February 22, 2024

Less than Legendary

This is a follow-up to “Beautifully Broken,” which talks about the satisfaction that comes from playing a character inspired more by story and less by the considerations of class, subclass, and other mechanical benefits. (TL/DR: Playing suboptimized characters can be great fun.)

However, maintaining the fun of playing a suboptimized character over the course of a series of adventures or a full campaign requires more than just the players’ interest in running their characters from a story-first perspective. It requires a certain amount of buy-in from a GM who understands the players’ goals for their characters — because that GM will figure out pretty quickly that the traditional approaches to D&D encounter and adventure design aren’t set up with mechanically suboptimized characters in mind.

Balance of Power

As a GM running a game that works for characters who are less mechanically robust than the Player’s Handbook norm, you’ll need to deal with the pernicious expectation that D&D (along with many other fantasy games) should cleave to a philosophy of “balanced encounter design.” Narrative-focused characters often come up short in terms of average hit points, damage output per round, and access to magic that the game assumes the heroes automatically have at certain levels (particularly healing spells and area-effect attacks). As such, you need to keep an eye on whether so-called balanced encounters are likely to go seriously off-balance because the characters on one side of the scale have less adventuring mass than expected.

Thankfully, there’s really no such thing as balanced encounter design (which is why that’s in quotation marks above). And understanding that fact actually works in your favor when you’re running a game with suboptimized characters. All the usual tricks for adjusting encounters that are meant to be balanced but go quickly off the rails in any game can play an even stronger part in a campaign with suboptimized characters. Adjusting the foes’ AC, hit points, and damage output are the easy options, and are discussed endlessly by GMs. But even more important is making sure that combat encounters have endgame options other than one side or the other fighting to the death. When building or prepping combat encounters, think about circumstances under which foes might surrender, or how monsters might respond to the characters capitulating or fleeing. Make sure that if the characters or their enemies might flee, the area in which combat takes place allows for a quick exit. Think about options for ambush, or ways in which characters can use the features of the area around them to make up for specific weaknesses in combat. (It behooves me to mention that the book The Lazy DM’s Forge of Foes, lovingly handcrafted by Teos Abadía, Mike Shea, and myself, talks a lot about these exact topics.)

That said, having fun with suboptimized characters is usually about more than just combat — especially given that the concept for many suboptimized characters involves moving away from the expectation that combat skill should be the baseline for heroic potential. 

Role With It

D&D is a roleplaying game, so reminding people of that feels a bit reductive. But when folks at the table are playing characters who are less than perfectly optimized in their combat stats, their exploration-focused features, or their social skill checks, it’s worth remembering that pure roleplaying can easily fill in all those gaps. Players aren’t keen to take on a monstrous threat they don’t think their characters can defeat? Let them roleplay the planning that takes the characters around that threat, or that lets them set two or more potential foes into conflict so that they take each other down. No one in the party has the skill to deal with the locked door leading to the king’s treasury? Let them roleplay the social scenario that’ll allow them to steal the key, or to trick someone else into opening the door for them.

As a GM building adventure scenarios for a party of beautifully broken characters, you’ll want to think beyond encounters that have a single entry point and only one expected outcome. Especially in published adventures, whether the scene is focused on combat, exploration, or social interaction, encounters are often set up with a strong sense of the best and most obvious way the characters are expected to approach a challenge, and the default means by which they’ll overcome it. So spend some time thinking before the game about the less obvious ways into and out of an encounter — and expect that the players will come up with ways you haven’t thought of, which you can incorporate during the game. As a bonus, by making this thinking part of your default GM’s mindset, you’ll find that having multiple approaches and success scenarios for encounters will make your games more interesting even for a fully optimized party.

Resources as Rewards

Players of suboptimized characters have a strong sense of what those characters are good at and where they come up short. So when you’re planning out encounters and the rewards for overcoming those encounters, feel free to offer up specific resources and benefits that can help characters overcome some of those shortcomings.

In a conventional campaign where min-maxed characters are reliant on stock magic item rewards to keep their combat numbers in the sweet spot expected for their tier, receiving useful information, maps showing secret shortcuts through a dungeon, and similar information-based rewards might earn a disinterested shrug from the players. But the players of story-focused characters often treat those rewards as even more significant than magic, understanding how such rewards allow them to get creative. A group of characters who know they’re going to struggle to defeat a boss will make great use of information and maps that allow them to set an ambush for that boss rather than having to confront them in their lair. In a campaign focused on courtly intrigue where the characters are on the outside of the court looking in, the mundane opportunity to pose as servants at the castle might be the most significant reward the party can receive.

As a general rule, suboptimized characters understand that they’re starting out somewhat less than legendary. They know that different choices made in the past, different life paths taken, might have granted them a more typically heroic stature. But they also know that none of that is going to stop them from taking on the challenges that the campaign presents to them — and that they can be just as heroic as any min-maxed legend, given the right insight, the opportunity to collect the necessary intelligence, and the desire to succeed.

January 24, 2024

Beautifully Broken

Let me tell you about one of the best characters I ever played — a sorcerer who didn’t want to be a sorcerer. This was for a Pathfinder 1e campaign some years ago, where the characters were setting out to create a new settlement in a monster-haunted wilderness. The original concept for the character was a multiclass sorcerer/archer, a ranged attack-focused, tactically minded double threat with weapon or spell. But then I remembered the inherent problems with D&D 3.5e/Pathfinder 1e contrast multiclassing (as opposed to class combos that feed each other), which inevitably builds characters who can do twice as much stuff but are always half as good at that stuff as everybody else.

So at some point, I thought to myself, “What happens if you play a sorcerer who actually really, really wants to be ranger but could never pull it off?”

On that day, Zabbas Kindark was born — a half-elf sorcerer whose selection of spells was based entirely on making her look and act like the ranger she’d always wanted to be. She used a bow in combat (courtesy of the Ancestral Arms ancestry trait), and filled out her starting spell list with things like magic weapon, true strike, gravity bow, arrow eruption, and the like. And as I put her together and started playing her, I realized very quickly that the coolest thing about Zabbas was that even maxed out with magic, she was never going to be anywhere as good a ranger as a regular ranger would have been. 

Zabbas was absolutely and wonderfully suboptimized. A character whose build was beautifully broken — which meant that I never wasted a moment worrying about how to maximize her mechanical potential. I just let her run headfirst into the challenges of the campaign story without a care.

The Fine Art of Suboptimization

Playing characters who are the best at what they do can be fun. If you’re playing in a campaign that you know comes with specific thresholds of endless combat challenge, there’s nothing wrong with fine-tuning a character and selecting feats and multiclass options that maximize their combat potential. But until the first time you try not worrying about any of that and just focusing on building a character who feels like the right choice as your avatar in the campaign story, you might not realize how liberating the experience is. 

Whenever I’ve played D&D, I’m the sort of player who comes up a cool character concept relatively easily, then spends a lot of time trying to figure out the best ancestry, class, and multiclass/subclass/prestige-class building blocks with which to build the perfect incarnation of that character. And if that’s you too, the next time you’re building a character for a game, try taking a left turn away from that. 

Think about how you want and expect the baseline character concept to fit into the campaign. Then ask yourself, “How would that work as a cleric? As a monk? As a barbarian?” Go down the list of your favorite classes and imagine the feel of each class as a lens through which your character will be filtered. Or think about some of the classes you’ve never been inspired to play, and think about whether a character concept not rigidly tied to maximizing the benefits of that class would be a good way to try it out.

Next time: Advice for GMs and players on how to make the most out of beautifully broken characters in a campaign — especially campaigns making use of published adventures, which don’t expect that sort of thing.

January 8, 2024

Unusual Campaign Starts

Figuring out how to get a campaign going can be one of the most challenging parts of being a GM. It’s relatively easy to build cool encounters and social setups, and the big climactic events at the act breaks and endgame of a campaign often write themselves. But when trying to figure out how to get brand-new characters together for the first time and drag them quickly into the action, it’s easy to feel like all the obvious starting points to the story the campaign will tell feel overly tame, trite, or obvious.

Your mileage may vary, of course, and every gaming group has different needs. Every single in-game campaign start that might seem basic or antiquated to a person who’s been playing D&D for decades (like me) is going to absolutely be the essential best campaign start for some first-time GM somewhere. And even grognards like me might be totally fine with the timeworn meetup in a local tavern that’s launched tens of thousands of campaigns. The game can be just about anything, and so can incorporate just about anything.

Campaign starts are a necessary evil for fantasy RPGs. Arguably, they’re a necessary lawful evil, insofar as they follow well-defined rules but often do so in the worst way possible. Many too-familiar campaign starts can come to feel like a handshake agreement the GM sets up to give away a plot point they know they won’t be able to otherwise sell. They make the players feel obliged to say things like, “Why yes, we’ll talk to this mysterious old man who’s heard a rumor about trouble at the abandoned abattoir out of town,” ignoring obvious contrivance for the sake of getting the story going. (One of the most common campaign starts builds on the hook of the NPC in need, which I expressed my thoughts on previously.)

Getting Things Going

If you’re at the point where too many of your own campaign starts — or the starting points of specific published adventures you’d like to run — are feeling flat, the following campaign starts can be used as setup for lots of different types of campaigns, or can serve as inspiration for unusual campaign starts of your own. 

All Fired Up

Sometimes it’s fun to subvert expectations by turning a tired trope on its ear. Rather than having the characters meet up in a tavern for the first time and hear a rumor meant to draw them into the campaign, have them getting ready to meet up in a tavern — except the tavern across the street explodes before they can get introduced. The process of rescuing victims and helping to put out the ensuing fire brings the characters together, even as the cause of the explosion can tie into their first adventures.

Not-So-Secret Map

Another classic campaign start that’s easy to turn into something more interesting is the wandering NPC selling a map to an old ruin. Certainly, there must be treasure there! But then the characters quickly discover that this NPC is one of many NPCs selling copies of the same exact map in multiple settlements across the land. The question of who’s running these NPCs and why they’re trying to bring multiple adventurers to the same location becomes an initial mystery in the campaign — or perhaps even the central mystery — that the characters need to solve.

Who’s on First?

One of the most abrupt ways to kick off a campaign is to have the characters start off in a combat encounter in a cool location of your choice. Except they have no idea where they are, who they are, or how they got there, except for a vague sense that they know and trust each other — and a stronger sense that everyone else at the site is trying to kill them. When the fight’s done, the characters’ memories start to slowly return, and the magic relic or other McGuffin that caused their amnesia becomes a secret that feeds into the rest of the campaign.

Unseen Connections

A group of characters who don’t know each other learn of some secret connection between them — the same seemingly mundane trinket that each picked up at some point, a tattoo they barely remembering getting after a night of drunken revelry, an NPC they all interacted with as youths, and so forth. An unseen connection can provide a core throughline to the campaign if the reason behind it connects to an NPC or other force intentionally wanting the characters to come together. Or it could be just be a happenstance moment that the characters can look back on with a sense of “Isn’t it wild how we first met?”

Piece by Piece

If time and your gaming schedule permits, it can be a lot of fun to start a campaign as a series of short adventures for small numbers of characters, who then come together to create the party as a whole. Two characters accidentally meeting in a tavern or caught up in a monstrous attack and bonding while they fight back to back often feels more dramatically palatable than some sort of “the gang’s all here” full-party meetup. You can run this sort of small-start scenario quickly — for example, three sessions in which two different characters meet up, followed by a full session where all six characters come together. 

Alternatively, you can have different characters interact with each other during many mini-sessions, slowly building up the relationships that will define the party. As an even more interesting setup for those who are comfortable with this sort of roleplaying, bringing the party together slowly can let the players decide that their characters really don’t like each other after their first interaction, letting subsequent interactions fully build out the characters’ eventual adventuring bond. 

Hunters and Hunted

In a party where some of the characters are notable do-gooders while others are a touch shifty, having the campaign kick off with the good characters hired or inspired to track down the scoundrels can be a nicely novel approach. The trick with such a scenario is making sure that common ground can be quickly found to bring the characters together — for example, the scoundrels convincing the do-gooders that they (truthfully) have been set up or are wanted for crimes they didn’t commit. Likewise, the good characters could realize that the reason or patron behind their hunt only gave them half the story for their mission, and that delivering up the other characters is no longer in their interest.

For players who don’t know each other well or who don’t like surprises in their story setup, talk about this potential campaign start in session zero or even earlier to make sure it doesn’t present any problems. But if you’re playing with a group of friends you know well who have enjoyed similar unexpected twist scenarios in your games, try telling some of the players that the campaign is going to start out with the party wanted by the law, then tell the other players that the campaign will initially be about them working to track down some notorious criminals. Then reveal the more complex setup in the first session.