The Tale of Gareth (or how Matt Mercer & "Critical Role" helped me break the bland character trope spiral and create truly memorable PCs)
by Roger Hannah
Recently, I have been working on creating deeper and more interesting characters for my current games, both as a player and as a DM behind the screen. As part of that process, I've been checking out a good amount of gaming content on YouTube. Matt Mercer's video, entitled, “Roleplaying Against Type in D&D”, proved an adventure all its own, worthy of commemoration.
What advice does Matt give us for making character by going “against type”? There are stereotypes for just about every class and race in the Multiverse. It's very easy to slip into those old habits but your game experience will be far more interesting if you push beyond the obvious. First, Matt suggests focusing on uncommon character themes, such as a rogue who is a bit of a bumbler who stumbles into the profession almost by accident or a paladin who is unmotivated and nihilistic in spite of continuing to have the favor of his or her god. Second, embrace the low attribute score, really exploring how that deficiency may color the character and challenge your role-play. Finally, he suggests adding what he terms “unique ability flavor”, approaching the character's class or origin from a non-traditional stand point. He expands on these concepts very well in his video and I'll leave you to explore that on your own. You can find it here: Roleplaying Against Type in D&D. My purpose here is to share the creation of a new favorite persona of mine, Gareth Pitontoes, based on the advice offered by Matt. I was not disappointed by the result and highly recommend throwing out the tropes and exploring the vast creative maelstrom you will open to yourself.
Building a Better Barbarian
My current DM's campaign is coming to a close and another member of the group is taking the reins while he starts writing the next story for down the line. That means creating new characters for the new campaign! Initially, I was very excited about the halfing bard that I had been putting together. I've never had a chance to play a bard and was enthused about the prospect. I dutifully went through the process of character creation and the result is a very solid, very traditional bard. I'm sure he will be fun to run when I eventually do so. That said, the longer I looked at him, the more he seemed like every other bard that I've ever seen my friends run. Definitely worth playing but decidedly lacking in a unique personality and voice. Based on that, I decided to switch gears with Matt's advice in mind.
Step one: I looked at my options through the lens of “uncommon character themes”. I knew I wanted to play a halfing as I haven't been able to run one in a long time. Traditionally, halflings get typecast in games as the obligatory rogue or even a standard fighter or ranger. Fun but far too easy to slip into the familiarity of Tolkien with the timid, hesitant, non-adventurer character who is thrust unceremoniously into the fray, showing us all that “even the smallest person can make a difference”. Blah, blah, Frodo, we get it. I then thought what if I threw the tradition out the window and went for, say, a halfling barbarian. That caught my attention and proved the first step on the road to something unique. So, lesson learned? Don't hesitate to turn the traditional race/class pairings on their ear and do something a bit off the wall.
Step two: I played around with Matt's concept of “unique ability flavor”. As a halfling, I couldn't imagine falling back on the typical barbarian origin story a la Wulfgar from R.A. Salvatore's works, the primitive and violent warrior who is slowly tamed somewhat in order to be functional in the “civilized” world of the Realms but never quite losing their penchant for savage, uncontrolled outbursts. It does beg the question. What WOULD turn a halfling into a rage-filled warrior? Living in a comfy hobbit hole does not really make for a compelling reason to choose that profession. Putting that problem aside for a time, I started writing up a back story. What if this halfling came from a privileged background, perhaps as the heir to a successful merchant fortune? What if his or her parents were absolutely bent on the character taking over the family business? Maybe this family business was, in some way, undesirable, pushing the character to leave home and embark on an adventurers' life. Perhaps Mom and Dad were none too pleased that the character chose to abandon their imagined career path. What if either Mom or Dad were especially domineering and demanding, instilling our good halfling lad or lass with some severe anger or anxiety? In my mind, I started to picture Mom and Dad as the founders of an adventuring gear/outfitter business with a son who absolutely hates being outside and wants nothing to do with this family enterprise focused on the Great Outdoors. The character began to take shape as the son and heir apparent of this business, fastidious and obsessed with personal appearance and fashion, plagued with severe anxiety linked to persistent parental pressure and nagging. In short, think of an individual with Tim Gunn's sense of style and fashion mixed with an unhealthy dose of George Costanza from “Seinfeld”, including all the baggage of George's parents, Frank and Estelle who utilizes rage as a coping mechanism for his anxiety. Yeah, now we were getting somewhere.
Step 3 revolves around what I actually rolled for character statistics. Matt Colville, another DM sage on YouTube, recommends rolling your character in the traditional fashion (4d6, drop the low die) but forcing yourself to roll the stats exactly in order as they appear on the character sheet. It does work to “discover” your character but I also find some value in allowing a player to get the class they want if they are really set on playing that role. Still, you end up with a pretty bland situation if all your stats are 10(average human) and above only. In the case of my developing halfling barbarian, he got strong scores in Strength (15) and Constitution (17) but ended up with lower scores in Wisdom (7) and Charisma (8). Yes, that means a -2 penalty on Wisdom checks and a -1 penalty on Charisma checks. At first glance, that gives one pause, particularly with those negatives hitting on things like Perception or Persuasion checks. As Matt Mercer says in the video, however, I decided to “lean into it” rather than treat that as a big setback. The result? A character who is lacking in wisdom, fitting well with one who is far from practical in his thinking. The lower charisma makes him somewhat abrasive and irritating, fitting well with a predilection for over-sharing personal information about family drama and coming off as fairly narcissistic and, at times, intensely annoying guy.
The Tale of Gareth
How did this come off in actual play, you might ask? One of the most exciting role-playing experiences of all my years playing this game. I introduced the character to my DM for a one-shot session, asking to keep his class under wraps until later in the game. Gareth Pitontoes made his debut in a tavern with the other characters hired to look into some disappearances and mysterious goings-on in a nearby cave system. As several other players were running new characters to get to know them, we had a bit of time to role-play those initial interactions. Gareth came off as pretty rude in dealing with the tavern NPCs, a direction I had not really gone before in roleplay. He also spent a good amount of time talking about “Mother” and her thoughts about his poor choices in life. An awful lot of time. The importance of his personal appearance also came up frequently, particularly his obsession with the grooming and care of his “foot fur”. Yes, I know that halflings in 5th edition have lost the Tolkien-esque aspect of going barefoot with a layer of hair covering their feet. I, personally, can't go with that so my halflings adhere to the older conception of Shire-folk. The “foot fur” comment just came out organically in the course of role-play and, as I think you will see, added a distinct detail to Gareth's developing personality.
As the story got under way on the road to the cave system, Gareth added to his already appallingly bad first impression by being the chief complainer in the group due to the terrain and mud that threatened to mar his “perfect” appearance. He certainly wanted to be along for the adventure but, based on his stats, the role-play had to be authentic and he's kind of a jerk. By the time the party reached the cave system, I think most of the other characters (and even some of the players running them) were about as done as they could be with Gareth's in-character nonsense. May have gone a little overboard but it was fun stepping outside my comfort zone to play him authentically.
At this point, as the party crept into a large cavern with some bugbears performing a summoning ritual, the principle action of the one-shot burst upon the group. Detected by the residents of the cave system, a battle ensued at the same moment as the ritual was completed and a bulezau (a foul anthropomorphic creature with the head of a goat), summoned from the Abyss, appeared in the ritual circle. In character, I had Gareth almost hyper-ventilating as he uttered the iconic phrase of all barbarians: “I can't even with this! I would like to rage!”. The shocked silence was palpable as you could see the realization take hold among the other players—“Halfling barbarian? An ill-tempered chihuahua with a battle axe?” The silence quickly devolved into appreciative laughter. Until the battle was joined, that is. On his turn, Gareth, in full panic mode, boldly charged the bulezau...only to roll a 6 on his attack. Definitely a huge build-up to an anticlimactic result. It just fit with the character and his personality better than anything I could have ever planned. As the battle progressed, he definitely got in his requisite barbarian blows but no amazing “critical hit” moments like Grog Strongjaw from “Critical Role”. In the end, he did not get the killing blow on the bulezau but, as the final attack crushed the devilish foe, Gareth was showered with the offal of the beast, leading to the exclamation, “Great, you got goat goo on my foot fur!”. That phrase, as part of his personality, continued to come up frequently as the evening continued: after the bugbears were defeated, while the party continued to explore other areas of the caves, and even after Gareth was attacked and engulfed by a trapper. Our fastidious halfling lived to tell the tale, even surviving the party debate over whether he was really worth rescuing from the trapper. He will never fully live down the “goat goo” outburst but he may yet prove his quality as a hero.
The aftermath was equally fun. Lots of discussion surrounding the creation of such a bizarre character combination, leading to what I hope will be inspiration for other players to try out Mercer's thoughts in their future characters. I have played Gareth a few other times but I've come to love playing him so much that I'm reserving him for use in the upcoming campaign rather than burn through his character development in one-shot adventures. My trusty, “safe” Halfing bard will have to adventure another day after all. The biggest lesson is that leaning into character weaknesses is not a bad thing at all. In fact, I think it is his foibles and annoying self-obsession that have helped Gareth grow on me and some of the other players. It definitely opens lots of room to develop that persona in a longer story line to see where his arc may take him. Assuming he can keep his foot fur groomed.