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Sympathy For The Devil

by Steve Dempsey

In which the author explains that what we need is a great big melting pot


There is an evil that stalks roleplaying and its name is powergaming. Sometimes also known as 'munchkins', powergamers are those players whose main interest in the game is to beef up their character to ridiculous heights. They want the most powerful magic items, the biggest guns, the most cash or the biggest blood pool. Usually at the expense of the other players' enjoyment, too.

This sometimes even goes as far as cheating. It does seem a strange concept in a game which supposedly has no winners, but we all have tales of someone who turns up for a game with a character possessing the maximum in each characteristic and all the killer magical items. They also make dice rolls behind their hand and seem to roll criticals an awful lot.

It's too easy just to mock or dismiss powergaming, though: we should examine its cause and its place in the hobby. In order to understand where this kind of behaviour comes from, I thought I would look at my motivations for roleplaying. As gamemastering is slightly different, for this article I'll just concentrate on why I want to be a player in a game.

There is a strong social element to roleplaying. It is not a game that you can play on your own (you'd go blind) so for anyone who wants to play they must have an interest in meeting other people. Generally this also means, at least early on in one's roleplaying career, meeting new people, as roleplayers are hardly thick on the ground.

Almost all roleplaying involves a measure of escapism. On the whole we don't play to analyse great philosophical or social problems (although some attempts, misguided in my view, have been made at this, notably by White Wolf). Almost all the games take place in some imaginary place or time with fantastical elements such as magic or FTL travel.

I also enjoy the intellectual stimulation of challenges, puzzles and the excitement of action and battles. This is similar to the thrill of reading a good whodunit or watching a film like Predator. If the tension is well managed and the tasks pitched at a level that is challenging but still achievable then the effect is very enjoyable.

Finally, I also get a real kick out of the dramatic aspects of roleplaying. I enjoy acting the part of somebody else, getting to do and say things that would normally be out of character. What's more, if the game allows for character growth and development then one can become quite attached to a PC that has been around for sometime. We all remember those great campaigns where, after starting off as a low level wizard with two hit points, you eventually get to a stage, after ages of hiding from monsters and creatively using inappropriate spells, where even the mightiest demons cower from your death magic.

These reasons of mine are in no particular order, and I'm sure you can relate to all of them. The powergamer then is easily understood: they are a gamers for whom the last goal is the one that dominates. The accumulation of power, be it through PC characteristics or the amassing of magical or high tech equipment is their main motivation. A simple desire to be the best of the best, the scariest vampire, the hardest fighter; in essence, to win.

You may have thought that roleplaying had no winners, but that is not so. First off, there is the joint goal of the adventure: defeating the evil corporation or mad wizard, but I'm not even talking about that. There is always room for players to have personal victories, to get more experience, more shticks, or bigger claws. Anything to be better than they were, or, more importantly, better than the other players. It is this hunger that drives powergamers. But who among us can deny having similar desires? Don't we all want our character to be a hero, a legend, a star?

The same goes for cheating. Before pointing an accusing finger, how many of us can say we have never 'accidentally' knocked a bad roll or tweaked those characteristics somewhat? Which GM has never let a player just roll again at some critical juncture or allowed his players a little fudging on their characteristics rolls? Why do we do these things, if it isn't possible to win? It is because such things make our gaming experience more fun. It lets us improve our standing in the game and let us grab a little more of the limelight, letting us be closer to the perfect cinematic heroes we want to be, and less likely to fade into the background. And where GMs are concerned, fudging is especially important to make the game flow a little better and to make sure the heroes are heroes; cutting them enough slack so they aren't all killed off by that first encounter.

Looking at it this way, the majority of powergamers don't cheat much more than the rest of the hobby. If they do, it becomes noticeable and eventually nobody wants to play with them. However, their focus on personal victories does encourage more fudging, and it is this trait which gives them a bad name among gamers who don't play like this. Gamers who consider such cheating something akin to a mortal sin. What can actually be done about this?

I have to say that on the whole the problem is not with the powergamers, but with the other gamers who are too ready to claim that powergaming isn't roleplaying "properly". After all, what is actually wrong with the powergaming attitude? The vast majority of games have experience systems. The more you play, the more powerful you become. Powergaming is thus actually built in. If you don't like it, then play a game where it can't happen (such as the original Traveller which had no experience system at all or games where skill advancement is a matter of getting a teacher not dice rolls). But if you enjoy a game which encourages powergaming in any way, it is a bit rich to then criticise the practice.

Powergaming as such is a valid approach to a game. Unfortunately, whilst concentrating on the acquistitive aspects of the game, these players do tend to neglect some of the others. The social aspect still stands, although it becomes more to do with bettering ones peers than being sociable. And this sort of player tends to approach dramatic and puzzling situations by trying to smash the opposition into a bloody pulp rather than by exploring the norms, conditions, limits and culture of the world presented by the Gamesmaster. It is definitely escapism but how healthy such violent fantasies are can certainly be questioned. So perhaps the narrowness of the powergaming approach can be criticised.

On the other hand, many - most - of today's most popular computer games, such as Quake, Rumble and even Baldur's Gate, encourage such forms of play. Looking at these, and a large chunk of the board games, card games and roleplaying products on the market, it isn't hard to see that it is a very popular style. We should therefore recognise it for what it is, and accept the large part it plays in our hobby. Even embrace it and support it, because not only do powergamers make up a significant portion of the hobby, they also represent the majority of younger and new gamers. Without powergamers, the hobby wouldn't exist. And these are the people we are snubbing?

Which isn't to say that you have to welcome them to your gaming table, but on the other hand, they shouldn't be automatically dismissed either. A way to address this problem is to put your cards on the table at the start of the game. You wouldn't generally go and see a film about which you knew nothing. It can be the same with roleplaying games. As a GM, try and get an idea of the motivations of all your players. Make sure that there is something for everybody, and no major clashes will occur. As a player you can help with this too. Tell the GM what you like and cut the other players some slack. Doing this is a bit of extra work but is well worth it: you don't want to spend sixteen four-hour sessions killing orcs when your character is a romantic poet, or weeks discussing the finer points of the tea ceremony when your +8 battleaxe needs to feed!

Another approach is to shift the rewards in the game away from experience points and towards simply experience of the game itself. This will lessen opportunities for competition. GMs can also try and bring out the character of the PCs by presenting them with situations for which combat is wholly inappropriate and counterproductive, such as obtaining the vital clue from an autistic child or an Elder God. This will place the characters on an equal level, regardless of combat skills, so everyone shares the limelight equally.

There is room for everyone in roleplaying. Not just in the hobby, but at the same table. Cohabitation between powergamers and others is simply a question of doing your homework and finding out what the players and the GM want in their games. Roleplaying is a hobby made up of many aspects, and we all have many reasons why we play. With preparation and acceptance, games can easily have something for everybody.

After all, in the game world, a powergamer's character could just be considered a materialist. Society doesn't frown on those too much and neither should we.


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