"Useless" Characters

Do useless player characters exist?

If so, is it the player’s fault, GM’s fault, or the system’s fault?
Is it a player’s job to build a viable character for a setting? The GM’s job to communicate what classes/skills will be relevant and which will not; or modify encounters to fit the characters? The system’s job to make sure irrelevant characters can’t be built? A little bit of everything?

How often do you think players who claim their character is “useless” actually have viable characters and just aren’t playing to their strengths? Or perhaps another player has a game-breaking build and hogs the spotlight.


As a GM, I have had players mention to me that they believed their character wasn’t good for adventuring. I’ve resolved it a few ways. One player felt left out because their low perception meant they would miss things their companions caught. I told them they should visit a doctor next session and gave them glasses that would give them a boost to any checks using sight, which got them what they wanted with an in-game explanation. Another time, I had a player that built a tank of a character with high unarmed skills but felt that he couldn’t dish out enough damage because everyone else had guns (duh, of course guns hit harder than fists). For that player, I just let them re-spec their character by moving their skill points around. How would you have handled these situations? I’ll bet one of you would have just said “tough luck”.

As a player, I built two characters in Call of Cthulhu to play through Masks of Nyarlathotep and felt that both of them were pretty useless even though they were interesting characters. One was a British Pilot with a storied past and the other was a NYU Adjunct Professor. However, due to there being 70+ skills and having never played the game, by the end of the first act I felt like I misspent my points at creation on useless skills (namely science ones for the professor, like meteorology). I wish either the GM or the book had stepped in and said “Listen, unless you’re fighting the Weather God, don’t take this skill because you’ll never use it”. Should my GM have protested or is Call of Cthulhu a bad system with too many skills? Because I know it wasn’t my fault I ended up with useless characters.

Looking for input from @Fafhrd and @sean on this one.

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As a GM I always advise my players not to take a few special skills if it will not relate to the game/story. Especially if they are new(er) players.
Savage worlds: Maybe don’t play Michael Phelps in the desert.
Ultimately I believe it is up to the player to find creative ways to use their skills.

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It’s a cooperative effort. As GM, if I think someone is creating a character that won’t add to the game, I’ll make suggestions, and, if I feel strongly enough, even tell them that they may have trouble contributing to the game with that particular character. If they insist, though, I’ll let them. I’ve had “useless” characters turn into the most interesting characters in the game. As the GM, it just means a bit more work on my part to find ways to help their characters contribute.

I’ll always allow players to tweak their characters, or even entirely switch them out, for the first few months of the game. Sort of the ultimate fix.

If it’s a player issue, I might allow them more flexibility than other characters to make up for it. I allowed one player in a Rolemaster game to play an Archmage…except I allowed them to select their base lists from literally any spell lists in the game…including supplements. He still managed, somehow, to build the most useless character in the game. But, he was having fun, so it wasn’t a problem.

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In my personal experience, granted, years of gaming, some of the most memorable were the “weakest”. The ones TRYING to find their niche without super powers.

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I will be the first to agree that not all characters are for all campaigns. I feel a gamemaster should let a player tweak or even change out a character altogether if they’re not having any fun playing the character. Even if it’s a good overall fit for the game. Sometimes what sounds exciting in the building stage ends up not fulfillinng expectations and turns out very lacklustre. These are my GM thoughts.
As a player some of the best roleplaying I’ve done, was to use characters that weren’t really a good fit. It has been said on the show many times “if you’re having fun you’re doing it right.”
As far as the question of fault goes, to use a @sean qualifier “it depends”. But a better thought might be, does it matter if as a gamemaster/player team it gets fixed so both parties are satisfied.
If it’s a system issue hopefully a little house ruling can fix the problems.
It can be a little tricky with pre- publishes adventurers but as a gamemaster I am always willing to tweak the adventure to help a player use some odd ball power or skill.
PLAYER: “This is crap, I haven’t got to use my meteorology skill all game! I only took this skill cause that weather guy on channel 8 is bomb! He’s so cool.” (Obviously this is important to the player)
GM: " It’s funny you should say that! You notice the house has an unusual amount of lighnting rods on the roof." ( since I’m the kind of gm that doesn’t really care about what the die roll is if I want the players to know plot info)
I might say “oh that roll is high enough to notice all the strange lightning rods on the roof!”
Then I just need to make sure the ritual to summon whatever the monster is, happens/happened in a thunderstorm. Under a full moon while sacrificing balloon animals… sorry I digress.
Anyway sometimes I think all a character needs to go from, useless to oddly fun to play is a little shine time. Or maybe just give the character a horrible death and have the player rebuild his PC from scratch while you rewrite all the major plot hooks and back story, you already spent hours on, to fit this new character so the adventure will work. Which one these works will depend on the gamemaster and player. Probably the answer lies somewhere in between those two examples. :grinning:

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Gamma World First Edition has a section on Hopeless Characters as the system can generate them.

HOPELESS CHARACTERS

When a player is particularly unlucky with his dice rolling for his character and most or all basic attributes are below average, the referee may, at his discretion, declare the character unsuitable for GAMMA WORLD adventures and allow the player to create a new character to take his place.

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I’m not necessarily talking about overall low statistics. I typically don’t use randomly determined statistics anyway. I am more talking about characters that are less than useful in their given setting or situation.

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I’ve seen that specific problem whenever I try to run something tightly themed, and one or more PCs wants to do something different. That is, you’re all space marines, except Larry over there, the botanist. You’re all fighter pilots, except Mae the bar owner. You’re all sellswords, except for the escaped slave.

I’ve always been able to make it work, but it’s definitely a conversation with the table, or at the very least the player and GM. Sometimes the GM needs to tweak the setting or campaign, sometimes the player might need to give a little on their ideas, but as long as both think through what it means to have the less-than-ideal character in the game, it can work.

Call of Cthulhu is particularly vulnerable to this, as there can be a range of professions, and a super-wide (egads I hate that system) range of skills, many of them not particularly effective when one’s unwritten job description is investigating, exploring, and futilely fighting eldritch forces. As a player, I can never help taking skills and such that fit my concept; invariably I never end up rolling against half of them, so they are ‘wasted.’ I personally don’t care – I far prefer rounded characters who come to life off the page, even if they aren’t optimal in terms of their ‘function’ within the party.

This whole problem is one reason these days I prefer systems that model professions rather than specific skills – they are harder to ‘break’ in that way… though I still think the GM does indeed need to be on the lookout for concepts that might struggle to feel useful in the given genre / adventure.

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