This is not what I intended to write about today. This is what happens when you read other blogs before you start writing your own for the day… In particular, I read a post at Gothridge Manor, Just Above Suck.
Now, I don’t know the poster — and I know this was meant in good spirits — but if a DM said that to me, like that when I was a new player — I’d have been a little crushed. That’s not really true, but I would probably have been deflated. But this is a default setting in some games that presents a particular set of challenges and expectations.
Over the years I have realized that I don’t like to start out at “Suck.” Don’t get me wrong, I think that (for example) D&D 4e went way too far towards making me a superhero for my taste. But this has been on my mind because I’ve been struggling a little with this as I’ve been designing my own romantic fantasy game. There are two connected thoughts here and they are also connected to what I meant to write about today so I will not feel as guilty about skipping out on myself…
1. In many stories, the hero/heroes don’t start at suck… they start at “I’ve had a life before what I do now.” And while this could easily be expressed in many of the D&D-style games, it is difficult to completely reconcile in level-based advancement because of the way the curve needs to develop. But the hero, who may not be able to fight well, or cast spells, or whatever they want to do, may still be a smooth talker, a great tracker, or an accomplished archer, or well, whatever — and it is not easily replicable in typical RPG advancement schemes.
My feeling on the “why” of this is that — because most resolution mechanics are effectively just math problems — RPGs reward specialization too much. I might start the game with my “build” tuned towards being a great archer, but the game creates little reason why I’d then choose to broaden my skill set. In fact, since monster defenses/armor values, etc. tend to rise, being a skilled combatant in a variety of weapons pales when compared to being a hyper-specialist in one.
This is also the problem with all the “fiddly-bits” choices in games like Pathfinder. It’s great that I have a base class, feats, skills, traits, and possibly multi-class and even prestige classes (along with my adventuring Gear)… but since I know I have to remain mathematically competitive to be useful to my party, then it’s better for me to follow the path of specialization over general competence. I always want to put my best foot forward and my “best foot” can always be the same foot. There is no reward for generalizing and a lot of rewards for specializing. This is a thought I want to expand on so I’ll come back to it again (and how it interacts with character growth/advancement) but I want to mention another point as well.
(To attempt to be a little more clear on this point: The problem is that players don’t want to have their choices marginalized either. So if I choose to specialize and be a “Super Archer” then the game should not take that away from me. If I occasionally run into a specific encounter where being a Super Archer doesn’t help, well, that’s okay — but most of the time I should be rewarded for my build — not penalized — because I did it “right.” It’s a self-fulfilling trap though because this means that encounters then reward player builds, which further encourages specialized builds. I have an elaborate Shadowrun-based example running through my head right now, but I think I have have beaten this point enough.)
2. In many stories, the “PCs” don’t all start out at the Same Level or built on the same points. This is always a problem. Balance between players is important. You don’t want to feel marginalized by someone else’s PC at the table. That makes sense. I don’t go to my games for it to be, “that other guy’s show.” It’s also a problem based on the “math problem” nature of games… If I have PCs in my game that are level 2, 4, 7, and 9 it is very difficult to challenge them well without simply destroying the poor level 2 guy or making the level 9 god feel like a god. It can be done and I’ve played in and run mixed level D&D groups with varying amounts of success but it is not really the expected mode of play.
But again, those characters in the stories are not all the same level. Look back at the Fellowship. The hobbits might be 0-level at the start. Boromir is a long-accomplished battle captain. Aragorn a slightly mystical ranger. Legolas and Gimli are experienced warriors of their respective races. Heck, at one point Frodo gets handed a couple of pretty awesome pieces of gear (Sting and the mithrail mail) while the other three hobbits still have somebody’s old daggers. In a point-buy system, that’s suddenly problematic because one PC just received a large influx of points that no one else did.
And yes, you could always say that the Hobbits are the PCs and everyone else is an NPC — but — that’s a pretty heavy hand by the DM then. Ultimately, the problem is still that the PC group (in stories) is not usually so homogenous a group of “we suck” newbs.
Ultimately, these are challenges that I don’t see getting much traction on. Resolution mechanics use math. Players like to have balance between them in the party (just look at god-wizard and striker envy). But I don’t want to suck. I want to be awesome. And even if I’m not the best right out of the gate (that would be boring I think) I still want to feel like a person with a past, with skills, who can do Stuff well — even if it’s not the focus of the game.
Thanks for reading… next, a (hopefully) more polished post about what I MEANT to write about today.