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Not so special PCs

Clem asked about less special PCs in the suggestion pot [1]:

Almost all settings and campaigns seem to assume that pcs are a breed apart. They may start weak but, if they survive, they can eventually become extremely powerful and/or capable. Ok, suppose there are such special people in the world and that they are born with something extra that gives them this superhuman potential. Now suppose that the pcs are not such people. How to make a game where they are, say, peasant conscripts in some nobleโ€™s war of revenge for some imagined slight or they are henchmen of an adventuring party with a disturbing habit of using them as cannon fodder and trap springers, or perhaps low powered mages specialized in household spells exciting? And how do you run such a game where the characters are takers, not givers, of orders without turning it into a railroadfest? Finally, what sort of goals can the players have beyond day to day survival that will keep their interest in spite of their knowledge of their limited potential?


A good way to make this work is by shrinking the scope. People don’t ask random peasants to act like special forces troops- while that’s fun for heroic PCs to play, it doesn’t fit the tone of the world that you’re trying to create. If you were running a campaign of say, the hundred years war [2], you might spend weeks roleplaying the tedium of forced marches, the friendships that spring up under pressure, the difficulties of keeping fed in a hostile land, camp duties and relationships, etc.

Kobolds kidnapping your sister sounds like a cliched opening for a D&D campaign, but kobolds are a difficult adversary for apprentices or first level NPC-classed heroes. For such characters a dozen kobolds aren’t critters you slaughter casually and just swig a healing potion. They are a foe that will take planning, cunning, and luck for a few untrained people to beat.


By picking good goals, you can make any power level interesting. Spend time during character generation to generate PCs with complex relationships. Take advantage of their lack of power and embed them in their location. (They won’t move around as much.) Jealous lovers and cruel guild masters are difficult opponents for anyone under their thumb to oppose. Make the plots personal. Whether you’re level one or twenty, a rival who spits on you will spark passion, even if he’s just another scribe in the copy room and you’re only competing to become the Duke’s seneschal.

A good relationship map of the characters and recurring NPCs can help you brainstorm the new night’s adventure. A mysterious threatening note, your character’s son or daughter caught with their pants down, or the guild master trying to give your hard earned spot to his idiot son can make for a solid plot that doesn’t require tactical nukes to solve.


Another solution is to pick a familiar setting, like a modern day campaign. Players should have a good idea about how ordinary people can have outsized effects without powers. Playing mortals in the World of Darkness, you could run a completely mundane game- the characters could be ordinary cops inspired by your group’s love of The Wire or Law and Order. Even without magical powers, ordinary police can use their influence for public good or self aggrandizement.

Investigative adventures work well in any setting. Figuring out what happened doesn’t require fiery confrontation- just an interesting mystery. steady work by the PCs, and specialized knowledge. Low level divinations can have a huge impact on these types of adventures, as can a good gather information roll, science skills in a CSI game, or Mythos in Call of Cthulu.

Other Issues

The players need to buy in to a low powered game. If they want to hack and slay but you force them to make low powered characters, they’ll be frustrated when their actions kill them off. Once they aim for a different goal it won’t feel like a poor man’s version of the standard game.

The system you pick will influence the characters that result. If you’re trying to drive home the horrors of war, abstract damage systems like Hero and D&D might not be your best choice. (Break out the old Rolemaster crit tables!) If you’re looking for a way to show normal people in extraordinary situations, make sure that your game can handle ordinary people well. If ordinary people are an after thought in your game’s design, your players may wind up playing heroes who suck instead of ordinary people who struggle.

Railroading can be avoided just as easily in at low power as high. You’ll still need to prepare prompts for the plot, so they don’t just wander around playing out their lives as accountants. Connecting them to the plot can be an extra burden, particularly if you’re used to giving the PCs plots because “they’re the only heroes are in town”.

The best way to ensure that orders don’t become railroading is to avoid ordering things related to the heart of your game. If you’re playing a military game with a focus on how the PCs treat local NPCs, then have the leader give the soldiers tasks (but not specify how to accomplish them). If the characters are caravan guards and you’re interested in tactical play, don’t have the merchants who hire them understand tactics and don’t let the merchants micromanage the PC deployments. If you’re playing a soldiers in war, the whole game can be about the tension of following orders versus your heart and instincts. Easiest of all is soap opera play- orders become just one more hurdle crowding in the path between you and your true love (or this week’s guest star).

Are you excited about playing normal people in an extraordinary world? What advice did I miss for making this type of game practical and fun? Have you played (or run) in a campaign like this? Tell us about your experiences.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Not so special PCs"

#1 Comment By Bastian.Flinspach On June 25, 2008 @ 7:13 am

I think starting out as ordinary people is a great way to make a campaign and the character you are running into something special.
This is ecspecially true in Systems, were you are not forced to choose a specific class. Its fun, just to play a fisherman and see, where he is going when he learns of all the horrors that stalk the dungeons of his homeland. ๐Ÿ™‚

However, when play progresses, I like it if my character gets more powerfull. I think it would be boring, if the character would always be a nobody. That only works in Call of Cthulhu, where you die, before you learn something really powerfull. ๐Ÿ™‚

#2 Comment By arthwollipot On June 25, 2008 @ 7:38 am

Ah, the old Rolemaster crit tables. That brings back memories…

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On June 25, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

I think that there are even more considerations for running this type of game [like tone/humor, etc.] Is the topic useful enough to anyone that they want/need a continuation of the post on the related topics, or is everyone happy running awesome characters?

#4 Comment By BryanB On June 25, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

I know I like running characters that aren’t always just, “living out their life as an accountant.” I mean I get to do accounting for a living so the idea of doing that in an RPG is not appealing to me.

Some settings aren’t really good for that sort of thing either. One could be the bartender in the Mos Eisley Cantina, but isn’t it much more fun to be a heroic Jedi, Scout, or Scoundrel PC?

Starting as a “not so special PC” might be a good idea, as long as they could have the ability to evolve into something else. The bartender that gets in way over his head, is lucky to survive, and then develops the ability to cope with his situation is pretty good gaming stuff. Staying as a bartender and never progressing beyond the basic bartender skill set is not so appealing to me.

I’m not saying that your having bad wrong fun if you do it, but I don’t see the appeal…

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 26, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

Great topic. I’ve always thought it extremely cliched that RPG protagonists are always ‘special’ (and not in a short-bus kind of way).

The GM can always up the volume level, so why even get started on this whole power escalation business? All it does is make the game that much less believable. (This is my opinion, not yours. I like Savage Worlds more than D&D 4E, and no, I don’t like anime.)

#6 Comment By Swordgleam On June 28, 2008 @ 12:02 am

This may be in a different direction than intended, but what if it’s not that the PCs are any less talented than usual, but that the general populace is more talented?

This seems to be going on in the Iron Heroes game I run a PC in. My man-at-arms might be the only one who can take down ogres in single combat, but that’s because he swings a greatsword all day. The blacksmith can still beat him at wrestling. Likewise, our hunter is a master of diplomacy and deception, but that doesn’t stop the village wisewoman from putting one over on him from time to time. Our harrier is great at slipping silently through the green, but the local gnoll tribe can beat him at it any day.

So, while the PCs aren’t some prophecy-driven heroes of legend, they also aren’t incompetents. It’s just that many other characters in the setting are also good at what they do. Why isn’t the blacksmith honing his sword skills to take on ogres? Well, because he doesn’t want to travel, and isn’t an idiot. Those, not any superhuman talents or abilities, are the traits that make the PCs “special.”

#7 Comment By Ethalias On June 30, 2008 @ 10:40 am

This may be of use for just this sort of thing in 4E:


Post 23 has details about the Ordinary People pdf and there is also an extensive treatment of some craft skills.