D&D: Rolling with your flaws

This past weekend I tried something new: Running an online game of Dungeons & Dragons. With social distancing being our primary means of combating the spread of COVID-19, many tabletop gamers are finding themselves in the challenging position of having face-to-face gaming opportunities stripped away in the name of social responsibility, and if we want to continue getting our nerd on we need to look into alternative avenues of connecting with our fellow gamers. Thanks to available technology, we’re able to reach out and connect for geek gatherings through platforms like Zoom and Discord, and even older staples like Skype.

Now, I wear a “World’s Okayest DM” shirt for a reason. I ain’t no Matt Mercer, but under normal circumstances I can run a decent enough game, so I pulled on my big nerd pants after talking with some local pals and agreed to kick tires with two brand new players who’ve never played D&D before, and a third player who hasn’t played since 2nd Edition. Soooo almost two decades ago?

I gave the players a brief description of what I needed from them in terms of characters so I could start crafting the story, hooked them into a campaign on DnDBeyond, and what happened next was exciting for me as a DM and invigorating for me as a player with a history of RPGs dating back to the 1980’s. The players, with  no real understanding of what makes a “good” PC rules-wise, made characters that just felt interesting to them, warts and all, picked  up their metaphorical swords and shields and stepped into the ring.

I can’t tell you how refreshingthat is.

Now I will note, there’s nothing wrong with building an optimized PC if that’s your jam, it’s just not my personal preference. I have always advocated, as a roleplayer, for playing flawed characters. Having a character who’s just plain good at pretty much everything isn’t engaging for me, isn’t challenging to play, just isn’t as interestingto me personally. Characters should certainly have a strength that marks them as being an adventurer, some feature that will give them a moment to shine as a hero (or villain, depending on your campaign), but I’ve always believed that characters should also be flawed, have weaknesses that make things challenging for them, or force them to rely on their teammates and creative problem solving. That’s where the real joy of roleplaying games comes out for me.

I don’t care a whit about Superman – a character with so many strengths that they had do invent weaknesses for him – but conversely I’m a fan of the X-Men, where each character has one or two thematic abilities and everything they do stems from that thematic pool. Beast, for example, is hyper-agile with feet that can grip and hold items. Later on his “beast” concept extended to fur and claws. He can’t fly, he has no ranged capability, no energy discharge or elemental control, no super speed or mind control – his superpowers just grant him strength, agility, dexterity and potential sponsorships with Rogaine later in life. Whatever challenges get thrown at him, he has to work out how to deal with them with the tools at hand.

Enter this weekend’s characters. These are brand new players, so we started at level 1 to allow them to grow with their characters as they learn how 5th edition works.

We have the Dwarf Druid with a handaxe, last survivor of a vanished mountain dwarf community, with a personal quest to find out what happened to to his people. Starting with two first level spells, he chose Cure Wounds (apt as the party’s primary healer) and Speak With Animals.

We have the Gnome Bard who’s every bit the charming souls a bard should be, and is nicely set up to support her teammates though bardic inspiration and Healing Word, but Strength and Dexterity are her dump stats, and her spells include Disguise Self, Charm Person and Animal Friendship.

We have the Aasimar Paladin swinging a warhammer, a celestial being who will, as he develops, likely fulfill the role of party tank, standing in the front lines, but for now, is standing in the front lines with an AC of 14.

Finally, we have a Warforged Ranger who’s essentially a weaponized C3PO. I mention him only for the sake of completion – he’s actually an NPC I’ve put with the party to provide a little extra oomph and otherwise help point characters in the right direction if they get completely lost. He’ll be making no decisions for the group, just pitching in with fighting and whatnot.

I mentioned that the Paladin has an AC of 14? That’s the highest of the three player characters. The Bard has an AC of 9. Max melee damage output of the three? 1d8+2. One of the character’s dagger attacks has a 50/50 chance of doing 0 damage. These are characters that weren’t *built* to be adventurers, but rather have heroic souls who are adventuring and doing their best with the tools they have at hand.

They can’t look at dangerous gribbly and just start rolling dice, they have to actually pause and think and figure out how to use the tools at hand to overcome the challenge, and in our one session it’s already led to some fantastic problem solving.

  • A sign of possible danger ahead! Speak With Animals turns the bard’s pet ferret into a scout, lightly skipping across the snow and spying out the enemy encampment without being seen, and reporting back on what he saw!
  • A group of bandits have a captive and we’re going to get overwhelmed! Wait, Charm Person (and a failed bandit saving throw) removes one of the bandits from the list of people trying to stab us, and once charmed he can free the captive to join in the fight! At the same time, Dancing Lights take a humanoid form directly in front of two bandits to foul their aim, and later in the fight envelop the head of a bandit to blind him as he tries to attack!
  • A suit of animated armor is attacking! Bardic inspiration helps deal with its high AC,and tactical use of the Produce Flame cantrip burns through armor straps holding one of the arms in place against the shoulder, leaving it hanging limp and denying the armor one of its attacks.

As a DM I was thrilled that the players took the few tools they had available to them – and even those far from optimized – and faced down the challenges put to them. As they level up and gain more abilities, they’re going to lean into their strengths or work to mitigate their weaknesses, and I have to say I’m genuinely excited to see where the players take these characters. I’m not going to have to ramp up threat levels to compensate for min-maxed stats, we can just approach the story and watch it unfold in all its glory.

Of course, things are going to be a little hairy for them since they were enveloped in mists and found themselves in Barovia…