Thursday, October 11, 2012

Simple made Easy - Roleplaying that Thick-Headed Fighter

This time - a special treat: this post was written by Ben Haker, a friend and a member of my current D&D 4th Edition group.

I asked the guys to step forward and write something about D&D, the group or the campaign, and Ben came up with this post. Honestly - I got more than I bargained for. Here's why:

Sometimes, playing a simple-minded character can be difficult.

If you think about it, playing the typical "Thick-Headed Fighter" can be very difficult. Unless you just wing it, playing a "dumb" fighter can be more difficult than playing the scholarly Wizard, the sharp-minded Cleric or the quick-thinking (and acting) Rogue.

Why? because we, RPG players, are anything but simple-minded (the DM in the back, I can hear you laughing).
There are three main reasons that make the task of playing such a character nontrivial: The player, The Group and The DM.

The Player

Playing a character with low mental attributes is challenging, as opposed to playing a character with low physical attributes. Low physical attributes (Strength, Constitution & Dexterity) are simply reflected in the character's statistics. Your fighter can either lift the rock above his head, or he can't. He can either run 20 miles without sweating, or he can't. End of story.

Low mental attributes are more problematic to role-play properly. We usually don't play down our characters. We are used to think of them as heroes, able to do things that we are not able to. This is part of the 'fantasy' in a fantasy role-playing game. They can cast spells, swordplay all day and slay dragons. We, except for a few gifted players - myself included, are not able to do all of these. But we can think

Playing down our natural intelligence and cognitive capabilities does not come naturally to us. Sitting around the table, looking at a puzzle the group is struggling with, knowing the answer and keeping quiet is hard and, let's face it, not very rewarding. You need to go against your natural instincts and stay quiet (or describe your fighter scratching his head for 30 minutes) in many encounters that require cognitive abilities, or social interactions that your character will probably blunder. This does not mean that you do not have great role-play opportunities in these encounters, but they are counter-intuitive and sometimes destructive. Fooling yourself in-front of a Lord may be problematic and reflect badly on the group. You can do it a limited number of time before your friends start moving in their seats uncomfortably.

The Group

Last time the group I was playing with went to read and research in a library. I, playing the simple-minded fighter, got bored and went to look for a promiscuous serving girl. The effect was that I was excluded from the "action" in the library (the group acquired some valuable information there) and from the decision making that followed after acquiring the information as it took place in the library. I was faced with the fact that the group decided upon a course of action without talking to my fighter (who was, at that time, having a great time - high Constitution and all).

So, when playing a simple-minded character we need to take into account the following:

  1. The character (and therefore, you as a player) might be excluded from encounters requiring mental abilities, as your character does not have much to contribute. This is not a bad thing on its own, but in many cases you will also be excluded from the decision making that follows, unless you meta-game and contribute your opinion even if your character is not present/have nothing useful to say. That is a problem as you may have a lot to contribute as a player, even if your character simply cannot contribute a thing. This may drive your character to a semi-NCP position or may drive your character to a continues conflict with the group, as their decisions seem out of context or plain wrong to your character.
  2. You, as a player, might be considered a "bad role-player". During encounters that require some character thinking, your character have to "fade to grey", or contribute little. After all, what does the thick-headed fighter have to say in a room full or wizards debating the results of the summoning ritual the heroes payed for? And if your character does say something, you might be forced to have your character say things that are purposely off the point. Not a lot of players can appreciate that and give your credit as a good role-player.
The DM

As it turns out, the DM is both the solution and the biggest challenge to overcome. 

It all comes down to the question of the DM's ability to "get" what you are doing and publicly commend you.

A lot of DMs hand out additional rewards for good role playing. If your DM awards your un-traditional role-playing, it sends a certain message to the other players. But in most cases, a DM that sees your character break away to do things "out of boredom" will see your way of role-playing as shallow, obtrusive and problematic. 

Such behavior, if not properly explained beforehand, might cause the DM to think YOU are bored as a player, and the way to a collision course is guaranteed. Always keep in mind that the DM is human too. He probably worked hard to build and design an encounter or an episode involving thinking that your fighter ignored or "broke" in away. He may be offended not understanding your behavior. Some DM's might even punish such behavior, or (if they plainly ignore it and not recognize your way of role-playing for what it truly is) might miss the opportunity to provide appropriate encounters for you in which to excel (other than combat).

So what can we do to make playing a simple character an easy task?

In my opinion, the best way to avoid all these issues is to talk about them before the games starts with the DM and the other players. 

Explain what kind of character you are going to play to your DM and group members. Tell them that it is not easy to play a simple-minded character, and tell them how hard it is to play against your basic instincts - especially at the areas in which we, as players, feel secure and capable. 

Ask your DM for support (by providing role-playing opportunities and by recognizing these moments you "drift" to role-play your character), and work with the other players to ensure they understand why you are playing your character the way you are, and encourage them to role-play their characters' response to that thick-headed fighter of yours, instead of rolling their eyes in disdain, or worse, totally ignoring your efforts.

So, it turns out that asking your players to say something about D&D, the group or the campaign might result in getting exactly what you asked for...

Roll those 20's!



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. While appreciating the general theme, I must heartily disagree.
    When reading the following lines, please keep in mind that I'm unfamiliar with the player, the character and the group; the following relates only to the core issues of the article, rather than the personas involved.
    When bringing life to ability scores, one must keep in mind that 10 is the human average, and that a character with an 8 for INT (assuming normal deviation) is simply bellow average - not a moron. Since common sense counts for a lot and is controlled by WIS rather than INT, in the example stated above, a warriors' intuition may just bring the breakthrough the wizard was looking for (insert "big bang theory" reference of your choosing here).
    In that respect, losing interest and having no curiosity are distinctly separate from ability scores. Do YOU own a copy of "A brief history of time"? Can YOU explain all of the physics involved therein? Didn't think so.
    I should note that while a score of 8 for both INT and WIS does occur – it should be common for foot soldiers and work-horses, not for heros. As a DM, I would suspect power (and foul) play when presented with a character with such scores and ask for an appropriate background story, explaining how such an oaf managed to become a hero. For lower scores, I would've demanded an even more elaborate explanation (and probably a chaperon as well). (note: default character creation methods do not allow for such a situation to occur).
    I would also like to note that the habit of using dump stats is plain wrong, since as previously explained, common sense is, well, *common*. A fighter without a common sense would have never lived through maturity, stupidly stumbling into a fight that would kill him.
    In conclusion – despair not, those of you with an 8 for intelligence – a common man has much more to learn in a library, then a scholar who believes he already knows everything.
    Most of the arguments stated above apply to abominal charisma scores as well.

    1. I agree with everything you wrote (especially being so polite at the prefix - this was refreshing) but...
      Technically speaking, or writing :), you are in the right but I think that there is some psychology involved:
      1. Do you know anybody admitting to have an INT of 8? As I wrote we are all far above average. Makes you think how the average was set :). Truth be told, most RPG players probably have above average INT.
      2. Common sense is nice but be mindful of using it as a way to "bypass" your low attributes. The Wizard cannot ignore his low STR and CON. It will be very evident once he gets into a melee. The fighter should not have the "common sense" excuse when confronting cognitive challenges. Mind you, I never wrote that the fighter cannot contribute to decision making (on the contrary). I wrote that the fighter may be excluded from decision making, erroneously, because of missing the data-gathering part.
      3. I never meant having both INT and WIS very low. No reason for that.

      All and all it is a matter of shades, not colors. You can play the more "sophisticated" mind-full and intuitive fighter (as most of us do) and not lose your (player) cognitive abilities. You can also play a less insightful fighter. All is valid. The main point is to allow both and not take the later one as bad role play.

    2. If any of the stated above hinted at bad roleplay, I sincerely apologize - my intent was to hint at an alternate way of interpreting numbers.


      Low ability scores ARE interchangeable - Even physical ones, specifically in 4th edition as the system inherently supports this view.
      A well aimed strike (high DEX) can cause as much damage as a strong one (STR), when calculating AC you can choose whether to use INT or DEX as bonuses, and when fighting fatigue you can either use your high constitution or your strong willpower to keep on running.

      Moreover, common sense solves more issues than intelligence. BTW, in one of my favorite novels, a search algorithm problem is solved by an illiterate housewife, which while admitting to ignorance in the current issue, used a comparison of the problem at hand with cleaning a cutlery cupboard, thereby launching the more knowledgeable and intelligent members on the right track.

      In any case, I believe that heroes share a common sense of duty, and spending the night away, unless specifically a part of the hero's' character – seems out of place.
      Don't get me wrong - I can cope with a player who chooses fun over work – as long as it is in character…
      I actually recall a fabulous fighting scene, in which one member of the party was engaged in a Grey-Poupon dinner with a local lord while the rest of the party was in a bloody fire fight, sounds muted and replaced with a classical music playing in the background…

      Again, this is a purely character choice but for me, the *hero* thing to do, would have been to either try and contribute using your unique perspective ("in fighters school, we learned that the best way to attack is by having combat advantage. Couldn't we just flank the lightning with our spears?" "well, no, you cant flank lightning, but… hey, maybe if we use the spears as lightning rods, and connected them with cables to the lake, we could…").

      Else, try using your own venues (underground contacts, or whatever) rather than having a night out…

      And again, I would like to emphasize that all of the above is meant as constructive criticism.