Friday, April 28, 2017

Elitism and Hardcore Play

I stumbled across this article about Overwatch team balance and how there has developed an entire roster of 'less desirable' characters. And them "meta" which is the current play-style intended to maximize the chances of winning. An example of that? this is a good one:

And then I got to thinking of Pathfinder and character builds. I run a game where "you play what you want" and if you pick some non-optimized, my-favorite, sort of 'free love' build where you are a fan of a non-optimal class - you can play that. I will adjust the adventure so you have a chance to shine, like if you want to play a shape-shifting druid and have a chance to make your animal form matter in the adventure. Things will be cool. Build what you want. I can adjust.

It is the power-gamers that I have more of a problem with, to be honest. Especially in a group comprised of new and experienced players. You know, the ones who come in expecting to do MAX DPS and build a character off a forum post, and then have their character swagger in with the PWN-age confidence of that same forum post into my world.

I can do 250 hit points of damage per turn with this build!

My first reaction, as a dungeon master, to that sort of attitude is to knock them down a little. I am sorry, I just can't stand it, and I am probably a worse DM for feeling and saying that. In a pen-and-paper game, I can find a million ways to kill off a single-trick pony build, because the character build is typically only good at one thing.

Sure, your mage or archer or whatever can do sick amounts of damage, and then the evil gnome living in the back of my dungeon master's mind is going to say, "hit them with a poison trap behind an illusion, and then drop in a monster into the party's rear rank where LoS is going to be blocked."

And a part of me hates that feeling of playing against some of the players. I really do because it is ultimately unfair and targets someone for their rules knowledge or design skills (versus the rest of the group). But if I present everything as a straight up fight to a group of mew-players and min-max'ers, you know what is going to happen. The min-max'ers are going to absolutely own the encounter, that archer is going to finish off the encounter in two or three turns, and the rest of the party will be sitting there feeling the following:
  • My character sucks
  • I could not contribute
I love min-max'ing too myself in games, especially in video games where there isn't other people to upset - just the computer and me, But when there is other people involved, I get this feeling that min-max'ing is just being selfish and hurts the group more than it does the monsters. As a player in a group, I would rather design a well-rounded character when I play with others, especailly in a group of new players. I don't want to show off or outshine them, because all that does is make them feel bad and make me look good. I feel selfish when my character blows through the encounter and the other players are all sitting there wondering why their characters couldn't contribute.

Hardcore Play

There is a special case when you get a group of players that are entirely min-maxers, and you get into this death-match mentality with them that (as a DM) I find as a different level of enjoyment. If they are all min-max-ing - then all bets are off. I am going to find a weakness in your defenses and exploit it, because that is what you are trying to do to my adventure. And that is what, frankly, is what a player rolling a min-max'ed character is going to expect.

As a min-max'er myself, at times, I want to be challenged. I want my build's weaknesses exposed and take advantage of. I want my 'perfect build' to fail spectacularly against the evil dungeon master. I want it tough, and I am betting my character can survive your worst. As a player, I love that feeling, and it is a thrill to me.

There is, and I am not ashamed to say this, a fun in that style of play. Using the rules to your advantage. Knowing a rule better than the DM, and then as a DM, admitting defeat and saying "I have learned something," letting the player have that victory, and getting on with the next encounter. You know, really hardcore, competitive play that absolutely uses 100% of the rules to their limit, deadly traps, unfair encounters, the rules matter, and seat-of-your pants play.

And then smiling and thanking the players for dropping by today, and realizing we all love this hobby so much that we appreciate every chance we get to play together. Even in the "hardcore" style of play I like sometimes where players and the DM are in this hyper-competitive state, I like the thrill and the competition of the game. I want new players, if they so choose, to be able to join us in that elite club.

But not an elitist club.

If you played Warhammer Fantasy Battle or 40K competitively you know what I mean. There is this expectation, "When you come to the table, bring it." A good opponent with a great army is hard to find, and it is a joy playing against them. Someone who knows the rules well is a treat to fight, and especially one who takes the time to explain things to a newer player - despite the match taking longer than it should. I respect those players and love fighting them, since they bring out the best in me. My best build, my best sportsmanship, and the best fights on the table no matter who wins or loses.

But I feel there is a time to tone it down.

With new players at the table just looking to experience an adventure, I can shift gears and adjust to casual play. A good min-max player can sense this too and relax, build a whatever never-tried before fantasy character, and have fun as well in that setting. It is the players who continue to min-max in a mixed casual-hardcore group like that, who have no sense of toning it down, who tend to get on my nerves. Sometimes we are all here to have fun and not try to outwit each other, because we have some people playing that don't know the game as well. Chill. Tone it down. Have fun and play something you never would.

Maybe some of those new players will start to get the itch, and want to play in a hardcore game. We can move them up to that level later, and foster another elite player out of them. Welcome to the club, and I will do my best to challenge you.