An Argument For Useless Characters in RPGs

Yesterday, I was playing in a game of Torchbearer being run by a friend of mine. I enjoy Torchbearer as an interesting critique of Dungeons & Dragons while at the same time being an homage to the older Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from the ’70s and ’80s. Roughly speaking, D&D tends to be an action-oriented tabletop tactical fighting game–most of the rules in D&D tend to be combat-orientated, and most rules for non-combat actions are often a little hand-wavy. Torchearer, on the other hand, is based off the game Burning Wheel, which places a much, much heavier weight on storytelling and narrative structure than it does combat. Torchbearer is a bit of a mix of the two: it shares the focus on resource-management that the old AD&D games had with a more narrative focus that BW espouses. It hits a sweet spot for me that is quite enjoyable.

Before I continue, I should acknowledge that the creator of BW and a co-creator of Torchearer, Luke Crane, is a problematic figure in the tabletop RPG scene. It’s a long and winding story involving the problematic Adam Koebel and how he transgressed against one of his players followed by Luke Crane’s involvement in a Kickstarter campaign where he deceptively included Koebel without the knowledge or consent of the other creators nor any transparency towards the backers of the project. I have little desire to financially encourage this person any further by buying his work, though at this point already own several copies of BW and had also already bought both editions of Torchbearer. So, I do have to admit to loving both systems but would like to make sure that anybody who would discover either via this post be aware of these issues.

With that said, back to the post at hand. Every time I play an RPG with people, I tend to get the same accusation from fellow players, which is a variation of “Ah, it’s one of your characters. One of those.” What is commonly meant there is that the characters I play tend to be flawed or damaged in crucial ways–nowadays, they’re my favorite type of character to portray in RPGs. To argue why, though, we’d have to go back a little ways to my first experiences with RPGs.

When I started with RPGs, it was, as for most others, with D&D. Baldur’s Gate had just been released (a computer game based on AD&D), and my father had bought a copy for me during a business trip in America. For the almost 25 years since then, I’ve replayed that game so frequently, even though the original 5-pack of CDs had since been replaced by a DVD, and later on just by a digital copy. Around the same time, me and some friends of mine discovered D&D 3rd edition, and met up to play that pretty much all the time. It was a great way to be social together.

As so many others at that time, I would min/max my characters–I’d design them to have the best numerical advantage in combat (the “max” part) by spending almost no in-game money or attention to the non-combat parts of the game (the “min”). The natural consequence is that there’s an excessive focus on combat in the game sessions and that actual roleplaying gets mostly ignored. A side-effect is that all characters start looking the same, in part due to the fact that there’s very little character to them, and in part because they all do the same thing: hit very hard. As you can imagine, that gets boring after a while. So, I switched over to building weird characters. I’d apply the same min-maxing zeal to bizarre characters, such as home-brewed four-armed demons that wield different whips in each hand, or a shapeshifting goo creature that has no real shape of its own but changes to fit whatever is necessary at the time. That was fun for a while, but it had the same essential problem of being a really strange fit for the story being told.

It was after all this experimenting, I stumbled across a much more interesting way to play RPGs: just make actual characters. Not characters for a game, or something equipped to solve the problem at hand, but make just an average person. An argument I often use is that a character in a horror movie doesn’t know they’re in a horror movie. That’s exactly why they go into that dark basement because they heard a funny noise down there; after all, if I hear a funny noise in the kitchen in the middle of the night, I also go stumbling out in the dark to see what my cats knocked over this time. Yet in tabletop RPGs, so many people have their character act like a SWAT-officer about to storm into a hostage situation–makeshift weapons are sought out, careful armor prepped, and tactical plans are written out.

It took me a while to figure out exactly why that bugged me, but I settled on the idea that when a person plays like that, they’re playing against the game. The game is an adversary that they’re trying to beat by circumventing and solving all the problems. That goes counter against against having an interesting story, and reminds me of that Community clip where the character of Abed tries to tell a scary story. Trying to solve the central problem efficiently doesn’t make for interesting stories. If Frodo was just put on a giant eagle to airdrop the ring into Mount Doom, Lord of the Rings would be the most boring two-page story around (and yes, it’s been discussed frequently before. See this page for one example). Rather, Lord of the Rings is made interesting, because a quartet of unusual characters, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, who are initially wholly unsuited for adventure get thrust into just that regardless. The actual adventurers involved, like Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are quite dull by comparison. I would argue that’s because LotR is inherently quite Marxist, and the latter three characters represent monarchies and old power structures, whereas the four hobbits represent a rather unusual political stance called anarcho-monarchism, but that’s a whole different blog post altogether.

In short, I shifted from making overpowered cardboard characters, to bizarre characters, finally settling on making just regular people. In a game where the party played low-level goblins who were part of a giant army from the Underdark swarming the surface world, I decided to play a barbarian who really just wanted to belong. So, at second level, he multi-classed a level of cleric, and he became something of a shaman-type figure, cooking food and sharing it around his immediate surrounding. He wasn’t a particularly good barbarian, nor was he a good cleric, but he sure was interesting. Playing him was so much fun that ever since then, I’ve made characters using that same methodology, like a reporter in a cyberpunk adventure that’s is desperate to look tough and move up in the world, an out-of-touch magistrate in a medieval setting that gets confronted with life for the average person, or a kobold that’s not evil at all but just really playful but has a hard time of communicating that to others.

RPGs have been much more fun to me since the characters I create are all just average people in odd situations. The crucial thing to then add to that is to focus not on the characters but on the story. It’s good when my character gets hurt really badly, because that gives them an opportunity to grow and change. The term for a character in a story that is the same going in as they’re coming out is flat. So, I make sure to have my characters make some mistakes every now and then. Instead of fighting off the entire band of muggers, I like to let one run away; now we have a chance at a returning nemesis! Speaking of that, why even fight that band of enemies right away? Is that really rational? I don’t know about you, but if I had four skeletons raising from the dead in front of me, I wouldn’t be fighting them, but I’d be running away–let somebody else deal with that noise. Plus, that creates a great opportunity to rush blindly into even bigger problems. After all, even Star Wars began when a bored farmboy chose to bring a malfunctioning droid to this old dude that he knew just to see if something interesting would come of it.

So, my current characters always share some larger characteristics. They’re not necessarily suited to adventures; I’ll figure out later how to use the skills they do have to help out in what’s happening. They have some essential flaw (or multiple); without a way to cause trouble, how are they ever going somewhere interesting? I want my characters to make realistic decisions; nobody is rational all the time, and sometimes people act in ways because they’re angry, hurt, afraid, or unsure. Along with that, I as a player want to make interesting decisions; I’m not necessarily motivated to keep my character alive, nor am I motivated to kill them–I’m motivated to make things happen. I want to be part of an interesting story.

To me, this is the best way to play RPGs and get a story happening. Having also led my share of RPG sessions, I can also say that, in my opinion, it helps the storyteller along. So yes, my character will stick their head into this dark room to see what’s going on. My character will reach out to touch that shiny treasure that we all know surely must be cursed. I’ll make sure that my character is thirsty enough to not care what’s in this gross water in the dungeon. It’ll help give them some scars, and scars have cool stories behind them.

4 thoughts on “An Argument For Useless Characters in RPGs”

  1. D&D is very much a fantasy superheroes game that is about the combat, so obviously characters that fit in the game will be optimized for combat. If you don’t want a play a character geared towards that, then you’re better off playing another game that is about other things, because you’re going against the grain of the game.
    But I don’t think there is fun in playing a useless character. Imagine playing a character that fails at everything they try — there’s no fun in that. Flawed characters are fun, who can succeed in their chosen fields but who have to rely on others in other fields, and I do think you’re playing that to the hilt.

    I keep hearing and reading that BW and its derivatives are so story-oriented, but the game feels more like pushing a game piece around in an elaborate boardgame rather than playing a character in a roleplaying game.

    1. The title is pretty clickbaity, I’ll give you that! I predominantly angled that towards a “win the game” (ludonic, I guess?) attitude regarding roleplaying as opposed to a “tell the story” (narrative) approach. If you’re playing an RPG, regardless of whether it’s D&D or not, with the intention of coming out of it with the fewest scratches to your character, then you’re still playing to win. In my anecdotal experience, I do see there’s people who play whatever RPG they play in that oppositional style (opposing the GM, who’s out there to harm their characters, as it were).

      Incidentally, have you played some BW games yet? I think Torchbearer gives an unbalanced view to it, because it was so explicitly written as an homage as well as a critique to AD&D. The very intent was to keep things that the writers loved about AD&D – the ruthless nature of it, the boardgame-like aspect, the micro-management – but rooting the reward system more in roleplaying aspects rather than murder-hoboing. So, as products in the BW line go, it’s certainly less roleplay-focused than the others are.

      The difficulty with BW is that it absolutely has quite a lot of rules, and takes a lot of experience to run and play. So much so that first attempts at playing the game will absolutely have an incredible focus on games, much in the same way that most people I know who start with D&D (to take the standard example) tend to be overwhelmed by the number of dice and the numbers on the sheets. Or, for another analogy, when I first started playing snooker, I was mostly engaging in just learning to be able to have the cueball hit the other balls. It wasn’t until I mastered that basic skill that I could actually play the game itself. While I’ll absolutely argue that BW is very story-orientated, I certainly won’t deny that it takes quite some experience and practice with the system before you can get much out of that.

      It’s also the hardest RPG I’ve had to run, because the onus is certainly on the GM to not only know all the rules and extended rules, but also to judiciously choose which ones are relevant for a situation. I’m starting to think I should run a mini-adventure (I’d say one-shot, but let’s be honest: our one-shots are never done in one) to see if I can highlight the features that I love about the game.

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