Many RPGs on the market assert that the PCs are heroic in nature, thus justifying higher stats, more skills, special abilities, better resources, and so on. I have absolutely no problem with this assertion and the resulting “better” characters. However, I feel there are some roleplaying experiences left on the cutting-room floor by always having the characters be the best, brightest, and boldest of their generation.
Instead of each player creating a heroic character fresh from session zero, I propose an experiment. Let’s create some “common folk” and see what happens next. Encounters are going to have to be scaled way down, or the campaign will only survive into round three of the first combat. The challenges and tricks the GM places in front of the party will have to be tweaked for the lower (or lack of) skills and abilities.
What? Play a low-powered character? Why would anyone want to do that? Hold onto those questions and stick with me. I’ve done this a few times (as GM and player) and the stories that come out of “Baub the Torchbearer” saving the “real” hero’s rear at the end of an adventure are wonderful to have in your “No crap, there I was” collection of stories.
There are quite a few point-build games on the market (GURPS and Hero System being the two big ones) that already have things in place for creating commoners or lower-powered characters. Let’s set them aside for the moment. Instead, let’s look at games like D&D/Pathfinder, Cyberpunk 2020, Savage Worlds, and Fate Core where there are some assumptions of heroism baked into the character creation.
For the D&D/Pathfinder style systems, it’s pretty easy to produce a commoner. I would recommend avoiding rolling dice for the base stats, but use a common pool of numbers for all the characters. Something like: 8, 10, 10, 11, 11, and 13 would be a good start. This will produce a lower-powered character, but not an absolute weakling. It’ll also allow one stat to “shine.”
For Savage Worlds and Cyberpunk 2020, there are a certain number of default points given for the base stats. In Savage Worlds, it’s 5 points. Shift that down to 3 points, and you’ll have a useful, yet limited character. For Cyberpunk 2020, it’s as easy as creating an “average” character with 50 points to spend across the 9 stats. I’d even go as far as handing out a paltry 40 or 45 points.
With Fate Core, just modify the skills pyramid to top out at Good (or maybe even Fair) instead of Great. This would lead to one Good, two Fair, and three Average skills, with the rest being Mediocre.
In campaigns that I’ve run along these lines, I’ve handed out minimal cash, some beaten and battered (but not broken) gear, and just enough stuff to the PCs so they can be effective at surviving — not getting ahead, not saving the world — just surviving. Let the players use their ingenuity, imagination, and careful planning to get ahead in the world.
As an example:
In a Cyberpunk 2020 game, I had the players roll three separate d10s for their cash. The first was the number of Eurodollars they had. The second was for “dimes” and the third was for “pennies.” We treated a “0” on the die as zero, not ten. Yeah. You read that right. Not even ten bucks was the potential starting cash. I also had them roll 2d10 for how many bullets they had for their one gun. Ouch. I also went through the “Compendium of Modern Firearms (Edge of the Sword Vol. 1)” and picked out a modern (our modern, not Cyberpunk 2020 modern) handgun and gave them my picks. I also gave them some Kevlar and leather armor, but it was far from pristine. They started in Night City’s Combat Zone… just to turn the screws a little more.
If my example doesn’t sound fun, I want to let you know that this was my longest-running Cyberpunk 2020 campaign ever (a little more than a year in length with weekly games). By the end of the campaign, the PCs (all four players still with their original characters) had managed to wipe out two street gangs, neutralize a third, take over two others, and had a large (but not controlling) ownership in a megacorp. Oh. They also owned several local businesses, no longer lived in the Combat Zone, and were the “people behind the curtain” for a TV station and several radio stations to control the news about their activities.
Pretty cool, eh? All with some pocket change and a handful of bullets for an outdated gun.
Lowering Combat Risks
How did such a lowly group of folks get from having a collective cash total of less than $40 and get all the way up there? Well, that’s a very long story, but it all started with me making sure that the combat risks they faced (especially in a deadly game like Cyberpunk 2020) weren’t super deadly. The PCs had guns. The groups they encountered early on had plenty of melee weapons, but maybe only the leader of the opposing group had a gun. This led to fun and interesting tactics as the players had to decide if they wanted to expend their precious ammo on someone that may not have enough euros on them to offset the cost of the bullet.
I also did my best to shift encounters away from combat early on. This led to more intense dialogue between the PCs and the NPCs as the players would try to get things out of opponents without resorting to fights. This was fun roleplaying all the way through. It also led to many alliances, favors owed, favors collected, enemies, truces, and ample backstabbing in the figurative sense.
As I mentioned above, I started the Cyberpunk 2020 game in the Combat Zone. You’ll want to find a similar “lowly” setting for your group to start out in. It can be the city’s slums (or sewers?), in a small village with small problems, or on a rust-bucket of an interplanetary asteroid trawler with a leaky airlock.
Wherever you start the party, just make sure they are the center of the story. If more powerful people care about the same problems as your commoners, then it’ll be natural for the more powerful people to step up and solve the problem. This is a pitfall you want to avoid. Think about the Netflix show “Stranger Things.” The kids are the center of the action, but there are parents around. Why don’t the parents solve the issues or take charge? Because the kids are keeping things secret from the adults and going out to do their own thing. This keeping of secrets is what drives the kids’ stories instead of getting their mojo (it’s also called “agency” in literary terms) stomped on by the more potent characters in the small town.
Treatment by the Heroes
What if there are heroes in the area? Why aren’t they taking charge? What if they are aware of the issues the PCs are trying to overcome? Maybe the issue is beneath the care of the heroes in the area. Perhaps the heroes are too strapped, too busy, too missing, or too oblivious to take care of this. This is when the PCs step up and prove themselves as more heroic than the heroes.
When the party becomes noticed by the heroes, maybe there’s a reward or offering of employment from the heroes. A little something to give a boost to the party. Or… if you’re feeling especially nasty (and this is the style/theme of your game), the current heroes could be threatened by the party and try to put them down or squelch their influence.
Becoming the Hero
Eventually (as illustrated above in my Cyberpunk 2020 example), the party will rise in power, ability, scope, and renown. This will allow them to become the heroes and guide themselves and their allies into greater and better deeds. Perhaps there can even be spin-off campaigns where a new set of commoners under the old party can be created to rise to the top alongside (or to replace?) the old party.
What are your thoughts on playing a member of the “common folk” portion of society? Have you done this? How did things go for you and your gaming group?