Pen and paper RPG’s are not my only nerdy hobby. I’m also an avid (way too avid sometimes) computer and video gamer. Once you stop to think about it, you can really see how these two otherwise mutually exclusive hobbies have affected each other a lot in the last twenty years or so. And one side has gained a lot more from this than the other.
Let’s start with video games. It’s obvious that games have integrated more and more elements from RPG’s over the years. Every giant multiplayer shooter now allows your character to level up and collect gear – in fact a lot of games in many genres include RPG elements these days and that’s without even discussing roleplaying video games, which is a genre that’s ever increasing in popularity and sophistication with many of the most revered AAA titles and franchises of the last decade or so being outright CRPG’s.
Looking at the top 10 sellers on Steam for the last week (as this is written), more than half are either RPG’s or have significant RPG elements.
And is it any wonder? An overwhelming majority of game designers are either former or active pen and paper players. Simply put, RPG’s and their players have been an enormous boon for video gaming.
As for the influence of video games on RPG’s, the picture gets a lot murkier. I know that video games have influenced recruiting a lot, most beginning players I meet these days came from video games and wanted to try something new. It also helps for visualisation, many now create their characters in a video game format, either in their mind or physically.
But looking back on the last two decades, and especially since the unleashing of World of Warcraft (Full disclosure: I deeply despise that game), many have felt the creeping influence of incessant min-maxing and power-gaming.
Now, I really have no problem with a degree of power gaming. There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to get the most out of your abilities, especially if that is also coupled with an interesting, well played character. But when a character becomes nothing more than statistics on a piece of paper that just revolves around milking all the power, I have an issue.
Maybe I’m wrong, and I’m certainly not claiming that power gamers only came along with video gaming, but I’m absolutely certain that it became a lot more common. Computer RPG’s generally benefit from this mindset, but in pen and paper games this makes characters extremely boring one trick ponies that can diminish the experience for other players.
In my last campaign, one of my players made a character very much like this. I should state that this player is very, very good at planning a character. In this case, way too good. He ruined the curve. Everything he did was almost certain to succeed at maximum efficiency and there was nothing I could do about that without cheating and I don’t like to do that. Some of the other players also had very well designed characters – that had normal success rates, some things worked and some didn’t. As it should be. But because of the quite frankly massively overpowered character, some of them felt that their characters were weak or poorly designed, and they really were not. Even with my experience, I never found an effective solution without cheating or singling out one player, and I strongly feel a GM should do neither thing.
Relentless min-maxers generally have to build their characters with a weakness or two, otherwise their idea will not work.
I have already stated in another article that I think an interesting character is far more important than his or her backstory and the same applies to a character’s power. But I do feel that the most interesting things about powerful characters are their weaknesses. Is the greatest swordsman in the land weak-willed? Is the most learned wizard a frail and sickly person? Does the Iron Titan of Bazal-Ghül have a tiny rusted weak spot on the top of his head?
When perusing the boards for the various systems I follow, the most popular topics always seem to be how to squeeze the most power out of the numbers. I very rarely see anything about the character in these discussions. I think society play has been completely ruined by min-maxing. Perhaps I’m just getting old.
I say you should cherish your character’s weaknesses and build on them in no lesser way than his or her strengths. A good player makes those words and numbers on a piece of paper a living, interesting character.
And once again, if you’re not all having fun, you ain’t doin’ it right.