“Gaming Habits” will hopefully be a semi-regular series that I do from now on that talks about common habits and behaviors that I’ve seen show up in games over the years. Hopefully it will be really fun. Today we’re talking about the tendency of players to give their characters what should be crippling weaknesses, but for whatever reason rarely turn out to be. Most of my examples use the d20 or Pathfinder RPG system for their mechanics.
There are a lot of weaknesses a character can have. Some of them are flavorful or based on an archetype, such as the frail wizard or the bullheaded warrior. Some of them, however, should really be a detriment to the character and never are. Here are a few examples, followed by how players get away with them.
The Dump Stat
Ok, so let’s say we’re building a fighter, and we’re using point buy so we more or less get to do whatever we want with our ability scores. I’ve got 20 points to spend and I really want that 18 in strength. For those unfamiliar with the way point buy works, the higher you raise a single score the more you have to spend for each increase. So it costs more to bring your strength up from 17 to 18 than it does to bring it from 11 to 12. An 18 STR costs most of my points, but I still need constitution and dexterity for fighting. I only bring my dexterity up a bit, because hey I’ve got heavy armor to make me more dodgy (which is a mechanic that will get its own entry one day), but I need extra points for my constitution so I can take hits.
Well, this is where dump stats come into play. You can get extra points to spend by lowering other scores, and a fighter is rarely going to have need of a high intelligence or charisma so he can dump those down to 7 with minimal consequence, having him play a character whose mental abilities probably resembles the Simple Jack, the parody character played by the character played by Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder. Of course, the player almost never represents them this way.
The One-Trick Pony
This is not referring to characters with a specialty, or even classes with limited scope. Fighters pretty much hit stuff, and don’t have a lot of room to do much else, and that’s not their fault. The one-trick pony is a character who is cripplingly over-specialized, to the point that they are extremely powerful when their trick will work and completely useless if it doesn’t.
Sometimes related to the one-trick pony, but this can often be a player flaw as well as a character flaw. This is when a player goes into the dungeon and has not bothered to pick up any supplies, adventuring gear, or potions. A ridiculously common example of this is players who do not bring a ranged weapon to their adventures.
I’ve seen every one of these more than once and they can be troublesome for many reasons. For the game master, there’s pressure to make sure that everyone at the table has something to do. So if a character is specialized enough, they might find their weakness never coming into play. Similarly, if a characters have a zero or negative modifier to a skill, such as climb or swim, then there’s an automatic road block whenever there’s an aquatic challenge or a wall that needs to be scaled.
So what’s the solution? Well, from a GM perspective, the solution is actually something that I consider a universal rule. Just don’t protect the players from the consequences of their decisions. I say during character creation for any game that I run that “Nobody has to play a rogue, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any traps.” I apply that to everything. If you run a character based around mind control or fear then that doesn’t mean that I’ve agreed to never set an adventure in a crypt full of undead, and so on. This doesn’t mean constantly invoking a player character’s weakness, it just means not being afraid to target it when it is relevant.
As an example, I once ran my players through a mountain pass inhabited by demons. Now, one of the demons was a thing called a Coloxus, which has charisma drain as an added effect of its bite attack. The party fighter had a charisma score of eight. This was rarely a significant hindrance, and it was an important element of the character that he didn’t talk much, had poor hygiene, and was generally uncharismatic. This also meant that he was exactly who the bad guy chose to target with his attack which had the potential to drop him in two hits. A charisma score of zero isn’t fatal mind you, but it meant that the party was at a much higher risk of having to go through the fight without their fighter.
If there’s a tangible drawback to being overly specialized, players will likely decide that just isn’t a good idea. Sometimes you have players who cry foul if their weakness ever comes into play, and I’ve always suspected that those players intentionally made their weakness glaring so that if you targeted it they could act like they were being picked on. They tend to stop just short of “Look, I dumped my constitution and that means you’re not allowed to deal damage to me!”
That, however, is a topic that will have to wait.