I recently read a fascinating novel, Something Like Normal 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


  • Natural talents who lack skill refinement, training, or study. This may be due to social restrictions, apathy, or lack of effort. That big bruiser has never really fought–because who would mess with him? Maybe he thinks that after hours of working out and chomping protein powder, he is going to smash face… and be quite surprised when the PCs don’t take his blows squarely.
  • Malnutrition: In just about every society there are people who never reach their potential. Kids can’t concentrate in class because they’re hungry, growth and muscle is permanently stunted due to deficiencies, and malnourished people are sick more often. Speaking of which…
  • Sick. Even a routine cold or bout of the flu saps your energy; just concentrating can be tough, especially if you’ve got a headache. Spell casters with coughs are going to have problems with their verbal components… and man, the diseases of the future can be horrific. Tailored bioweapons and nanoswarms might leave you wishing they’d finished you off.
  • Exposure. The guy who trudged through the blizzard is going to be exhausted; his fingers might be frostbitten and are certainly numb. Similarly, the mighty warrior who can barely stay upright due to heat exhaustion, or the miner scoured by the acid rain of Xhion VII, aren’t the overwhelming threat their gear and experience might suggest.
  • Lack of commitment. Semper Fi keeps marines fighting and holding when it looks grimmest–but are you willing to die for the leader of the thieves’ guild who takes a big chunk of loot for operating in her territory, and won’t let you burgle the merchant’s district? Will you hold the gates for the king who is months behind on your pay? If you’re under siege and feeling abandoned, when no relief force is reported and supplies are running out–will you fight to the last? If you only turned to banditry for money… remember, dead men spend no coin.

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.

  • Drinking When wine or beer are all you drink from sunup (to avoid disease from water), you’re probably not the most clear headed guy around. If most of your workers are mildly toasted all day, how much useful thought are you missing out on? How much quicker are tempers to flare? (A great way to justify ‘oversights’ among a villain’s work force.)
  • Previous injury. Too often, a lack of skilled doctors meant incompletely healed injuries. This might manifest as a broken wrist that’s not as strong as before, a leg that pains at any pace faster than a walk (or whenever it’s stormy), a knee prone to blow out when exercised vigorously (particularly on stairs).
  • No stimulants. Think about how hard it is to function before your first cup of coffee, tea, or can of diet coke in the morning. Lots of people never tasted stimulants–in fact, sometimes they started drinking first thing in the morning. Hair of the dog, right?
  • Disease Much disease was something to endure until it ended on its own, due to a lack of understanding and antibiotics. Tuberculosis wasted away several Romantic poets, dysentery leveled armies. and many STDs became life-long complications, if they didn’t render you sterile–or unhappy to stand. For more on diseases, La Belle Compagnie has a quick guide to medieval diseases.
  • Unfree. When working hard isn’t rewarding, how much time will you dedicate to improving processes? A slave might fear death if his patient doesn’t pull through… but doesn’t a large dose of painkillers keep the master calm? If the heir makes generous promises, why not add a little arsenic to his father’s medicines?

Modern and Future

  • Buggy cyberware. The guy who’s just recovering from upgrade surgery, or whose limb is suddenly jerky due to plaque buildup along the conductors, or the woman who survived crashing her hovercraft but is having datalink artifact issues all have good reasons to dramatically under-perform. The hacker who’s recovering from a brain fry is another good genre example.
  • Addiction/withdrawal. This is common in cyberpunk, whether it’s an addiction to tailored drugs, virtual reality, stimulants, booze, or something specific to the character. Stimulants in particular are a deadly spiral; they’re often necessary to compete with cyberware equipped intruders. Don’t read the list of side effects though.
  • Malnutrition. Not necessarily a lack of food, though in novels, scrounging for pizza from dumpsters isn’t uncommon. Krill can only emulate so much, or the soy-press vitamin port is jammed. Simple things like bad night vision, or classics like rickets can manifest. If the manufacturer stops supplying vitamin packets or soy flavorings for the KR-3000, you’d better upgrade before they sell out of their back stock.
  • Lack of sleep. Runners often have odd schedules. If they’re trying to keep up an ID by day, they’ll be exhausted before their midnight run starts. Similarly, most runners use the cover of night, putting them off schedule for interacting with the corporate world. Someone’s sleep is getting mangled if they need to study the target to prepare for extraction.

Why Make Flawed Foes?

  • Increases your opposition pool. Maybe this campaign your players don’t have to fight a d4 kobolds at level 1. Sure, it’s a common trope, but no one will complain if in this one campaign they start off fighting a huge band of starving, weakened bandits. If the PCs don’t mention their foes’ drawbacks, rumor may peg them as much mightier than they really are…
  • Improvement is just getting over a cold. If the foe survives, they can be better next fight–an easy way to keep them as a tough challenge for longer. The improvement is less hard to explain than why the guards are suddenly two levels higher after a couple weeks of guard duty.
  • Fun reveals. Why is the legendary fighter’s blade moving SO slow? Maybe it has to do with coughing every third swing, hacking green globs of spit whenever he catches his breath. Which his skill allows him to do, always parrying with minimal effort, despite his obvious incapacity.
  • Turnabout is fair play. Perhaps that cool sword from the fallen fighter is great, but its magic was stolen from a drunkard. Carrying it results in slow building headaches, and the shakes set in after a few days, only calmed by regular application of beer. Of course, go too far and there’s only so much your sword can compensate for.
  • Instant Adjustment. If your heroes are having a cake-walk, adrenaline can focus their foe for a minute or two. Or, conversely, the evil fighter who can’t be hit might have a minute-long coughing spell. That might be plenty of time for the PCs to regroup–or run!

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!

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.

12 Responses to Acting at Less than Optimal

  1. 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. 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).

    • 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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