This article was first broadcast in Episode Thirteen on 28th February 2018.
“The battle had been hard-fought, but the necromancer’s tower now lay in ruins. On the morrow they would return to the queen to inform her the threat to her nation was ended, but tonight, they rested. Brother Elmont knew his companions had fared worse than he, and prepared their simple evening meal without being asked. It had taken the party twelve hours to win through and cast down the necromancer.
…it took the party another three days to recover from the food poisoning afterwards, divine punishment for forgetting exactly why Brother Elmont was not allowed near the cooking gear.”
You see, the D&D world is filled with experts. Aside from mastery of the skills connected to their class, there are cooks who can prepare feasts, athletes that can swim great distances, survivalists that can be blindfolded, spun around, and still be able to point due north, scholars that can glance at a page and remember the details an hour later.
This isn’t about them. This is about the people who can burn water when trying to cook, who panic and sink in the calmest water, who can’t find north even with a compass, or forget the name of their own city. While this may cause grief for the party at times, being sub-par at some skill helps make a much deeper, more memorable character. While it can be a ready source of cheap laughs, it could also be a sign of an old trauma or phobia that haunts the character — plenty of juice for roleplaying.
When an inept skill is used, the results can vary depending on how the player wants to run it. It might just automatically fail, it could appear to succeed but have actually failed, or it could even proceed normally and yet fail catastrophically when a particular limit is exceeded. So, if the example is cooking, a character with an automatic failure can burn anything (such as setting fire to water), get the ingredients wrong (“eggs are just cheese that comes from chickens, right?”), over-apply spice, and so forth, but at least the final product is clearly of questionable quality. In the case of deceptive success, the food produced looks edible, but tastes terrible. For the conditional failure, they may be fine at preparing any type of cold food, but will invariably burn anything that needs to be cooked over a fire. As you can see, depending on the skill involved, other forms of failure might work as well.
While we use the term “skill” here, the affected ability doesn’t have to be limited to the scope of skills and proficiencies laid out in the rules. It can apply to portions of a skill, such as only Athletics checks made for swimming, to abilities that wouldn’t necessarily warrant a skill check, like remembering names. It could even extend to “skills” beyond a person’s control, like being unable to grow a non-patchy beard. If someone can conceivably be good or bad at something, it’s fair game.
So whilst you as a player are aware of the ineptitude, the character may or may not be aware. It may be a case where the character is immune to the results, like someone who grew up on ultra-spicy food not understanding why their “bland” dish provokes cries of pain from anyone else. The character may continually try to fix some part of the mess while breaking something else in the process, saying “I know what went wrong, I can fix it this time” again and again. It could also be a case where the character knows they’re bad at it, but enjoy doing it anyways, such as a person who enjoys poker despite never winning a hand. Or hosting a podcast with no idea what they’re talking about.
The first step to adding a skill ineptitude is to decide the tone: comedic or serious. Comedic uses could occur with some frequency, even if it’s simply the party scrambling to prevent the character from bringing about some self-inflicted disaster. It shouldn’t be overused, but since it is an aspect of the character, it’s something that should be expressed now and then. Players in more intense or serious campaigns would be better off picking a more serious ineptitude. This form of ineptitude stems from the larger, dramatic sources: traumas, phobias, and other insecurities. For example, a morbid fear of tarantulas would be good justification to automatically fail any Animal Handling check involving said spidery sires of shelob . There doesn’t necessarily need to be a “logical” incident that explains every particular quirk or phobia, but such incidents do help flesh out a character’s backstory. For example, a character may have played chess only because her younger brother kept pestering to do so, and in the process developed a habit of playing to lose to end the games more quickly; now she finds she has to concentrate entirely on the game if she’s trying to win, since when she gets distracted while playing she starts playing to lose out of habit.
Once the tone of the ineptitude is selected, the next step is to consider the type, and what would fit with the character. It’s easy to imagine a bookish wizard being inept at physical tasks or social skills, or a fighter being poor at mental tasks or practical skills; but often, this is already covered by the character’s ability score and proficiency distribution. For comedic ineptitude, it’s worth considering a possible weakness within the character’s normal strengths. For example, a fighter who’s normally quite capable at physical tasks could be terrible at catching objects thrown to him. The wizard, marvel of intellect and focus that he is, never remembers the names of those around him, substituting names of historical figures instead: “Henry” is remembered as “Heroditus”, “Theodore” becomes “Theophrastus”, and so forth. Serious ineptitudes can be of any type, but should present a challenge to the party when encountered…though not an insurmountable one. A character with a fear of the sea would cause problems for any quest that required the party to take ship to a location. The DM may allow the player to roll a check to overcome their fear and board the ship, the character might seek some magic to overcome their reluctance (such as having the party cleric command him to board the ship just as it’s ready to cast off), or could resort to simply drinking himself to insensibility the night before, allowing his own party to shanghai him.
Ineptitude can be added when the character is initially created, but in some cases, it can be fun to incorporate spectacular failures during a game into the character and decide retroactively the character has always been bad a that task. After the third catastrophic roll to attempt to climb a cliff face, the player could decide to make it part of their background. It could also be incorporated as character development — the character had been good at climbing, but after three fumbles, he loses his confidence, dreading to face another climb and making panicked mistakes. In this case, the ineptitude would be a potentially temporary condition, until the character overcomes their trauma.
Finally, you could always make a character who’s so bad at something… they’re actually great at it! When a character is both proficient and inept at a skill, they can succeed as normal, but the success happens in some unorthodox fashion. Cooked food might look terrible, but be delicious; or it might be some unholy combination of ingredients that, rightly, shouldn’t remotely work but somehow taste magically delicious — marmite and chocolate, anyone? Under this option, the character performs the skill as usual, making any rolls or roleplay as necessary, but has some twist or unusual technique that is highly unconventional, wildly illogical, and yet somehow effective, even if no one can explain why. The party wizard may not understand why ancient dwarvish pick-up lines aren’t terribly effective (especially when the seducee doesn’t speak ancient dwarvish)…and yet somehow they’re still the one who wins the heart of the enemy spy, convincing them to betray their master…
All in all, a well-developed character shouldn’t be defined solely by their ineptitude any more than they should be defined solely by their race or class, but a good weak point can serve as yet another tool to help create a more interesting, memorable character.
Ryu: Ooooh, I get it… so, last week when we barely made it out of Ixalan and I had a few… critiques of your performance… it’s not that you’re not bad at casting spells under pressure, it’s that it’s a loveable character quirk?
Ryu: … … that’s the worst excuse I’ve ever heard of!
Lennon: It’s true though, he’s terrible at casting, yet somehow always pulls it off. I remember a time when we were in Waterdeep and there was this noble’s daughter who—
Ostron: — who was looking for directions. Nothing more. No need to mention Bigby’s Hand.
Lennon: I didn’t mention Bigby’s Han–
Ostron: Oh will you look at the time!