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.

I completely agree that playing a character that is not maxed out for combat can be a lot of fun. I'm currently playing in a LARP that is a modern science fantasy game. In it, some people find they have the ability to travel to other realities in their dreams. In the character creation process, I wanted a challenge, so I created a character that was blind. He's also a recent widower, losing both his wife and his sight in an auto accident. Most of the time in the Dreamlands he can see, but in a recent nightmare, he couldn't. He is a history professor, and not given to physical pursuits, although because the GM strongly suggested that characters should have some combat skill, I gave him a modest judo skill. Much good plot milage has been made from his dealing with these losses. Other interestingly flawed characters in the party are a total amnesiac (giving us plotlines about rediscovering her past) and a character that either has an evil twin, or suffers from Disassociative Identity Disorder (formerly know as multiple personalities). In contrast, the most combat oriented character is also, frankly, the most boring. He's two dimensional.

I have a real love for characters that are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. I find Sarah Conner in "Terminator", or John Criehton in "Farscape" far more compeling than the indestructable characters of Van Damme, Seagal, or other action stars. It's what makes "Die Hard" one of my favorite action flicks. Willis gets the guano kicked out of him, but refuses to give up.

That is what makes Hans Solo, Spiderman and other less than perfect heroes so appealing compared to Superman and other Uber Heroes who never get, do or say anything wrong.

Although I wouldn't like to play a completely inept and thick goof, I try to strike a ballance between playability and flavour.
I try to make it so my character is both fun to be played and fun to play with because it allows me to contribute both to the story telling and the quest / trial at hand.

And GC one of my friends played a Ghoule last time we played Vampire. Sure he packed much less power that most of us, but man did he have skills and contacts. I found the character very fun and useful (just not in combat once his bullets ran out). Actually we never figured out he was a ghoule untill we stopped playing... just goes to show hum.

I like to play underdog characters myself, but not in quite the same manner. I always have been and always will be something of a powergamer, but I love to play characters who have loads of mental and emotional handicaps, or massive reservations about their powers, or little idea how to actually USE their powers, or whatever. I get the fun of both kicking ass AND being an unlikely hero at the same time. Best way to play, in my book.

This is also why I like playing a character who was completely normal until the start of the game, and then suddenly got major powers dumped on them. Because when your character DOES have a lot of power, you have the additional fun of 'now how do I deal with this?'

I completely understand about both being a completely cursed roller and about playing not-so-powerful characters. Lately I have been trying to play more powerful characters to be on par with the rest of my group, which is composed of at least two major power players. They end up soaking up the most attention and leave the rest of us in the dust. The characters that I have made to keep up with this level would be very much equal to theirs if I didn't roll so unbelievably badly all the time, but my curse makes me one of the least powerful players of the group, no matter what I play. Finally I decided to stop competing for power and just give my character terrible flaws on purpose, which actually makes the games a lot more interesting for me, even though I got beat up a lot before I really learned how to keep a weak character from getting killed all the time. It really is the character's passions and flaws that make the story fun, not the power plays.

In a game, the players' participation in the action makes it interesting.

Playing a character that is deliberately underpowered or that is inappropriate for the game ensures that you will have comparatively limited game choices. If you love standing behind the other players as they do heroics and you do nothing to further the plot - then you'll love it. Be a thespian.

Strong character traits and good game balance really aren't mutually exclusive. Sure, be a great character, but don't forget to play the game.

Nephandus, I thought I addressed this toward the end of my article. Participating in the main storyline with the character you make is, of course, key and should be encouraged above many other factors. But I don't think playing an underpowered character and participating in the game are mutually exclusive. It just sometimes requires a little more thought on the player's part in order to figure out "how can I be useful in this situation?"

Also, Yonjuuni's suggestion is an excellent one, and might work out a little better than mine if you're concerned about players continuing to "play the game."

Gamerchick, I do appreciate the nod toward checking with the GM before designing any character. IMO, that's always prudent advice, no matter what character you want to make.

My kneejerk disagreement with the gist of your article really depends on my definition of what “underpowered” means. I get the sense you may use it to refer only to combat ability. When I say “underpowered” I take it to mean that a character is deficient in abilities that will be relevant to the game – whether that be combat, diplomacy, guile, whatever. There are two outcomes for such a character

1. The character’s lack of ability makes her sit back, not taking an active role in the action. This is not fun for her, and in a game that is balanced for a certain party strength, it jeopardizes their ability to achieve the goal.

2. The character’s deficiency traits (ie blindness, lameness, rank odour, curse etc) consistently dominate play, causing undue attention to be directed toward the “exceptional” character, taking it away from the other players and away from the plot.

In many games, such as those in the Storyteller series from White Wolf, the story and game elements really are driven more through character iteraction rather than by encountering any exterior plot. This really shows up in the LARP, in which nearly all the activity is built around the advantages and disadvantages of various characters. By the same token, a GM in Vampire, can also create a very combat-oriented game, with very little attention to anything else. It’s not a good system to let the players do whatever they want.

If underpowered means choosing traits that are a not-relevant to the game, just for the added “challenge” of it, then the GM should reject it outright. A well-crafted game is challenge enough without the players working to make it more difficult, rather than to help solve it.

Just thought I'd add my own comments:

I share Nephandus' opinion somewhat. That is I hate it when a player decides to play a character that continually screws the plot line for the other players and the GM.
It bugs me as a GM but really makes me mad as a player. As a GM I try to work around those characters and make them the sole victims of their inabilities, so as not to penalize the other players who DIDN'T take the perticular flaw.
As a player I've noticed that few GM's take this into account. So it often leaves us with only two options: live with the frustrations of having to drag dead weight or take care of the problem, which can make for some nice role playing but often leads to players (not characters) butting heads over what the party needs.

This being said, I like it when a socially inept character (mine or someone else's) gets in trouble and tries to work around his/her handicap. Just as I love to see a total cluts be extra carefull when she/he has to climb down a 100 metres shaft using a silk rope, it's fun to see them beg for help and synergy and whatever means they hope will enable them to avoid becoming a "scrap metal and meat pancake".

My FR campaign takes a bunch of city dwellers from Waterdeep to the wilderness of the Silver Marches, it's fun to see them have a hard time in the wilderness and my players are really roleplaying their lack of experience well. It took them some time to think of planning for food and lodging, weather etc. None of them had survival skills at first so they had to purchase some expensive magic to get through what city dwellers take for granted.

As Nephandus said, an extra challenge is nice, IF the players and the GM make it part of the goals to be attained during the game/campaign.

Underpowered is nice, especially that one time when you save the day. I mean look at the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings, they are soooooo underpowered. But being weaker means you get underestimated by your opponents, which gives you extra maneuvering room to surprise them (get by Mordor, stab the Which King, route Shelob, etc)
Still it is tough on the ego to ALWAYS be the underdog, unless the GM let's you have some of the glory, some of the time.

I don't want every hero to be equal, I want the fun we get out of them to be equal.

Gamerchick, you can play Willow in my Buffy the Vampire Slayer game. Is she "underpowered"? Sure. But you can't have BtVS without her and the other Scoobies.

Willow underpowered?

WTF... She's the only one with computer skills, she has arcane knowledge, she can cast spell and she's cute.

When you say underpowered you mean in combat right?

Because as far as skills go she has many (or should have many is the game is well made).

Now Xander... he's underpowered in every area, but he's such a swell person, kinda reminds me of Jerry Lewis since the Buffy Musical episode.

Definitely not underpowered if you're using Evil Willow. :P

Xander is the perfect example of what I'm talking about. He's pretty much a regular guy. An excellent dramatic foil. A lousy character to play in a game of heroic fantasy though.

Nephandus is absolutely right, put a Xander-like character in a High Fantasy game as something other than an NPC and you'll probably get a very bored player.

Although a game of Xanders, Masters of Evil and other more or less inept characters could be loads of fun, in a slapstick looney toony kinda "Monthy Pithon and the Holy Grail" High Fantasy...

two week to go till The Two Towers :)

Sounds kinda like a High Fantasy Paranoia. :P

Sounds kinda like a High Fantasy Paranoia. :P

A concept which has definite appeal. ^_~

Gamerchick, hi. Though I am enamoured with the Storyteller system (I always thought I was a bit of the rules lawyer - and loved the flexibility and rules-avoidance of this system - until another player who really was one illustrated just how much it interferes with the fun of gaming), I have discussed the inherent flaw (a major one!) of the system. I don't need to go into the math of it (and would be hard pressed to anyway), but the whole rule of "1" cancelling out a success in fact makes it so that having a dice pool of much more than 4 or 5 dice makes it very less likely to net a single success. Rolling with 11 freakin' dice is just hamstringing yourself with that system! I'd suggest either altering the rule of "1," playing a more toned-down character, or simply switching to a more balanced system.

For character generation, I agree that the 2D munchkin characters get tiresome quickly; a great solution that still allows for inherent "power" balance is the Priorities Table. White Wolf has it (if I recall), as do numerous other systems - I've been playing for years using my GM's home rules system, and it's great. You're given a table with a bunch of columns (e.g. skills, magic, combat, feats/perks, money), and you choose once from each row (with the uppermost rows being most generous in each category). This way, you can opt to not play a combat monster. Granted, it doesn't allow for your angst-ridden, wimpy, MPD-afflicted moronic social fools, but it ensures a certain balance in the party, so that none is "dead weight."