RPG Evolution: 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

Ixal

Hero
Yes, mostly in the form of race/class combinations which did not match (ASI), sometimes even with penalties to secondary abilities (a horror to many current 5E players who are celebrating the Tasha rules as it "allows" them to play different race/class combinations which for them was not possible before as they were missing out the 16).

And also taking feats etc. which made sense for the characters backstory and personality and were not optimal or even immediately useful.
In game the character tried to look for peaceful solutions and to let authorities handle situations which were clearly meant for adventurers to resolve as they were, at least at low levels, a civilian who did not sign up for this.

In 3E I also had characters where I decided how I level up (class, feat, skill etc.) based on what happened since the last levelup and not according any sort of plan.
 
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Mezuka

Hero
Every time one of my players, in D&D (clone, simulacra or other level-based fantasy rpg), has tried that they got pushed back by one or more players as they were 'putting their character(s) in danger'.

My wife got pushed back several times by one player during 4e because she didn't want to always do optimal 'power combo' for role-playing reasons. We parted ways with this player.

For it to work you need every player to be on board and each character to have a real flaw that they are willing to role-play, even if it hurts.

In the case of CR it's pretty obvious to me that, as actors, the players in the series are willing to play along. They have a concensus.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
For it to work you need every player to be on board and each character to have a real flaw that they are willing to role-play, even if it hurts.

I don't think it's that strong, you just need to have all players accepting of other players' choices, it's called tolerance. And this includes the DM, not creating encounters with the intent to challenge the players, not their characters.

We have that balance at our tables, for example with a totally unoptimised (but not deliberately screwed) half-orc bard worshipper of Selune, who lived to see the end of Tomb of Annihilation. Yes, at one point the (one remaining) powergamer of the band screamed at the other players to follow his commands because they didn't know what they were doing, and he was the one who was shown the door.
 

In the continual push-pull between role-play and combat, squad-like efficiency are no longer a baseline assumption for all players.
I kind of feel like it never was, because earlier on, you often had players playing characters who were very much out for themselves, or whose characters had an agenda that was at odds with the other PCs. Even the deepest days of dungeon-bashing you often heard tell of PCs abandoning the party or the like, and some of my earliest experiences of 2E are of bone-headed decisions that are the result of that sort of thing.

Personally I've definitely played with a fair number of players who don't always play optimally, in various directions. I personally have mental difficulty not doing what's optimal for the party in D&D, but weirdly not in other RPGs (I know my wife feels similarly - no coincidence we both tend to play support-oriented characters in D&D). But I've seen plenty of Fighters (and even Rogues!) who tend to rush in headlong without a plan, devious Warlocks whose plans are so devious they confuse the hell out of everyone, sometimes including themselves, Clerics who are there to smash faces, not heal the weak, and so on.

I think for most groups it's all in good fun, but there can sometimes be a line crossed. Luckily when most recent "you're letting us die!!!" allegation was made in the main group I DM, the player's wild and alarming plan (which was very in-character) actually completely worked out, and on the contrary to the nay-sayers, he saved the entire party. So that has shut up complaints for oooh, most of a decade so far lol.

I do think you can sometimes get a PC who just shouldn't be in a group though. That's almost a separate issue, but it can cross into this territory. And you kind of see two kinds of player there too - ones who RP their character as being inept, cowardly, etc. but do make an effort to take actions that whilst fitting in with that, actually benefit the party (c.f. Eric in the D&D cartoon), and others who actually lean into being cowardly or whatever, and some of those characters? I think the DM should just have said "You need to rethink that PC for this campaign".
 

And this includes the DM, not creating encounters with the intent to challenge the players, not their characters.
Agree. The DM needs to account for what the party is actually capable of, when RP'd correctly, when designing adventures, rather than imagining a more optimised and perfectly-working party. Tbh, the guidelines in the DMG seem to infer a rather unoptimized group, so there's that.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Agree. The DM needs to account for what the party is actually capable of, when RP'd correctly, when designing adventures, rather than imagining a more optimised and perfectly-working party. Tbh, the guidelines in the DMG seem to infer a rather unoptimized group, so there's that.

Indeed, which is also why there are so many complaints from more powergaming groups/individuals claiming that the encounter building system does not work, forgetting that their characters are optimised to the gills and using all options that the game makes available (and in particular feats and often multiclassing) but were not included in the computations, not mentioning often high ability scores (obtained through "luck" ;) ) and magic items...
 

Ixal

Hero
I kind of feel like it never was, because earlier on, you often had players playing characters who were very much out for themselves, or whose characters had an agenda that was at odds with the other PCs. Even the deepest days of dungeon-bashing you often heard tell of PCs abandoning the party or the like, and some of my earliest experiences of 2E are of bone-headed decisions that are the result of that sort of thing.

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.

Now with bounded accuracy you have a lot more players who look at getting all the bonuses they can get, at least in the form of low hanging fruits of racial ASI matching the class ect.
 

One thing we don't abide at our table is players (or the DM) telling other players how to play their characters. 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. The party members do not always have to agree or do the optimal thing in the moment, they just need some sense of shared goals most of the time.

In the end, the cruel variability of the d20 is going to cause astronomically more strife for a party than the choice made by a player who wanted to play a half-orc wizard without floating ASI.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I do think you can sometimes get a PC who just shouldn't be in a group though. That's almost a separate issue, but it can cross into this territory. And you kind of see two kinds of player there too - ones who RP their character as being inept, cowardly, etc. but do make an effort to take actions that whilst fitting in with that, actually benefit the party (c.f. Eric in the D&D cartoon), and others who actually lean into being cowardly or whatever, and some of those characters? I think the DM should just have said "You need to rethink that PC for this campaign".

That is a very good point indeed, in the end, it comes down to table rules, but also to the "don't play a wangrod" as expressed by Matt Colville. And if the DM, or indeed the other players, tell you that there is some rethinking that needs to be done, then it should be.

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