Gaming My Way

26 Nov

Powergaming: Good or Bad

While I was over at Nameless Kingdom Tabletop Gaming a day or two ago, I came across a post, A Gamemaster in Defense of Powergamers, which happens to be a topic I’m very interested in. In his post, he seems to feel that powergamers are generally perceived in a negative light, and that powergaming is very much a good thing. Check it out, as he has some valuable views on the subject, though I think he may overestimate how much people dislike powergaming.

As for my own views, in my experience, views on powergaming vary from group to group, and there are a lot of people on both sides of this fence. Most people feel there’s a line somewhere, and label anyone powergaming beyond that point a munchkin. My feeling is that if you’re playing within the rules of the game and making an effective character, you’re powergaming. If you’re abusing the rules in ways that are clearly not intended, but the writers used poor or inconsistent language, you’re straying into the realm of the munchkin. Think Pun-Pun and the Omniscificer for D&D builds that constitute rules abuse and munchkinry. They are fun thought exercises though, I have to admit.

Anyway, I know quite a few people who are cool with powergaming. Even most roleplayers I know are okay with it as long as you’ll roleplay your character, and since it is a roleplaying game, that’s to be expected anyway. Well, unless you’ve opted for a hack and slash style game at least.

While the piece above does cover a number of issues some people take with powergaming, there’s one more that I’d like to bring up now. That is, there are some extremely hardcore roleplayers who consider powergaming to be a form of metagaming. In their view, abilities should be chosen based on character history, rather than what is effective.

As an example, a sorcerer who used to fence with his warrior brothers when he was younger should definitely pick up a martial weapon proficiency with the rapier to represent this in the eyes of the extreme roleplayer. I would say it’s cool if a player wants to do this, but seriously, if you want to scrap that feat for something that will actually help you about ten levels down the road, I’m not going to make you change your backstory or think you’re less of a roleplayer. I’m going to think you’re building an effective character. As for how to explain why you aren’t so good with the rapier, perhaps you just didn’t pick it up as well as your brother did. Maybe it’s been awhile since you’ve used it. Maybe you did learn to use it, and the penalty is just there mechanically and you handwave it for the story because the game is about telling a story first, and the mechanics just help determine outcomes. Besides, at tenth level, even with a non-proficiency penalty, a sorcerer would still be better with a rapier than most commoners would be, so you could even say he retained his knowledge of how to use the weapon, then focused on other areas. Since this is a roleplaying game, creativity can go a long way to explain things that don’t quite fit, particularly if it’s just fitting mechanics to the story, or the story to the mechanics.

Of course, there are issues with powergaming, even though I like to encourage it. If some players are better at optimizing than others are, then you can end up with a lopsided party. This can lead to player frustration when the most optimized character always gets the spotlight. This can be incredibly difficult to deal with as a gamemaster. You don’t want to ask the powergamer to nerf themselves in order to let everyone else shine, but you also want everyone else to be able to shine along with the powergamer.

Recently, in talking with a player for a new campaign I plan to run soon, I came up with a new solution to this problem. Give the other players magic items that boost them to the level of power they need to be at in order to keep up. Obviously, you don’t just blatantly add them to the players’ character sheets. You work them into the story, or slide them into the loot and make sure they get to the players they’re intended to get to. This can require a lot of subtlety, tact, and a bit of manipulation, unless you work this arrangement out with the players ahead of time. In a system like World of Darkness, this is quite easy to work out. It just happens and is part of the story. In games like D&D, where wealth is tied to character power, this really still shouldn’t be an issue, but if anyone wants to nitpick about wealth-by-level, it could be. If this happens, just tell everyone the purpose of the extra items, and hopefully all will be well. If not, well, there might be other issues that need to be worked out in your group.

The advantage to having players who powergame is that they are likely to have a wide variety of options at their disposal, particularly if the entire group is good at optimizing. This will let you throw lots of varied challenges at the group, which will keep things new and fresh, instead of the same old stale scenario over and over again. Of course, they can also catch you off guard with solutions you hadn’t considered to a problem you came up with for them, which will leave you needing to think on your feet quickly about a new plotline, or how to extend the current plot for a bit. The players may even drag the plot in a direction you hadn’t considered before. Either way, make sure their actions retain significance when you do this, otherwise they won’t feel like their actions mean anything.

You can probably tell that in general, I think powergaming is a great way of playing and running a campaign. Sure, there are challenges to deal with, but with some preparation and a bit of thinking on the fly, a good GM ought to be able to handle them in a decent manner.


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