It turns out that this is post #100. I didn’t realize this until I committed post #98, so I had to scramble a bit to not only come up with a topic worthy of a new significant digit but also with a post #99 that wouldn’t drown it out. So if you thought my last post was lackluster, it was all part of my plan. That’s the story I’m going with.
Luckily I have been working on an idea that’s worthy of a decimal escalation. Thus:
Law #5 – Every character must have the opportunity to be awesome.
(I go into this in more detail below, but I wanted to put an aside front and center: in this context, “awesome” is highly subjective. It doesn’t refer exclusively to Gurren Lagaan-esque feats of ridiculousness, but rather to “whatever make this character worth playing”.)
It’s a pretty logical follow-up to Law #0, enough that I thought it was too obvious to list explicitly. Players want their characters to be awesome, DMs want their characters to be awesome, it works out. But more and more I see characters who are awesome at the expense of somebody else and characters, my own included, who define awesomeness so narrowly that they never give themselves a chance.
The strategy for this is actually pretty simple. Figure out what you want to do with a character. Is there a mechanic you want to use? Is there a story goal you want to meet? Is there character development you want to see? Basically, why are you playing the character? (Hint: if your answer is “because we needed a healer and I lost a game of nosey-touchy”, start over.)
Now you have to make a decision: how much is everybody else at the table involved? The short answer is “more than you think”. If you want to play a master at smash-you-with-an-entire-building fu, make sure that nobody else at the table is doing the exact same thing; if two players have the same build or strategy, each is less unique and probably less impressive, and if one is better than the other you’re in trouble. If you want to play a wicked fire mage build, make sure the campaign isn’t set on the Elemental Plane of Fire and let the party’s melee fighters know you’ll probably try to melt them at one point or another. If you want to play a necromancer, make sure the party healer doesn’t function exclusively through area-effect burst spells.
It’s important to note that awesomeness doesn’t always happen via combat effectiveness. If you want a character with a redemption arc, ask the DM for some opportunities to show off your good side and make sure the rest of the party isn’t so opposed to your alignment that it causes unintentional, harmful party conflict. If you want a fall-from-grace arc, take the above and triple it.
It’s important to note that the DM is trying to create characters and make them awesome as well. Often the DM just has a slightly different metric for awesomeness than the players do (it is, after all, our job to lose to the party). To illustrate this, let me tell you a story.
In The Great Tower of Oldechi, the players found themselves in a prison and separated. It was a large prison, large enough for an entire story arc, and the prisoners were mostly epic-level. It stood to reason that the guards were even scarier, and they in turn whispered rumors of the power level of the warden on the top floor (the head of the prison, not the party’s defender, though she was pretty mighty too). Tell had that the warden could suppress a riot just by walking into the room, and since the party was starting a riot the guards had gotten to talking, wondering when the warden would decide the problem required his attention. One character (Cid Viscous, if you’re paying attention) slipped out a window and began scaling the prison from the outside to see exactly who this warden what and what he could do.
As Cid got close, I began making attacks against his Will defense from an unknown source. I told him the attack rolls, which started laughably low but got higher and higher the more he climbed. Eventually one hit him, and through a power or racial trait or something he barely managed to avoid knocked prone, which would have entailed an immediate drop to the ground via rules caveat. At that point Cid, with Wisdom primary and Intelligence secondary, realized that he was inside the warden’s aura. The closer he got to the warden, the more likely the attack would knock him down. This was a bad enough problem for one character dangling from a twenty-story building, but it was even worse with an entire party in melee.
(In truth the warden was scarier than that—in combat he had a 20-square aura of prone [save ends] and a 5-square aura of dominate [save ends]. In fact, this guy was sick with attacks that caused [save ends] effects. The scaling attack bonus was more of a narrative event than something I wanted to adjudicate live.)
So when the inevitable jailbreak occurred and the party was fleeing across the giant bridge leading to the main gate, I sent waves of enemies at the party, enemies who were shouting about how the warden was on his way and would surely stop the escapees without even trying. At the climactic moment he finally showed, sauntering up to a party prepared for a serious boss battle. Right before the warden could attack, Cid rolled (perhaps literally, he was a slime monster) up to him and made the biggest attack he had left. Cid’s weapon allowed him to teleport an enemy he critically hit, and he just happened to crit the warden. The warden failed his save against forced movement and Cid hurled him off the bridge into the lava. Cid turned back to the party, shouted “That won’t stop him!”, and the party booked it out of the prison and into the next zone.
I designed a boss battle to challenge the party, and he didn’t end up making more than two attacks, both from an aura and both against the party’s controller. Instead he was chucked over a cliff before his first turn and never appeared again. One might think I was disappointed or angry (Cid’s player did), but I couldn’t have been happier. The warden’s combat stats weren’t what made him awesome. It was the story construct of his aura and the fear it engendered in the prisoners and the party that made him awesome. In fact, being in combat might have lessened his awesomeness because then he would have been just another monster whose weakness is running out of blood. Since he blasted off like Team Rocket, the party’s fear of the warden continued and he got to retire as a monster that that party beat only by parking a steamroller on him and skedaddling. The warden did exactly what I wanted him to do: he had one defining characteristic, I used it exactly like I’d wanted, the players reacted exactly how I’d hoped, and they (well, Cid) in turn got to be awesome when it came to a head.
See, that’s the thing about awesomeness: it stacks. This is why the greatest heroes always have the greatest villains. If the villains aren’t powerful and smart and interesting and challenging, the PCs aren’t heroes. They’re just guys who come into conflict with other guys and resolve said conflict with mediocrity. Similarly, a villain who shuts down the party isn’t a test to overcome, it’s a chore that leaves everybody frustrated.
This is why I’m so against denialist DMs, who operate by restricting the awesomeness of the characters or players. Then the players don’t get to play the game or the characters they wanted, and nobody’s happy. It’s also why I don’t like it when characters outclass their allies, because then a character operates by restricting the awesomeness of other characters. Though I don’t have a link (because really, what is there to say that hasn’t already been said?), I can’t stand characters built around making sure enemies can’t do anything. The too-powerful controller, the save-or-die-specialist, the invulnerable defender, the god-charming diplomat, any character with a tricksy build that removes enemies or challenges like brushing off lint works only because the player has decided that their own awesomeness can only occur by making sure no monster or villain or NPC gets a chance to top them. But this isn’t a zero-sum game. If your character is only awesome at the expense of other characters, you’re playing D&D wrong.
Not that this is intentional. I firmly believe that players don’t sit in a room with one swinging light bulb and say “I’m going to get my jollies by damaging the play experience of somebody within melee range of me”. I also believe that DMs worth their salt don’t sit up at night thinking about the best way to make sure his or her players feel all their actions and efforts are worthless. Instead what we have are players who look at the game, say “well, I’m having fun”, and consider their obligations met.
And that’s why I feel I need a new law. Law #0 is true and great and helpful, but it’s passive. Law #5 is an exhortation: each character must have their opportunity, and each player has a role in making sure that happens. Every character was built to contribute to the game, and any time you prevent that contribution, the game is worse for it.
With one caveat: this only really applies to named characters. If every kobold in every combat gets a moment in the sun, we’d be here all day. Sometimes “awesomeness” is defined by “dying en masse in a fiery blaze”.