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

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.
“Always behind” in this context, means a 5% to 10% less chance to hit, so YMMV.
 

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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).
Too much optimization is the death of a party, while on occasion, the quirky choices of an unoptimized PC can save everyone.

A party where there are 6 characters with Perception (the “god” skill, I’ve heard it callec) but none with Religion, Insight, Animal Handling or Nature can find a lot of solutions to ptoblrms closed off.

Meanwhile, the Water Genasi wizard with 16 Int was crucial when the party had to escape through an underground river by swimming underwater.
 
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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.
I play similarly to you, and I wanted to point out a small difference: in our games, Inspiration can be used as a reroll OR as advantage. In most cases, the reroll is better, but allowing Inspiration to be used as advantage means that the Rogue can use it to obtain Sneak Attack in cases where it would otherwise be unavailable.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Counter-anecdote: I've seen this sort of thing - the challenge of finding a way to "win" - keep players in who weren't otherwise sure.
 

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).
As someone who roleplays pretty heavily, and yet also thinks about this sort of stuff, I would like to make a defense of what I will call "healthy" optimization.

That is, before I begin, I do recognize that optimization can be a problem. It can suck the fun out of an event by turning it into a pure plug and chug numbers game, or by inducing a feeling that "all that matters" is the numbers and everything else is just ignorable faffing about. I do not mean to defend that kind of behavior, and I 100% understand why folks would oppose it.

The problem is, that isn't anywhere near the only form of it. That is simply the most faulty, problematic kind. To judge ALL optimization (and, thus, all optimizers) by this standard is equivalent to judging ALL roleplay (and thus all roleplayers) by the standard of the jerk who constantly stokes PVP conflicts and does things to antagonize the other players and affrontedly says "but it's what my character would do!!"

I engage in some, relatively mild optimization, because I get worried about not contributing enough to the party. No, it won't help for you to tell me "it doesn't matter, just do what you enjoy!" I will feel anxious about failing to pull my own weight. By doing some research, surveying the options, and picking things that are relatively reliably useful, I will be comfortable enough to do things like taking risks, occasionally doing something unwise because it's what would make sense, and generally be a lot more willing to get engaged. I do not make a nuisance of myself. I may provide small suggestions to others if I think they have missed something they would like to have, but I know that people often find any such commentary extremely annoying so I try to do that sort of thing very carefully.

By "optimizing"--not absolute hardcore "MUST BE 110% PERFECT" optimization, just mild optimizing--I actually roleplay more and, generally, better than I would if I actively avoided any optimization.

Would you consider that treating the game as though it were something to "win"?
 

I have ... mixed results in doing this.

I'm currently playing a level 10 paladin, storm king's thunder. Definitely not a weak build - 20 Str, Great Weapon Master etc. I do make some deliberately mechanically suboptimal decisions in play though. I have avoided seeking out magic armour or any sort of protective item (even though we have had the opportunity to go magic item shopping several times) because as a paladin of Ilmater, the god of suffering, I think it's a little out of character to be spending huge amounts of money on avoiding getting injured. Similarly, every time we're in a major city, I tithe 10% of my current cash to the temple. That's pretty small stuff, but i think it makes a difference.

Similarly, the level 12 ASI/feat is coming up soon. The optimal choice would be something like a Cha increase, or Lucky, or Tough, or maybe something like Skilled to improve the Insight and Perception skills which I've been rolling hilariously badly on all campaign. But I kinda don't want to do any of those things. The unperceptive paladin is basically a campaign trope at this point, and I don't want to ruin the joke. And all the rest just seem ... bland. I've been trying to find some sort of in-character feat that gives me an interesting option to use in-play rather than just beating enemies to death with big numbers. Martial Adept could have been interesting , but one use per short rest seems very stingy...

What i find really hard to do is play down Int. The PC has a 10 int, which is not terrible, but for me personally (while I dunno what MY int score is!) I find it really hard to avoid compulsively planning and srategising and analysing and trying to guess plots etc. I shouldn't do that for this sort of PC, but I find myself doing it anyway, and not doing it is un-fun. I'm only in one fortnightly campaign, and so it's not like i have the option of playing a low-int barbarian or something as a palate cleanser while I do my strategising elsewhere. A PC is a long-term commitment, and it's the only PC I'll likely get to play for over a year. Next time I'll play someone more analytic, a wizard or something.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
What i find really hard to do is play down Int. The PC has a 10 int, which is not terrible, but for me personally (while I dunno what MY int score is!) I find it really hard to avoid compulsively planning and srategising and analysing and trying to guess plots etc. I shouldn't do that for this sort of PC, but I find myself doing it anyway, and not doing it is un-fun. I'm only in one fortnightly campaign, and so it's not like i have the option of playing a low-int barbarian or something as a palate cleanser while I do my strategising elsewhere. A PC is a long-term commitment, and it's the only PC I'll likely get to play for over a year. Next time I'll play someone more analytic, a wizard or something.
Workaround: hire yourself a smart hench, then when you-as-player come up with a good idea the hench can say "Uh, boss, how about trying this...?". Everyone gets to stay in character and yet you get to use your brain. :)
 

Samurai

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

Yes, I created and played a crazy gnomish inventor in a Pathfinder campaign named Mad Angus Malone. He literally used gunpowder as if it were chewing tobacco and as black pepper on his food! He'd also created a large robot ally, but he often kept it out of combats in order to not let foes damage it.
 

Mournblade94

Adventurer
Keyleth to me seemed to be demonstrating things like the mechanical effect of Dragon Fear or failed saves. It seemed the role playing was informed by the mechanics more so than it started out that way. I actually prefer the dice to make the character appear weak. If players were casting the wrong spell intentionally that I think would make me mad as a fellow player.

The loser character is great and all but there are probably some level of assumptions about your abilities if you are able to embody a character class to begin with.
 

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