Monday, August 22, 2016

"Wasted Points" vs. "Power Gaming"

In the gaming groups I've been a part of over the years, these two concepts have come up time and time again. They are almost always in opposition to each other too.  In the one camp you have players who sink points into abilities and attributes that will never matter to them or the character because they like it, want it, or think it adds interesting depth to the character. On the other hand you have people who want their character to do the things they want them to do, and don't put points into anything else. Looking at it from a pure mechanics point, you have someone who is wasting points and power, versus someone falling into the munchkin camp. Today I want to talk about that a little bit. Not to judge, but just to understand.

Everyone Is Dangerously Beautiful
In Legend of Five Rings the most common place I see 'wasted' points is with the Dangerous Beauty advantage. Dangerous Beauty is 3 points (2 if you're a Scorpion) in the current edition. Mechanically it gives you a benefit to temptation rolls to seduce a target. I see Dangerous Beauty at least once per game or group of 4 characters I see in L5R, and yet, in the now 10+ years I've been running and playing L5R I can count on one hand the number of characters who have actually used Dangerous Beauty to add dice to temptation rolls, or to even attempt seduction attempts.

Why is it so common? Because people want their character to be beautiful. They don't want to be a seductor/seductress but they want their character to be the kind of beauty that comes around once in a generation. I've had people describe their Dangerous Beauty as specifically not being the "seductive" kind of beauty, despite the fact it is the only thing (mechanically) the advantage does.

Nothing in the rules says you can't be the most beautiful face to ever grace Rokugan without spending the 3 XP to get Dangerous Beauty. Nothing says that a character with Dangerous Beauty is more beautiful than one without. And yet, I've seen both arguments made and they're hard to disagree with. After all, shouldn't the person who spent points to be pretty be more pretty than the person who didn't?

The actual answer to that comes down to the GM for the game and the variant of Rokugan being played out at your table, but it is worth considering. At its core, Dangerous Beauty only costs points because it mechanically helps you with seduction rolls - which in game can be used to get court and espionage wins. This is backed up by the fact that the Scorpion (a clan known for having numerous seductresses and seductors) gets a discount on the cost, as opposed to the Crane who are just generally regarded as being beautiful people. Heck, the Scorpion frequently wear masks that hide their face making it hard to tell if they are truly gorgeous or just very fit. So which way do you play it?

Even if you, as the GM, said that DB just means you know how to use your beauty to be seductive some players will still buy it to be pretty (I know, someone did in my game.) So is it that player wasting points? Is it a way of adding depth to the character? Obviously if the player wants it it's not necessarily wasted, but would you think the same thing if instead of Dangerous Beauty we were talking about "Great Potential: Kenjutsu" (you're a genius talent sword fighter) on a character that would never hold a sword? What about Crafty (you're adept at using low skills like stealth and sleight of hand) on a high honor character that will never do anything even remotely underhanded?

My own feelings are stronger about those than with Dangerous Beauty, but that could just be because I've normalized to Dangerous Beauty being around everywhere. Undoubtedly it adds flavor to the character, but does that flavor need mechanical representation to be present in the story? I'm not sure.

I Want To Be The Very Best
I've read countless discussions about players min-maxing their builds, or "munchkining" their characters to be as mechanically powerful in a specific area as they can be. This comes in every way from choosing a family not associated with a school in L5R to get the better stat bonuses, to the very concept of "dump stats" and looking for abilities/feats/powers that synergize well with each other to make something truly ridiculous. The thing most of those discussions don't touch on though is why the player is doing those builds. The assumption is the person just wants to be powerful to the detriment of the game, but is that the case?

I've asked some people I know who play like that, and I've read anecdotes about it from others. The answer that comes up a lot - that aren't wanting to test it out - is that "failing sucks" or the player wants to engage with specific aspects of the game, and they want to do that well. In other words, failing sucks.

This isn't a new sentiment. It sucks when your Rank 8 Sword Saint whiffs blow after blow in a fight. It sucks when your level 10 rogue can sneak past a bunch of level 2 guards. It sucks when your courtier makes social faux pas after social faux pas because the dice are against you. Failing sucks, and it sucks so much that entire aspects of the RPG Industry are making games designed around mitigating failure to try and help people not have to munchkin a build to feel adequate.

But lets look at the munchkined character from another angle. Why do we not like these characters? The most common answers I find are: they make it hard to balance encounters around, and they are shallow characters that lack depth. The first one is a legitimate concern, but it is part of GMing a game and it may just be something to warn the players about. Sometimes a character gets to the point that a threat to them will obliterate someone else, but that doesn't mean you can't challenge that character. The second reason is more worrying.

While I won't argue that no min-maxed character is shallow, cardboard, or two dimensional, I will argue that the failure of said character to be appealing is not because of their build. It's because of the player - and in some cases, the GM.

Don't believe me? Look to film and other media. Inigo Montoya is useless without a sword in his hand. He is as one dimensional - mechanically - as they come. He is an interesting character with an interesting story because we see him vulnerable, and we hear a story we can relate to. Wolverine is basically just a combat monster in comics, but has captured the hearts of thousands of comic fans. Why? He has a story that gives him depth in who he kills, who he doesn't kill, and his quest to find out who he is.

A character being flat has nothing to do with their build. It has everything to do with the player playing them, and the world they're being played in. So if you're worried a character is flat, ask yourself if your game is conducive to bringing out that depth? If all that the players can do in your game is kill things, collect loot, and buy better gear then don't be surprised when that is all they start to do. If you make no room for them to change the world, establish character, make friends and enemies, then they won't. If you make that room and the character is still flat, then it is time to look at the player. Are they being challenged right? Are they being engaged? Do they just want to relax and blitz combat? Maybe they're not right for the game you are running.

Either way though, the problem isn't with the build - or even the type of person who makes that kind of build. It's with the individual or the game if a character is flat.

Your thoughts?


  1. I have a player who powergames to GREAT effect, his characters are a work of art in using all the rules to get the most out of XP. But he also really knows how to make them interesting and the stories for his characters write themselves and usually bring the other characters along. If it's done right, these types of characters can indeed be vastly entertaining. In the hand of other players who just want to fight, they would break the game.

    So yeah, I do agree with you here.

    1. Yeah. This post was less about me trying to convince folks as get my thoughts down. I've played the min-maxed out fighter type (accidentally, both times hillariously) and it was a lot of fun but I also made sure the character was compelling from that angle too.

      I guess the point of this was more to just think about things in text.

  2. My players tend to go for stats/skills that fit their character, not the other way around, even though they all are rabid (online) gamers where they min/max the shit out of everything. I'm not entirely certain how I managed to create this way of gaming with them even though they're absolutely the worst type of min-maxers in other games, but I do encourage them to do so.

    Also, after a lot of trouble with a cheater (who has left my group a while back), I've completely changed the way I GM when it comes to dicerolls. Both exceptionally high rolls and exceptionally low rolls tend to have iiiinteresting elements added to them, while mediocre rolls are just that, mediocre. Except that doesn't happen all the time either. For example, last session one of the PC's cast a spell to stop an demonic assassin from attacking another PC. His roll was only mediocre, but I managed to critically fail my roll... So of course I described how the assassin was distracted by the feel of the other PC's hair and touch on his body (he lacked eyes and therefore sight) as they were grappling. The other PC's player was utterly and completely disgusted by the result, so of course she continued to behead him almost immediately while he couldn't struggle. And why was the assassin so enamoured by the other PC? Well, she had my campaign's version of the Dangerously Beauty advantage of course, which is basically her most important non-combat skill. The other players were in stitches as the PC's 'sexyness' accidentally helped the PC trying to help her.

    As I want my players to take advantages (and disadvantages) that add flavour to their characters and are not necessarily instantly advantageous, I go out of my way to add ways for them to use said skills and advantages, and add ways in which those flavours can change an event simply because a PC who has these advantages/disadvantages is present even if the player doesn't think of it. After doing that for a while, I find my players look quite differently at their character-sheets and try to come up with wacky ways their skills and abilities interact with each other and the environment. By rewarding creative thought instead of 'lucky rolls' as a GM, I think I've taught them not to rely on the dicerolls to 'win' but to see it as a way to add more flavour to the game. It's never a waste of points in my game, unless you refuse to use what you've chosen to add on your sheet yourself. At which point I allow them to change it for something they do like, actually.

    1. This is a really good way to handle it as a GM, and what I think players want to happen when they do stuff like throw Dangerous Beauty on their Lawful Good Paladin with a chastity vow. They want their looks to come into the equation in ways. Maybe getting them in trouble some places, bt mostly helping them. I mean, you can make an entrance, or you can make an Entrance with Dangerous Beauty.

      I think how you used it is also part of where FATE got Aspects from. Sure, my character being super pretty can be used to seduce people. But maybe I could also use it elsewhere?

      It's a great way to use it. And it's a fun way to reward it.

  3. As a player I generally min/max towards the aspect of the game I'm least interested. With systems with overly complex combat there is little room for creativity, which leads to my tendency to make combat monsters just to make combat as short as possible. I'm fine not being very competent in other aspects of the game because failures in the part of the game I find interesting are not nearly so painful to me.

    1. That's a really unique answer I hadn't heard before. It also makes sense.