Playing against your strengths

RPGs are almost entirely united on a single concept. Player should play to their strengths. This means that a player with a particular skill should not just be good at a particular skill, but should want to use it as much as possible.

A very simple example is in dungeon world. A player with a high constitution score will defy danger by powering through the assault. It’s supposed to help the intended character’s story shine by nudging events towards the best way that that character would handle it.

Overall it’s a great idea. Fighters quest for the best +1 sword and wizards look for powerful magical enchantments to compliment them. Players use the incentive of being better in these areas to play in character.

There are also downsides to this. As much as I love Risus and SFX, story games are riddled with chefs defeating great swordsmen armed with a baguette and black pepper shaker. The player does not just get an incentive to play in character, but also to over extend their own abilities. They somehow stop cooking, and start bashing in skulls with non-stick cookware. Somehow playing in character becomes absolutely not playing in character.

And it’s hard to say that a player is playing to their strengths if they cannot play to their weaknesses. Players should have the chance to fail at their weaknesses. By being so crippled at non-advantageous actions players simply won’t try them. The nerdy scientist will not get into a fist fight and lose, creating more reason to compensate with intelligence and success. The compulsive gambler will not throw away money and feed their desperation. They’ll avoid it in a way no different than a shell shocked soldier avoids combat, despite his great skill at it. So weakness = fear.

All that aside, the opposite of an incentive to play in character is often considered to be Min-Maxing, the most classic form of power gaming. The idea is to put as many points into winning combinations as possible while sacrificing the very factors that defines the character. A thief that overpowers agility and dex doesn’t usually have to care about intelligence even when the very idea of being crafty belies the entire backstory of the character. Their wits are their defining characteristic, but magic points are not useful. We found our dump stat!

There’s a lot to be said about making stats match up to a story, but there’s even more missing. Stats don’t actually define characters. Their actions do! Games like D&D and Pathfinder get away with this because a character’s starting point is a blank slate. The adventures that they will go on define them… way more so than any biography. However, it only works to a point.

Although I describe story games (as opposed to crunchy games) as a game in which players get narrative control, they also require a specific element. A player’s true options can’t be defined by their stats. If the entire game available to a player is within the combat rules then where is the story? More specifically a thief is a thief because they steal things, not because they have high agility. Face it, Conan the barbarian was the king of thieves!

So it’s not fair to expect the mere use of complimentary stats to constitute a player playing to their strengths. It’s also not fair to expect extreme advantages to mean a player playing to their strengths. There has to be a story to bring about a story. And that’s key.

Timeless takes an interesting approach to this problem. Certainly there are wacky crock pot traps set in kitchens, but there are some carefully placed limitations.The first is to separate combat skills from hobbies and physical prowess. This gives strengths a purpose and a focus. Secondly, the player takes the narrative control by having lateral freedom with skills; they can be clever with their skills outside of stiff limitations! Lastly, in a nontraditional approach to story gaming, players can be forced to react to situations that they are simply no good at. A turn based and initiative based combat system creates exactly the right structure to place players in a situation where weaknesses come into play.

There are many good solutions to this problem. Lady Blackbird uses a spendable dice pool to and keys with “buyoff” power to finagle the problem in an extremely elegant way. Just be aware of the solutions as a GM and try to keep players engaged as characters, not as just players in a game.

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