e has a much lower difference between optimized and un-optomized buiilds. Mainly because, IMNSHO, 5e is the most flaw-friendly RPG I've ever played. It's much harder to make a "bad" character (if you follow the basic guidelines) than any other version of D&D I've played. It has a much lower reliance on key ability scores, or feats, or picking the best gear, or multiclassing/prestige classing etc, to have a solid character. Also, whack-a-mole healing in combat makes it much harder to die.

As for my personal experience with flawed characters, I'm currently playing one and enjoying it. My group started a 5e campaign over a year ago with half of the players being experienced D&Ders and the other half with practically no RPG experience. I intentionally built a non-optimized and slightly dimwitted character to help ensure I didn't hog the spotlight. It's worked out well so far.

But I do occasionally miss working out hyper-optimized characters in 3.Xe. 5e's flaw friendliness leads to many builds feeling same-y.
 

Dungeon Crawl Classics heavily plays on intentionally taking on the "loser PC" and seeing what you can do with its 0-level "funnel" adventures (you control a group of 0-level dirt farmers with no skills and purely random 3d6 stats, if any survive pick one to become your level 1 character). After the funnel, I picked a character with a 3 attribute in Intelligence. I mention this because candidly, I'm not sure I would have pushed with a narrative-based character without that prompt. I was going to make this work. He was going to be intentionally "flawed" and make this campaign more interesting. Instead of making him a stereotype (e.g. speaking in third person "Krug smash rock") he became a simple man from fantasy Appalachia country raised simple.

I wrote down a list of "momma sez" (yeah, credit Waterboy, ugh) wisdoms that helped him get by. He knew he wasn't educated, struggled with reading and language, and he got upset inwardly if others commented on this but kept it inside. I made several unintelligent decisions, such as charging a ghost because he had no idea his weapon would just go right through one. But he wasn't foolish or foolhardy. Once he "missed," he understood the mistake, and he would get upset later to his friends because once again, he screwed it up. He also had a way of telling stories to strangers without context (he didn't stop to think they weren't there and wouldn't know why the worm crawled up his leg and got into his brain...)

It was something different. He wasn't a superhero. He didn't have superhero stats. But he was a blast to play, and the table had a blast with him, which was vital to me. If his detriments distracted, ruined the experience, hogged the spotlight, etc., it wouldn't have achieved what I set out to do.
I find delightful irony in you giving a direct example of what I was talking about while I was writing the above post.

This is exactly what I mean. Weakness, and in particular intentionally hobbling oneself purely to hobble oneself, is not a virtue in roleplay. But playing out the reasonable consequences of certain characteristics, making believable and human responses to events? Those things are absolutely virtuous in roleplay. You avoided making your characters low intelligence a burden on the party, but still played through the reasonable consequences of being not terribly bright. You avoided both being ridiculous (over-the-top idiotic) and being dull (inhibiting the group), and thus developed a grounded character who displayed enough of the fantastic to be interesting and enough of the mundane to be relatable.

That is a perfect demonstration of the actual virtue being sought by this article, for which mere weakness has been mistaken.

Mainly because, IMNSHO, 5e is the most flaw-friendly RPG I've ever played. It's much harder to make a "bad" character (if you follow the basic guidelines) than any other version of D&D.
If one chooses to ignore 4e (as many people do nowadays), I would agree, though it's fair if you yourself just haven't played it (because...same thing, many people never played it, whether or not they criticized it). I would 100% say 5e is less forgiving though. 4e was significantly more forgiving in terms of health, especially at early levels, and the difference between "just taking what sounds cool, not really bothered by power" and "bleeding hedge optimization" was...usually not much more than doing about 50% more damage or having 2-3 points higher defense. (Note that I am not comparing to actively anti-optimized characters that are trying their best to suck.) The half-level bonus actually worked in its favor here, since it meant all characters would get stronger even in their weak areas, unlike 5e where a weak save never gets better and thus becomes a greater and greater liability as CR rises.

The one area that 4e was less flaw friendly was ability scores, but it was also much more generous with those than 5e is (+1 point to any two stats at 4th, 8th, 14th, 18th, 24th, and 28th level; +1 to all stats at level 11 and 21; many Epic Destinies, taken at level 21, also granted +2 to a stat.) The high degree of transparency in its rules also made it very clear what you were getting or giving up by choosing certain stats, so while it did require attention to them, this was not an onerous burden.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I wonder if Commander in MtG has the most explicit conversations about something like this.

For those who don't play MtG, "social Commander" can be thought of as "playing a 100-card deck version of magic with 4 players, where the goal is to win your fair share of games - so if you are winning a lot (> 50%), maybe tone your deck down, and if you aren't winning enough (hardly ever) step it up a bit". On the other hand, there is also "competitive EDH" where the goal might be said to be having fun by grinding your opponents to a pulp as efficiently as possible.

There are lots of different ways of describing power levels of decks in Commander, but they're usually something like - pile of cards, sold by WotC pre-constructed deck, 75% (e.g. you haven't gone all out), pub stomp (you think you've gone all out), and competitive. If you sit down at a table that's more than one level off of what you're playing, some people will probably not be enjoying themselves a lot after a while. Of course, one groups idea of 75% and pub stomp might not be close to another groups...

I wonder if this is what happens with all story vs. all min-maxers in D&D. And a group of people who think they've found that 75% sweet spot in the middle. "Think they've found" because they'll still end up getting accused by some of min-maxing too much and by others of slowing the whole party down.
 

The one area that 4e was less flaw friendly was ability scores, ...

4e being more reliant on ability scores is one of my main reasons for saying 5e is more flaw-friendly. Another big one is feat taxes. I remember 4e had feats that were essentially required for many builds - they were just too optimal to play without them. But if someone didn't recognize the feat tax (or just decided not to pay it), they could build a character that was always behind.

Admittedly, I've spent less time on 4e than many other editions. I also did it without a computer; it's possible that the online character builder helped you avoid bad decisions.
 

4e being more reliant on ability scores is one of my main reasons for saying 5e is more flaw-friendly. Another big one is feat taxes. I remember 4e had feats that were essentially required for many builds - they were just too optimal to play without them. But if someone didn't recognize the feat tax (or just decided not to pay it), they could build a character that was always behind.
There are no feat taxes any more significant in 4e than the ones that exist in 5e, especially since you pay WAY more to get those feats in 5e. Elven Accuracy, Warcaster, Great Weapon Master (and similar feats), Lucky, Resilient (Con)...even with how few and expensive feats are in 5e, there are still build taxes. The only feats that were of a caliber like that in 4e were the expertise feats. Everything else was gravy.

Admittedly, I've spent less time on 4e than many other editions. I also did it without a computer; it's possible that the online character builder helped you avoid bad decisions.
I mean it could, but again, there wasn't much need to. You got a total of 18 selectable feats (19 if human; I say "selectable" as several classes granted bonus feats e.g. Wizard giving Ritual Caster for free), and did not have to sacrifice your ability scores to get them. It really, truly was the case that unless you were actively trying to suck, you would usually get a pretty good character. Not the best, to be sure. But it honestly took a bit of effort to shift from decent to actually bad. It's much easier to build a character that doesn't gel in 5e. Not as easy as it was in 3e, where all you needed to do to achieve that was write "Monk" on your character sheet, but it's still easier.
 

Oofta

Legend
I've enjoyed play sub-optimal PCs in the past. The (pre Tasha's) dwarven wizard, the rogue that had a higher strength than dexterity and so on. For other PCs it's been the reasonable intelligence low wisdom PC that makes snap decisions such as charging head long into battle. I had a lot of fun with a barbarian that thought lying and deception was a weakness.

There are various ways of creating character "hooks", things to play off of that make the PC more interesting to me. I try not to take it to the extreme of course, I just think that flaws can be just as fun as strengths. I wouldn't totally nerf a character because I want to contribute to the team.

Optimization in 5E is frequently in the eye of the beholder and comes down to the "best" build adding a point or two of DPR while ignoring everything else. Speaking from experience, in 3.5 there could a huge difference between optimal builds and non-optimal builds. Even though I was never one to seek out exploits, at certain levels some of my PCs could out-damage the rest of the group combined until around 15th level when nobody could compete with a competent caster. I just don't see that level of difference in 5E, so playing someone not optimized doesn't make that much of a difference. Tactics, teamplay and luck are more important most of the time.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
One thing we don't abide at our table is players (or the DM) telling other players how to play their characters.
Very much the same here. It gets smacked down in a hurry, often by other players before the DM can get a word in edgewise.
To us, if you are playing in good faith, you are playing cooperatively and playing a character that has some redeeming qualities to contribute to the party in that cooperative spirit.
Where we're a bit more toward the anything-goes side. Play your character in good faith to itself and the game rules, yes, but there's nothing saying it has to be co-operative or share anyone else's goals.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The game is IMO generally far more fun and entertaining when people play their characters as characters - warts and screw-ups and all - rather than as members of an elite commando squad that has everything planned out and where everyone does exactly what they're supposed to.

My go-to 'flaw' is often low Wisdom coupled with a somewhat Chaotic bent, as this allows me to just have my character try to do any gonzo idea that pops into my head, without having to think twice about it or ask anyone else's advice (or permission - ugh!) and all the while remaining nicely true to the character and its stats.
 

On the subject of Keyleth, having watched the various campaigns, I do think part of the basis for Keyleth's mistakes and hesitancy is Marisha's own inexperience with D&D. She relies on tricks she has figured out even when sub-optimal for a while, and also experiments with new stuff she's learning, again, even when not always optimal. And over the years, you can see how Marisha's confidence with the system grows and she's capable of stronger tactical choices as well as more confident role playing ones (see her current character Laudna as an example).
And the criticism Marisha has had to put up with from the peanut gallery online has been appalling. If I had a relatively newb player at my table getting crap like that from another player, someone's getting the boot.

This is why I think it is not helpful to frame RPGs as having "win conditions," because I feel like it encourages a very narrow view of what winning looks like, usually adapted from different kinds of games (board games, etc). I've seen this sort of thing drive new players away.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Not in a bad way, but this is such a D&D-centric view on this topic. Many other RPG systems encourage or require you to play to your character's flaws as well as their strengths, with Fate (both Core and FAE) as the ur-example where you get additional meta-currency to use your strength by having your flaws appear.

I have absolutely played characters who have made choices and done things that were not optimal. I endeavor as a player to make those fun for everyone else at the table, as that's one of the prime responsibilities of everyone playing, but that hasn't stopped moves of pathos, anger, passion, ignorance, or angst that provide a strong story while metaphorically or literally pulling the ceiling down about our ears.

It even can show up in the small things - my herald stepping in front of his king to protect him... even though my brave halfling bard has the lowest HP and AC in the group, and our barbarian king the most. Is it the smart move? No. Is it a move I've made several times, and made that character endeared to everyone else in the party and made good stories? Yes.

This question about playing your PC poorly focuses on playing them sub-optimally mechanically or tactically. But done right, playing a PC brilliantly in terms of narrative and fun at times can require that. And that's not doing it wrong, it's all right.
 


payn

Legend
Personally, I love players who don't optimize or who play sub-par PCs, or who do actions that are not perfect. It shows they understand the game isn't about winning. A sure sign of a very mature RPer, always welcome at my table! (unlike min/maxers).
I know min/maxers can sometimes make things tough at the table for a group, but I have had less issues with them than flaw type role players. I have had folks play it up too much so that their character actually becomes a caricature. Its like they are playing a flaw with a humanoid familiar instead. If they have low charisma they must burp and fart and just be a straight up a-hole every single chance they can get. Its just too much where I would rather they didnt take the flaw at all. Some folks even think the "take a flaw get a bonus mechanics" means they really must play up the flaw as the price of admission for the benny, which is like the worst of both worlds...
 

edosan

Explorer
Not in a bad way, but this is such a D&D-centric view on this topic. Many other RPG systems encourage or require you to play to your character's flaws as well as their strengths, with Fate (both Core and FAE) as the ur-example where you get additional meta-currency to use your strength by having your flaws appear.

Which 5e uses in the form of traits/ideals/bonds/flaws. A lot of people ignore it either by habit or because they think it's too difficult, but it's right there.

Anecdotal, but while it seems to be style to say "kids these days, they all want to be anime superheroes" the newcomers I play with are quite happy to play something suboptimal if it fits their character ideas, it's the longtime players that want to do the extended theorycrafting to make the optimal character.
 

kosmosis

Villager
There are so many ways to play these games and I fall strongly in the sub-optimal camp. I've actually moved away from D&D due to the optimization culture that is so strong (see all of the class optimization guides inspired by WoW and now in D&D). I think everyone enjoys these games for different reasons and I can see the draw of optimized builds for people who came from MMORPGs and are really into tactics, but for me, heavy roleplay with characters that have flaws provides me with a story aspect that I can't get in video games or anywhere else.

My favorite characters have all been characters that would probably make optimizers cringe. I played a Wizard/Warlock/Ranger that was an absolute blast. I just enjoyed him because he was a socially awkward anthropologist obsessed with the Yuan-Ti. I recall my first session (it was a new group) using the character, a player said "you didn't take Mage Hand!?". I told him "No. I am an Enchantment wizard learning the enchantment abilities of the Yuan-Ti. Mage Hand is not an Enchantment spell. And I like to play sub-optimally". He understood and we moved on and had fun. In my eyes, if another player has a problem with a party member not maximizing their power, they want to play a different game than I do and it's likely not just a good fit.

I will never tell another player they should have made different character choices..even if it means the party could run into trouble. But then again, I think the DM has a large role in molding the adventure based on the characters in the group. If players don;t mike optimized combat builds and go skill-heavy, use less difficult combat scenarios.
 

kosmosis

Villager
Which 5e uses in the form of traits/ideals/bonds/flaws. A lot of people ignore it either by habit or because they think it's too difficult, but it's right there.
I think a lot of people ignore them because there is no real mechanic attached to it (or if there is one, nobody seems to use it). I think other games that attach certain rewards to those things can be a lot of fun, but even then it can be abused if people "spam" their flaws for gains.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Which 5e uses in the form of traits/ideals/bonds/flaws. A lot of people ignore it either by habit or because they think it's too difficult, but it's right there.
I'm not disagreeing with you, but Inspiration is not tightly coupled with the rest of the rules - there is nothing else interacting with it. So it is never required to play to your flaws, unlike in Fate. With the recommendation of once per character per session, and of the five many of them are not flaws and/or will come up in neutral or positive ways, so rewarding a flaw probably comes up once every couple of sessions. So one d20 roll every few sessions isn't a strong representation. But you are right, it is representation, and we can strengthen it.

In the 5e games I run and the games I play we've adopted alternate Inspiration rules to make it more prevalent. Players can nominate other players when they see it, so it comes up more often. It's grants a reroll instead of Advantage, so both it's avoids the "oh I forgot it" and also feels like it always has a chance to make a difference. And we the "once a session" we treat as a guideline and not a rule. We like having it mean more.

Anecdotal, but while it seems to be style to say "kids these days, they all want to be anime superheroes" the newcomers I play with are quite happy to play something suboptimal if it fits their character ideas, it's the longtime players that want to do the extended theorycrafting to make the optimal character.
Agreeing with you: One of the 5e games I run is for my kids and my niece and nephew. They are quite happy making sub-optimal characters and having others play "true" even if it's sub-optimally. I've had a complaint once with rolled scores that they had no penalties and that didn't fit the concept they envisioned.

Though the game with veteran players I run ranging form 30s to 50s for the most part aren't concerned enough with system mastery to effectively optimize mechanically. They try to make reasonable choices, but I think the only one that theorycrafts is me, and I don't do that for characters I play (who grow more organically to fit the party) but just as a "solo minigame" when new character options come out.
 

Yeah, something that is often overlooked or intentionally (and IMO wrongly) ignored about "play weak characters!" is the official and unofficial incentives. Which is a drum I've beaten so many times I'll have to replace the head soon, but I'm not gonna stop!

Games like Fate reward the player for choosing to play out the negative facets of their Aspects, and make it costly to choose not to play out those things. That creates a play space where, yes, accepting a Compel means you suffer some kind of problem or setback, but there is both the intangible reward of "this enriches the experience and makes it more interesting," and the tangible reward of "you now have another Fate point that can turn a critical moment into success." Further, the player's agency is respected up to a point: the system doesn't allow players to ignore every Compel forever, but it does give players the option of spending their resources if they really, truly cannot accept the consequences of a particular Compel. Doing so can also enrich the story, by presenting a moment when a character is tempted or struggles against their own nature and exhibits uncommon virtue in the process.

More importantly, by having things codified in this way, the DM is encouraged to think in terms of what incentives they provide and to offer Compels that players will actually be comfortable (maybe even enthusiastic) about accepting. These faults, flaws, and failings then cease to be "look at how much you suck," and instead become "look at the struggle you're going through." They cease to be poor play, and instead become fun opportunities.

5e, and D&D more broadly, has unfortunately always been very bad at both of these things. I think 4e actually made some small strides in this department that were sadly completely ignored in 5e (specifically, the "quest experience" stuff and the Skill Challenge rules), but even in the edition I love best, the incentive structures and DM tools to make them cool and fun instead of punitive and frustrating are extremely thin. 5e's use of Inspiration, or rather the really really noteworthy lack of use in most groups, and the fact that Advantage is a poor tool for the intended function, leave it dangling by a thread of "well you should just WANT to roleplay characters that err and fail, because that's more interesting!" That line of thinking has the eternal problem: telling people that they should be just intrinsically motivated to do something that is extrinsically very discouraging is simply going to fail a lot of the time.

If D&D wants people to play flawed characters, or as I would prefer to phrase it, if D&D wants people to play grounded and relatable characters, it needs to offer actual (not just theoretical) incentives to do so, and it needs to give DMs both high quality advice on how to do that well, and well-made and flexible tools for making it happen. 5e as it stands does not do either of those things, and even my edition heartthrob is only a small step up.
 

payn

Legend
If D&D wants people to play flawed characters, or as I would prefer to phrase it, if D&D wants people to play grounded and relatable characters, it needs to offer actual (not just theoretical) incentives to do so, and it needs to give DMs both high quality advice on how to do that well, and well-made and flexible tools for making it happen. 5e as it stands does not do either of those things, and even my edition heartthrob is only a small step up.
Thats a huge uphill fight I think. Some folks love 5E bonds flaws and whatever. My experience has been its so flimsy and underused its like a bolt on. However, a lot of folks dont play D&D to role play a relatable and grounded character, they play it for adventure and tactically crunchy combat. So, a simple bolt on in this case is a gentle reminder with no teeth, and likely for the best.

Thats not to say that games that do this better, like the mentioned Fate, dont have their own problems. Folks often look at the character sheet and just use whats on it. So, you might have a strength and a weakness and just apply that same idea to every situation. It can pump out caricatures just like D&D. A lot of it will come down to playstyle of the folks involved. You can do your best to encourage RP relatable and grounded characters, but folks are going to play how they want to play. I'm not a believer that mechanical systems can achieve this. You can lead gamers to Mountain Dew, but you cant make them drink. YMMV.
 

I have done that, and to a degree I (try to) do it with all my chars. In one group I'm playing a human wizard that I designed as a full-on book-lover. His selection of spells at 1st contains exactly zero spells useful in combat. He was quite in awe of the other wizard in the group, an elven blade singer, and her selection of combat spells. He's fun to play, especially since he has a world of growth available to him, unlike a character that's already optimized when "born".
 

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