Save My Game 08/18/2006

Secrecy and Favoritism Redux

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Problem: Secrecy and Favoritism Redux

I play in a group who play every Sunday religiously, and there is one player who always has to sit next to the DM. The two of them pass notes and whisper back and forth throughout the game. The player knows the game better and it seems the DM asks him for help all the time, which is harmless in itself. But this player is a rules lawyer and a power gamer all in one. To make things worse, the story and play revolve around this player and the odds always fall in his favor (this is consecutive with every character he plays in the group).

How should the rest of the group handle this player/character and how can we approach the DM without our characters getting killed (he wouldn't actually do that)?

-- Matt,

To continue the discussion from last column, one of the unspoken questions you raise is what you should do as a player when there is a power gamer in your midst. The most obvious form of power gamer is the ultravicious combat god, but there are other ways to power game. You can power game Bluff and Diplomacy, or sneaking and hiding, or knowledge and information -- all kinds of things, really. Power gaming is simply an attitude of trying to make the mechanically best character possible for whatever your character vision may be.

Let me point out something that has come up on the boards many times -- power gaming is in no way the antithesis of role playing. In fact, the best power gamers may be the best roleplayers, because they are the ones who invest themselves deeply into their character, learn how the world works, and study the rules and the game. Power gaming is about trying to get the biggest bang for your buck. You don't need to get bang for your buck -- roleplaying can be its own reward. That's how it was back in the olden days. In 1st Edition AD&D, each character had one secondary skill -- something unrelated to their character class that they were presumed to have done before they took up the adventuring life. It might be sailing, animal husbandry, crafting bows and arrows, or any of numerous other skills. Secondary skills were mechanically meaningless, however, unless the DM created house rules that made your secondary skill matter. In other words, they were little more than springboards for more role playing. As D&D has evolved, all sorts of things that used to be 'roleplaying only' attributes, such as skills, feats, regional background, etc., have had game mechanics built around them. You can still role play a lawful good fighter as a holy warrior and say there is no point to having a paladin class. You can even play a commoner who learned skills of sneaking and hiding and picking locks, so why play a rogue? In 3rd Edition D&D, your role-playing choices can be tied to actual game-mechanical effects.

The essential truth here is that there is no moral superiority or role playing magic that comes from intentionally playing a mechanically weak character. Yes, the thrill of role playing can be its own reward, but in a game system where mechanical representations of role playing choices are built in and trade-offs are the order of the day, it is vanity and false modesty to pretend that choosing less-optimal choices is somehow more true or pure to the role playing spirit. D&D is a mechanical game in ways that freeform, diceless, and storytelling games are not, and using the mechanics is part of the game.

Now, let's move on to actually dealing with a power gamer in your group.

One thing to remember is that a power gamer may be incapable of playing without power gaming. As noted above, why on Oerth should they? What exactly is the problem with building an efficient, effective character? Perhaps one of the ways to dealing with the power gamer is to view him not as an adversary but as a resource. Granted, that is part of what caused your problem in the first place -- the DM decided to make him a resource, and now he has become a stumbling block to the game. So make the power gamer a resource in the metagame. Ask him to conduct what amounts to a seminar on ways to build characters more effectively and efficiently so that they make maximum use of the rules and still fit the role playing concept and persona that you have in your mind for that character. You needn't always take the power gamer's advice, but you may be able to make better-informed choices about value and the likely outcomes of your choices.

This probably sounds like a sour response, but I've seen it happen in games -- players asking other players for help optimizing their characters. There are websites and message board threads that talk about this as well. By creating more effective characters, you may help to correct the game's tendency to drift toward the power gamer's character or neutralize the fact that the power gamer's rolls and results always seem to be better than everyone else's. Maybe the power gamer just has a character that's more mechanically effective than the others, so he survives or thrives while other characters struggle. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, but often what looks like luck is really the result of preparation.

When Seattle got a WNBA team, I went and saw their first home game against the three-time defending champions. Predictably, our expansion team got blasted, but I had an epiphany as I watched our scrappy players fighting, battling, running their tails off while the other team always ended up with every loose ball and every open shot. Were they just lucky? Were they cheating? Was it unfair? Why did everything they did seem to work so easily? To paraphrase Yoda, our team was trying, but their team was doing, and because their skill level was better, it seemed as if we were working like crazy and they were not even trying but were still kicking our butts up and down the court.

D&D is not meant to be competitive, but in a group situation, there is a finite amount of time and attention to go around. If you are sick of someone else hogging the spotlight, on a certain level you need to be more assertive about your own character, both in how you build it and in how you play it. If you don't want to be pushed to the margins, don't role play a wallflower. You don't need to build a super stud, but you do need to understand that the game rewards and punishes certain choices and combinations. If you decide to go that route for role playing reasons, know that it comes with a cost.

Besides taking care of your own character, you need to talk to the DM about how he structures adventures. Ask him to intentionally create adventures that lend a better focus to other characters and that highlight their particular skills and abilities. If there is one thing you can count on about a power gamer, it's that he will always find some way to get things done. They need less help from the DM because they create attention for themselves, and play will have a natural tendency to drift in his direction unless there is some opposing influence. This could be the other players (especially other power gamers), but a better route is the DM being intentional and careful about tailoring the campaign to spotlight different characters as the game progresses.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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