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Keeping Kosher

Keeping Darwin at Bay

by Walt Ciechanowski
Nov 26,2004

 

Keeping Kosher

By Walt Ciechanowski

Keeping Darwin at Bay

As I write this, I just purchased a copy of GURPS Characters (4e) last night. While flipping through its pages, I was struck by the enormity of choices. I could (and have) spent days designing a character using GURPS and other point-based rules system. As a player, this can be a lot of fun, customizing a character until your fullest vision emerges.

As a Game Master, it can be a major headache. As my eyelids grew heavy late into the night, my semi-conscious mind started conjuring up images of munchkins, min-maxers, and power gamers. Point-based systems can be a nightmare for a GM as he tries to design challenges and adventures, since players tend to squeeze the most they can out of every possible point. In systems where disadvantages can be hidden advantages (what adventurer isn't "overconfident?"), the problem gets worse.

I've also noticed a phenomenon that I call "Gamer Darwinism." The principle of Gamer Darwinism is simple: the longer a player contributes to your campaign, the more efficient he will be at thwarting your challenges. This is evident in experience point expenditures, as the player will naturally tend to spend points in areas that have the greatest impact in the campaign. It is even more pronounced if a player changes characters in midstream; chances are the new character will be far more efficiently streamlined than the original crop of characters.

In addition to becoming more adept at thwarting the GM, Gamer Darwinism can have a negative impact among the other players at the table. A newly introduced character in an established campaign is likely to step on the other characters' toes. He may even be better in the skills that matter than the remaining original characters, since he didn't waste points in skills and abilities that never saw much use. This is especially damaging if the original characters were written according to the "bait and switch" speech.

What is the "bait and switch" speech? I'm glad you asked, but chances are you've already heard it. Ever since the first player in a point-based character generation system discovered that he could dump a lot of points in combat skills, GMs have been doing their part to actively discourage this. The most common method is to give the players a variation of the "roll-playing vs. roleplaying" speech (i.e. "this campaign is going to stress social and intellectual situations and challenges rather than combat, so your characters should have a wide range of skills; if anything, skimp on the combat skills"). Of course, once the game starts going, the players usually learn two things: 1) they rarely need to use their social skills because the GM encourages play-acting rather than skill-rolling, and 2) the only time they need to roll is in more-frequent-than-expected combat situations, where their skills are woefully inadequate. Gamer Darwinism then kicks into high gear as soon as the first PC stops breathing or the first experience points are handed out.

So how can you combat Gamer Darwinism?

1. Honesty is the best policy.

First and foremost, be honest with yourself and your players. There is nothing wrong with a combat-oriented campaign (and I only mention this because I've seen my share of apologetic GMs who feel they have to "play down" their intentions). Just let the players know up front that they can expect a lot of action.

So what is a "combat-oriented" campaign? While the typical dungeon crawl springs to mind, a combat-oriented campaign is any campaign in which the vast majority of dice-rolling will involve combat. If you run a crime investigation campaign and the only time the players pick up the dice is every third session when someone is shooting at them, you have a combat-oriented campaign (a more precise term would be "combat rules-oriented" campaign, but now I'm getting wordy).

If you don't want them to have high combat skills, then set limitations. One way to limit characters is to increase the cost of combat skills or set skill rank limits. Alternatively, you could reduce the number of starting character points, so that players can't stretch their points as far.

2. Trim the fat from the lists.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to allow the full list of options offered in roleplaying games. The rules usually encourage customization, but I rarely see this put into practice beyond the outlawing of one or two "game-breaker" skills or advantages.

Universal rules sets try to leave all options open. The typical campaign, however, is much more narrowly focused. I'd suggest taking each list (usually advantages, disadvantages, and skills) and writing down each item from the list that is absolutely necessary for your campaign. Put a star next to those items that every character should have. You may discover that you already have a pretty large list.

Show this list to your players. Trust me, they would much rather select items from these lists than go through the book and try to design the perfect character in a vacuum. First and foremost, players like utility in their characters. You'll appreciate it, too, since it will prevent awkward conversations during the game like "What do you mean no one took 'Egyptology?' I told you guys in the beginning that you were going to be 1930s fortune hunters!"

3. Make sure the campaign actually uses these items in play.

The last point dovetails nicely into this one. If your list was too short, then you probably aren't calling for rolls as much as you think, and you are really running a combat-oriented game. If you want to include more items on your lists then do so, but make sure you regularly incorporate them into your game.

One method you can try is to go over the notes of your first two or three adventures (I usually try to have three adventures plotted out before launching a campaign) and list every time you call for a skill check. Compare this list with your "necessary" skill list and see how well they match. This method also works well during the actual adventure sessions by recording every time you ask for a skill roll. I used to chide my players for buying up obscene amounts of "spot" or "listen" skill levels until I realized that four out of every five rolls I called for during a session was for either of those two skills.

4. Adjust item costs to reflect utility in your campaign.

Many game systems assign costs to skills based on their difficulty to learn, rather than their actual utility in a game session. I find this counter-intuitive. What player is going to spend 10% of her skill points in "Egyptian Death Rituals" if the skill will only pop up once every four or five adventures?

You may wish to break up some skills and condense others into a smaller group of skills. If your players are globetrotting fortune hunters, but only one of them is a scientist, you may want to collapse geology, meteorology, chemistry, and biology into a single "science" skill. If your game is combat-oriented, you may wish to use the optional martial arts rules (many games have optional martial art rules) to spread out points.

Keeping Kosher

The general idea here is to make sure the advantages and skills in your game count. If the players see value in many skills, they are more likely to build well-rounded characters rather than specialize in a few select skills. I hope you find some of these ideas useful in this regard.

Good Gaming!

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