Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Myth of the OP Player/Build/Etc

One of the things I'm doing to get back into blogging is going back and finding unfinished drafts of posts and seeing if there are any I want to finish. This one was originally started on 12/27/2013.

One of the things you run into a lot with RPGs is min/maxers. The guy who tweaks every little thing to finagle the maximum amount of whatever out of the rules. This problem is a lot worse in point buy systems like GURPS because the nature of the game allows for a lot more customization than a rigid, class based system like Pathfinder or DnD. You can only min/max so much in Pathfinder core rules, mostly just in terms of ability score, as there aren't any sacrifices you can make anywhere to boost something else up. 5th Edition is even less min/maxable. It's actually kind of impressive how little you can actually tweak your character to secure advantages.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with min/maxing and trying to make your character awesome. That's the point of these games on some level, to be badass. To leave bodies on the floor in your wake. To be awesome and more competent than everyone else. That's what player characters do, or at least try to. Now, it's one thing to find sweet feat combinations, and completely another to play a Fighter with an Intelligence of 7 and a highly boosted Strength or Constitution and then come up with really well thought out tactics and plots. Mental retardation is a real thing, and I'm not making light of it, but there is a reason we don't put people with IQs of 50 or 60 in charge of armies and groups of soldiers. I only take issue with min/maxing when it gets ridiculous and ignores my background material or the character is a collection of stats and not an actual character.

Players often try to find complimentary feats and class abilities and racial abilities to leverage the most power against their foes. Power in this context is a general term for the character's schtick. Karrak's power is shooting things. Donovan's is talking to things, and Karl's is magic and shooting things (with magic). Eran's power is obviously master debating in the woods, while shooting way better than everyone else, and being sneaky. 

Often, you'll hear someone say "that is so over powered," usually as an exclamation indicating they are pissed and feel it is unfair, or an exclamation indicating they think they are brilliant little fucks for coming up with it. Now the problem with finding something over powered and thinking it is unstoppable is that it often ignores a few things about the nature of the game.  

The first thing it ignores is that experience  (I use the word experience here as a catch all term for advancement) should only be rewarded if there is a challenge in the scenario. If a group is consistently walking through encounters, or a certain type of encounter (combat, social, trap, etc) without taking damage (and not because of crafty tactics during the fight or brilliant plans for getting around the encounters), if there's no risk in a situation, why should they get rewarded? That's the whole point of leveling/advancement systems. As you overcome challenges, you get better at things. If there's no challenge to anything, you shouldn't be getting better, because you've plateaued and aren't challenging yourself. It seems pretty straightforward to me. So fine, you're monstrously powerful. Cool. Prepare to be stuck at level three for the rest of the campaign. 

The second thing it ignores is the GM. Assuming something is OP/unstoppable/makes you invincible ignores the fact that the challenges a party faces are not random meaningless situations (assuming your GM isn't a fucktwit). They are built by a thinking creature that typically has a much better understanding of the game as a whole than the players. We're ten levels into the campaign and Eric still can't figure out where to find the cost breakdown for adding new spells to his spellbook. Lance thought for some reason that armor class is  calculated differently for animal companions so his wolf companion had an AC of 7, despite AC starting at a base of 10 and his wolf having +2 worth of natural armor and a Dexterity of 17 and the Dodge feat. I'm not saying this to poke fun at them or to indicate they are big dumb heads. I forgot how Craft skills function last night. Nobody is perfect. However, the nature of the GM's job demands that he know the system of the rules better than the players. Which means, quite literally, anything you can do, he can do better and also that you're probably doing it wrong. Cary used to blast me constantly with OP builds of Pathfinder characters, generally they were solid and functional for what he designed them for, but at least a solid 25% of them completely failed due to him not really understanding relevant rules or even being aware of rules.

Obviously I only deconstructed those failures for him about 50% of the time. You never know when it'll be useful to completely break a player's build and knock their sense of special snowflake entitlement down a peg. 

Thirdly, players are arrogant useless fucks that are predisposed to think that they are brilliant and crafty little fucks that can pull a fast one on the GM. I kid. What I mean is that people, myself included, are predisposed to think they are brilliant and cunning. Unless they are so full of self loathing that they GM Pathfinder games to punish themselves. So yeah, when you find a little bit of synergy you never noticed before, you assume no one else has, and that you've won everything forever. The problem is that these little synergies typically only apply to one aspect of the game. 

Cary and I were just talking about mythic characters and he explained a build to me where an attack has to do over 80 damage to him before he can start taking damage. Which is pretty impressive if someone shoots or stabs Donovan. But what about hold person or phantasmal killer? Finger of death? What about poisons that deal ability score damage? What about negative levels? What about non-combat situations? What about a Fighter that has the feats that lets him stun or daze on a successful attack roll? Will this stuff function if he is unconscious and the Fighter performs a coup de grace? What if he is submerged in water due to a trap and begins drowning? So yes, assuming it works like he thinks it does, his build does possess a power level of over 9000. But it only applies to a small piece of the game, direct damage. If direct damage is the only thing you're leveraging against your players to challenge them in a campaign, you fucked up.

The fourth thing OP builds ignore is the world around them. In this instance, the world around them can be the environment, foes, NPCs, etc. Fine, you've got a combat monster character with  power level of over 9000 thousand. What happens when your goal is to get information from an NPC rather than curb stomp them until their insides squirt out their butthole? What happens when your NPCs have a better understanding of tactical combat than your player's combat monster collection of stats?

In my current 5th Edition group, there is a belief that archery is overpowered, which I don't agree with. The example is the Fighter archery fighting style, which confers +2 to ranged attack rolls. This combined with an archery feat that confers -5 to ranged attack rolls and +10 to damage creates a pretty deadly archer. There's also a feat that ignores all cover except full. 

Ok. That is impressive. You might even call it OP. But guess what? It is completely negated by stepping behind something. Unless the archer has a decent amount of elevation, you can completely negate the archer's power by sitting down on the ground behind a waist high wall. This relates to my fourth point because NPCs are intelligent. Even animals are going to either try to eat the face off the deadly archer, or run the fuck away from him. More intelligent enemies are going to utilize cover. Players kind of tend to see the NPCs populating the world around them as bland and faceless. They forget that any tactic or thing they can do can likely be done by the citizens of the world around them to some degree. My point here is that if something doesn't work, the foes of the players are going to try something else.

I dunno, I'm kind of all over the place here and there's a little bit of overlap between my four points. The ultimate point of this post is that creating an OP build is kind of a myth in my opinion. You might be able to be good at one single aspect of the game (combat, talking, etc), but that's about it. It also doesn't necessarily make you unstoppable in that area either, because there is more to the game than high damage or hit points or AC in combat or high skill bonuses in non-combat situations. There are always going to be impossible tasks that you can't succeed at, there are always going to be lies too unbelievable (whether due to the outrageousness of the claim or because the NPC has information the player does not). If you the GM are doing it right, the game is varied and interesting and not guaranteed to play to the player's strengths at all times and characters that specialize to an extreme degree to get that extra edge are going to suffer. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Difficulties of RP

One thing I've heard mentioned and agree with in my current group is that we don't really RP much. Role-playing, getting into a character and speaking and acting as that character, is not something everyone is comfortable with. Even those that are comfortable with it are comfortable with it to different degrees. I'm comfortable describing Navere violating the fuck out druids whose lifestyle offends him on every level, and I'm comfortable representing Andorian and Evandor as homosexual (even though their species doesn't really have meaningful sex designations), but I'm not comfortable describing Navere or Andorian and Evandor having a physical relationship that I describe. At least not in front of other people. If you go back a bit on the blog you'll find a few posts where Keroen and Callifay get a little handsy with each other, but that's something I wrote and thought about and didn't produce on the fly in front of six other dudes. So there are varying levels of comfort that further vary depending on the situation. 

So there are a few problems that I've identified with the lack of RP and I'm going to go over them here on the blog with myself, because aside from last week, I haven't posted in about a year, so who is really reading this? No one. Maybe. 

The first problem I've decided exists is that no one is willing to take or has taken the first step. No one has stepped outside of "Navere/Sven/etc says X" or does X or whatever. We'll do minor role-play. Kevin will make his voice a bit gruff when he speaks as Bjorn (spelling?) or I'll describe Navere in the midst of a fight as having this wild and savage grin on his face or I'll voice Navere's internal struggle with doing one thing and doing what's best for the pack. But no one has stopped in the midst of the session to say anything like: 

Navere sits down on his bedroll and motions everyone over. As everyone sits he says, "We haven't really discussed this place and what it means that we're here. I won't lie, I'm fearful of this place. I wholly suspect we've died in battle and are being punished in some way. I have no idea what our overall plan should be, and I fear we're just going in circles trying to remain busy until something finally ends us and we no longer need to worry about how we'll escape this place or if we even can." 

And then for a solid half hour, the characters discuss their fears and hopes and plans, rather than the players discussing plans for their next move. That's the distinction in my mind, speaking as a player or as a character. To be fair, the line can get pretty blurry at times and it can be hard to identify when someone is speaking as themself or their character. 

I don't really feel like this group is resistant to RP, I'm definitely not resistant to the idea of it. My Orcunraytrel campaign has literal thousands and thousands of words of RP. I feel like everyone is open to it. I just feel like no one has made it normal in our sessions. Our sessions are fairly short, and we like to do things to actually achieve goals and such. There's definitely a focus on doing, rather than talking. I truly feel like if someone steps up, the group will roll (heyo!) with it and it will become the new normal way we do things. 

The second problem that I see with the group is that our campaigns are short. Typically six to nine months, maybe a year in length. Which is fucking short in my opinion. One of the big reasons I've never come up with a background for a character until Kyle made me for Navere was because our campaigns are short. I kept playing a variation of OG 4th Edition Erevan the Bard because I wanted a sense of continuity and I enjoy the pleasantly homicidal ridiculousness of that character. For me, I feel like what is the point of becoming invested in a particular character and their history and emotions and feelings if the campaign is going to be over in ten or fifteen sessions? I'm not sure everyone in the group would agree with me here, but this is my two cents.

The third problem I think we have is comfort level with each other. Don't get me wrong, I think we're all friends and whatnot and we all seem to like each other and we all seem to be able to relate to one another. Personally, part of my comfort level as a GM stems from always having gamed with the same set of four dudes, or a variation of that group, for the past twenty years. I'm super comfortable around those guys and can say and do things with them that I normally wouldn't with random people. There are even versions of that group that I wouldn't have felt comfortable enough with to RP a gay relationship.

Anyway. So yeah, we're all friends. I'm friends with Kyle, Kyle is friends with Kevin. Jacob and Dave are friends with Kevin, Andrew is Jacob's brother, and Chase is friends with Andrew. We're all friends, but we haven't all been playing DnD with each other for decades, or even five years. We're all friends and we like each other, but there's still a little bit of distance simply because we lack that long term association that breaks down a lot of boundaries that self doubt and a sense of shame bring out.

So those are just some things I see that I think might be partially responsible for why my group doesn't really delve into lots of RP during sessions. Which is ok. There's nothing that says a group must RP extensively. If the group just doesn't feel like really in depth RP is its thing, there's no law saying they're fired from DnD. These are just my opinions and they could of course be way off base. They're also completely irrelevant. Ultimately, I think we're having fun and that is what's important. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Navere, Whose Bones Sing of The Mountain

Is it whose or who's? I dunno. Whatever.

The following is a background for my wild elf druid Navere that I am currently playing in the Curse of Strahd 5th Edition module. It's the first background I've created for a character in literal years, so it didn't exactly exit my brain hole easily and I am a little rusty, which I think shows. It was written as a sort of fireside conversation. As if Navere and the other characters were seated around the fire and started asking each other for their life stories and how they became adventurers and whatnot. Some of Navere's defining characteristics are that he was raised by wolves, not elves, and that he is very focused on flight or flight instincts and predator vs. prey relationships. Here it is:

“My first memories have always been of blinding white snow beneath a glaring sun, glittering coldly like frozen gems. These memories are swiftly followed by ones of cold, a cold like a frost-rimed metal fist gripping my bones. This makes sense, as I grew up on a mountain called Cold Mountain in the Spine of the World. A cold, but beautiful place. Full of stormy winters full of thunder and lightning. I always loved the storms, the howling wind, the thunder rumbling in the distance, thumping in my chest like a second, stronger, heartbeat.”

“I was the youngest of six. My father was the head of our fairly large and extended family, he was strong and harsh, but a good father. My mother, the fiercest and strongest hunter of our people, ruled at his side.”

Navere smiles briefly, his lips quickly returning to their normal stoic flatness.

“I was a small and sickly child. Weak and pale and slow. Nearly blind, half deaf, not only the youngest of six, but the weakest. My siblings were always faster and stronger and tougher. Even as small children I could barely hold my own against them, and that was only because they pitied me and feared our mother’s wrath. I briefly knew an uncle that thought I was too weak to survive life in our harsh land and should be cast out to die on the side of the mountain. I say briefly because one winter, she dragged him by the scruff of the neck out to the side of the mountain and he never returned.”

Navere smiles sadly and says, “In his defense, his points were of merit. I was a burden to my family. But. I was family, and I was loved, and as I grew older I was occasionally useful. I could barely speak, but I could still make my family smile.”

Navere grins as he says, “I remember when I was still young, but no longer a child, the seasons had changed and ice was melting and the snow was heavy but still solid enough to pack. Snow perfect for snowballs. I had a cousin, big for his age and willing to throw his weight around, even if he was just throwing it at a cripple. We got into it and my father broke us up. I was of course the worse for it, black and blue and scratched up from head to toe. But I would not lay down in defeat and pain, and when my cousin turned to return to his siblings puffed up with pride for knocking me down, I hurled the perfect snowball right up his asshole. He yelped and bolted into the forest, and my antics and fine aim garnered a single bark of a laughter from my father.”

Navere shrugs, “Perhaps it is not so funny now, but at the time I thought quite well of myself.”

“I couldn’t fight or hunt well, but I was tricksie and that entertained many of my family members, especially the youngest of our people. When my siblings and parents hunted, I would care for the younger members of the family and make sure they stayed in our home where it was safe. I rarely hunted, but when trespassers came to our lands and my people went to war, I would distract them with my crude noises while my family encircled them and herded them away from our home and dealt with them.”

“Our lands were fairly secluded, so we had few trespassers, but all of them, save one, were met with bloodshed.”

“The one exception that my father allowed to live in our lands was an old thing. He’d lived on our lands as long as I could remember. My mother told me once he’d been on our lands since her own mother was young. He was small and bent, his skin wrinkled like a walnut and burned from wind and sun. He made his home in a broken down circle of stone. He dwelled in a crude lean to set up between the ancient monuments, a drafty thing of snow and ice and hides and damp timbers We had very little to do with him, and he never sought us out, but my father allowed him to remain on our lands because he was a healer. When I was at my sickest, my parents would take me to this bent old trespasser and he would use herbs and very occasionally magic to help me survive another season of poor hunting or bad weather.”

Navere pauses, thoughtful and quiet, before saying, “As a youth that was almost an adult, I was foolish and took risks with little care for consequences. My siblings, though stronger and faster and older, were cursed with the same youthful behavior. We were troublesome to the old healer. He was a trespasser, strange and alien to us. That fact that he had saved my life several times over and was under the protection of my father and mother had little impact on our behaviors.”

“When we were bored and he was away doing whatever it was he did with his time, we would rifle through his belongings, knock about his furniture, dig at his garden of herbs and roots. Childish things that did little harm and only served to annoy an elderly healer living far beyond the edges of civilization.”

“It was on one such immature excursion to the healer’s icy shanty that I discovered my magic. We had nosed around in his personal belongings, gnawed on the tasty roots her grew in his root cellar. Two fallen stones made up the sides of his small dwelling. The stones were grey, darker than the other stone of the mountain, and ancient beyond reckoning. They were chipped and worn and frosted over, and vague designs could be seen on them, too obscured by grime and the slow march of time to be legible.”

“Standing close to the stones, you could sense their power, a vibration you could feel in your bones. We would dare each other to stand close to them, the one that got closest and stayed there longest was proven brave to our adolescent minds.”

Navere smirks as he speaks, “This was one game I regularly won. For whatever reason, I could stand closest to the stones for the longest. So close my nose almost touched them. Once I did so for so long it was the old healer that forced me to leave with bellows of rage and an oaken stave.”

“The story is simple, we had had our fun among the healer’s possessions and began are feats of daring. I slipped and broke my nose upon the cold stone. My siblings said I flailed wildly and screamed and fled to find our parents. All I felt was lightning. Like a bolt had speared me from the sky and ground its way through my spine down into the ground, chewing through every nerve in its path, leaving them ragged and torn in its wake.”

Navere shivers a little as he recalls the pain, but he continues, “I woke to my mother dragging me away from the stone. When I became aware enough that I could stand, I found I could sense something. It wasn’t anything I could see or hear or smell, it was more subtle than that. I found that I could sort of feel the undercurrent of life flowing through everything. I could sense it in the rapid and worried breathes of my mother as she kissed my head. I could sense it in the way the river flowed over rocks. I could sense it in the way the wind howled as it wound its way across the face of our mountain and the way it whirled through the leaves of the trees of our forest.”

A note of pride begins to creep into Navere’s voice as he speaks, “Once I could sense this energy, this pulse of life, and feel how it moved through the world, I learned to manipulate it and reshape it. I could heal, I could command fire, I could speak to my family in a way I never could before. I could shake the earth and call the wind to my aid. For the first time in my life, I could hunt with my people and help them fight off trespassers.”

By the end of it, Navere is smiling almost smugly. But it is short lived and his expression flattens and he continues.

“I am an elf, and we are long lived, and eventually my brothers and sisters and parents and even my younger cousins passed away. My father slunk away from our lands to die alone and in peace. My mother died hunting a bear, refusing to bow to the wearying grip of age and death and instead dying in the heat of a fight, with a foe’s blood steaming on her face in the cold air, her death serving to strengthen the pack.”

Navere smiles as he says, “My mother was, as I said, fierce.”

“I continued living among my people for a decade or so, slowly feeling myself growing more and more distant from them, until I decided to make my home between the old stones where the healer had lived, for he too had passed away at this point. I hunted with my people, made war with them against those that trespassed upon our lands, but they had no real purpose or need for me and my time was mostly my own. There came a time when I found youths in my tiny cave of packed ice and ancient stone, rummaging in my few meager possessions and stock of foodstuffs. They scampered off quickly, clearly delighting in their mischief, and I realized that I had become as much a tolerated trespasser as the old healer had been. I was more involved with my people than he had been, but I had become little more than a tolerated fixture of their lands, rather than a contributing member of our people.”

Navere pauses for a moment, his eyes distant, before refocusing and saying, “For one raised always among family, this was a terrifying realization. Living life as we did, fear was a constant friend, its prickly fingers constantly caressing your neck. We fight or flee, that is our life upon the mountain, and fear is there to remind us of the consequences of choosing wrongly when deciding which course to take. This fear that fell upon me, this fear was not an ally guiding my actions, this was a brutal foe paralyzing me with indecision.”

Navere pauses and looks away from the fire before returning his gaze to you all and saying, “There is no shame in fear. If we did not fear, we would foolishly spend our lives on pointless battles or hunting prey far beyond our skill. But this crippling fear, this alien dread that I felt so long ago, it is shameful and not something I wish to ever experience again.”

Navere pauses to take a swig from his waterskin before continuing.

“I overcame my dread and decided I would leave the lands of my people. I knew little of the lands beyond the mountain we made our home upon, but the old stones and the forest and the mountain whispered to me of life and magic and I knew I would either find my way or find death. With that sense of dread still fresh in my heart, I was unsure which would be more welcome.”

“In short, I gathered a few provisions, including some armor and a blade that had belonged to the old healer, and I came down from the mountain and found civilization. The first few years were...awkward. But I survived.”

“I learned of money and other races and peoples of the land. I lived among them being of use as a hunter and healer.”

He smiles as a self-deprecating tone creeps into his voice while he says, “I discovered what currency was and immediately discovered what gambling was and that it was not something I was talented at. I also discovered that liquor was a fine thing that led to many poor decisions regarding currency and gambling.”

“I survived though, and the shine of civilization wore away after a time and I realized that the fringes of civilization were more suited to me, so there I stayed. I continued my trend of wandering and gaining work as a healer and hunter. As I grew more competent I began finding work hunting more dangerous beasts, and occasionally men. This eventually turned into the life of an adventurer, and only a few short years later I find myself here at this fire with the five of you.”

So there it is.