It’s fun to have all of the power, there’s no denying it. To crush one’s enemies underfoot as one steps on a bug is immensely enjoyable. Everyone wants to have the most powerful character at the table; however, not all characters are created equally ‘powerful’. RPG systems are so rich and complex that it is impossible for designers to create an entirely balanced system; some classes or features are inherently more ‘powerful’ than others (I’m using ‘powerful’ in a general sense to mean statistically preferable under most circumstances, i.e. most damage per attack).
Granted, some systems are more unbalanced (particularly between classes) than others. DnD has done a relatively good job of keeping its classes relatively balanced, especially in comparison to other games such as the Rifts universe, which has much more variety in character classes which leads to great disparity in relative power levels (e.g. which class do you think is more powerful, the Combat Cyborg, part man, part killing machine which can literally have chainsaws for arms and comes with multiple class abilities, or the Vagabond, essentially a post-apocalyptic bum [without chainsaw arms] who’s only class ability is to, and I quote, “Eyeball a fella”). Even in relatively balanced systems, experienced players often know the most effective mechanics, i.e. which skills and abilities are the most useful, which feats are most potent, which powers and spells are most lethal, etc.
My first ever character in a tabletop RPG was (gasp!) a vagabond in a Rifts campaign (bet you never could have guessed). Charra (or Char, to her friends) had limited powers (except for that Eyeball a fella, which allowed her to size people up, just by lookin’ at ‘em), average stats (but for physical beauty, which was a 23 when the average range is 10-13), and unimpressive gear (my most lethal weapon was a pistol which did 1d6 damage); what she did have was a few limited psionic abilities, her charm, and my cleverness as a player (or mind-numbing lack thereof). In most situations she was next to useless, as her peashooter hardly scratched enemies’ armor and she lacked the stats or abilities for anything other than persuasion. But for all that, she is far and away my favorite and most memorable character I’ve played to date. In the following paragraphs, I will tell you why and attempt to convince you to build your next character as a bum rather than a bruiser.
1. It increases challenge (and subsequent satisfaction).
Playing an inherently weaker character will increase the challenge of the game, both for you and your group. The difficulty will depend upon the specifics of your character, but often it will most show itself in combat situations, as less powerful characters are often classified so due to their sub-par (or overly specialized) fighting abilities. This often forces the player into situations where he or she must act creatively (I’ve found that once I have a ‘powerful’ character, it’s easy and practical to just spam whatever ability makes that character ‘powerful’, i.e. my fighter’s sword arm). While this takes a good imagination, flexible DM, and solid understanding of whatever game’s mechanics with which you’re playing, pulling off an imaginative move that changes the course of a battle is incredibly satisfying. The lovely Char was often a liability rather than an asset in most fights. She did have minor telekinesis, though not strong enough to deal any damage in combat and as a result unhelpful in most fights; however, if grenades were thrown, those of the enemy mysteriously found their way back to explode at their owners’ feet when she was around. Her telekinetic push power allowed her to push an enemy back a few feet (so powerful, right?); however, those few feet were enough to send enemies hurtling earthwards when fighting in the back of a cargo jet in flight. As a player, having a weak character forces you to think outside the box and look for situations in which you can use your special skills and abilities to the advantage. When this is pulled off, the thrill of victory is all the sweeter.
2. It enriches your role-playing.
Even though your character’s power level might be lacking does not mean his or her force of personality must be. On the contrary, the fact that a less powerful character is an active and valuable member of a party might suggest otherwise. Almost all games compensate for a character’s weaknesses in one situation by increasing their strengths elsewhere. For example, Char had many non-combat related skills, such as begging, radio, and a near flawless cooking ability; after a big battle she would sometimes cook up some delicious pies for the party, making her much more valuable to the group than any of those muscly guys in heavy armor with huge guns (anyone who truly loves pie should agree with me on this). Sure, in-game pie doesn’t actually offer any in-game benefits (not like out-of-game pie) but it enhances the gaming world for you and your fellow players and creates a better story than just mindlessly returning to a dull camp each night.
That’s not to say your abilities outside of combat are merely for flavor (pie pun!). Use your abilities to their full advantage. Find situations in which your character can shine and own them. Is your character silver-tongued? Seek out NPCs whenever possible and use those skills to persuade and manipulate to your hearts content (the lovely Char traded on her looks on more than one occasion. Greasy, used car salesman showed a willingness to negotiate directly proportional to the amount of skin she showed. That has not been my experience). Can your character climb like a monkey? Make sure the rest of the party knows of their great skill and always look for opportunities to demonstrate it (even if it’s not strictly necessary. Even if shooting from a height offers no in-game benefits, have them climb anyways). Is your character a master of tying rope? Ensure that whenever rope is used in the party that you are either the one using it or voicing loud opinions about knot quality. In short, you have an opportunity to define your character’s personality by the abilities that make them unique, abilities which would be overshadowed in other, more ‘powerful’ characters. So what if you have the weakest character in the party? He or she can still be the best out of all of them (and it doesn’t hurt having your character reminding their fellow party members of that, preferably repeatedly).
3. It revitalizes familiar games.
Once you have several years of adventuring under your belt, you may begin to become familiar with many of your game’s more ‘standard’ mechanics. Whether they be traditionally the most powerful spells (your burning hands, lightning bolt, fireball) or weapons (who among us wouldn’t be able to recite the damage of a longsword from DnD?), you soon do not even need to refer to any tables or charts to remember the basics. Now, how many could recite the weapon statistics for a DnD whip? Trident? Net? Kudos to you if you can rattle those off, I know I certainly can’t. Most players have not created many characters that have relied on those weapons; stat-wise, it just doesn’t make sense. However, therein lies my point: playing a less powerful character which defies statistical sense will open up an avenue for new experiences in a familiar game. In the example of the whip, I’m sure you won’t suddenly unlock some hidden potential for the whip to become a superweapon. You will, however, get the chance to trip, startle, and intimidate your enemies in ways that just aren’t possible with a longsword. Such is an example of exploring a game mechanic with which you’ve had little experience. As sexy as I’m sure most of you find game mechanics, it all boils down to a chance to feel some of the joy in the novelty that we experienced upon setting out on our first adventures. (You’ll notice no Char-related stories here. An over-familiarity with the Rifts universe is highly unlikely and thus not particularly relevant here).
I hope I’ve conveyed to you at least part of the joy that can be found playing weaker characters. I’d like to say that Char lived happily ever after, but that is not the case. As she was my first character, I grew impatient at being virtually helpless most of the time; my DM took pity and granted her some legendary psionic powers. However, I can no longer remember what they were because she lost what made her memorable as a character and just became another super-powerful killing machine like the rest of my group. She was shot and killed a while later, super powers notwithstanding. R.I.P. Charra. Don’t be follow my example here. Be patient; enjoy (and play up!) what makes your ‘weaker’ character the best.
Jake is an avid board gamer, outdoorsman, and low level role-player who lives in College Station, Texas. You can read his latest article about what sections of the D&D 5th Edition Player's Handbook everyone must read here.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.