Sub-Par Characters

Have you ever had an idea for a character that you knew didn’t quite fit the mold? Perhaps you had an idea for a Fighter who is way past her prime and just can’t quite swing her sword the way she used to. Her One Unique Thing might be ‘Last Survivor of the War of the Stalking Trees.’ Or a Wizard who had an accident and can no longer concentrate on magic the way he needs to; this could have resulted from being the ‘Creator of the Burst of Devouring.’ These sorts of character ideas can end up getting translated onto character sheets with low scores in the attributes that are typically high for the class. So the elderly Fighter might have a STR of 9 or the Wizard an INT of 8 as a result of their backstories. These are ideas of what I like to call ‘sub-par’ characters…..characters whose stats don’t quite line up with the underlying math or expectations of the game.

Alternatively, you could fully embrace the thought that ‘the dice tell a story,’ and fate may create a sub-par character for you, if, after choosing your race/class, you let the dice reveal what your stats are. Start at the top of the list and roll your 4d6 (dropping the lowest), and what you get is what it is….no shuffling the numbers around to make things work optimally for you. Of course, you still get the +2 bonuses from your race/class, but sometimes even that won’t be enough to bring it up to where it’s ‘supposed’ to be.

13th Age makes it easier to run with this sort of idea, because of the narrative flexibility it has in the use of Backgrounds, the fact that even when you miss your attacks, you’re usually dealing some damage, and the Escalation Die gives you a bonus as well. Other things like magic items and other players’ (depending on their class choice) ability to provide bonuses makes it possible to play a sub-par character without being completely ‘worthless.’

Creating a character like this can be a lot of fun as it lets you color a bit outside the lines and forces you to lean more heavily into the role-play than the roll-play. But I must caution you, it can also be quite frustrating, not just for you, but for those you’re playing with….especially if your group is relying on your Fighter to be able to land a hit on that owlbear! When your attack modifier is a +1 instead of a +5, it makes a big difference, and not in a good way! Your attacks are going to be less effective, both to hit and in the amount of damage dealt. The combat system in 13th Age is dialed in pretty tightly, so if you do bring a sub-par character to a fight, the others at your table are going to notice!

Your skill checks will be affected by reduced bonuses too, though this is more likely to resolve itself in narrative form and may not present as much difficulty as combat will. For example, if your Fighter has an STR of 9 but a CHA of 16, chances are you’re going to have her try to coerce the guards to open the portcullis instead of just attempting to lift it by herself. Any skill check that requires STR will certainly be done with a disadvantage, but there is rarely a single path forward. Player creativity will oftentimes balance this limitation on skill checks.

And yet it’s these sorts of skill checks that serve to highlight the underlying idea you have for this sub-par character. Having your Wizard be asked to make an INT check to determine which vial is poison only serves to emphasize that he’s no longer the sharpest knife in the block.

13th Age sets the expectation that the characters players create are heroes who know how to get the job done and who are experienced enough to do just that. Creating sub-par characters messes with this expectation, because your character may not be the hero that everyone thinks they are. While this makes for interesting storytelling and requires creative problem-solving, it does fiddle with many of the underlying assumptions in a 13th Age game. If this is something you want to try, definitely discuss it with your GM and the rest of your group first; doing so will minimize the frustration when it becomes apparent that this washed-up Fighter really can’t hit the broad side of an ogre!

If your GM and gaming group is on board with it, give it a go and lean into the role-play required of having a sub-par character and see what sort of great story comes out of it! But if they’d rather not adjust for such a ‘weak’ party member, remember, you can always roll the idea up into your character’s backstory; perhaps the Fighter in this example used to deftly wield a sword, but in retirement learned how to strum a lute, and now shines as a Bard!

Written by Nick

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