I am about to begin a DnD4e campaign with 4 close friends. I am concerned with some of the players' character concepts. I define the problems with these characters as self-sabotaging, though there may be another term.

The example I am going to use is Character 1.

Character 1 is a feline race who despises that race and all it stands for. This characters sees no point to life, and exists as a mercenary with few skills. Their life is, make money, get drunk, get into fights, make more money, with a strong aversion to helping people. The player would like to progress basically only in olfactory skills related to insight and perception, yet their intelligence and wisdom stats are their lowest.

The player is not concerned with fighting well, only with being cat-like. Their lack of intelligence and wisdom is an important part of their character concept and role play. The player is really attached to this idea, especially for roleplaying.

My main concern is how to DM for friends who wish to play with as much chaos as possible. The campaign has already been built using some modules.

How would you adjust not only the overall story line, but also individual encounters, if most NPC encounters will end in fights, and fights need to be run from to survive?

It does sound like fun, but I am not sure how to run/adjust the story.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this a problem that has already come up, or is it something that you are trying to prevent? The Stack works best for real, actionable problems, so if this is something you are in anticipation of that hasn't yet occurred, it might be best to see if the problem you're worried about actually comes up before asking about it. Who knows, the problem might go away once you start playing. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Jan 17 '17 at 21:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are all of the players OK with a campaign that may more resemble a farce, or a comic disaster movie (like various Ben Stiller movies that include journeys that expose a string of comedy of errors scenes) or are only some of them OK with that? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 17 '17 at 21:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ (Commenters: related links are great, but they should be clearly related. If the link is more like something that would solve the problem in the question if they went and read it, the link probably belongs in an answer built around it instead.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 17 '17 at 23:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'll have to say that this question is really hard to grasp. I'm trying to understand it but failing miserably. I really want to help and I even have a bad record of answering unclear answers, but this one is one that, in the current state, I'm not brave enough to tackle. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Jan 18 '17 at 18:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ If the rest of the group have not yet chosen / created their characters, you don't actually know if you have a problem, or if you do what the problem is. I am not convinced that you have a problem, and since you haven't played these characters as a group you, you don't know if you do either. Please edit/update the question once the group is formed and present the characters as created. Then, maybe, some of the experts here can help you solve a problem if you have one. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 18 '17 at 19:35

Have they told you outright that they are looking for comedy? Neither of the two ideas presented screams comedy for me, and indeed that character who hates their own society could easily be the hook of a gritty or tragic character. I know several GMs that I could play that character under and turn it into a serious exploration of that society.

That said, if you are sure that they are intending for a comedic game, and you are willing to indulge them at least in part, then it seems to me that the points of self-sabotage (as you describe them) can probably be re-invented in collaboration as the hooks for comedy: The player who hates their society may have fled to somewhere else only to be continually confronted with outsiders who don't understand that and react accordingly. The player who wants to drink and start fights is even easier.

The key is in how the universe responds to these definitions of self-sabotage: does it sabotage their lives, beating them senseless and dumping them half-dead into an ally? Or does it sabotage their pride and dignity? (And even there, there is a difference between a tragic loss of dignity and comedic one.)

If you are not willing to indulge their wish for comedy, it is perfectly acceptable to say something like, "I don't think we're all on the same page, here. If you take traits like this, the game I want to run will react in ways like this I don't think it will be very fun. I strongly urge you to reconsider."

I've had to do that a number of times-- not so much with comedic intent, but in point-buy systems where players clearly had different opinion of how I was going to handle their purchased disadvantages, and I needed to get them on the same page as I was before the game. Usually, telling a player that their choices will not lead to fun for anyone is a good splash of cold water, and if done right you will come across as looking out for their best interests. (If done right, you will be looking out for their best interests.)


Sometimes I handle this sort of thing by making the plot unavoidable. For example, in DANGER PATROL, you start by narrating a scene full of threats and hazards, you narrate that the player characters are in the middle of it, you tell them what their goals are, and they try to survive. In a D&D campaign that I run sometimes, the players have a horrible undead curse which will kill them all if they can't find a way to cure it.

Other times, I handle this sort of thing by having individual "qualifier" scenes for the campaign. I narrate your character arriving on the island, and if they ignore the plot and wander off to get drunk, or if they get killed by a house cat, I tell the player that this character has not managed to join the party, but they're welcome to build a new character and try again.

Honestly what I do most commonly is, if someone doesn't seem interested in doing the adventure, I don't invite them back. I understand this doesn't work in your case.

It's worth linking to the Same Page Tool here. The function of this tool is to remind you to talk with your players about what sort of game you're running, before you start your game. It sounds like your particular campaign is meant to be a heroic struggle against adversity; if you just talk about that up front, players can build their characters to fit.


Invent a World Where Goof-Ups Are Expected

I often encounter this. I find that the trick is giving them roles where they are expected by the world to fail. Example: If they're guards, have everyone EXPECT them to be failures (per the Discworld Series). That way, if they goof up, fail a challenge, or can't win, that's just par for the course.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • The challenges are best when open to all characters and a variety of means
  • Be wary that the problems are ones their characters can solve
  • Let the world goad them into doing a good job
  • Reward success in game to keep them from devolving

Set up the world and back stories to match

To clarify how I would let them go about their backstory and be comedic in a silly world, I will provide my most recent campaign as an example.

In the campaign the group plays a new set of recruits for the city police (a much maligned force in honor of the recently late Terry Pratchett). They wanted to play goofs like a Donald Trump parody and a perpetually drunk sailor. The challenges to pass the training all required "creative thinking." They go about their boobery like getting drunk with the coach before playing or talking other people into taking their place in the marathon. Their methods allow them to be silly, while still succeeding. When they error, by running away from a fight, that's just fine, because that's what's expected of a bumbling police force. They laugh, and we all have fun.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I have included an expanded answer to your questions above. In summary: -CR gives a simple guess at how hard something will be without knowing about the situation, but the situation controls a great deal. -In a silly world with limited expectations, both success and failure is entertaining. \$\endgroup\$ – SillyInventor Jan 18 '17 at 18:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Incidentally, at time of writing I didn't realize they were using 4e, which is different. \$\endgroup\$ – SillyInventor Jan 18 '17 at 19:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Thanks for the advice, I have removed my gripe about the CR system. \$\endgroup\$ – SillyInventor Jan 18 '17 at 19:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ A pleasure to serve. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 18 '17 at 19:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Looks solid! I edited out your edit that you had edited out the CR concern. On stack the full edit history is always available if someone wants to go and check it out so there is no need to leave that info in the answer. If you want to draw someones attention to an edit a comment poking them and mentioning it is the way to go. Good job :)! \$\endgroup\$ – Ceribia Jan 18 '17 at 20:37

The purpose of RPGs is having fun. Progression to become mighty heroes is not compulsory, but simply a common convention of games. Let them have fun, while they're all enjoying it, and don't worry about a lack of progression.

I've seen several players create characters who were largely or completely for comedy, enjoy playing them for a while, and then switch to playing other characters. One set of such characters attained some kind of critical mass, probably owing to their founding of a religion of stupidity, and lasted for years. They still have occasional effects as NPCs in my old AD&D1e campaign.

After a while, you may find you need some kind of plot to provide events and characters for them to interact with. If this happens, steal from the classics: the films of the Marx Brothers are based around a bunch of anarchic self-sabotaging nutcases complicating a simple story, and the same structure worked well in Toon games for me.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ceribia: Better? \$\endgroup\$ – John Dallman Jan 18 '17 at 17:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Significantly :)! Knowing your experience with comedic characters is coming from AD&D and Toon is really helpful in figuring out how it will translate. With 4e I don't think it will translate particularly well since 4e has rather tight character/encounter balance that (I think but lack the experience to confirm) designed-weak characters could throw off. \$\endgroup\$ – Ceribia Jan 18 '17 at 17:58

It's difficult to answer with only one character concept presented, but an alcoholic mercenary who hates their own race, while it may seem fairly one-dimensional, does offer a lot of potential for growth. Here are a few things to explore with that character:

  • Why exactly do they hate their race? Is it due to the race's expansionist tendencies, or was there some trauma that occurred to them?
  • Does the character have any family? I would recommend requiring your players to have at least one or two plot hooks you can exploit built in to their characters' backstories. (e.g. for the alcoholic, perhaps they have family that still lives in the empire, and they drink to beat down the feeling that they have abandoned them. Maybe one day they receive a letter from that family begging them to come home/help them)

    • Where is that society expanding to? Will they be in an area near your party? Maybe your party comes across a warband belonging to that race and the alcoholic character is forced to confront a figure from their childhood, eg a prominent public servant, a lieutenant that was stationed in their home town, a childhood friend who grew up and joined the army (why did the two of them split so drastically?)

If your group is as creative as you say they should have no trouble (and even a lot of fun) coming up with such things, and any time the campaign starts to slow you can pull something from one of the characters' backstories to get things going again.


As far as stats/classes go, those can be much more difficult to address, as generally more creative players are more resistant to their character concepts being changed. Often the best thing you can do is look at what the player wants their character to do, and suggest an alternate class that may work better, and possibly implement stat minimums (for instance a thief not having a dex or int lower than 12 as they must be agile and clever to survive in their chosen profession).

While I have only played 4e a handful of times (I would recommend 3.5 or Pathfinder over 4e any day, but that's getting more into the realm of opinion), I do recall a certain paragon path for the fighter class which may fit your alcoholic thief called the pit fighter (or something to that effect), so if you can persuade them to be patient enough to wait until they are a high enough level to choose a paragon path that may work for them. Otherwise there may be other classes put out in supplemental books that fit better since the last time I looked at 4e (which was shortly after the original 4e player's handbook was put out, so that is well within the realm of possibility).

Even with doing these, your players may still find ways to make their character concepts unviable. Players exist to make the GM's life hell. In that situation, there is really nothing you can do but tell them that if they insist upon playing that character it will most likely die very quickly, and the character's in-game actions will have in-game consequences the player may not like. The character will likely die within the first few sessions, but the player may be willing to reroll a more practical character after watching their concept crash and burn.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I made a few edits to your post to improve readability, but I recommend you give it at least one more pass through. It'd be good if you could do something about the portion in parenthesis, which is in parenthesis, which is in parenthesis. I think you've got enough there for a third bullet point, so I think you just need to come up with preface text that suits your goal. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Jan 17 '17 at 23:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ No problem. I'd be happy to add in more potential storylines if you have more info on the backstories of the other characters, but that should be enough to at least get the ball rolling. \$\endgroup\$ – Cameron Jan 18 '17 at 15:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your answer doesn't address how to handle the characters having stats/classes that match up poorly with the rest of the design when it comes to encounters. Since this is 4e where the balance is rather tight this seems like a significant problem. Also do you have any experience you can use to back up your answer? \$\endgroup\$ – Ceribia Jan 18 '17 at 17:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have been DM/GM for multiple groups across various editions of D&D, Pathfinder, and nWoD/oWoD. In each group I have had players who have trouble developing their characters independently or prefer to play silly characters in more serious campaigns, and this is how I have dealt with them. This answer was also written before @Dark Madder added the portions about their stats not fitting their character builds, and thus does not address those concerns. I shall edit after reviewing & ruminating upon the new information. \$\endgroup\$ – Cameron Jan 18 '17 at 19:02

I think the disconnect you have is that you are thinking the characters should be heroes, and your players want them to be tragic misfits. If you aren't willing to run a game with tragic misfits, then you need to work with your players to reset and figure out a good game for everyone.

If you want to run the game with the players you have, you need to figure out what would be a fun situation to put those tragic misfits in. If they want to get drunk and start a bar fight, let them. Have the combat work its way out. If they "win" they have to explain themselves to the guard (or run). If they lose, they get tossed out into the back alley and told never to show up at that bar again.

In either case, have one of them notice that they are missing something valuable that they had that they would want back, and have them describe what it is. The initial adventure is then them trying to get it back, throwing them into situations where sometimes their skills shine, but other times their backgrounds and behaviors will trip them up and have their quarry escape just ahead of them. Eventually, they should find the missing thing, but will have made enemies and seen things they shouldn't have along the way.

You can tailor this story however you want, but you won't be able to say "The world is in danger, go save it" to these characters. You'll need to make it personal, and have them be motivated for something else.


Your group seems similar to my wife and her siblings; they can be either a DM's dream or their worst nightmare. The world is their stage, and when they get together, they play to put on a show that entertains themselves and those around them. "Winning" (insofar as the games they play usually defines it) is not currency for them. The good news is that it sounds like your party has a great DM to facilitate their game!

From what you wrote, it sounds like your players have an accord as far as the type of experience they want to have. As long as the risks inherent in their chosen mode of play are made plain and clear (stupid and contrary characters can make for entertaining fiction, but they are also more likely to die in a world where even well-prepared characters perish) and contingency plans are made/expectations are set (what happens if someone dies? Does their ghost haunt them, do they make another character, do they go play video games on the couch, etc.), then I think you can make this a safe and entertaining venue for them to freely experiment.

That said... if you haven't already, I would suggest taking a look at Dungeon World. Based on what you wrote, this might be a better fit for what your group wants to do. D&D4e is to Dungeon World what "The Great War in Europe" is to "Diplomacy". D&D4e wants to render an accurate fantasy simulation, Dungeon World wants to help tell an engaging story about people. I don't want to retread what others have already said as far as more concrete examples of how D&D and DW compare, so I will include this partial post from Reddit user weishaupt on the thread "What makes Dungeon World different from D&D?":

  1. In DW, player actions are not succeed/whiff; they are something happens/something else happens. The corollary is that the DM does not take action; they merely respond to player action. If a player is pulled into the shadows of the cavern ceiling by a spider, it's because they roll a miss (or the narrative demanded it! See below.).

  2. In DW, the narration drives the story, without exception. A classic example is hacking a goblin to death. In D&D, if you want to hack, you roll an attack roll; you might have to move first. In DW, if you say you want to hack a goblin to death, what happens depends entirely on the narrative at the moment. Does he have a spear? You might need to Defy Danger to get close enough. Is he distracted? You might not need to roll anything; deal your damage.

  3. DW's campaign structure consciously demands dynamic player input to function. DW adventures are plotted not as a series of scripted, pre-existing areas/encounters/whatnots, but as a set of advancing plot threads that can contribute elements to the story as it unfolds. In addition, the DM will frequently as the player questions about the world in the course of play (look at Spout Lore; when the PC knows something, the player has to explain how). Both systems are capable of planning a fun, farcical campaign on, but my group is considerably happier with DW than they would be in D&D.

I include Dungeon World because I believe that it's one of the best ways to facilitate the type of experience that a group like my family-in-laws (and potentially yours) want, where the currency isn't so much winning together but weaving a story together.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You recommend a couple of things here but I'm not understanding how they address the asker's problem or how the asker could carry the suggestions. Does making the risks inherent somehow reduce the problems with designed-weak characters? With all the maybes about how this could turn out are you saying they are overthinking it? And how would moving to Dungeon World address the issues of designed-weak and comedy focused characters? \$\endgroup\$ – Ceribia Jan 18 '17 at 17:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for requesting clarification! My belief is that clearly communicating the inherent risks in playing designed-weak characters and well as establishing expectations for when a PC dies will mitigate many of the concerns that could occur on and off-table in this type of game. I suggest DW because it was developed from the ground up to help make fun adventure stories as a group (there are DM prerogatives and PC creation steps made specifically for this end). The system is much less complex and the bar for survival is much lower, allowing for greater focus on role-playing aspects. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Rutledge Jan 18 '17 at 19:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Very interesting! Can you work this information in to your answer? Also do you have any experience with 4e that you could juxtapose with the specifics of Dungeon World to show how using it would solve the problem? \$\endgroup\$ – Ceribia Jan 18 '17 at 20:33

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