Thursday, November 5, 2009

Know Your Power Gamers

In the previous post I discussed my personal moment of disillusionment with D&D 3.5, seeing that turning-point as an opportunity to develop self-awareness about (1) the type of gamer I am, and therefore (2) the type(s) of other gamers I can most easily and profitably play RPGS with. Horton, the rules-maxer / power gamer I discussed in that post, is actually a terrific role-player who really inhabits his characters, talks like they talk, and indeed has a sense of fidelity to character concept. But he is also a total stat-maxer whose characters are always so insanely effective in combat that my NPCs stand no chance against him, not least because most of my NPCs really like to be negotiated with, debated against, and otherwise interacted with in ways that do not always lead to combat. Horton role-plays well but is hard-wired as a power gamer.

Aptly characterizing the power-gamer mentality, Norman Harman commented that:

"For them combat, using all the rules and abilities they spent hours building was the point and fun part of the game."

There has been some good discussion of this "power gamer" phenomenon recently over on B/X Blackrazor, from which I now quote at length:

Power Gamers [. . .] are folks with a gamist creative agenda intent on creating the most powerful character possible using knowledge of the rules, possible “broken” classes, powerful combinations, etc. GENERALLY with (what is considered blatant) disregard for the idea of “character” (role-playing) and/or maintaining “game balance” (whatever that is!) in relation to the campaign world and/or other player characters at the table.

When I write “the most powerful character possible” I speak in terms of combat advantage, as this is the general arena of conflict resolution in an RPG [. . .]

[. . .] I believe gamism is a valid creative agenda and power gaming is JUST FINE…assuming everyone at the table is on-board and along for the ride. There’s nothing wrong with indulging one’s twink fantasy after all, and some people like to play that way. NOT ME…but I don’t speak for everyone.

I am in the "NOT ME" category as well, and as JB's words suggest, I think the key to good gaming is to be aware of what type of player / referee you are, and which type(s) of players you want to play with. This is the message of the terrific "Explosions in Space" rule-of-thumb, a corollary of noisms' "Don't Be A Dick Head" rule, both of which ultimately boil down to: agree upon ground rules and play with like-minded players.

It is true that certain rules systems seem to encourage or even necessitate one or the other of these approaches, either power-gamer style or rules-lite style. I suspect that in terms of game mechanics, this has most to do with the centrality and elaborateness of combat rules in the game (more elaborate = encourages the power gamer), but also the tone and content of the rules manual prose. I am not a fanatic Gygaxian, but I understand why so many of us in the old-school movement feel inspired by the loftiness (fused with good gaming sense) of Gygax's prose -- it is anything but "mechanical," being much more high-fantastical and visually evocative. Yet in the end, whatever the rules set or the tone of the manuals, it is the people at the gaming table who matter most -- their preferences and chemistry.

Bringing together the right group of players, all of whom share a vaguely similar playing agenda, is essential for RPG'ing success.  I am being fairly careful about who I bring into
my forthcoming campaign, because as GM, I have a responsibility to avoid accidentally bringing a rules-maxer into what is sure to be a rules-LITE kind of affair. I have no desire to be the author of "Horton Part 2."

1 comment:

  1. Interestingly, and you may not know this, we have sort of power gamer in our Mutant Future group: not in the way you speak of them above, but in the sense that he abuses the character creation procedure by rolling up dozens and dozens of characters and then picking the one to play that has a combination of uber mutations. I struggled for a little while with whether I should allow that, but I soon realized that the way he PLAYS these super powerful characters is so foolhardy that they end up dying much faster than the other, less "optimized" characters! So I have let it be, and I don't think it has adversely affected the gaming experience for everyone else... at least I hope so!