Friday, August 12, 2016

You Cannot Contain Power Players (So Try Working With Them, Instead)

Every roleplaying game out there is built on a foundation of rules. The rules decide how many points you get to spend on your attributes, how likely your attacks are to hit, what special abilities (if any) your character possesses, and how they work. And if you get a table of four players together, and you present each of them with the same options, there's going to be at least one of them who finds the right combination of abilities to make a character that's really good at his or her job. They didn't break the rules, or even twist them, but their character is definitely in the heavyweight category compared to the other players when it comes to spellcasting, skullduggery, swordplay, or any other tasks that start with "S".

These are your power players.

Time to meet the monster.
I would like to give an important piece of advice to all the DMs out there who see power players coming their way, and who try to tie them down with red tape and house rulings. Take a breath, and stop. Because whatever your power player has brought to the table, taking away one toy will just mean they go back to the toy box to find something else that will let them accomplish the same goal in a different way.

If There Are Rules, There Are Building Blocks

I'll give you a perfect example of how this situation tends to go. Mind's Eye Society, a group that ran and oversees World of Darkness LARPs, saw that too many players were building the biggest possible combat pools they could, and using these combat powerhouses to essentially take out other characters in a single hit. Instead of addressing things on the small-scale, however, the organization chose to institute a blanket ruling that put a cap on the amount of damage that could be done in a single hit.

This worked about as well as you think it would.
The theory was that if you made it impossible to build one-shot wonders, then players wouldn't use violence as a means to solve every situation. That was, of course, not what happened. Instead of building bigger brutes, some players invested in characters who could soak up inhuman amounts of punishment, since there was no cap on how much health you can have. That way they could simply outlast the other characters, tanking as much hurt as they could before walking away the victor. Other players invested in recruiting small armies of NPCs, which meant that instead of having one trigger to pull, a single player could have control of a dozen, highly-trained shooters at a time.

The point is, taking away the ability to build a character that could cave in someone's ribs and rupture their heart with a single punch didn't stop people from building combat monsters. All it did was create a detour, making players use different means to achieve the same end.

And, as a DM, that's what you're going to see if you start arbitrarily telling players who did their homework that they aren't allowed to use certain abilities, or create certain combinations. Because if the player hasn't broken any rules, it can feel like you're punishing them for being able to find, and use, the most effective options available.

Make Your Power Players Work For You

I've said it before, and I'll say it again; every game needs a Session 0. If you have a power player (or two, or three) at your table, you need to sit down with them, and listen to what they're planning on doing. If you have someone who's planned a multiclass shock trooper, capable of smashing through hordes of foes, then you need to ask yourself how that's going to gel with the game you're planning on running, and where that leaves the rest of the table. Because if the group is made up of a face man and two spellcasters, then that sort of muscle might be just what they need. But if there are already two other combat specialists, and you know they won't be able to keep up with the power player's build, then you should try to fix that.

But you don't fix it by just banging a gavel and denying one of your players a perfectly legal option. Instead, talk to them, explain that you appreciate what they're trying to make, and work with them to make something that will let them have fun, but which will help keep the game going in the direction you want, while allowing everyone else to enjoy it, too.

It doesn't seem that hard, does it?
Now, there will be some players who get offended that you'd ask them to change their concept because you feel it would be disruptive. Some players may even make a stink that you want them to "play down" to the rest of the table's level. If you present your case in a reasoned, thoughtful sort of way, and that's the reaction you get, un-invite that player to your table until they learn that this game isn't just about them, but that it's a cooperative effort among everyone.

That is the sort of understanding you need to foster, if you want a power player to give you a character that will not only do the job they were built for, but help build up the rest of the table at the same time. It takes skill, time, and dedication to learn how to match the right options together in order to build a powerful PC. But being able to do that without overshadowing anyone else, that takes cooperation, care, and more than a little help from the person behind the screen.

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  1. It's also the sort of thing online games can get stuck in if they don't know what they're doing. Nerf one powerful build, ability, or whatever, and the min-maxxers just move onto another broken combo. I can't say I blame them, because finding powerful combos is a big part of the fun of gaming for me, and RPGs are still games.

    That said, I'm still a fan of having a good story and expressing a developed character, so I don't build murder hobos. I suppose my interest in WoD is partially motivated by going through too many combat slogs in D&D and other games. If I wind up stealing the spotlight by accident, I'll happy to work with the GM to come up with situations where they can shine.

    Trouble is, I'm going to be the GM, and I know that can be tricky.

  2. everybody engages in some level of optimization. whether they optimize a character to be a reasonably competent blade dancer or to be a famous actress or the most incompetent peasant ever. some skills are vital for a given profession and likely to be possessed in decent volumes by most who practice it. of course a wizard is going to be highly intelligent, they might not have a 20+, but a 16 is likely.

  3. Another way that has worked in my Tuesday night gaming group is that the non-power-players come up with concepts, and the power-players toss together builds for them. It works especially well with new players who don't know the rules that well, who might 'ooh shiny' themselves into complete uselessness. Trying to scale down to *that* level can be actively painful for a power player who wants his character to actually be *good* at something, or at least better than the random NPC on the street.

    This can, however, have some... consequences. One of our Shadowrun group had his GF join; she wanted a 'Gunslinger' type (think Roland from The Dark Tower). Her BF had a 'Walking Armory' sniper / commando, and to 'help' her he pretty much took his starting character and erased the name. I... could not let this stand. I asked her if she'd like me to take a shot at it.

    And built her... well... Roland (okay, a petite female version of Roland). I can't think of anything else to describe someone who can reload two six-shooters with one action in Shadowrun, and has decent odds of shooting people's eyes out with pistols at max range.

    Now, she didn't have the 'endless variety of weapons' her BF had, she didn't wear an armored combat suit, she wasn't loaded down with ninety pounds of gear and ammo...

    But she was a Gunslinger. As requested.

    We've done that with another player, except since he had a little more experience with the system, instead of building a character to his spec, I showed him how to build the type of character he wants and be effective at it. Game 1 - he built his character, was sorta-effective but got trounced by mine. Game 2 - he asked for help and I built to spec, but showed him how I does what I does. Game 3 - he laid out the spec and built, with me playing 'safety net' to avoid limited-resource-wasteful build options. Game 4 - he built to spec with maybe one comment, and his character is the best there is at what he does (for our level and build rules, anyhow).

  4. I came across this story on facebook where a friend of mine posted on your wall. I cant post on your wall, so I am posting here. Your comments here and the comments on facebook tell me that your own opinions on how to play are what is directing you to make these recommendations. You refer to rules as tools. You choose to describe "Power Gamers" as those that know the rules and the GMs that create problems in organized playing being those that dont know the rules. This tells me that to you, the rules is the game, not the means that the game is played.

    Overall, your friend's comments on your wall is the best recommendation. You dont play with people who let rules be their reasons for breaking game play after GMs try to change their behavior to allow the game to work. Read a number of GM manuals and you will notice that there is a consensus that Power Players are a type of player that causes problems. I would venture to say you disagree with that thesis because you are one.

    If you are a power player that listens to your GM and changes your character build to fit the table, then thats good. I have run into that, but I have also run into the other. Your recommendation and that of your friend's on Facebook is to not play with them. That ignores the situation where you cant stop playing with them, because the relationship is more than the game. So to that end, I want to know other ways to deal with Power Players.

    1. I think I may be able to answer at least a bit of this, though it might not necessarily be the most favored of opinions.

      I recommend working with the other players to "amp up" their style, or do small buffs and nerfs within complex systems, on a "per character/per story" basis. Here is the story of how I tried this. I had two hard core power players, two average/casual players, and one person new to the system. The new girl in this one wanted to play a rogue in Pathfinder without any magic. Due to the inherent balance of the game, I knew that this would be impossible to balance in a high-magic setting where one of the power gamers could essentially one-player-run most dungeons that were within the rogues damage and health capabilities. That is, rogues are just bad in Pathfinder, and are made continually worse with each enhancement to another class.

      To balance out for what she couldn't do because the system hated her class, I made some changes to the class itself to let her character do well. Whereas she didn't have abilities to do much beyond sneak attack, I gave her unique bolts, gadgets, and alchemical things that she could purchase in-game. Anyone could have used them, of course, but I made them illegal (and thus more in line with here criminal character). I also used a 3'rd Party method of sneak attack, adding a static damage modifier of +3 rather than 1d6 (just below average damage) so that her sneak attacks could be more reliable. She also played more of a central part in the plot, to keep her invested even when she didn't know what she would be doing.

      My average Joes were building for concept, not power, and needed some help because of things not normally allowed in the system. Things that I wouldn't have given to the power players, because they could have used them to full effect, and I couldn't risk that. In short, though, I turned one of them into something akin to a WoW enhancement shaman, and another of them was allowed to use something 3'rd Party because it fit him.

      The two power players got to play their concepts, with some minor changes here and there, but ultimately ended up being the highest tier in terms of tanking (my buddy) and damage (my brother), but that was fine, because they had experience enough to power play without metagaming (where they even lost out of combat benefits to roleplay, willingly).

      The moral of this very long-winded story is that to balance for power players, you have two options. You can either nerf them until they pick something else, or you can correct for it by strengthening the enemies AND your other players. For what it is worth, the game did fall apart anyways due to a personal falling out between the new girl and her boyfriend, but that's a different story. Point is, you can fix things as long as you are willing to bend the rules every now and again for the sake of fun, and I personally feel that power playing is just a thing going to happen when a system is imbalanced enough to let it happen.

    2. I think a large thing is, it is just that.
      A lot of people deemed 'power players' are simply more familiar with rules / systems than other people.

      As a long time player and long time GM, I tend to know what to look for, how to eke out the most to achieve what I want.
      This is generally something silly, but on paper it always seems like I have a LOT, especially compared to the people that either haven't had the experience, or aren't inclined to read *everything* and just want a simple build.

      Now this is fine - I've simply used the rules provided to achieve my goal, as the rest of the party has to achieve theirs.
      We all play the game, we all have fun - just the GM often groans a bit at some of the madness I do.

      The trick is to balance it so everyone has fun.