Post by Peter Watson-Wailes

One of the biggest challenges with the larger RPG titles (I'm thinking specifically here of D&D, Pathfinder and their ilk) is the breadth of choice they offer players. They're often said to be generally more engaging for both players and GMs when the party is at a low level. But there's a paradox - they're built, at least in part, around the idea of character advancement, which means that over time, the characters we play can often become less enjoyable, not more. So why is this, and how can we fix it?

The Tyranny of Choice

The issue as I see it is this: players should be creative in their play, but creativity comes best from limited options. When we look at anything in higher level play though, the players have so many tools at their disposal that the game breaks down, with players having dozens of options for how to solve a problem with a handwave, rather than the great roleplay we're after.

I like to think of this as the walls problem. Walls are only challenging if you can't fly. Presenting the players with interesting challenges becomes difficult when the default idea is to throw something at them that can kill them, and their at a level where even death is little more than a temporary inconvenience.

Creativity Through Limitation

My theory is that giving people less:

  1. Results in them creating more around the character they're creating themselves, and
  2. Produces characters who are more unique, and less of a trope

So one of the things I've started to recommend players do with different systems is to min-max. This isn't to make a character great in one area, but to make them intentionally weak in others, adding greater flavour in the 90% of the time when the one things they're great at isn't an option.

Why This Works

When you're playing this way at lower levels, you have something of a softer framework which you can explore and enjoy as you create the character backstory and personality over time. If you start with a fully fleshed out character, there's less room to grow that into something interesting and novel. That said, you do want to have something in mind, and for that I'd recommend checking out our post from last year for 18 character backstory questions.

The other part is that our games exist to create tension, whether that's through politics or romance or personal conflict or moral dilemma, or just plain old combat. However, if you've got a broad toolset for dealing with any situation, it's hard to be engaged. Simply put, it's boring when everything is easy. If on the other hand you've got a character who's excellent in combat but little else, then that gives an obvious way to create tension - the GM can put you in situations where the challenges are focused on pressing against your greatest weaknesses.

This is something we've touched on before, when discussing what makes a great villain and in keeping players engaged.

The better you can make the villain at hitting the character's greatest weaknesses, the greater the tension will become between the character and their goals, and thus the more powerful the resolution of those things will be.

If the character doesn't have any real weaknesses or flaws, there's fewer ways to create effective dramatic tension and pay-off. Equally, when you're running a character with great strength in one area, when it's their time to shine, they can appear even more powerful as a result of it. The contrast is greater, which leads to greater payoff.

Examples

A few solid examples of this for me would be:

  • Grog - Critical Role. When your solution for challenges is "hit it with something", it's easy to subvert that using things like the Craven Edge storyline.
  • Hermione Granger - Harry Potter. A bookish girl-genius, who shines best when she's confronted by something that requires courage, rather than simply intellect
  • Picard - Star Trek TNG. When your greatest skills are those to do with negotiation, being in situations where that's useless creates incredible drama. See the fallout of his assimilation by the Borg in the wonderful episode Family, or the famous two parter Chain of Command, where he's tortured, with no way to fight back.
  • Bridget Jones. A woman with a good heart and good intentions, but few skills, which makes her all the more relatable, and a wonderful underdog the audience can root for

Whether skilled or not, it's always the flaws and places where characters fall short that add flavour to a character. So next time you're looking at how to create a great character, think about how you can make them worse.

If you've enjoyed this post, you might want to follow me on Twitter