Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A Look at Powergaming

Only once has anyone called me a powergamer to my face. And I took it badly. It's a term generally considered to be insulting in gaming circles--but it's also a term that is ill defined and essentially meaningless.

Most folks think that a powergamer is someone who maximizes his character to optimize in-game (usually combat) effectiveness. But does anyone think about the reason for the optimization?

In traditional RPGs, the player has only one way to affect the game--through his character. So a player that wants to be able to direct some events during play (particularly if the GM is adversarial) has no recourse but to craft his character to be effective in the areas that he wants to have a say in. If we're talking about a game like D&D, where there is a very real risk of random charcter death, it only follows that players will want to bullet-proof their characters.

Sure, there are probably players who want to maximize their characters so that they can disrupt the game, but I don't thik this is the common case. I think most folks are like me: they've had the rules or the GM burn them in the past and so they insulate themselves by carefully deciding what's important for the character an fortifying it accordingly. It is the games and bad GMs that have taught people that this is needed--that they are powerless to control events without some mechanical advantage.

Take a game like Dogs in the Vineyard, where things are mechanically important because you, the player, decide that they are, and there isn't any need for powergaming. Get into something even more kooky like Capes, and you'd be hard pressed to powergame even if you really wanted to.

And anyway, most of the folks who complain about powergamers are GMs who are upset because a player made his character in a way that interferes with the preordained plot that he (the GM) has been working up for months.

Bottom line: give players the power to affect the story in meaningful ways and the issue of powergaming becomes immaterial.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think powergaming is about playing to win. This means your PC ending up with the best gear, the highest scores, solving the mystery, delivering the killing blow. Character maximisation is only just one aspect of that. A mark of a powergamer is that even when the group is split they'll be trying to have their character involved in both sets of action.

Even in games like Dogs in the Vinyard or Capes, such players will try to choose skills for their players that have a much wider range of applicability or some edge over other skills. Even in Hero Quest where skills are all mecanichally equivalent they'll still be trying to grind out some edge. I witness it every week in my group.

I'm not sure there's a solution in the mechanics. On the other hand, if powergaming is what they enjoy, then I say give it to them.

Thursday, May 12, 2005 1:39:00 AM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

Thanks for the comment Steve!

I can see what you're saying. As i said, the term powergaming is ill defined and is used to mean any number of things by any number of folks.

Your definition makes as much sense as any, and it indicates something that can indeed be disruptive.

But here's a question for you, why do you think your players developed this behavior? I'd be willing to bet that they didn't have it built in when they started gaming. I think something taught them that they needed the edge to enjoy the game. Was it a lack of control in-game? I dunno, but that's my generalized theory.

Thursday, May 12, 2005 8:20:00 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Let's look at the following three words:

And decide if these things are identical or not. My argument is that, in common parlance, they are, but that we can make some important distinctions.

More in a bit.


Thursday, May 12, 2005 8:35:00 AM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

Welcome aboard, Ben!

Part of my original point (that I didn't back up very well) was that powergaming is a broken term. People use it to describe pretty much any role-playing behavior that they don't like. Same goes for minimaxing and munchkin. The other part of my point was that behavior that is classified with the term may or may not be disruptive and that "disruptive" may also be open to interpretation.

In this geek's opinion the word we should be defining is disruptive (in the context of role-playing).

To me, a player is being disruptive when (and only when) he does things that intentionally take the fun out of play. I know, big broad definition. There are many techniques that can get you to disruptive. Those techniques are, IMHO, what those terms are trying to identify.

Thursday, May 12, 2005 8:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think for a long while (late 80's - 90's) rule systems were considered vulger. Instead of having Nar systems , people tried to get to Nar by pretending the Sim rules weren't there. Hence powergamers, rule lawers, etc. (i.e., people that actually worked with the rules and took the rules seriously) were looked down on.

Of course, (quoting gb) "such players will try to choose skills that have ...some edge over other skills." That's working with the game system. And that's a good thing.

Where it goes all wrong is some form of "my character is better than yours, so I'm a better person than you". That's what I consider munchkining.

Saturday, May 14, 2005 12:32:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

Welcome eef.

Also, there are the folks bring the wrongness with "I know the system better than you, so I'm a better player than you."

There are many ways in which gamers with personal issues can use the game as a way to lash out. They often don't even know they're doing it.

Saturday, May 14, 2005 2:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my experiences as a player have taught me that death can come totally without any chance of intervention.

in an old warcraft/chrono trigger-derived rpg called Quest, i went through more characters than anybody. but the deaths suffered by my ill-fated characters (crushed by an Earth spell, smashed against a rock by an ogre, zapped accidentally by a Lightning spell) were totally beyond their control. this actually made me *really* resentful, but it didn't make me a power-gamer. rather, it made me dislike my gamemaster, but it made me no more competitive or ruthless than i was before.
i think that "power gaming" merges flawlessly with gamism, given how i see these concepts. gamism is about winning and losing, and power gaming is about using the rules to maximum advantage (given the assumption that one can win the game one's playing).
nothing wrong with power-gaming OR gamism, of course, but when we as GMs are really pushing Nar, one power-gamer (dysfunctional or not) can seem like a huge headache.

Sunday, May 22, 2005 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

Hey, Bob, you're illustrating my point for me. You seem to attach the tern "power-gamer" to what you describe as healthy gamist play. I don't personally think that's an applicable use of the term.

In fact, I'd like to propose to anyone who'll listen that we, as gamers, stop using terms like power-gamer, muchkin, twinkie, etc. Particularly to describe real people that we know. If there is a problem with the way someone is playing, let's just realize that it is dysfunctional behavior and try to fix it with assigning blame or names. Using the names just adds to the dysfunction.

Sunday, May 22, 2005 11:33:00 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I ended up posting my follow-up at my own blog, here: Loving the Minimax

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 7:13:00 AM  

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