By Dave Gilham
It will date me to confess this, but I’ve been a gamer for 32 years. Starting back when my Uncle’s Boy Scout troop came to my family farm to camp and one of them brought the old red box D&D set. We didn’t even make it to playing that first session, just stayed up until 3 a.m. making characters. I was inevitably hooked. Less than a year later I bought my own red box and found my first convert to the game and we just played.
Now it took me years to fully understand the idea of “character” in a game. Sure, I knew I was a dwarf, I had a battle axe and a bad attitude, but the idea of knowing why he was acting the way he was, why he made the choices he made never occurred to me. It might have been getting involved in theatre and forensics in high school that gave me the tools to get beyond the numbers and into the head of my dwarf.
Once I’d actually made the jump from ROLL-playing to ROLE-playing, I discovered that getting behind the numbers was great fun and very rewarding. Then came my first encounter with an unplayable PC. According to the books, an unplayable PC is one whose stats are so low there is no feasible way for the character to survive in the game. I think many of us gamers are familiar with the stereotypical dumb fighter type. So many muscles there’s no room for a brain, they often are action catalysts through sheer stupidity. And in the hands of a poor roleplayer they can end up quite tedious. How many games have gone off track just trying to repair the damage the dumb fighter caused to the hamlet? Since stats are determined by rolling dice, a series of bad rolls could result in a set of numbers that would be very difficult to nurture through a successful career. Or do they?
I think it wasn’t until I played the old Marvel Superheroes RPG (with the FASERIP system) and the completely random character creation tables that I mustered my will and accepted this challenge. Assembling the random collection of an origin, powers, and talents into a cohesive whole that could be played in a game without removing the fun for other players became the kind of fun I loved. So, I’m an nonhumanoid alien, who can generate light, has extra limbs, and breathes water? Maybe I’m a sort of cosmic jellyfish who comes from an oceanic planet and was sent out to explore the galaxy before my ship crashed on earth. Amongst my species we used strobing patterns of light to communicate, but my first attempt to communicate with humans rendered them unconscious.
So let’s translate this to more traditional fantasy setting. Let’s say I’m a clumsy thief. How does this work in game? Well, mechanics-wise this is a challenge, because so many of the class abilities to depend upon dexterity. What this means is that to be of use to the party, and not a hindrance to fun I have to play intelligently. Allocating skills with a nod to my weaknesses and communicating with other players about their character choices to make sure there is some skill overlap in case your failure would jeopardize plot progress. Also, there comes a responsibility to be able to assess your character after a few levels to see if there’s a change that needs to be made.
I would posit that what most would consider an unplayable PC, is simply an opportunity to stretch your roleplaying wings and take an opportunity to have fun
I once had a fighter in an AD&D game who was from a jungle culture far, far to the south of the known lands. We were using the Skills & Powers Players Option. He wasn’t the brightest bulb on the marquee, and he had the disadvantages of Compulsive Honesty (he simply didn’t understand the concept of deceit) and the Tongue-tied disadvantage. This meant that when he had to communicate very important things he often messed up critical details. Once N’Gar was intercepted by some magistrate officials near the harbor and they started questioning him mercilessly. The rest of the players were sweating bullets because we were doing some pretty hefty undercover stuff that NEEDED to stay under the radar of the local authorities. However, through some really fun roleplaying N’Gar told the truth as he saw it, yet bungled just enough details to bring the group to stitches and still give the party enough leeway to make an escape.
So the next time you roll up a character only to see a mass of mediocrity, think instead about what kind of person might lie behind the numbers, and stretch your comfort zone as a roleplayer. You may just stumble your way toward your next favorite character.