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

Lyxen

Great Old One
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.

I think there are many more factors. 5e is easier and much less extensive, so optimising is easier too. The pervasiveness of internet and "builds" makes it way too easy to copycat.

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.

Which is why it was good, as long as it lasted, that the Tasha's rules were optional. We'll see where this leads in the next iteration of the game.
 

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Stormonu

Legend
In theory, I enjoy playing or having characters around the table that aren't optimized and have flaws. I've recently run a Monk character whose highest score was an 11 and whose personality was a bit of an oddball. He lasted surprising long and was actually pretty effective. In past editions, I've also run characters with 8's or lower in some of their ability scores who had some deep personality flaws. My most memorable was a fighter I played for a one-shot 0E game whose Int was 6 - and had been gifted a ring of 3 wishes; by the end of the one-shot, he'd used one wish for a semi-good reason (to get rid of a flock of vampire bats - and every other bat in existance...), and one for a silly reason (a semi-complaint worded as "I wish"); it was fun and I had everybody laughing at the table a couple of times, especially when he got down to the one wish left and the group kept eyeing me nervously to not "accidentally" use it frivolous.

However, at the same time, the player character who's flaws threaten to get MY character killed, I get unhappy real quick. Playing out flaws can be fun, but not when it costs someone else their character or fun.
 

TwoSix

Uncomfortably diegetic
Yea, I think as the baseline D&D group has moved away from "challenge play" and towards "expressive play", the game has generally moved away from tolerating suboptimal decision making towards encouraging it in the name of drama and character fidelity. Which is great! I'm here to see crazy stuff happen, not try to "beat" an encounter.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
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.
That's not the impression I've gotten. There are a lot of players who are doing some optimizations, because it's pretty easy to do in 5e, and then easing off the accelerator because there's not all that much to optimize (compared to 3e). I'm seeing generally fewer players redlining the system compared to 3e.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
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.
 

Fascinating post! I’m very curious about these analyses around the inflection points in this hobby. Sometimes it really does feel like there’s a before and after.
 

BRayne

Adventurer
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.

Marisha was the second most experienced player after Taliesin starting out. But being that they switched to a different system upon starting streaming and she was playing the most complicated class in the group as well as having the most roles in the group since she got saddled with main aoe damage and main healer for most of the campaign she had a lot on her plate.
 

Vildara

Explorer
It's also based on system to an extent. It was really interesting when we swapped over to OSE for a little Swordfish Islands. I refused to be given any backstories. Once we went through 4 PC's in two sessions everyone got it. They started playing differently and the roleplay, while still character centric, was less about what they HAD been through and more what they WERE going through. And play started being less about what bad ass stuff my cool character can do and what the party as a whole could accomplish. It was very interesting to see how going back to the old style of play changed the table. Not that one is better than the other, just different.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
This is very tricky because folks often look to match mechanics and role play. Like a caster who refuses to use potions or scrolls. The game isnt really designed to accommodate this and suffers for it. Folks have seen items like 3E ranger favored enemy as a reason to be genocidal against certain characters. Some Gods hate undead and folks think that means destroying undead on sight even if they could perhaps be a useful NPC (such as a ghosts.)

I recommend two things if considering a flawed character. First up, do not be an absolutist. By absolutist I mean a character that must always do something in every situation. Particularly, if this thing is very dangerous to the character and/or group. I get that folks want to play up their characters, but you are doing this as a group activity and you need to have some level of compromise. The second thing, dont pick a weird personality flaw that requires the character to avoid entire mechanical bits of the system. A caster who doesn't use magic items, scrolls, potions, etc.. You are just cutting off a major source of the game mechanics for an idea that (IMO) never becomes interesting at the table.

I think its entirely possible to play flawed characters that dont shun the mechanics and/or flow into the play of others at the table. That might sound limiting, but we engage RPGs as a group. There should always be some level of understanding and compromise amongst everyone playing the game.
 

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
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.
 

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