On Playing The Underdog
It's the nature of gamers to want to get the most out of the characters they play. The experience of spending hours hunched over a blank character sheet and a Players' Handbook, trying to figure out just how to arrange those last few character creation points to make an indestructible fighter or an undetectable thief or an infinitely enlightened wizard, is common to just about all of us.
It's the nature of gamers to want to get the most out of the characters they play. The experience of spending hours hunched over a blank character sheet and a Players' Handbook, trying to figure out just how to arrange those last few character creation points to make an indestructible fighter or an undetectable thief or an infinitely enlightened wizard, is common to just about all of us. Gaming is, to a certain extent, always a form of wish fulfillment, so it's perfectly natural to want to play a character who's incredibly good (if not the best) at what he or she does. But it's been my experience that getting the most out of a character doesn't necessarily mean being able to cast the biggest and most spells of anyone in the party, or having the capability to annihilate the enemy in just a few rounds of combat. Sometimes, getting the most out of a character entails beginning with the odds stacked against you - even more so than they normally would be in a campaign - and succeeding in spite of your own flaws and limitations. So set aside your rules loopholes and minmaxing dreams for at least a moment, long enough to consider playing a character who is, for lack of a better term, a wimp. While it doesn't work in every circumstance, it can be an incredibly rewarding gaming experience. I hope this article shows you how and why.
I started playing underpowered characters not too long after I started gaming. Now you may be expecting a long and involved saga about how I started out minmaxing everything and ultimately had a low-powered gaming epiphany, but the real reason I began doing this is much simpler: When it comes to dice rolling, I am completely and utterly cursed. My first Mage character was a Euthanatos assassin and expert fencer who had a truly ridiculous amount of dice (11) for Melee rolls. I played her for almost a year, and in all that time and with all those dice, do you know how many times my sword actually hit whatever I was poking it at? Once. Realizing the problem of bad rolling which had plagued me since middle school wouldn't be going anywhere, I set out to trick my dice with a different approach. Thus began my tradition of playing (as one of my GMs puts it) "angsty, pussy-ass computer nerds." My stereotypical character has above-average intelligence and some sort of specialized ability (such as hacking experience, research skills, or scientific knowledge - my dice tend to treat me very well on such rolls, if you were wondering) that's great when you need to find background information on something out but pretty useless the rest of the time, a pronounced lack of social graces, and little or no combat capability.
I don't think I'm any better or any worse than other gamers for doing this. But it's worked for me for years now, much better than playing super-buff characters ever did. The reason I game is for the plot: to tell stories about my character and to become involved in the stories my fellow gamers tell. And from a story perspective, there's nothing more interesting or more dramatic than an unlikely hero. It's the difference between Superman and the protagonists of "Mystery Men" (a great, hilarious gamer movie about reject superheroes; see it if you haven't already). When Superman saves the world, everyone is glad and relieved (except Lex Luthor) but no one is terribly surprised, because it's the Man of Steel's job to save the world. But when the Mystery Men, who are a bunch of freaks with 9-to-5 jobs like the rest of us and sucky superpowers like explosive flatulence and getting really, really mad, save the world, we feel it more deeply because no one was even expecting them to get off the ground.
It's the same way with underpowered characters. It's true they may suffer more setbacks and failures than their perfectly balanced brethren, but when the successes come (and with a good GM, they always will) they'll be that much more meaningful. So now that I've convinced you that playing the underdog can be more interesting and fun than you might originally think (I hope), here are a few sure-fire ways to limit your own character's power level before you ever sit down at the gaming table.
As my previous stories have illustrated, one of the easiest ways to make an underpowered character (at least by comparison) is to try creating a character with few or no combat skills. Since it's rare for RPG characters not to be proficient in at least one type of fighting skill, this can make for interesting situations when a battle does break out as your woefully unprepared character struggles to improvise weapons or contribute in some capacity beyond cowering or running away. Try playing a character with a physical or mental limitation (my current Hunter character is missing her left arm, which has led to some fascinating challenges in places you wouldn't initially expect them - true, it's frustrating not to be able to aim a rifle at the monsters, but it's even worse when your boyfriend acts in a play and you realize you can't applaud him!). Or pick a major personality flaw - a dangerously short temper, overreaching arrogance and pride, or even crippling shyness - and build your character around it.
Don't get too overzealous, though. It's generally a bad idea to bend the rules so you end up spending less than the allotted amount of points on a character, or to play a character of a class. For example, a D&D commoner adventuring with a party of fighters, rogues, and mages simply will not work. I've been playing occasionally in a Werewolf group in which one of the PCs is a Kinfolk (the human relatives and allies of shapeshifters). While she's on the higher end of the power scale as Kinfolk go, she's still nowhere near the power level of the rest of the group, and it began to show once we got into combat and other sticky situations. So the GM has been forced to make a lot of concessions just to keep her from getting steamrolled - magic items, new special abilities, powerful allies, even modified combat rules that apply only to her. The player does a wonderful job with this character, but I can't help but think the GM would have a lot fewer headaches (and the game would be a lot more balanced) if she'd simply asked the player to play a shapechanger like everyone else.
So it's probably a good idea to run your plans by your GM before you go ahead with making a genuinely underpowered character, since there are issues of plot unity and game balance to consider as well as your own desire to look at things from a slightly skewed perspective. In other words, if the GM is planning a combat-heavy campaign and you want to play a pacifist, you might want to swallow your pride and make a character that fits in a little better. Or simply modify your concept: the hard-line pacifist becomes a newbie warrior who's never killed and has a few moral qualms about the whole war thing, but will almost certainly fight if ordered to (then have angst about it later on). But if the GM's okay with it, enjoy playing your underpowered characters to the hilt. After all, as the old saying goes, when you're on the bottom of the totem pole you have nowhere to go but up.