I am trying to design a character who will be wildly suboptimal at his desired profession, but hopefully will be able to keep up with the rest of the group in terms of usefulness. The campaign is starting at level one, low fantasy (magic items are available but very uncommon).

Note that I have not rolled up ability scores yet, since I'm working out the viability of the concept first, and any books or supplements will be acceptable. I do know Strength will be 9, the 2e minimium for a Fighter.

What can I do to make this character better? I want a weakling with "quite a mouth on him" but who feels like he should be able to be every bit as useful as the big strong fighter.


A reasonable idea is to make the character's "profession" be different from his "class." Make a character who is a thief, for example, but thinks of himself and proudly declares his job title in-game to be a great warrior. Classes are already a concept that are mechanics-only and are not generally referred to in-game except in the most specific ones (wizards are wizards, that much is clear), so you never have to reveal your actual class, and can even imply it to be something completely different than it actually is!

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    \$\begingroup\$ @AlexP It's not about hiding your class from players. Obviously, it will become clear through mechanics very easily. It's an In-Character concept. Act like you think you're a great warrior even though you don't have good weapon proficiencies and do have stealth that you may or may not use. \$\endgroup\$ – Southpaw Hare Aug 12 '13 at 3:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, there's no reason you can't be a rogue (class) who earns their bread as a swordarm (profession). \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 12 '13 at 6:47

There really isn't such a thing as "optimisation" in 2e. Stats are not nearly as important as picking your fights wisely, and level bonuses (i.e., THAC0 improvements) and magic gear (even a very little bit) will quickly swamp the minor difference between a STR 9 fighter and a STR 18/00 fighter. There's not as much "keeping up" with each other either, because the niches are not as distinct and there is much, much less party synergy to try to maintain your usefulness within.

One can theoretically try to get a lot of bonuses and be extra-good at combat, but that's not optimisation in 2e parlance, that's "powergaming". It's not very useful, satisfying, or well-regarded. There's not much point to doing it, because the game simply isn't designed with balance as a primary system purpose. And that means that the contrary, suboptimisation, doesn't really exist. That's just called "normal play", in opposition to "powergaming". The power curve is not nearly so steep, and it's not so necessary to keep slavishly on-target to the power curve to enjoy the game and be effective.

So yeah, low-strength fighter is mechanically viable, in keeping-up-with-the-party terms, simply because that's easy to do without trying. D&D's history is chock full of STR 9 fighters, and until 3e came around, nobody really considered such a low strength a disability in a fighter. It was just one variation on the typical fighter.

The concept of being incompetent at being a fighter, though, is not really something the system supports – if there's no real "optimisation", you can't really be suboptimal, right?

So, you have to approach it differently than you would in, say 3rd or 4th edition. (After all, AD&D 2nd edition is a different game.) There's no system support for poor performance, so to make a fighter who's incompetent at being a fighter, you have to play them incompetently. The difference between a good 2e fighter and a bad 2e fighter isn't as much their build, it's the choices they make during play. (This is generally true of D&D prior to 3rd: it's not how you build the character, it's how you play it.)

To be incompetent at fighting... just be not competent at fighting. Make poor tactical choices. Charge into the fray at the wrong time, then change your mind, leaving yourself exposed in a bad position. Use a frontal assault when flanking and surprise are better, and vice versa. Take action unilaterally when group coordination would be better, and vice versa. With that "quite a mouth on him", you can easily get him into trouble that's a bad idea (the opposite of the "choose fights wisely" that I mentioned above), and that's pretty suboptimal all by itself. Since "optimisation" in 2e lies in your during-play choices instead of your build, to be suboptimal, just make suboptimal during-play choices.

So yes, the concept is actually highly viable, but you're going to have to completely unlearn how to accomplish it in this new system that merely looks familiar, but under the hood functions completely differently than WotC-produced D&D does.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think that saying that the concept is highly viable is a bit off, since cartomancer asked for a fighter, that would be useless as a fighter, yet still usefull overall. [wildly suboptimal at his desired profession, but hopefully will be able to keep up with the rest of the group in terms of usefulness]. That would mean a concept where he is good at something other than his class usually does, which, from what I understand about ad&d, is not really viable in his system. \$\endgroup\$ – kravaros Aug 10 '13 at 18:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @kravaros Excellent point! By the end I was thinking of a different kind of viability, but typed "concept". I'll fix that. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 10 '13 at 18:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ For those who don't have the table memorized (anymore!), you might as well mention the numerical difference between 9 and 18/00 strength: +3 to hit. :) It's been awhile, but I remember the damage difference of +6 actually being more meaningful; both hp and damage bonuses were much lower in 2e than later editions. \$\endgroup\$ – starwed Aug 11 '13 at 21:33

A high INT character will have a lot of proficiencies (each language you gain from your INT means a new proficiency slot). You could make an interesting character based on your background - an ex-hunter and tracker who can also set snares wouldn't necessarily be great at fighting, but can contribute quite a bit. Alternatively, a lot of languages (including Read/Write Ancient Languages, maybe) would be an interesting character too. Maybe you used to be a caravan guard with a diplomatic envoy, and didn't see much action but visited a lot of places. By selecting your many proficiencies to fit a certain flavour, you can create an interesting and useful character who isn't focused on combat.

You can also use some of your proficiency slots to improve your combat ability, so if you find yourself wishing at level 5 that you could do more damage in combat, you can still add a lot. This option to change your mind is mostly there because of a lack of balance in splatbooks and weapon proficiencies. It's not really necessary to powergame at all to be an asset to a party in combat, but if you're struggling to contribute in some combats and it's spoiling the group dynamic, you can let your character grow into a better warrior.

Weapon Proficiencies

You can substitute INT for STR in terms of to-hit and damage in 2e, but only in limited ways (after a while, more proficiency slots only mean you can add new weapons, not improve existing weapon damage). If you want to optimise a fighter role, you'll need the Complete Fighter's Handbook. Investing in Ambidexterity and Style Specialisation: 2-Weapon Fighting, then specialising in daggers and dual-wielding them gives you 6 attacks at +1 to-hit at level one, for 1d4+2 damage each. This requires 4 proficiency slots. A non-fighter class can do something similar if they avoid the specialisation, and use Longswords instead of daggers. 2 attacks of 1d8 each at level 1 is very good, at a cost of 3 proficiency slots.

I believe the Player's Option: Combat and Tactics volume has more opportunities to turn proficiency slots into damage boosts, but I don't know all the details.


Why does Strength matter?

Ultimately, AD&D is a class-based system; it's designed to reward you for playing to type, and sometimes punishes your very severely for not doing so. Here are the main ways Strength will affect you as a fighter:

  • Fighters don't do very much other than, well, fight. The only non-combat abilities the class grants you are non-weapon proficiencies and followers. Strength is a major source of damage for a fighter. Unfortunately, all of the benefits are bottlenecked at very high values, even more so than with other abilities due to the mechanics of percentile Strength. It's prohibitively difficult to actually roll a high Strength anyway. (Players who try to "optimize" for high Strength will use a character race that gives +Strength bonus or min/max the sub-statistics rules from Players Option: Skills & Powers, to avoid the awfulness of trying to actually roll well on percentiles.)

  • Strength is also your prime requisite:

    A fighter who has a Strength score (his prime requisite) of 16 or more gains a 10% bonus to the experience points he earns. (Player's Handbook)

  • Likewise, human fighters may want high Strength in order to dual-class:

    To be dual-classed, the character must have scores of 15 or more in the prime requisites of his first class and scores of 17 or more in the prime requisites of any classes he switches to. (Player's Handbook)

  • A major difference between Str 9 and, say, Str 14 is your carrying capacity. With Str 9, you will need to be more mindful of your gear than the average fighter. This may limit your defensive options somewhat.

Those are some significant disadvantages, but, they pale in comparison to playing an Int 11 wizard!

So, you don't have high Strength. What can you do about it?

  • Regardless of your starting Strength score, you can enjoy most of the benefits of ridiculous Strength thanks to a number of Strength-enhancing magic items. Because the gauntlets of ogre power and the various girdles of giant strength set your Strength to a specific value instead of granting a bonus, they can easily be used to compensate for very low innate Strength scores. Other, rarer items can grant amazing Strength scores as well.

    Note that access to this sort of magical gear is dependent on the GM, so it's hard to really "optimize" for it by taking low starting Strength. In particular, it seems like a very unreliable solution for a "low-magic" game.

  • Another good option is not to play a fighter. Playing a thief, bard, or even cleric (or Ranger, though that requires Str 13) will give you access to useful built-in abilities that straight-up fighters totally lack. To my knowledge, there's no mechanic for having "quite the mouth on you" that's accessible to a basic fighter.

  • Depending on the resources available, you can also look at kits. Some kits dramatically alter the playstyle and abilities of their base class. In particular, look for swashbuckler-themed kits, since those are likely to mechanically enshrine cleverness and trickery in some way.

  • (This is going away from published material now.) If your GM is willing to make an exception to the normal dual-classing ability requirements, you could start a fighter with the intention of dual-classing into something else fairly quickly. Maybe your character is a fairly unremarkable squire who has been thrust into a life of danger and adventure, and suddenly discovers that his real talent is actually an entirely different skillset?


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