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Competence is Overrated

by Scott Lynch

The old woman took the umbrella, gratefully, and smiled her thanks. "You've a good heart," she told him. "Sometimes that's enough to see you safe wherever you go." Then she shook her head. "But mostly, it's not."

From Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Are You a "Just One" Gamer?

"But mostly it's not..." and gamers know it as well as anyone. Our little paper ciphers are up against some pretty dangerous odds over the courses of their lives. Poisoned traps, marauding vampires, black dragons, mad scientists, globe-trotting assassins, eldritch horrors, Wyrm-tainted ramen noodles... hell, if you're playing Rolemaster, having your character stand still for five minutes watching the clouds pass raises the possibility of instant death by impaling critical. Every roleplayer is aware on some level that conflict is almost inevitable for their character, and further aware that a little judicious number-shifting and finger-wiggling at character creation can ease the odds against them.

I've done it. You've done it. Even those roleplayers who pride themselves on avoiding "combat monsters" have their little metagame tricks, such as the "just one" phenomenon. You know what I'm talking about: "I'll play an average, balanced person... with just one great combat skill" or "just one excellent psionic art" or "just one exceptional attribute..." and of course that one skill or power so tips the scales that any other relative weaknesses the character incurs are reduced to a negligible consideration in the greater scheme of things.

Tweaking your character on a metagame level is of course perfectly understandable, and no crime. What I present here is not a refutation of that creation model but an alternative to it, based on these two questions:

Is it somehow (at least fractionally) dishonest to create a competent, conflict-ready character not because their background demands it, but because the player knows on a metagame level that they will eventually see conflict?

And are we missing out on something if we bow to this metagame awareness and use it to guide the character creation process?

I can't answer these questions for you... the only answer that matters here is a personal one, not a rhetorical one. If you're left wondering, I submit that you might indeed be rewarded by stepping just a wee bit beyond the bounds of conventional roleplaythink, even if you only try it once. I suggest you try playing a character that doesn't have any idea what's coming at them... and that you design them statistically to match.

O Thou Unworthy, Thou Fascinatingly Unworthy...

I enjoy creating and playing characters that have no clue what they are up against. I also enjoy taking things a step further- playing characters whose lives have done little to prepare them for the situations they will face over the course of the game. There's a subtle difference, and an invigorating one. I enjoy playing characters that must adapt to a new paradigm, reshaping themselves and rising to meet new challenges rather than dealing with them confidently from Day One. Perhaps you could call this an injection of the humanist perspective into my roleplaying- a preference for those heroes that arise from hope and necessity rather those that are "chosen" or set apart from birth. But I digress.

I believe that one of the few traits that roleplayers share in near-absolute totality is a love of character development. Character development comes on many different levels- some enjoy the acquisition of goods, items, and power levels, while others enjoy the deepening of personality, and a lucky few take it all in on an equal footing. There is a satisfaction that arises from playing characters over a period of time- acquiring their scars, trophies, improvements, and laurels. While these developments wear thousands of different masks, at heart they all reflect a single phenomenon- roleplayers enjoy change over time. For me, the most flavorful change, the most fulfilling metamorphosis, is when an ungifted, unprepared, un-superpowered character comes out of a series of adventures on their feet because they rose to the challenge, held tight to their hearts, and learned some new tricks.

What sort of characters am I talking about? Let me give you some examples from film and literature.

  • Richard Mayhew, of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere

    Richard is a very mild-mannered office worker, sweet and somewhat befuddled, who falls into a crack in his world and is lost to a permanent adventure.

  • Virtually the entire central cast of Tanya Huff's Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light

    This is one of those novels that I'm perpetually mired in, pleasantly amused by but unable to devour with fierce passion. One thing it did do, however, is set me off on the thought process that led to this article. At the heart of the novel are an unlikely cast of characters- a mentally retarded woman with weak faerie perceptions, a street-bum guitarist, a hard-nosed social worker, and an unusually clever black cat. Although they're allied with a powerful supernatural being, they're just as important to the story as he is, and they have to survive it with nothing but the relatively mundane skills they've acquired. Not one of them is a fencing master, or a closet martial artist, or an olympic biathlete.

  • The Hobbits of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring

    The Hobbits are a case in point, especially in the first third of the epic. Stalwart, determined, brave, loyal... and hopelessly outclassed. Their vulnerability creates an intense sympathy for them in the reader's mind and forces them to constant ingenuity. Aragorn, Legolas, Boromir and Gimli can pull steel on a foe and mix it up with a stout battle cry... but the Hobbits must make do with stabbing a few monsters in the toes and running away to fight another day.

  • Bobby of William Gibson's Count Zero

    Bobby is a skinny teen-age punk who fantasizes about going to the Sprawl and becoming an outlaw console cowboy, running in the matrix for big-time people and big-time scores. Bobby's problem is that he's a "Wilson," fundamentally clueless about how the real world works. Yet he survives, with the help of characters right out of his fantasies, and as he survives he learns...

  • Dr. John Watson of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories

    Watson is an experienced man of the world, placidly respectable, a gentleman of means and common sense. This means that he's usually out of his league when he crosses paths with challenges befitting his friend Sherlock Holmes- though he's never far from Holmes' side. Watson's case should show you that "degree of competence" can be a very mutable and relative thing, because the good fellow is certainly no slouch in his own areas of expertise.

  • Will Smith's "J" of the film Men in Black

    "Let me tell you something, slick," says veteran Agent K, played by Tommy Lee Jones, "as of right now, your skills mean precisely dick." And then he goes out and proves it. "J," though a physically fit, spirited, and committed police officer, is quite trumped by the challenges awaiting him on his first day of his new job. Furthermore, like Dr. Watson, "J" is deficient only in respect to the surprises that await him beyond the confines of "normalcy."

These are the sort of character that I most delight in playing- those that are tossed into a crucible of challenges beyond their ordinary means, forced by their own inadequacies to replace audacity with ingenuity. Characters that are the very epitome of "work smarter, not harder." I, for one, would rather try to save the universe with an accountant than a space commando, and I would rather fight vampires with a romance novelist than a cybernetic Shaolin monk. For many, part of the attraction of roleplaying is the chance to play a Hero with a capital H, a larger-than-life caricature in an imaginary film or novel, a hawk among wrens. The more I roleplay, however, the more I discover the immense satisfaction of playing characters who are not delivered from the assembly line as heroes, but earn the distinction in the fires of an adventure that seems guaranteed to overwhelm them. In vulnerability, frustration, and desperate improvisation, I have found the keys to getting deeper into the heads of my characters than ever before, and so have renewed the pleasure I can take in their growth and their accomplishments.

If it isn't already quite obvious, note that what I am not advocating is the playing of characters with glaring, traumatic weaknesses, merely for its own sake. In fact, there's nothing wrong with playing a character who has no obvious weaknesses, save that they are facing a test that is an order of magnitude beyond the pale of all previous experience and training. This is markedly different from, say, creating a GURPS character who is thoroughly physically crippled, and using the purchase points thereby gained to acquire psionic abilities that can explode brains at a range of fifteen nautical miles.

Roleplaying in "Delusions of Adequacy" Mode

This approach to roleplaying does require three things.

It requires the building of a character skill and ability set that is effectively random and unready from the perspective of the adventure they will be run in. There is a great deal of room within those confines for the creation of an interesting, rounded character, and therein lies the key to the experience. You must set forth to design a character that is entirely shaped by their previous life experience and entirely unaffected by your own metagame knowledge of what lies in store for them. Thus, no "just one" effect, and no "I think I'll set aside twenty purchase points for some combat skills, since the GM wants to eventually take the campaign to the gladiatorial arena..." style of thinking. For example, if a character is to have combat skills, let it be because they're a veteran of military service. No more, no less.

It requires a certain sort of game system, skill-based, GURPS or FUDGE or Storyteller as opposed to, say, D&D3. Level-based characters tend to acquire power and competence in an ever-increasing arc that isn't quite the same as focused development in a skill-based system. Some games are also patently skewed toward combat (Rolemaster, for example) so if you're playing them at all you might as well go with the flow. Just as the language of our birth generally channels our thinking in certain patterns, we should remember that the game systems we choose likewise generally channel our roleplaying in certain patterns.

Lastly, and most importantly, it requires a thoroughly understanding GM. There is something fundamentally foolish about not discussing a character concept with a GM in the first place, but it's especially vital in this instance. This is not the same as throwing a character against challenges that are guaranteed to get them killed (say, 1st-level Thief versus Red Dragon)- it is the art of creating a character that will adapt to the level of challenge provided rather than entering the game quite used to it. Obviously, if this approach to roleplaying is to bear any fruit it must be done under the eyes of a GM who is not only well aware of it but in some degree sympathetic to it. To some roleplayers, character creation is in itself a sort of competition and character survival is a measure of the skill of the player who created the character. Needless to say, while that mindset can be entertaining in its own arena, it will not sit well at the table with someone who is playing a Richard Mayhew or a Frodo Baggins.

"But Scott," I can hear a number of you muttering at this very moment, "how can one create an unworthy little toad of the sort you seem to be describing, you silly bastard, and still ensure that it's appropriate for them to even be involved in the game at hand?"

A fair question, with a fair answer. First, remember my third caveat above. As a GM, I don't allow people into my games unless they're keen on the theme and the setting and have a character that fits. As a player, I don't do other GM's the disservice of showing up for their games with random and inappropriate characters. Just because I want to play an accountant doesn't mean that I want to play an uninvolved accountant. I'm talking about an accountant with the heart of a hero, an accountant who won't stand back and let the merciless galactic tyrant Zong the Cruel subjugate the cosmos. Look at all the characters I've described above -- just because they're not as estrong, tough, and ready as those around them doesn't mean that they're not meant to be at the heart of the action. Quite the contrary - they all belong there. Within reasonable limits, I believe it is the duty of players to create and maintain characters that will stay involved in the story, provided that the GM in turn keeps the story worthwhile.

"Well and good," you're probably muttering now, "but there's an even larger problem to surmount. The game element of a roleplaying game requires the occasional success at task resolution. From time to time, a sword swing must hit the mark, or a pit must be leapt, or a computer network must be hacked. What fun can it be to play a weakling who perpetually fails? How will the game ever get anywhere?"

Ah, gentle readers, never let it be said that you lack for perspicacity, bless your little hearts. This is a ticklish point, but I'm going to remind you that I never advocated playing a failure for the sake of failure. By all means, play a rugged Elven ranger or a deadly SAS commando. The twist is, what happens when a magical accident deposits our Elven ranger in the modern world, and he has to get a job, find a place to sleep, and master everything from credit cards to automobiles? What happens when the SAS commando ends up on an alien planet without his weapons, trying to help an enslaved indigenous population fight off their technologically advanced alien overlords (I believe there was a film in that vein a few years back)?

Once again returning to my third caveat, if you're thinking of trying this roleplaying approach with a GM who likes to drop characters off thousand-meter cliffs or face them off against Lord Soth and his entire army during the first session... what's wrong with you? Here's where I pull out that magic word "reasonable" yet again. Any reasonable GM presented with a reasonable "deficient" character (a Richard Mayhew or a Frodo) should and will be able to work reasonable challenges for them into the storyline. That is, things they can and will succeed in doing, without diluting the feeling of being out of their depth. If, for example, I write a ten-meter chasm into the story and then discover that not one of the characters even has the "jumping" skill, I will not insist that they attempt to jump the chasm. I will either let the situation drive them to some ingenious solution or I will change the nature of the obstacle.

"Reasonable" is a word that every roleplayer should have an intimate relationship with. Every good game is a case of "give a little, take a little" on the part of its participants. Do just that, and you'll find it very easy to turn your humble accountant into Lord Zong's worst nightmare.

This approach is not for everyone- it's for those who would rather play a Ripley than a Vasquez, a Jack Ryan as opposed to a James Bond. It offers the pleasure of deriving satisfaction from the hard-fought acquisition of confidence rather than the casual presumption of confidence. The distinction is a subtle one, but if you can roll your mind around it, chances are you might just enjoy it immensely.

Scott Lynch is 23 years old and lives in St Paul, Minnesota, with his two cats. He was an arachnophobe until he got his pet tarantula, Neal.

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