I enjoyed reading a recent article by Robert J. Schwalb on the effects of power gaming and optimization at the table. I responded to the article in the Comments with the following:
My goal is to find a good balance of PCs feeling challenged and threatend but not to the point where the ONLY outcome of an encounter is a TPK. As my players continue to mold their PCs into death-dealing machines, I have to react accordingly. More monsters? Higher-level monsters? Environmental effects that “nerf” certain PC traits?
It’s a balancing act. You made the following comment, “On the other side of the screen, the DM must understand his or her players, and accept players make these mechanical choices for a reason. They do it to feel special, to contribute in a meaningful way that gives them a bit of spotlight.” I disagree with this in some ways. The players don’t know that you’ve spent two weeks planning for a really cool encounter. They just want to keep their character alive and continue to the next fight. Sure, some players want the spotlight, but that’s not a bad thing. Again, if you’ve spent time building a PC, playing that PC for a year or so, then you want to do all you can to keep him or her alive. You want to increase the odds of survival as much as possible.
I wanted to speak more about the subject as my gaming groups have talked about power gaming and optimization in the past, including certain PC builds that “broke” the system in previous editions. Instead of speaking about optimization from my perspective, I asked one of my players who has a vast well of experience as a DM and as a player to discuss power gaming. He could speak intelligently about optimization throughout the editions over the years, and was kind enough to contribute the following article. Readers of this blog may have seen his Comments to my posts before as AJ and Morgoth (his rather effective Tiefling Wizard in the campaign I DM). I also thanked him when I first started the blog a few months back.
The Ultimate DM: Motivations of Power Gamers
When the Id DM asked me to write an article on power gaming in Dungeons and Dragons and the evolution over the editions, I thought, “sure, I can do that.” After all I have played and DM’d all the editions to date. (Gamer for over 30 years) Then I thought, “Wait a minute!!! Is he trying to tell me something?” Well either way, allow me to dive into this rabbit hole on a journey through D&D and the power gamer’s ego.
So, what is a power gamer? Well, a power gamer engages in power gamming; which is loosely defined as a style of playing games with the aim of maximizing progress towards a specific goal, to the exclusion of other considerations. Sportsmanship, teamwork, and flavor are quite often the first casualties of power gaming. Rules are often closely hooked in, where the letter of the rule is king to the power gamer, and the spirit of the rule is something DM’s try to enforce on them when they lose. As a power gamer sees it, if the rules don’t specifically say “X”, then “X” can’t be done. The inverse is also true, if the rules don’t say you can’t do “Y”, then “Y” can be done.
Freud slapped the term Ego on mentally exerted behavior mostly in the positive direction which he called the organized, realistic part of the psyche. He reserved Superego for the unconscious, critical and moralistic role, and Id as the uncoordinated basic desire which is also unconscious. So what is power gaming to Freud? Well if Id was able force Ego to agree with him and tie down Superego’s moralistic center, Power Gamer would be born. Abraham Maslow might role over in his grave if we called this Self-Actualization, but in a weird fantasy sort of way, the power gamer is trying to achieve a gaming self –actualization. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that we need things in a pyramidal fashion; beginning with physical needs of survival, and safety, extending upwards toward more humanistic needs like love, esteem, and finally self-actualization. The Power Gamer needs to succeed, it’s right there with the need for acceptance and esteem. He needs to be looked on as a success by the other players and anyone with whom he can share a “TRUE STORY”. Oddly enough in D&D this is weighted with the luck of the dice, ergo the power gamer must not only demonstrate his knowledge of the rules, but with numbers, estimating odds and chance. As well as predicting what may come and strategies for the future. In many ways this sort of mental gymnastics is inspiring. But it’s usually what is sacrificed which rubs others the wrong way. I must admit there is a certain satisfaction to a “well played” round in gaming where other players say, “Holy cow that was impressive.”
In my experience I’ve DM’d several power gamers, they usually play very well, know the rules (to the letter I might add) and must have a solid definition for each and every action, scene, and interaction within the game. This does two big things which can kill the experience for other players and the DM alike. First, they can’t suspend disbelief enough to simply enjoy the game. By this I mean that everything must have purpose, and what might have been flavor is scrutinized which can often be time consuming and boring for other players and the power gamer tends to occupy tons of DM time. The Id DM had an article on “when is an alter just an alter”, the power gamer tends to not believe this scenario and must search it twice, and then is still doubtful. Secondly, they have to win; and in many cases this is winning at all costs, which can include cheating and that is the worst case scenario. The need to “win” is like having an ego with racing tires, spoilers, and a turbo booster, and the morals of the superego sat in the ejector seat. That’s what the power gamer is there for; to win! Often this is disguised as “to survive” but don’t be fooled by this premise.
One thing to point out quickly is the difference between an “optimizer” and a power gamer. Optimizers tend to do things very well. They build strong characters, good stories, and are usually smart players. But take notice, they don’t need to dominate the DM’s time or feel the need to lead the characters. Quite often their characters have personality flaws, or dispositions they give them out of a desire to make them vulnerable, or “human.” Optimizers tend to be more team player oriented, looking out for other players, but not always telling them exactly what to do. Experienced players will almost eventually become optimizers in one fashion or another, since experience is a great teacher it’s almost unavoidable in many regards. Keep in mind the greatest telltale sign is the need to win. Optimizers can roll with the punches. Power gamers come back swinging.
Suggestions For Dealing With Power Gamers
So, how do you handle a power gamer? Well, remember your role first of all. As the DM you are the story teller, your goal is not to win or lose. It’s to tell the story. In my games I pretty much tell my players that the only real way they should die is if they mess up, or luck completely decided against someone. Other than that the cards are almost universally stacked in a players favor as far as most written modules go. In many cases power gamers can be headed off at the pass by letting the group know that you will be “mostly following the printed rules” but in some cases where you deem the rules are gray; you will make a call based upon the situation, this lets them know there is some flexibility here and you may or may not use it.
Secondly, any advantage a PC can gain, an NPC can also gain, it’s always funny to watch a power gamer have to fight themselves in game. One tactic is to tell the players, this adventure is not about “IF” they succeed, but about “HOW” they succeed; watch that take the wind out of the sails of a power gamer. Power gamers want “false competition”. To them there is not competition, but they tend to fool themselves into believing that they achieved great success from the clutches of certain doom. When in truth most level 10 fighters can survive 5-6 kobolds, regardless of being surprised.
Third, you can spread the glory around. Make sure your other players get some well-placed “flavor text to their actions”. If the mob has 20 hit points left and Susie Newbie does 19 damage with Power Gamer Joe on deck; let the Mob fall to Susie Newbie. This helps other players share in some glory. The power gamer will have his moments, but this is mostly for those who have to listen to Power Gamer Joe revel over his latest round of “retarded damage” (pardon the R word but this is actually a catch phrase used to describe a ridiculous amount of damage done by which no sensible person would believe possible.) Or for you 4E players, this is when a 9th level Barbarian critically hits on a Rage Strike with a High Critical magical weapon. Yes, I saw it; the youngest girl in our group did this, and the whole table flipped out at the result. It had to be the single most damaging hit I’ve seen yet in 4E.
Power Gaming Through D&D Editions
Speaking of 4E, what you play has a great impact on power gamers or rather the ability to power game. I look at the evolution of D&D from its Basic edition through its current 4th Edition incarnation, and in many aspects I see a full circle. What I mean is that Basic (first) edition and 4th edition bring a class balance to the game which has not existed since Expert Edition took the reins and 3.5 left circulation. Oddly enough it was the quest for diversity and higher levels which led to the development of Power Gamers, go figure; and the imbalance which quickly followed. As you will see, this is a major source of where the power gamer’s genre comes from. Gamers wanted more diversity, higher levels (which equals power) and more areas to explore. More, more, more. Well, more content equals more potential power. Basic edition only really avoided this because there were only 3 levels of growth. As soon as expert and advanced upped the levels, the race for power was on.
The good news is 4E has really taken the power gamer’s lunch, wrapped in a zip lock baggie, and sat on it like a 1 ton gorilla. 4E is a pretty well-balanced game compared to its recent predecessors. Second edition was crazy insane with builds which could set up universes in one round, and vanquish armies with one spell. Third edition doubled casting per round, enough said; and 3.5 tried to correct 3rd editions mistakes but still suffered once again from the limitless volumes of material released which was not checked for consistency. This was also a fault of first and second edition, but nowhere near the extreme.
Remember, a power gamer thrives on the letter of the rules, not on the spirit. Second edition and 3.5 left loopholes so wide open and so ridiculous, that great dragons would die in one round to parties of “appropriate level.” I once ran in a group that had BIBS for dragon fights. They would actually spend one entire round putting on the BIBS, and the second round destroying everything dragon like. Before you scream “Monty Hall” let me say that this wasn’t a product of an over generous DM. It was the problem with the game not being able to balance against power gamers. Sure the DM has final say, but not all DM’s have the ability to flat out say NO to a player’s character if it’s technically valid; and honestly you shouldn’t have too. That’s the fun of gaming; being something super and special the last thing you want to here is “no, that class is too powerful”.
This is where 4E kicks previous editions in the guts. Thus far, the greatest benefit of 4E are that all classes are balanced. That means the immortal, sorcerer, vampire, demon, warrior, rogue, cleric, assassin, ranger, psychic, gifted chosen of Mystra isn’t possible. Thank God. Class balance has once again returned to D&D and from the get go. No more wizards being completely weak at level one, and barbarians being level 1 GODs, only to have roles flip flop 14 levels later. This helps a great deal with players not being able to completely one up another player thus keeping the power gamer on the same level as the other players from a rules standpoint. Secondly, Monsters are balanced to parties. No more dragons with laughable hit points compared to party DPR (Damage Per Round). Power Creep has been somewhat neutralized in how attacks no longer vastly outgrow defenses. In other editions you could top out an AC in a matter of 6-7 levels, yet attack numbers continued to increase. In 4E everything increases continuously, keeping defenses closer in line with attacks.
Next, feats are now character flavor and not the monstrosities they were in 3.5. By this I mean that feats are not game breaking anymore; plus flavor has its limits, and the really flavorful feats mean you can’t take something else which a power gamer would want as well. Third edition feats could alter the universe if achieved is certain combinations. Fourth addition is merely “cool spice”.
The last big gift 4E gave us is the elimination of saving throws. I know, at first even I thought this was sacrilege. But after a while I got it. I recall way too often second and third edition wizards killing with a single spell because they could make the enemy need to roll a natural 20 to live….. Twice! This was a hallmark of a power gaming spell caster, and a certain Red Wizard of Thay knows exactly who he is! Ridiculous DC’s on spells making balanced book monsters have a 1 in 400 chance of living; and all accomplished by the letter of the rules. Not exactly a high point for an epic fight when your Great Wyrm Red Dragon gets polymorphed in the opening round and loses his mind. But alas the treasure hoard could be adjusted to something you could spit over, so tit for tat was still in play. But again, not as fun in the long run.
Again, certain game systems like 4E do a darn good job of keeping order. Apart from that the second trick is to pick the players well. Even if you do end up with a power gamer, making the other players feel good about their actions helps them feel “powerful themselves” and it serves to remove emphasis from the power gamer. I can’t stress this tactic enough. Remember it’s your job as a DM to keep things balanced. Sometimes it’s letting players win in odd ways; sometimes it’s praising players who simply make a lucky role, other times its being proactive in rulings and guidelines. With a good approach you can even sometimes talk a power gamer into taking a specific vulnerability. In his mind, it’s like winning with one hand tied behind his back, so they could accept for the simple challenge. Make sure to praise them for dealing with the vulnerability, and also make sure not to slaughter them with their vulnerability, for that will surely end that experiment quickly, and ZEUS’s son will be your next party member!
Anyway, I hope you’ve gleamed a little from this article and thanks again to The Id DM for allowing me to write.
– Ultimate DM
About the Author The Ultimate DM – aka. AJ – is also the designer of the the Ultimate Gaming Table (hence the name, not an Ego thing). He too has a degree in psychology, and a degree in art. He’s been gaming since Basic edition back in 1979, and DMing since 1981. He DM’s The Id DM in his group, which is running the Scales of War series published by Dungeon Magazine, and is a player (Tiefling Wizard, Morgoth) in The Id DM’s homebrew campaign.