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. 

1 comment:

  1. Hmm... I'm not sure where to start. Fuck the NPC's, the players will usually just murder hobo them in their sleep and burn the village down. Some of the things I dislike about D&D & Pathfinder is that typically your rewards are XP from killing things. So we tend to focus on things what will help with that. Forget dumping skill points into "social skills", when a greataxe is just as good at negotiating.

    More seriously, I think skill based games such as GURPS and Shadowrun tent to make the players make more "balanced" decisions, and their characters can have legitimate flaws.