Playing the Everyman


Are you tired of playing the same stereotypical characters? Tired of not being challenged? Bored of playing a superhuman hero? Why don't you try playing an Everyman?

I meddled around for a while with generic games like GURPS, but still ended up playing characters that can be classed, like merchant guardsmen, fighter/mages, thieves, and so on. And then one day I had an epiphany. I decided to play a completely different character. One that couldn't fight, who had no applicable skills to an adventuring party.

I played a composer.

My composer, Raphael, was loosely based on some of my favorite Classic composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz) mixed with modern music. He lived for music and could take any experience and put music to it. Raphael had skills in playing musical instruments, composing, orchestrating, crafting musical instruments, reading and similar things. He was small, extremely intelligent, and musically gifted.

I met a lot of resistance when I introduced Raphael to the group. The poor guy couldn't ride a horse, swing a sword, talk his way out of trouble, pick a lock or anything else remotely useful to a roleplaying group (outside of social and some slight political skills). He was everyone's bitch... for a while. Then we had to infiltrate a castle and decided to pass ourselves off as musicians.

Suddenly Raphael was the leader of the group.

He taught everyone in the party the use of a simple musical instrument and I had to come up with a performance, including authentic music, fit for a king. It was cool.

...these characters were extremely fun to play.

Other Everyman characters that I have since played include a cook, a Jackie Chan stuntman, a couple of college students, a high school student, and an alcoholic bum who had been a lawyer until his wife and kid were killed by a drunk driver. None of these characters, aside from the stuntman, had any skills that a normal group would welcome. But these characters were extremely fun to play.

I tend to like movies with similar "Everyman" heroes. Movies like Cellular, Cast Away, Die Hard, Evolution, Galaxy Quest, the Fugitive, and Jaws. Each of these movies features heroes who are woefully outmatched and usually have no combat skills (with the exception of Die Hard).

  • The hero of Cellular is a twenty-something slacker pining after the girl that dumped him.
  • Cast Away features a middle-aged FedEx employee who is stranded on an island for four years.
  • Die Hard has a cop on vacation to visit his soon to be ex wife who ends up tackling a building full of terrorists.
  • Evolution's heroes are teachers from a local community college who take on an alien invasion (sort of).
  • Galaxy Quest features actors of all things, helping an alien race who believes that the TV series that they were on were "historical documents" combat a nasty evil alien.
  • Harrison Ford is the epitome "Everyman" actor. In the Fugitive, he plays a doctor on the run from Federal Marshalls.
  • And we all know that Jaws features a cop who is terrified of the ocean who has to deal with a man eating shark.

We all enjoy Everyman heroes, and some of the best stories of all time feature these unlikely heroes... so for those of you bored to death of playing superhuman characters that your GM has a hard time challenging, why don't you try playing an Everyman? It is EXTREMELY challenging and much more fun than you might think.

And if you don't like the character, they're awfully easy to kill off. ;-)

I'm curious, Calamar: Aside from that castle infiltration, did you not feel useless while playing, or did it just not bother you? How about the other players?

I´d like to contest the two policemen beeing "everyman". Especially any character played by Bruce Willis.
I mean, a policeman is supposed to be trained in the basics of unarmed an armed (pistols, maybe even shotguns/gas or other special weapons) combat. They are suposed to keep up on a reasonable level of physical fitnes und and have taken psychology (?) classes to deal with dangerous situations.

That sounds more like fighter with some diplomatic skills. Wheras John McLanes performance looks more like several level of fighter and rouge.
And in the mentioned movies they are largely in ther favorite subjekt matter: fighting/arresting an offender.
The Galaxy Quest actors were also "schooled personnel" considerig the alins replicated everything to work like the movie.
I haven´t seen the other movies so I can´t comment on them.

I think it may be fun to play an annoying/incompetent (inview of the skills required in the forseeable future) character for a little while. But in longer campaigns, unless the GM invents a powerful reason the other characters must tolerate him, this character is going to get dull or even a liability very quick.
Wich would lead to the player changing to a more useful character for the campaign or building up adventuring skills (whatever they may be in the current campaign). By building up adventuring skills the character practically stops being an everydayman.

I played in character and thus felt like I was contributing to the enjoyment of the game. But ya, I was the butt of everyone's jokes for a while. Then my character was able to contribute to the game more.

But you don't need a kung fu master to have fun. The best games that I've played recently had entire groups of "everyman" heroes. And they rocked!

I did specify that Bruce Willis/John McClaine barely qualified as an everyman. But he is still a simple cop going up against highly trained and armed terrorrist/thieves. Which put him out of his element.

And the cop from Jaws? The guy had a phobia of the ocean and had to go out in a small crappy boot to hunt down a MASSIVE man eating great white shark! How out of his league do you want him to be? None of his training prepared him for anything remotely similar to the situation that he found himself in. And if you watch the movie, he get's picked on by the shark fisherman and the Oceanological (sp) researcher.

And yes, it does work best if all the pc's are everymen. But most fantasy novels have one character, usually the hero destined to rule the world, that starts off as a whiny nothing.

Please see Lord of the Rings or Memory, Sorrow, Thorn or the Wheel of Time series for good examples.

In fact, the Wheel of Time starts with 5 everymen characters who, during the course of the novels, each become powerful leaders. But each of those five were completely useless for the first few books.

And the defense rests.. ;-)

"Fish-out-of-water" =/= everyman.

John McLain and the jaws guy still had a level or 2 of an adventurer class. Steven Segall and Jackie Chan are regularly characters that get picked on early in the movie, response is the difference, SS kicks the sass out of them and JC takes it. Doesn't change ability.

OTOH, Star Wars is another local boy makes good. Not until the second movie is he daclared "Strong in the Force."

WoT are debatable. In the first 1 or 2 they appear weak, but 2 have lengthy destinies (seperate topic: is a destiny set in stone if it hasn't been revealed?) and end up as 3 strong mages, a werewolf and well, Longshot.

On a seperate note: I have run convention games with very weak local merchants (baker, bee-keeper, merchant, bookbinder, cheese-maker) as PCs. It was a riot.

Aside from Mr. McClane, I've always wanted to run/play in a D&D game (specifically) where you start out as an entire party of Commoners and, if you want to, then train and become "heroes" throughout the course of the game, or even just stay commoners running from enemies far more powerful than you. I like that feel. That's one thing I love about World of Darkness, is it emphasizes you are a normal person! No fighting vampires! It's a very fun play experience and very different from D&D. However, I don't think I would play an everyman in a group unless everybody else is one too, because in that situation I would be able to explore the character as fully as I want to given the themes the campaign would naturally have and such. I wouldn't be able to do that as well if, for instance, I am weak, but my party can kill all the bad guys any way. If I'm gonna be weak, I wanna go all the way, with the party running all the time! I'd love that.

Fugitive is freaking awesome by the way. Bubblefish, how have you not seen that movie!? Go to the rental store right now and rent it, thus making one of the key decisions of existence. It's truly one of the best movies I have ever seen. Blows out of the water the "thrillers" of today with their explosures and crap. This is real suspense, real character development, real good storytelling. Go get it right now!

Actually I don´t really know if I watched that movie. It´s just not a title I remember. On the other hand the german title may be different enough I just didn´t recognize it.

I´ll run it through google though. Just to find out wich movie it is.

It's amazing. You won't be disappointed.

Yeah, Most of the everyman characters I play end up in a zombie invasion. Which is understandable, because modern campaigns are pretty much only when only plot hook ends in invasion.

Actually, I like to run espionage thrillers or sci fi/horror with Everyman characters. The Fugitive and Enemy of the State are good movie examples. Good books includes Robert Ludlum novels and Stinger, by Robert R. McCammon.

I also love to combine genres and settings, as you may have noticed because of earlier articles. A serial killer murder mystery/thriller set in a fantasy world is fun as hell, for example.

Heh, For me, anything with the word "mystery" is literally fun as Hell

Something to think about with everyman character players, if your GM is any good, they will generally devise a situation where the "everyman" can be useful -- the castle infiltration was a nice touch by your GM.

All in all, if everybody's having fun, I'd say you're doing it right!

I ran a campaign once that was exactly what Tzuriel described above. An entire party of Commoners that ended up being adventurers within 5 or 6 sessions. Two of the six players didn't have the patience for it and left before things got to the point they would have consider "good". The other four played it for monthes.

One of the players multiclassed into the Expert class and was more than happy for the life of the character. The others ended up as very "normal" seeming versions of Rangers (the magicless variety), Fighters, and Barbarians (more like "farmers with weapons"). They became rather high level before getting in over their heads and dieing, but they always seemed like normal people that were in abnormal circumstances. At no point did they come across as jaded adventurers with more gold than comon sense.

Still to this day one of my favorite campaigns that I've run. Poor Cottingtown needed heroes, and no one else would rise to the challenge.

See Scott? That's EXACTLY what I was talking about! I love campaigns like that, both as a GM and player. Thank you!

One of my biggest pet peeves are players who sit at home making character after character, either trying to maximize (munchkin out) their character or worse, making higher level (more powerful) characters from scratch and then expecting to be able to play those characters.

I knew this guy named James. He tried slipping a 30th level mage (MERPS) into a group that was avaeraging 3 levels.

The same guy tried doing something similar in a GURPS campaign. The other characters were 120 - 170 points. His was 800! I counted them out!

These characters were two of hundreds that he had made while bored at home. He was so bad at "fudging" creation rules that we had to make him make his character with me there. That way he couldn't cheat and wouldn't waste our time.

But once he got going he was a good gamer. Oh well...

Ya, everyman campaigns rock!

That was the subject, wasn't it?

Damn... And I wrote the article too. No excuse... ;-)

As I've mentioned before, one of the best characters I ever had the pleasure of running for was a rogue with no thumbs. And my friend Geoff had a blast playing him too! He was basically a 2nd level Rogue (to start with, anyways) that had spent half his skill points on thief type stuff, and the other half on more diplomatic type stuff. Bluff and Disguise and the like. He fit in perfectly with a group of 1st level characters because he could only use half his abilities. Did it hamper him? No...he was balanced against the group he was in. We did it purely for flavors sake...Geoff wanted to play a Rogue that was only good at telling people he was a Rogue, pretending to be a Rogue, and in all other ways not being a Rogue at all.

He still had a place in the group though. He did the talking...but he always kept his hands in his pockets.

I like the plot twist where they use Raphael's talents to infiltrate the castle. Clever. My favorite part is when games get clever and that is usually exactly what is required when the characters are "everymen."

One of our old tricks is to play a game with the instructions "make yourself five years from now." Five years is enough that you could have learned something, but not enough to totally pimp out your character. It's hard to be anything but an "everyman" when you're talking about yourself. You might be able to make a fitter, slightly more skilled version of yourself but you can't go too far.

Now that it's been almost 20 years since the first time we did that, for a Chill game, it is very entertaining to look at the characters. I really did learn bureaucracy (civil servant, both federal and state), my husband really is a scientist and naturalist, and two of our best friends really are a fitness trainer and well-respected folk musician. Those things were only ideas of how things might work out when we drew up the characters for a Halloween game back when we were in college.

I don't know what it is about Chill that makes people play themselves. We did something shockingly similar for Chill once many years ago. And that was on Halloween as well!

I'm seriosu ly temtped to make a Shaun of the dead-style campaign for DnD. Lots of Zombies, most powerful you can get is warrior (city guard) or adept (local guru). rest wil be commoner/experts. Maybe one Aristocrat. Just for kicks. It'd be funny as heck, and I could keep it to relatively weak undead. (Zombies all over the place, the occasional awkened zombie to mess with folks.)

Verily yours