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.