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Captivating Commoners

Common Man

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.

Character Stats

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.

Character Gear

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 campaigns that I’ve run along these lines, I’ve handed out minimal cash, some beaten and battered (but not broken) gear. 

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

 I also did my best to shift encounters away from combat early on. 

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.

The Environment

 Wherever you start the party, just make sure they are the center of the story. 

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, the party will rise in power, ability, scope, and renown. 

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.

Conclusion

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?

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Captivating Commoners"

#1 Comment By Michael Harrington On December 24, 2018 @ 11:25 am

DCC RPG and MCC RPG already afford you a “commoner” zero level funnel that often results in a deeper attachment to those characters that “make” it. I encourage all to check it out…its a lot of fun.

“You’re no hero…”

#2 Comment By Jon On April 29, 2019 @ 5:18 pm

Warhammer Fantasy RPG (1e, 2e, 4e) is good at starting you at the bottom.

#3 Comment By bygrinstow On December 24, 2018 @ 11:30 am

The “Character Funnel” adventures of Dungeon Crawl Classics have this sentiment in spades. Have you tried it…?

#4 Comment By J.T. Evans On December 24, 2018 @ 11:40 am

Thanks to both of you for pointing out DCC! I completely spaced on that game while writing up this article.

You’re both right that DCC provides the funnel to create a handful of commoners that will eventually “grow up” to (maybe?) live long enough to become heroes.

I do have the game sitting on my shelf, and I completely scanned over it while perusing games to talk about. I have not played it yet, but it’s definitely high on my list to introduce to my gaming group when the current campaign rolls to a close. Maybe they’ll be amenable to giving the funnel a try!

Great job catching my “blind spot”!

#5 Comment By griffon8 On December 24, 2018 @ 6:20 pm

I supported the Kickstarter for The Adequate Commoner, by J.M. Perkins for Misfit Studios. Lots of advice for the commoner campaign in Pathfinder.

#6 Comment By J.T. Evans On December 24, 2018 @ 7:09 pm

That’s a great tip, griffon8. I’ll have to look that up and see what I can find.

#7 Comment By Lugh On December 27, 2018 @ 7:27 am

Of course, part of the issue is finding the source material to serve as inspiration. After all, you’ve got a lot more Conan and Batman stories on the market than Joe Schmoe stories. But there are several that give good starting points.

Lord of the Rings would be an interesting option, if the hobbits had not picked up the highly trained nobles to add to their party. Create a McGuffin that would corrupt those with power, but is relatively harmless in the hands of those with none. Your commoners are handed the quest to destroy the McGuffin precisely because they are schmoes.

Mystery Men is the go-to example for the superhero genre. You have a bunch of wannabes who are suddenly the only hope of the city when the “real hero” gets taken out by the villain.

Firefly is a pretty good example for the sci-fi genre. Just ratchet the skills down a hair and remove the River element, and you have a great campaign of surviving against desperate odds. Particularly where many of the people you’re going up against are simply better than you are.

Most of your survival movies have an element of this. You can go a little wacky with Shaun of the Dead or a little weird with Lost or deadly serious with Walking Dead. Those stories are explicitly about normal people in extraordinary circumstances, so it makes sense that the most heroically skilled people might be “combat vet with PTSD”, “beat cop”, or “doctor”.

#8 Comment By Lugh On December 27, 2018 @ 9:00 am

There’s also a HUGE difference between “a party of commoners” and “I’m playing the commoner in a party of heroes”. Both have their places. But the second often requires a lot more work to pull off well.

There are systems that specifically support choosing to play the Zeppo. Buffy, in particular, had to find a way to make choosing to play Xander appealing, and to avoid everyone wanting to play the Slayer. Their solution was to allow you to trade off power as a character for additional power as a player. Your character is not as good at solving problems directly, but gets story points to solve problems on the meta level. Fate Core and several other modern games have also taken this approach.

Even systems like D&D that don’t explicitly support these choices can be tweaked to handle it. You just need to make some very specific choices when building your character. Abilities that focus on making other characters better are often good, and so clerics and bards tend to be good classes. You can also focus on abilities that improve survival, as the ability to hide behind a convenient table and avoid the fireball is rarely seen as “heroic”. But staying conscious is often extremely useful to keeping the party functional. And don’t underestimate the value of re-skinning abilities. You could build a very effective rogue who, in play, merely stumbles around drunkenly and luckily finds that the door was not actually locked (q.v., Shaggy and Scooby Doo).

It is important that you as a player have to be emotionally prepared to play the sidekick. You don’t often get to be the one to save the day. But, you can still claim spotlight time through side plots, and through comic relief. Some gamers are good with that. Some need the glory.

#9 Comment By J.T. Evans On December 27, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

Lugh,

You’re absolutely right that finding pop culture references in pretty much any media that portrays the “common man” is incredibly difficult. Finding a tale where you could take any one of us players (not characters) from the gaming table and dropping us into the plot and being successful in the efforts is incredibly difficult. Heroes are expected to be heroic. It’s when the “average person” steps up, does what they need to do despite all odds, and changes the world that I think we need more stories about.

I also agree that there is a massive difference between “a party of commoners” and “a commoner among heroes” approach. Both are viable, but they also have their own issues to deal with. You gave a great breakdown of the two and the problematic areas.

Thanks for those comments!

#10 Comment By Rob Abrazado On January 1, 2019 @ 5:37 pm

People may also enjoy Beyond the Wall. It’s an old-school ruleset game, highly simplified and geared toward very little prep to play, dedicated that kind of zero-to-hero aesthetic. It’s explicit about starting your fantasy adventuring party’s career as a group of childhood friends starting in their peaceful little village, and then you’re sent out into the world to level up! [5]

#11 Comment By J.T. Evans On January 1, 2019 @ 7:01 pm

Excellent recommendation, Rob! Thanks a ton for adding to the conversation.