Monday, June 1, 2009

Tankard Tip: Be Clever, but not too Clever

I am on vacation this week, but it's more of a personal time-out-from-work vacation rather than a cooling-my-feet-in-the-sand vacation. So, I hope to get a good chunk of work done while I'm away, both around the house and with regards to blogging and developing my Tankards & Broadswords RPG. We shall see how well this plan works out - there's a lot of irons in the fire, and I'm not going to be able to work with all of them.

Last post, we talked about Tankard Tips and Broadsword Basics, two "text box" or sidebar text ideas I have for giving a more interesting voice to my RPG. After last night's Castles & Crusades game, an idea that is always foremost in my mind when it comes to gaming was waving a big red flag all evening. In particular, I've got one player who insists on "out-thinking" every scenario. On the surface, this is okay - I am at least 50% in agreement with the whole "Challenge the Player, not the Character" sentiment, and I want my players to rely on their brains more than a die roll to solve situations. On the other hand, there is such a thing as just plain being a smart-ass and trying to "beat the no-win scenario" (I've seen the new Star Trek movie three times, so it's kinda stuck in my head, sorry).

There is, in many successful gaming groups, a kind of gentleman's agreement that the GM won't actively be trying to utterly screw over the players, and in return, the players agree to go along with whatever madness the GM cooks up for the sake of having a fun adventure. In a classic horror movie the characters will go down the dark basement stairs with only a flickering flashlight, rather than just getting out of the house, going next door to the neighbor's, and calling the cops like any sensible person. In an adventure RPG, the players tend to understand that when presented with the Dungeon of Danger and Plunder, they go in with swords and torches in hand, and not take out a loan from the local moneylender to hire an excavation force of laborers to simply dig out the entire cave complex or some similar scheme that tries to "beat the game".

There is a paragraph in my current incarnation of the T&B RPG, that'll become a Tankard Tip regarding this situation. I offer it up here for discussion / expansion. The paragraph comes out of the Gameplay section on "Creative Uses for Skills". T&B only has 18 skills, and some of them cover a wide variety of actions, so it's important that the players and the GM both use their heads and think of interesting ways to use the skills so that their broad brushstrokes nature is a feature, and not a bug. However, I think the sentiment below is applicable to RPGing in general.

Ultimately, there is a Golden Rule regarding the creative use of skills during gameplay; it's good to be clever, but don't try and be too clever. There is a big difference between looking at a "broad brushstrokes" skills list as a canvas for creativity, and looking at it as a bunch of loopholes ripe for exploitation. The former will earn the goodwill of the GM and lead to fun and evocative gaming, while the later will only lead to frustration and discontent for everyone involved.
Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome.


Timeshadows said...

When I am out-thunk ;p, I usually am pretty happy about it. That, and I don't allow jerks in my games.

I'm not certain how new GMs/Ref's will take/understand/define too-clever.
I imagine you will give pro- or positive examples of how to GM and Play to go along with these Tips?
* Dezquar: Duergar for 'snot-nosed punk'.

Badelaire said...

Hmmm indeed.

There is a subtle but important difference between using creative solutions and "out of the box" thinking in order to defeat the obstacles your GM puts in front of you and save the girl / kill the badguy / obtain the widget, and trying to, for lack of a better term, "hack" the adventure and/or the system in order to "win".

And, for the record, I do not always consider this grounds for calling someone a "jerk", either. Some players simply have that mindset. Either they are coming from a gaming background that was simply more antagonistic with regards to the GM-Player relationship, or (as it is more common these days), they view the game more like a computer game, where it is often the hallmark of a savvy player to find loopholes in the programming that allow you to "cheat" the game.

This latter behavior, in particular, is just the way some people look at RPGs because that's how they view a lot of things in life. Some of my best friends game like this, and it's not so much "jerk" behavior as it is an innate desire to "massage the system". Sometimes they're called Min/Maxers, sometimes they're called Power-Gamers, sometimes they're called Rules Lawyers, but often it's just a way of thinking that wants to go from A to Z without going through B-Y.

For example, why go into the scary abandoned house and confront the psycho killer and potentially get killed when you can just go buy some chemicals, whip up a homegrown bomb, and blow the place to smithereens? Why go down to the planet and hunt the aliens on the ground when you can just nuke 'em from orbit? If there isn't a rule about encumberance, then why take ONE shotgun when you can take THREE shotguns?

I'm thinking I'm going to need a follow-up column about this topic...

Timeshadows said...

Let me clarify.

I do not consider Min/Maxers Jerks in the least. I guess I was reading more into what you wrote than was intended to be conveyed.

That said, I agree with your reply, but I'm not certain I understand what your post was about, then.
I'll re-read and see if I 'get' it this time.


Badelaire said...

I guess my ultimate point is this:

Some people have an innate need to "hack" the game, either the system itself or the adventure, for a variety of reasons.

In some games, and in some gaming groups, this is okay. But in other games, and I put my game-in-progress in this category, It's not.

I think the promotion of the spirit of adventure trumps the need to "out-think" the GM and/or "hack" the system or the adventure.

Again, "creative problem solving" is one thing - "hacking the game" is another. I guess once you experience the latter, you know it for what it is compared to the former.

L. Beau said...

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that the line between being clever and being too clever lies in the PCs following genre conventions. The characters in Aliens even mention nuking the bugs from orbit, but they do not do so because they're characters in an adventure movie, who will often take a flashy and daring approach to problem solving, rather than a safe and routine one. In the same vein, if a powerful wizard captures a woman Conan the Barbarian fancies, he doesn't say to himself, "There are lots of attractive girls in the world, why should I risk my neck for this one?" Here again, that cautious attitude is contrary to both his established character traits, but also contrary the swashbuckling conventions of sword and sorcery yarns.

Am I close to what you were thinking, Badelaire?

Matthew James Stanham said...

where it is often the hallmark of a savvy player to find loopholes in the programming that allow you to "cheat" the game.

Yikes! I have to admit, I usually consider that cheating. Like the bug in Shogun Total War that lets you drop armies on unhighlighted enemy ports, which the computer never even tries to defend, or items you can sell for more than they cost to buy in Planscape. Savvy is knowing about the loopholes, exploiting them is cheating.

Badelaire said...

@ L. Beau: That is a major part of it - the "playing against type" because it seems to offer some advantage. It isn't always an issue of "playing it safe", but it is a matter of going against the conventions of the character archetypes and the campaign genre in order to weigh the outcome.

The way I see it, if the players and the GM are both on the same page, going against type would actually put you at a disadvantage since the GM should really be supporting and aiding you in that style of play. But, many people believe otherwise, feeling that it is best to "dodge" a conflict by coming up with a solution that, while workable, isn't an idea their characters would really consider, at least within the conventions of the genre.

@ Matthew: I would tend to agree with you, but again it comes back to the classic "hacker mentality" - the high one gets from finding and exploiting a weakness. Some people consider it cheating - but some apparently feel that if you didn't build the vault strongly enough, don't complain when someone cracks it.

This is typically my only real problem with really customizable character creation rule sets in some RPGs. I sometimes like to be able to tweak my PC just the way I want, but the more one can customize, the more the door opens up for "killer combos" of stats and skills and power and feats and spells and weapons etc. etc. etc..

I know "power gaming" and massaging the rules pre-dates CRPGs, but I find the "character builds" mentality and other CRPG ideas extremely common in people coming TO tabletop play from CRPGs. I guess their feeling is that if Everquest and Neverwinter Nights and WoW in effect sprung from D&D, then going back, D&D is going to be like their CRPGs, right?

Anyhow, an attitude that I can understand existing, but I'm not happy to see at my gaming table.

satyre said...

Actually, this isn't a min-maxer thing as such - we know they exist and that they can be handled.

What I thought of when reading this article was a player hoping for a convenient piece of wood (often in a cave) or asking for minutiae in the hope they can stall for time.

Another example is the character who refuses to go along with any kind of offer made by an NPC in the hope they can get a better one.
The latter had led to some epic blowing outs by NPCs(!) and the player getting frustrated.

Handling this is a little trickier - the use of hourglasses or timers to encourage swift thinking is not a bad idea as long as it's being used consistently.

Mileage variation, as usual.