Some characters just aren’t as good as others. Whether due to rules that don’t work out as intended, abilities that clash with each other, underpowered choices, or simple dumb luck, these characters have to acknowledge that they’re just not keeping up with the rest of their party or the expectations of the game. Sometimes they retire and make way for somebody more useful. Sometimes they reorient themselves, via retraining or changes to their build, so they can excel in a new area. Sometimes they stick around for their narrow competencies or their table entertainment value. Rarely do they double down on their failures just because they can. And even more rarely does a character appear who is so inviable, mechanically or otherwise, that their very presence changes the tone of the game.
And if an entire party is made of characters like this? Oh boy. Oooooh, boy.
Let me tell you about the B-Team.
The Gods Are Dead, Long Live the Gods was a D&D 3.5E campaign set shortly after Ragnarok, chronicling the story of a specific settlement that survived the end of the world. Four young people, barely of age, left the safety of the village for some minor task. On their journey they stumbled into great power, and as they continued, they learned they were part of a new generation of gods: Signy, the shapeshifting warrior with the strength and appetite of a bear; Stigandr, the handsome diplomat with sparkles in his hands and iron in his abs; Vakr, the magician who channeled the memory of Bifrost in his every bellow, and Þyrna, the swift archer dedicated to rebuilding society better than ever or else. They set forth, defending their village and uniting those who still lived, gaining followers and triumphing over the monsters who thought humanity easy prey after the fall of everything.
This post isn’t about them.
As part of their ascension to godhood, the party had to seal themselves away from the world for decades. In their absence a new set of young “heroes” arose. They were, objectively, not as good as the first set. They didn’t have any major tasks under their belt, they didn’t have any followers, and they didn’t have any meaningful skills. Even they mostly thought of themselves as “just some people who do things” rather than defenders of humanity. In every way, they were the B-Team.
Our DM’s intention was always to have a B-Team roughly five levels lower than the A-Team; the pie-in-the-sky dream was to have a C-Team five levels lower still, but the campaign never got that far. The B-Team dealt with small-scale, local problems while the A-Team fought wars and punched dragons in the face, lending the campaign a bottom-up view to the godlings’ top-down adventures. We knew from minute one that these were not proper heroes, and they were never going to become gods. With the pressure off, we used them as an opportunity to explore completely different ideas, new mechanics, and the sorts of builds we’d never have done if the survival of the campaign or the world depended on it. Though the roster changed after one fateful battle, these people all participated in the B-Team at some point:
- Finnola, Mary Sue. When Finnola’s player rolled her stats, she didn’t get a single ability score below 14. That became the entire character concept. She was unabashedly a Mary Sue, with no weakness except maybe that she was a little too pure and beautiful for the world and it made other people jealous. She was light, she was joy, she was the party’s face and heart and soul. She was the main character of a story that existed only in her head, one she assumed everybody else participated in willingly, and she used her position as the protagonist to spread her message to anyone who would listen and ninety percent of those who would not. She also fell in love with the first person she met who in any way resembled a tortured bad boy.
- Leaf, He of Many Skills, All of Them Bad. Leaf’s concept was “how many different classes can I take while still seeming like a reasonable character?” The answer is, at it turns out, fifteen. Leaf failed at everything he did, so much so that he tried a class for a level, botched it, tried another class for his second level, botched it too, and so on in that fashion. His eventual goal was to become some sort of ur-priest, a bold choice for a character who had personally met the gods from whom he would steal his magic. His constant defeats left him in constant misery, and when his turn came around for our session write-ups, he included a list of his limited successes (with such hits as “cast a spell”) and many failures. By the end of the campaign he was mostly around because his wife, an NPC fairy, traveled with him, and she was actually useful.
- Litli, Creepy as All Get-Out. The Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords was more or less playtest material for D&D 4E released as a 3E sourcebook. It used weird concepts like “encounter powers” and “recharging”, and it worked almost perpendicular to the game as intended. Of course we had to try it. Litli was like a nightmarish, homicidal version of Emmitt Nervend. He rarely spoke, he delighted in slaughter, and he spent every night perched on the end of Eyvindr’s bed, staring at him. Despite being an absolute master at combat, often able to dispatch enemies with no effort at all, he died in a fight, which meant he ascended to Valhalla, the only member of the B-Team who received an eternal reward and by far the least deserving of it.
- Eyvindr, Straight Man. Eyvindr’s gimmick was that he was good at some things and bad at others, and he had those columns confused. He carried a dozen weapons, switching among them with every attack as though he thought he could train them all at once like a Skyrim character. He acted as the party’s diplomat without a single rank in Diplomacy. He loved grappling and he had absolutely no skill at it. He wrote his own songs and sang them without any knowledge of music. He was illiterate but rarely chose to acknowledge it. And yet he still thought of himself as the level-headed center of the party, more capable of making leadership decisions than his allies with skill, experience, or charisma. After Litli’s death he retired and spent an entire week singing with joy.
- Ranulfr, All of the Above. I’m not sure where to start. Ranulfr had Finnola’s misplaced confidence, Leaf’s inability to stick with anything for longer than the legal minimum, Litli’s combat tactics, and Eyvindr’s total ignorance of his own limitations, except all of these traits conflicted with each other and that didn’t bother him one bit. He said he was a consummate friend of the forest, raised by wolves and now their leader, a perfect face for the team. He was also a fantastic liar. When he failed he tended to blame everything around him, not accusatorially but off-handedly, like “Oh, I missed with my attack? I must be having an off day, and it’s definitely not because my attack bonus is terrible because I decided to be a bard for a while.” His only fans were Steingeirr, who didn’t know better, and Finnola, who thought he was a werewolf and a king and he was handsome and perfect and they were going to get married oh my gosh!
- Steingeirr, Big Dumb Guy. As a build Steingeirr was perfectly acceptable, a longspear fighter who ruled the area within his reach and fought with vigor even while defending himself and his allies. He did, however, have an Intelligence of 6. In his case, that meant he only knew thirty words total. Despite being a 2.4-meter, 24-stone terror on the battlefield, he was strongly limit by his inability to process what anybody else in his party was saying at any time, and he tended to repeat any word he recognized in conversation just to prove he could. Only Ranulfr knew how to handle him, and he was most of the reason Ranulfr lived long enough to meet the party in the first place.
- Ulfr, Wolf. He was a wolf. “Ulfr” is Old Norse for “wolf”. This is the full extent of the thought that went into Ranulfr’s animal companion.
The B-Team was so, so bad, by design. The DM was fully bought into the party concept, so we tended to get missions like “acquire beer from the dwarves” and “go north, really really far from the village, and stay there for a while and maybe something will happen and don’t come back”. Every other villager thought of us as irritants at best and burdens at worst. We barely managed to succeed at anything we tried, and when we did succeed it was mostly by accident. We definitely TPKed once and had to be saved by Leaf’s wife. The party was, by any in-game metric, a disaster.
But they were so much fun. We went into B-Team sessions intending something dumb and wacky and full of bad, and we accomplished it perfectly. Everybody’s negatives formed a perfect synergy, like we all accidentally raced to the bottom of character design, but always with the intention to enhance the play experience for each other. Finnola annoyed the other characters, but her over-the-top Lisa Frank aesthetic charmed the players. Leaf botched everything he tried, but his sad sack responses made every failure of the dice into a success of the story. Litli was broken mechanically, but it kept the party alive so they could almost die again the next day. The B-Team changed our definition of “good play”, and I doubt we’ll be able to sustain that style of humor that long ever again.
A completely different style of humor is fair game, though.