The incompetent, "chronically out of xir depth" protagonist

This is the character who is constantly being bested or rescued verbally, mentally, martially , philosophically or morally by other characters in the setting. Often observed in a high school or university style setting, but may also be observed in a supernatural/ superpower setting where the main character is a baseline/muggle or a student.

Whatever advantage the main character has is outside their control (innate, situational, relational), not based on skill sets or qualities that they chose to cultivate.

Is there ever a right way to do this? Or is any author who tries to make us play such a character (as an artistic choice) being foolhardy?

Is the choice to make the player feel like they are constantly out of their depth and everyone else has their shit together (regardless of realism) ever a good one?



As with every character it depends on how you write them.
Are they like that for no good reason other than to fail before they overcome it via a deus ex machina?

Or have they been living in an ‘ivory tower’ constantly surrounded by “yes men” and are now forced into a world with people that won’t let them win just cause they exist?


That could certainly work. Hell of difficult and you should be very focused and planning it due is a plot device that could easily end in a bad development. A ds game I loved due humour it was one of a insufferable anime snob princess that always lived in a palace focus in be beautiful and dressing nice she fall in love for an adventurer that say he doesn’t give a fuck a flower vase brainless girl without real opinion. so she tries becoming a adventurer.
One of her powers is pout to enemies. The game is hilarious and show how she confront reallity of her realm she learn and mature and she ended badass


…Well I lurve mcs like that as they’re waaay easier to relate to xd. But we should be able to choose…in fact an example of what I’m thinking would be better:
Say our mc is a socially awquard, small and weak person with mental health issues(…yes me xd) and is being bullied in school(past me xd). Do they acknowledge their weakness? Ask for help from a teacher, get help from a friend, a nice person etc. O r try to do things on their own. So yeah, I think I mean how much is our mc comfortable with their ineptness, how do they deal with it? Accept it? Hide it? That’s another reason I love mcs like this!!! If a good story, cyoa or otherwise can deal with these issues well in the story I think it makes a really compelling and relatable read.


It would interesting to see the second possibility.

But what I think is (in text games specifically)crucial is agency and responsiveness. The character has to be able to choose to become better, and they get noticeably better (more aware, more witty, more martially competent) in a way that alters their situation in a positive way.

Which is why the “chronically” in chronically out of xir depth is the part which should be avoided.


The bolded part in your quote here causes the issues.

If the MC is out of their depth and everyone else is competent, then the reader will start feeling resentment towards the MC. This can be countered by good writing, a decent story, etc. but the average writer will not be able to pull the design and implementation off well enough to satisfy the average reader.

If the MC is out of their depth and everyone else also has vulnerabilities, then the reader would generally accept the MC easier and the design and implementation of the game mechanics don’t have to be as perfect.

Agency is super important as is responsiveness but for the reader to get that far, they need to be accepting of the starting situation and that is a make or break proposition early in the game. First impressions are often not made in summaries or demos but what isn’t told of or experienced in the introduction of a game.


A character that starts off clueless or naive is a good starting point. But it should be left behind at the first leg of the track, so to speak.

A static or even flat character can be entertaining to write or even read about, but not really as the focus of the story. Especially considering the point of many CoG fames is finding your place in the story’s world, if any.

I actually really like the idea of a “blind leading the blind” narrative where all the main characters start out confused and out of their depth, fumbling for an understanding they’re sure they should have. It gives a lot of opportunity not only for the main character to figure out their place in the world, but also to influence the other characters.


That makes a good literature opportunity as a game. It could easily lead to frustration. and to feel nothing matters as characters are stupid of run around like beheaded chickens. I personally doesn’t emphasize with those characters same i doesn’t emphasize with shy cowards characters as i don’t get shy people so i feel frustrated and wants slap my character


I mean, if you suddenly have a guy from our world fall in the middle of the battle for Armageddon in WH40K, it’s kinda normal that said guy will be way in over his head during the whole thing while everyone else at least know what they are doing.

Or if a guy suddenly go from Janitor to General, they will be out of their depth while everyone around them probably know how to do their job.


Fairly sure it’s been done in normal literature to great effect. Neverwhere, Anansi Brothers, Tom Holt books all prove it. The balance is having them start out of their depths and slowly acclimatize them to their revelation and eventual empowerment.

For a game, this is very hard to do because you have stats and consequences of your actions and if someone focused on one skill, they’d expect a modicum of capability out of it. Unless, of course, it’s not the skill, it’s the situation itself. I adore characters like that: the everyday man. They’re relatable and have hidden depths. The balance is key though. The problem there though it’s being railroaded, but it can be done. Good writing can account for a lot of things.


Yeah but that guy may have other qualities which make them worth following as a character. For example, they may be very good at making deductions, they may be a quick learner. They may be cunning and manipulative or possess knowledge from their own world which would give them an advantage in this new world (e.g. Silverworlds main character).

They could also have physical, moral or philosophical attributes and interests worth actually reading about.

There has to be something which makes the character worth rooting for.

1 Like

So this type of protagonist is like the MC from Community collage hero games, where everyone but you has superpowers? or am i misrepresenting the statement, because in those games i thought that the MC was horribly under-powered I mean come on the game wold has lots of people with encredable powers BUT the MC has nothing making in my opinion the MC near useless. (no offence but it’s just an opinion)

1 Like

good writing can make almost anything enjoyable. I personally can’t stand playing as these characters because of the “chronically” part. Its just… not… fun? I feel like if there’s a humorous tone about it or outright acknowledgment of the ridiculousness of our clueless/hopelessly incompetent MC being out of our depth all the time, it can keep my interest. or some fourth-wall breakage. otherwise it becomes tedious and frustrating for me, especially when the plot or other characters actually are engaging to me. I end up slogging thru a story in the hopes that I’ll finally start enjoying it completely and that’s never a fun way to play one of these games.


I’m not a fan of Community Collage Hero either. I also think the OPs descrition fits the MC in that game. We could choose a talent for the MC but that still didn’t help to make it feel like the MC is anything but useless. Like choosing to be smart didn’t make the MC smarter or a better strategist than their classmates so it kinda failed at making up for the lack of superpowers. Evertything had to be done by the people around them and let’s not forget that most people around the MC are considered weak as superpowered beings, so if MC is a loser among these people then how could they expect to ever go against a villain (that’s why MC is there in the first place right?)

Edit: Anyway these were just my thoughts when I’ve read the first book, I didn’t read the second one so idk if this improves in that one. But imo it’s not good to make the MC feel like a loser a book long, even an underpowered MC should have their moments here and there.

1 Like

Well in irl I’m disabled, so I prefer protagonists of choice of games that are powerful because it lets me do some pretty amazing stuff in the games, unlike C.C.H so that’s why I don’t like C.C.H. I tend to proget myself on to my MC’s so if I have a weak MC… you see the point right?


I don’t think the OP meant chars like the CCH mc.

Cch sets you up as the odd man out, but you are not incompetent.

The Heroes Rise MC is a better example:
The plot demands that they fail fail fail till they get a deus ex machina (as noted above) and even then they are far from competent, because the plot demands it.
Example: the mc is so convinced from the start the mayor is out to get them. But the case that just screams IT’S A TRAP must be “fate” to them and there is nothing fishy to it (granted the thing is handled in game as if it was a big coincidence even though… no…)
Or the second game where you blissfully ignore all alarm bells despite knowing there is a conspiracy going.

Looking at CCH and HR in comparison I would say in CCH the mc can come across as incompetent as they are adjusting to a situation. They are, yes, a fish out of water, but they’re quickly developing lungs.
HR has a mc we are told is competent, but aren’t shown it/don’t have a chance to play like it.


Idk. You make some good points but I don’t agree with everything.
For explample I think HR MC could have been successful in getting back the Gravitas were it not for Prodigal undermining them. And they managed to be useful when they helped out the Millennial Group. In the second book I’d scratch it up to the MCs impatience and pridefulness, not on Jurys level but still enough to make MC focused on winning instead of putting more effort in figuring out what’s wrong. But that’s fine with me, I like characters with personality flaws makes them more human. And they got the chance to redeem themself when/if they took the fall for Jenny.
While in CCH I don’t rember of MC ever having been succesful in anything (except the exams) without having to rely on their classmates.
Guess even tho I decided not to buy anything from Sergi after THP I still enjoyed the original HR series more than CCH.

1 Like

Huh. Never heard of this before. Got some examples? :slight_smile:

Someone said it earlier (and Eiwynn hit the nail on the head in regards to the reader’s attachment to an Incompetent MC) that it’s not fun to play these kind of characters. I guess it’s somewhat fun to read about them, but there’s a point where it stops being funny and starts being ridiculous.

Maybe I’m just used to the typical plot structure of books, but I need to have some high points for a protagonist otherwise I just lose interest because the lack of high points, especially if they’re a product of your actions, just signals that the reader doesn’t have agency in the IF and everything is a product of ‘because the author said so’.

In the cases of a book or or another piece of non-interactive literature this can be nothing but an exercise in ‘how much shit can I put this character through?’ rather than telling a story IMO.

Maybe I could get into this MC if it made sense that the MC was incompetent for a reason i.e. a baby MC since it makes sense to have a baby!MC being rescued or bested in all the categories you listed off because babies don’t have agency compared to adults or even kids.

I don’t think there’s a sure and true right way to pull this off, especially in an IF, without isolating some part of the author’s audience.

Do I think that it’s a good choice to make the player feel like they’re constantly out of their depth in comparison to everyone else, regardless of their choices? No, I don’t and here’s why: author dictated incompetent MC’s lack agency on basically every level and when you have a lack of agency over everything for no apparent reason it subverts everything an IF is supposed to be.


If the protagonist is going to stay incompetent at everything they better have an excuse like getting chased just about all the time.

Would you accept a protagonist that applies veterinary assistant training to dealing with the supernatural?

So, in a way your comment can be read as equalling ‘teamplayer/support’ with incompetence.

To elaborate:
In HR the character fails/succeeds because the plot demands it. Not because they’d actually show competence about their powers, in any installment. A lot of things where they ‘succeed’ are even forgotten by the setting down the line (so, it is possible to review BM with one’s own energy, but not anyone else?)
HR’s MC doesn’t invoke the feeling that they ever grew up the way they grew up. they go into things with a complete wrong sense of what to expect, and they never grow out of it. They only succeed in the end because the plot demands it as they are the protagonist.

CCH is about working as team in its core. and the ‘failing’ is much more comprehensible and, well, natural, than what you have in hr. In CCH you never before had the chance to work with powered individuals. there is a constant sense of that thing could go really bad, and that there might be someone protecting the MC for their own, possible sinister, reasons.

1 Like