Thursday, March 21, 2013

Guest Lecturer: Power Gaming vs. Role Playing

Today's post comes to us from a guest lecturer. If you've been in the comments section lately you've probably noticed that we had a recent new comer named Sean Phelan who is diving back into the hobby with both feet forward apparently. Sean is setting up a game of his own with some friends and has come across the fun obstacle of the RP gaming style versus the Power gaming style. You can find out more about Sean and his campaign by clicking this link. Now, without further ado, here's the post Sean wanted to discuss today.

A game I'm going to be GM'ing begins in a couple of weeks and I've had each player come over to generate their character before our first session.  For the first four of the five players this went smoothly and the player & I had fun doing it.  The last player asked me to roll his stats & email them to him so he could start working on his character before we got together.  Wanting to be amenable I did so.  Despite my requirement to generate his character with me he did it all on his own at home and sent the completed character to me the next day.

A 30 second scan of the character's details had me mouthing "Uh oh"; while the other four players had gone with what I will term the "role-playing" path to character generation this last players had gone the "power-gaming" route.  Every player strives to optimize their character to some extent during character generation, but while the "role-playing" path involves working to keep the character's "crunch" (stats, skills, etc.) consistent with the concept behind the character, the "power-gaming" path involves optimizing the character's "crunch" at all costs.  The completed character I was sent was a very aggressive example of power-gaming.

Skipping the details, he had selected a very daring combination of character types that gave a lot of 'crunch' benefits but that came with very negative role-playing implications.  Then he sent me the story background he had written for his character that served to mitigate nearly all the negative role-playing implications.  In reply, I sent him a list of questions that his background had to address for his very complex/conflicted character along with a detailed background story possibility for the character that left the negative implications in place - and suggested we talk about it when he comes over.  He replied that he was backing out one of the character types because it had gotten "too complicated" & was going to look for another possible route to a talent he wanted that didn't have the "RP complications".

At that point I replied that I'd have preferred to discuss it in person but if he's going to keep working on it at home that I felt I should tell him that this was more of a "role-playing" campaign than a "power-gaming" campaign and that most additional layers he added to the character would probably involve some role-playing implications.  That was a couple of days ago & I haven't yet gotten a reply.

I really wanted to have that discussion with him in person to mitigate any possible bad feelings about it but just couldn't get him to come over.

Have any of you run into the "role-playing" vs. "power-gaming" situation?  How did you handle it?  How did the players in question react?


  1. I've been kind of lucky in that this is pretty rare for me. the worst I've had was a player who liked the challenge of tweaking characters within the rules, just to see what could be done, but never let it get in the way of any ole playing he did. he is in fact a damned fine role player, but on more than one occasion now, the characters he's created have been massively over powered and skewered the game balance.

    On one occasion, he ended up pretty much destroying the game, mainly due to role playing all the negatives he'd picked up to become as powerful as he was. My advice would be to push a bit more insistence on talking about the game in person before it starts. It kind of sucks, but if one player out of the group is coming to the table for a totally different experience, you might want to ask him if he's going to have fun there. He could certainly end up spoiling the fun of the other players.

    This post has gotten a bit rambly, so I'll just add a link to some more thoughts I've had on the subject...

    1. Thanks Paul. I'm certainly with you regarding good communication with the person in question. This was a group where none of the players had played together before. So one big reason why I was requiring them all to come over at some point before the game started to roll up a character with me was to chat, get to know them on an "RPG" level & see what they were after. That worked great with four of them but the fifth player, the one in question, just wouldn't come over. We wouldn't be having this conversation if he had. It'll work out - thanks for your comments.

  2. I'd start by saying that I'm with Paul on this: for the good of the game you need to make sure that the players are all going to be able to be engaged and enjoy the action. Sometimes that means asking a player to shelve a problematic character for another time, or even asking a player to sit this one out because they'll be bored with where you want to take it.

    That being said, (1) I think it's possible for RP-heavy and crunch-heavy players to get along in the same game, if everyone is aware of it and willing to work together (*with* the DM) to make sure everyone is satisfied. Lois Lane, Jimmy Olson, and Superman all exist in the same stories, after all. And (2) there's something to be said for giving a crunch-heavy player the opportunity to experience something more RP-heavy, and there's nothing I've seen here that tells me his character would be out-and-out impossible to include. Even if he doesn't have any (obvious) flaws, the way the world interacts with him is up to you, and NPCs are going to react based on what they can observe, not all the explanation the character has in his write-up. Worst case scenario he has a boring character who doesn't engage much (and that's a pretty bad scenario) but it doesn't have to destroy the game.

    The key is to make sure each players' character has an opportunity to shine in a way that is satisfactory to the player. As long as everyone at the table is happy, the relative optimizations of characters shouldn't matter.

    1. I certainly gave some hard thought to not really discussing his aggressive power-gaming efforts and, after cleaning up a number of outright rule violations involved, just playing through with the world reacting appropriately to his character despite his efforts at a background "wash & rinse". Thing was, it was the exact opposite of what I wanted to do to start this game off well. I wanted extensive appropriate backgrounds for each character (which I was fine with doing if the player didn't have time, etc.) so as to have a shot at the players caring about their characters right out of the box.

      I hated having to broach the subject over email - especially since I'd located him on the internet and we'd never met - but his approach was just too off the mark.

      I wanted him to have an opportunity to play in the game & really didn't want to ruffle his feathers - but more importantly, I decided, was protecting the game.

      Thanks for your thoughts Jack.

  3. I'm also agreeing with Paul. One of the facts I try to remind GMs of (especially new GMs) is that while the rule may be to minimize saying no to a PC in game, you need to as the GM make sure that the characters that enter the game will fit in there. That means working with the other characters as well as working with the game that is going to be run.

    If one person's character is an outlier that means bringing them into line. If the GM is the outlier, other things may need to change. The point is as the GM your job is to make sure the game has a chance of working. Even if that means not allowing a character into your game.

    1. Yup, that's really the conclusion I came to - I had to alert him to this possible conflict, even if via email, for the sake of giving the game the best chance of working. I had four other players that had dutifully come over, talked with me about they were after & done a nice job generating a character. They were all relying on me to get the game started on the right foot.

      Thanks A.L.

  4. In high school we had a regular gaming group and there was one guy (THAT guy) who defined power gaming, munchkinism, rules lawyering and being a d-bag in general. No matter which gaming system we used, he would demand that he be allowed to convert his favorite character to the system. Then, after looking over the character creation rules, he would proclaim the system was in no way equipped to handle the pure awesome of John Pengarn. The 50xmaxed out stats half human half squirrel (he's so cute nobody can attack him) nuclear powered nunchuck wielding oh-god-you-have-to-be-kidding-me ass kicker. I don't even think this could be considered power-gaming anymore. It got to the point where we would show up and proclaim him the winner and the universe collapsed on itself. Eventually we got him to tone it down a bit.

    I understand power gaming, but I've always had a problem with it. I take the "it's playing against the game and not in the spirit of the game" stance. I personally don't tolerate it very well and find myself avoiding players like that if I can. If I end up with one when I'm GMing it usually ends with a lot of hurt feelings.

    1. Those factors that you mention are a substantial part of my decision to get it out in the open before the game started. If we're going to have to "work it out" I'd rather have it happen before getting going & I definitely wanted to avoid having to deal with it during a gaming session with everyone there.

      So having let the player know a little over a week ago about this issue I still have not heard back from him. If I end up not hearing from him at all it will confirm for me that there was a significant disconnect in approaches that I did the right thing in getting it on the table early.

      Thanks Marc.