Awesome Characters are Not as Awesome as They Appear

In a post on his blog, Blair made a comment about his character:
“You rolled a crap set of ability scores? So did I for my Red Box Vancouver character, and that PC is one of my favorite characters; deal with it.”
The aforementioned former Colonel Kaffshyth (now the Warlock-Axer General), has the following “crap” stats: Str 9, Int 9, Wis 14, Dex 7, Con 14, Cha 7. That’s a full 18 points lower than your average “4d6 drop the lowest” AD&D or 4e character!

However, in an earlier post, Blair also crowed that while DMing he managed to “Totally beat the living shit out of badass dwarf Gamgar,” who is my character. During that adventure, Gamgar had the following stats: Str 9, Int 6, Wis 10, Dex 10, Con 14, Cha 8. Since then, he has lost an arm and a leg, and now has Dex 6 and Con 12. He is but a third-level dwarf with worse stats than Kaffshyth, and his only magical weapons are a shield that weighs nothing and a sword +1, +3 vs. undead (which proves mostly useless whenever he has to fight ghouls).

People have a tendency to think of characters who do exceptional things as having exceptional abilities. Witness Gygax’s ridiculous interpretation of Conan’s stats. Or the urge to interpret Charisma as physical attractiveness and thus the pervasive presence of females with a score of 18, from the ancient Bone Hill module to the first four issues of the more recent Fight On! magazine. And certainly the urge to play heroic fantasy heroes has created numerous techniques for generating characters with higher stats, and little or nothing in the way of flaws. Stats are a way to communicate information, so naturally, the easiest way to show how exceptional and special a character is, is to give him or her exceptionally high stats. Which neither Gamgar nor Colonel Kaffshyth have.

So why is Gamgar considered a badass? Because of what I tell people, mostly. Gamgar managed to survive his first few adventures by scamming gullible goblins, through a lucky series of reaction rolls, in spite of his low Charisma. As a Dwarf, his saving throw vs. death is a little better than 50%, which came in handy when he fell in a river wearing plate mail, and again when he released a poison cloud of gas from a jewelled skull he attempted to loot. For someone who usually only takes a single retainer into the dungeon with him, if that, he’s been pretty lucky in that department too, even if most of them have died fairly quickly—they at least kept Gamgar from dying! And yet, for all his bad-assery, he hasn’t seen much profit. In a game that says “If no one has reached the 2nd level of experience in three or four adventures, the DM should consider giving more treasure,” Gamgar has managed to survive twenty adventures, but is still only 3rd level. Partly, that’s because, although he doesn’t like to leave his companions behind, he’s not afraid to run away when he has to.

Nor is Gamgar the only bad-ass 3rd level Dwarf in the Black Peaks. Graham’s character Connor had the head of a polar bear and wielded a flaming sword, until his body was stolen by the wizard Zamzomarr. What were his stats? Str 5, Int 13, Wis 4, Dex 4, Con 13, Cha 10. The only bad-ass stat Connor had was his prodigious 22 hit points. Meanwhile, Graham managed to roll two 18s in a row for his latest character (in Dex and Con no less!), whose lowest stat is a 10. Having moved on from the worst stats in RBV history to the best, Graham’s new guy still managed to lose an eye in his first adventure, and almost died of blood loss in his second.

Meanwhile, Dalamyr the Cleric of Wisdom is the most famous character in our campaign. He’s a 5th level Cleric with the following stats: Str 12, Int 9, Wis 14, Dex 9, Con 9, Cha 8. He’s completely average (for 3d6-in-order), only 1 point better than Kaffshyth in total, and yet he’s been on hand for some of the most earth-shattering quests and witnessed some of the strangest events in the Black Peaks. Everybody talks about him and his Doomriders, despite his low Charisma.

As for Blair’s crap-statted Kaffshyth, he’s called the “Warlock-Axer” because he managed to kill a high-level wizard one-on-one. How did he do that? This warlock, suffering from a Light spell cast on his eyes and some hit point damage already, had Charmed Kaffshyth and the two were escaping from the other PCs. After seeing the warlock use Fireball on his companions, Kaffshyth managed to make a (difficult) saving throw, and shook off the Charm. The warlock had the bad luck to run away in the wrong direction, making it easy for Kaffshyth to dispatch him.

The point is, these characters are bad-ass because of the things they have done, a good deal of which have come down to sheer luck. They are not bad-ass because of their stats, and their stats do not reflect their experiences, their successes, or even necessarily the way their players have role-played them. For the most part, stats in Red Box Vancouver have been an obstacle to overcome, not a source of strength. We’ve all had characters with crap stats, and we’ve all dealt with it.

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2 Comments to “Awesome Characters are Not as Awesome as They Appear”

  1. Update: Gamgar’s abilities are now: Str 9, Int 0, Wis 10, Dex 5, Con 12, Cha 8. If we were using the rules as written and being strict about it, Gamgar should be dead, having been reduced to zero hit points or less more than once. Sometimes I have tried out the rule that characters can survive damage past zero hit points up to their level, but for Blair’s games we have been using the Critical Wound Chart, which is good for Graham’s new character, since he went to -2 hp at level 1, but rather bad for Gamgar, who has lost an arm and a leg, 2 points of Contitution, 5 points of Dexterity, and 6 points of Intelligence.

    Not that I can really complain, since I wrote that Critical Wound Chart!

  2. I think good stats (and editions of D&D that reward good stats) actually create less interesting characters. Like you said, bad stats are obstacles to overcome. Or in many cases, avoid. We spend a lot of time in Red Box trying to end-run our poor combat abilities, whether through hired help, clever uses of spells, tactical choices, scamming our friends and enemies for profit, or just plain negotiating with the DM about the shared reality of our game.

    If Gamgar was Third Edition, he’d have a high Strength and Constitution, a couple of feats to help him do extra damage with his weapon, and would probably choose fighting over… being Gamgar… a lot more. Boring!

    Also, I don’t think you can emphasize the advantage of a great Save vs Death in RBV. That helps with carousing, poison, dropping below zero hit points (depending on the house rules in effect)… it’s pretty much the go-to save, since it’s so much less specific than Dragon Breath, et al. Some bad shit just happened to you that’s gonna kill you? But it’s not Petrification, a Spell or a Dragon? Save vs Death.

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