Friday, May 16, 2008

The Hopeless Character: A Survey

Ok, so you're old school. 3d6 for your abilities. Maybe 4d6, drop the low number. In order. That's just how you roll.

The thing is, you've got a problem. You want to be an iron-thewed hero, a giant among men. You end up a pipsqueak, a twig among trees. You long to harness ancient sorceries and bend the world to your will. But you can barely wrap your head round the alphabet, and a dunce cap is the only pointy hat that fits. Maybe you're a klutz, a dogface, a sniffling sickly wretch. Maybe you're a moron, a milquetoast, a poltroon without sense to come in out of the rain. Face it, chump: you're a weak-backed, weak-minded, weak-willed, wilting weakly worm.

What now?

Kill Yourself, Start Over

Sometimes a player may "roll up" a character who is below average in every ability, or who has more than one very low (3-6) ability score (such as a fighter with very low Dexterity and Constitution). The DM may declare the character to be not suited for dangerous adventure, and the player may be allowed to roll up a new character in place of the "hopeless" one. (Moldvay Basic)

While it is possible to generate some fairly playable characters by rolling 3d6, there is often an extended period of attempts at finding a suitable one due to quirks of the dice. Furthermore, these rather marginal characters tend to have short life expectancy... (AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide)

If your scores are too low, you may scrap them and roll all six scores over. Your scores are considered too low if your total modifiers (before changes according to race) are 0 or less, or if your highest score is 13 or lower. (D&D 3e Player's Handbook)
Invoke Darwin
Sometimes, a player will have such incredible bad luck when rolling the dice that his character will be ridiculously weak. When all or most of a character's attributes are 8 or less the GM should declare the character "unfit" for survival and allow the player to create a new character. A character with fairly high Attribute Scores (13 or greater in all areas) might also be declared unfit if he suffers from serious mutational Defects. (Gamma World, second edition)
Look Within for the Strength to Go On. Call on a Higher Power.
[F]ind your highest Ability Score. If it is less than 9, you should roll all the Scores again. You may keep the character if you wish, but he or she probably won't be suitable for dangerous adventuring! However, before you discard the character, ask your Dungeon Master what to do. Your DM might prefer that you play the character you rolled, especially if you are an experienced player.
If two or more Ability Scores are less than 6, the character may have problems later on. This type of character should also be discarded, unless the DM says otherwise.
(Mentzer Basic)
Say it Loud: You Suck and You're Proud!
Low attributes are okay. Don't be dismayed if your character has a few high attributes and a few low (even abysmally low) ones. Remember, this is role-playing, go with the flow and play your character with both his strengths and his weaknesses. This is realistic and fun. It's realistic, because nobody is perfect; just because a character is incredibly strong, it doesn't mean he or she has to be brilliant too. Just because a character is a genius, it doesn't mean he's an athlete. Or a character may be both smart and strong, but he may have a low Physical Beauty and look like a moose, or have a Spd of 3 and move like a turtle. Or he may be physically strong and handsome (a virtual Adonis) but have the personality of a rock (a low Mental Affinity) or be easily frightened, intimidated or manipulated by others because his Mental Endurance is low. Flawed characters are a blast to play! Honestly, a hero with strengths and weaknesses makes for a much more interesting and fun character to play. Try it. (Palladium FRPG, second edition)
I hoped to include the note from Jonathan Tweet's crazy fun d20 version of GW, Omega World, the gist of which is "Lousy character? PCs in this game aren't designed for long lives anyway, so why not play recklessly, sell yourself dearly, rush headlong into a fate glorious or absurd?"
What do other games have to say about the hapless hopeless PC?

EDIT: Here's a post that quotes a terrific passage from the D&D Second Edition Player's Handbook, landing it squarely with Palladium in the Make the Best of the Worst camp.

MP3: Hawksley Workman, No Sissies [CDs / Downloads]
MP3: Talk Talk, Such A Shame ("...the dice decide my fate/...Maybe it's unkind, if I should change/It's a shame/Number me with rage/Number me in haste/Write across my name 'Such a Shame' ") [CDs & Downloads]


Sham aka Dave said...

I'm fairly forgiving with beginning characters. I allow a block of stats to be rolled from which the player can select his PC. Each individual potential character within the stat block is rolled 3d6, straight, but some of them are just plain pathetic.

What I might do in the future is hand each player a collection of 10 such stat lines. From this pool, the player not only chooses his beginning character, but also any subsequent characters after to character death or retirement.

A nice, well researched article, by the way.


Jeff Rients said...


If your character has sucky mutations and punishing defects, you might think your character is hopeless and that you should roll over. You can roll over, as soon as this character is dead and you're generating a new one. So rush to the fore in combat. Even if your character is so misbegotten that you never lay a point of damage on the enemy, you'll at least suck up some attacks that would otherwise hurt the characters that count. Pretty soon, you're on to character number tow.

It is improper, however, to roll up your next character first and use that to help you decide whether to kamikaze your current character."


My own solution is to run OD&D and Encounter Critical. Stats in OD&D affect very little. You can play a total reject and still get by pretty well. EC is forgiving of poor stats, especially if you choose a race that will bring low rolls up to a more average result.

Max said...

Sham: the stat line pool is a great idea, especially as a source of subsequent characters. Even if the abilities decline as schlubs replace the original PC, they might catch a break if they happen to inherit some good equipment or a well-researched spellbook!

Jeff: Awesome, thanks for the Omega World quote! And, yeah EC actually punishes high stats in some cases. Super strong? OK, great, but you won't shrug of damage as easily. Why? I dunno, dudes are hitting you harder trying to prove something?

Jeff Rients said...

And, yeah EC actually punishes high stats in some cases.

Shhh! That's meant to be a secret! How can we pick on the munchkins if they hear about that?

Max said...

I am seriously contemplating writing up a "Power Gamers Guide to EC" as a Journey Master's Journal article. "Would you like your Warlock to wield a back-up bazooka? Be sure to take a level of Warrior to avoid the weapon damage cap!"