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Acting at Less than Optimal

I recently read a fascinating novel, Something Like Normal [1] by Trish Doller. It was fascinating–and somewhat alien to my experience. Since it’s set in the world around us today, it should have been easy to slip right into the character’s head, but it turns out that I’m more easily able to get into the heads of mighty magic wielders, nanotech artists, and creepy alien races. Strangely, those heroes of destiny seem to share my upbringing and values. You know, they’re people who buckle down, study hard, and fight to fix things. They’re not messy, impulsive people who turned to beer in junior high, or who never picked “the right path”, though I admit that those impulsive people often cast better as the muscular hero.

Reading about real people who aren’t engaged in Batman or Bond-like super prowess reminded me that we’re not always at our peak, superbly trained, or even ready to study. Combine that with a cold or flu that swept through California, knocking down me and several coworkers and friends, and I thought again about heroes who always fight at optimal. Sure, people lucky enough to be “generally healthy” might get to roll into fights at peak efficiency… but what about everyone else?

Limiting heroes so they’re sub-optimal is not a very interesting though… the evil GM who nerfs their characters and powers is an oft told story. On the other hand, villains and foes who fight way below peak could be a great tool for GMs. “Strong, but temporarily weakened foes” provide a way to expand “appropriate foe” lists, reward the PCs for research and prep, and put the PCs on the clock. (If they can barely handle King Kong while he’s sick, waiting until he’s healthy seems like a bad plan…)

Common Impairments


Different eras have unique weaknesses and some that manifest more often, though adapting most of these to another era is rarely difficult.

Old World and Medieval.

Modern and Future

Why Make Flawed Foes?

I hope those ideas inspire you to try out some tough foes who are having a bad week. If you’ve ever tried out foes who are suffering from bad circumstances, I’d love to hear about it. If you have thoughts about how to make them work in your campaign, or want to discuss ways to model this type of thing in different systems, take advantage of the talented gnome stew commentariat!

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Acting at Less than Optimal"

#1 Comment By EdNBurgh On February 7, 2013 @ 6:56 am

Thanks for that. It has reminded me that one of the PCs in an early modern campaign I’m running is teetotal, and drinks a lot of milk. Until pasteurization, milk was a key source of tuberculosis. If I’m not feeling that nasty, he might get the “bloody flux” more often than the rest of the party.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On February 7, 2013 @ 9:06 am

Sounds miserable for the poor character, but would really reinforce a grim-and-gritty feel to a setting.

#3 Comment By Svafa On February 7, 2013 @ 8:53 am

You covered it to some extent in Addiction/withdrawal, but one of the side effects of stimulants is a dependence on the stimulant. This is true of coffee and soda as much as any futuristic pill or injection. Which is to say, you’re less likely to have a hard time functioning without caffeine in a medieval setting, unless caffeine is commonplace in the world/region (coffee and tea aren’t exactly new inventions).

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On February 7, 2013 @ 9:09 am

Ah, caffeine, the double edged sword. Yeah, the availability of coffee or tea may vary widely; for a middle eastern or asian setting, their presence can be assumed and there are lots of great rituals about them. But if you’re further afield… it’s probably hard to get a cup of joe as an Icelandic raider.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On February 7, 2013 @ 9:37 am

I have to admit that there were two images that I wanted to work into the article, but couldn’t work them in well.
1) Imagining a group of adventurers carefully sneaking a cat into the castle and letting it loose in the Baron’s room… to incapacitate him due to a terrible allergy.
2) The scene from Guns of Avalon, where Corwin explains how much he dreads a fair fight with his brother… even though his brother lost an arm only a few weeks ago.

#6 Comment By Kitchen Wolf On February 7, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

While it may be the smart thing to do to go after an elderly ogre with cataracts, salmonella, and a gamey leg – it doesn’t seem very heroic from a storytelling standpoint. Even if that is more or less exactly what made tigers turn man-eater.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On February 7, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

I’m not saying the adventurers know that they’re fighting a half-blind cyclops… but when sheep start disappearing and they’re dispatched to find out why, they’ll be pretty surprised to see a cyclops instead of mischievous goblins.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On February 8, 2013 @ 8:44 am

I do not agree that limiting heroes is uninteresting per se, and to judge by the rules systems I am familiar with neither do the authors of those rule systems.

What I do hear of is players who share that opinion, but in all honesty these players typically are not very interesting to run a game for in a campaign framework, and might as well be playing Monopoly.

I know the non-GMs out there will hate me for saying that, but simply sitting behind a screen and giving the players everything they want for the asking until it is time for The Grid Encounter is boring. Personally I’d rather just play a grid-based fantasy/SF board game instead. One can’t expect a GM to engage with your team if you can’t engage with your character other than in the most superficial way. Your PCs in action should be distinguishable from the Cardboard Heroes used to place them tactically in the scene.

I do agree that the Bad Guys should be flawed, and I always try to present the NPC “goodies” as having some facet that will give the players serious pause before invoking them.

When I ran Dresden Files RPG (which “pays” players to play to their flaws, by the way, which is both excellently clever and a sad comment on roleplaying in general) the players would occasionally say “why don’t we just call Harry and let him deal with it?” I always dealt with it in an adult fashion, but the urge to have Harry appear in theater, deal with the problem but turn out to be such a monumental git (which would of course break canon) the players would end up wishing they’d never heard of him was sometimes very hard to quash.

Once again I’m going to recommend Fiasco!!! as a great way for Roleplayers and GMs to practice playing to their flaws as well as their strengths and to learn to enjoy the process.

Then maybe the term “nerf” can be relegated to non-lethal spring-actuated firearms and indoor sports gear where it belongs.

I’ll also recommend listening to “This American Life”, a NPR show findable on the web which has stories in it’s archive featuring people behaving (sometimes very) bizarrely for no readily apparent reason, and the impact they have on the viewpoint characters. GM gold.

#9 Comment By Ben Phelps On February 8, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

Limiting heroes can be done in an uninteresting manner. When it takes 15-20 minutes between turns, and your character is stunned for 2 rounds, you’re effectively out of the game for 30 minutes or more with nothing at all to contribute, and possibly becoming a liability to the group, but without all the tension that would accompany being under 0 HP and rolling to not die just yet for an equal amount of time.

Giving players everything they want is definitely boring, but denying them what they want can be just as boring. Whether you give them what they want or not, the guiding light needs to be whether it is fun and interesting.

Rewarding players for playing their flaws is a good thing – it encourages selection of disadvantages that will come up often and be a real detriment, rather than trying to pick the ones that give the most bonus XP but won’t come up that much like every Shadowrun or WoD player in the world does.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On February 8, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

I wasn’t really addressing modern systems; as you’ve noted, a game like Dresden does a good job of encouraging players to take drawbacks, and actually want those drawbacks to manifest in game.

The stereotype, of nerfing players, goes back to AD&D (and probably before that), where GMs would maim the characters or cripple their loot because it interested them.

As a player, if your concept is playing a one-armed hero and overcoming the disadvantages that come from it, that’s a great character. If your character is “the second story man” and the GM has the authorities chop off a hand for thieving, then what’s left of your concept?

With a good group, or good understanding of what a player actually wants out of their game play, GMs can challenge players by hitting them with adverse circumstances, disabling disease, and so on. By rumor, historically these things were inflicted without even an attempt to gain buy-in–which is why they’re often responded to as metagame “nerfing” rather than in character opportunity to overcome extreme challenges. If you’ve got a group that will take a bout of disease correctly, then this gives you a tool that works well pointed both ways.

#11 Comment By Roxysteve On February 8, 2013 @ 9:19 am

Which sounds a lot more snippy upon re-reading than the voice in my head was when I wrote it. The point about the rules systems being that there are usually whole swaths on Hindrances and negative modifiers due to circumstance and environment in these books.

Hey, if I could communicate effectively I wouldn’t be working with computers with all the other dysfunctionals.

#12 Comment By randite On February 11, 2013 @ 11:01 am

I’ve always found it more heroic when the characters are somehow disabled but pushing forward any way. The adventurers that haven’t slept in 3 days because the Baron must be stopped on Sunday will definitely be getting penalties from me. Every time they take an action the drama of the situation is reinforced by that penalty (assuming I describe it that way). When they finally face down the Baron, it’ll be all the more resounding a win.

Oh, Scott, I’d imagine that the reason you identify with the more powerful characters is because, as you noted, they match your values better. I personally have little use for stories about dysfunctional scumbags being dysfunctional scumbags. (This is why I cant stand “reality” TV.)Now a good redemption tale is something different… Anyway I should probably stop myself before I go off on literary theory tangent.