Friday, October 05, 2007

Defending One-Trick Ponies.

Ok, I'm a little late to the game, but I just saw Chris Chinn's post on specialization in point-buy systems.

Let me start by saying that there are a number of things at least potentially wrong with point-buy systems. First, I have trouble with the whole concept of building balanced characters. Characters can never truly be balanced. Different players have different meta-goals within the game. Some want to succeed in combat. Others want to be the center of attention. While you can affect some aspect of these goals through the choices you make during character creation. Other aspects will always emerge from how you play the character, or how you interact with the other players. A "strong" role-player with a "weak" character can often "dominate" the table. This is true for nearly any definition of "strong", "weak" and "dominate."

This leads me to my second, more critical complaint. Point-buy systems force players to master the system in order to build their desired characters. Lets say I want to build a master swordsman. If I'm playing a point-buy game, then I (as the player) must have a strong sense of how to tactically manipulate the system to build an effective sword combatant. If I do a poor job, then the character's in-play abilities will vary significantly from my original intent.

For me, that's a design flaw. I shouldn't have to master the system to build my character--my character should be a master swordsman because everyone at the table buys into the idea. We agree that he is a master swordsman, and as a result, he can do master swordsmanly things.

Of course, none of this really addresses Chris's post. He argued that specialization reduces the opportunities for conflict. Basically, within their realm of specialization, the character dominates. Outside that, they are dominated. Since the conflicts are a foregone conclusion, they are not interesting.

While this seems straightforward enough, something about it bothers me. Sure, overspecialization could be a problem--but I think specialization is an effective way to ensure that each player has a role within the story. Having unique roles is, to me, much more important than trying to balance power levels.

I think there's an assumed definition of conflict here, that is much too narrow for my tastes. I feel that Chris's argument applies to what I call "Mechanics Based Conflicts". Here, success or failure is determined by the roll of the dice. Character decisions are largely tactical. The conflict is considered interesting when it requires several rounds of decision making and die rolling before anyone becomes the clear victor. There is also a strong, underlying assumption that success is always good and failure is always bad. Combat is the most common (and most overused) example of mechanics based conflicts.

Personally, I feel that mechanics based conflicts are incredibly weak. They focus on game play, not story.

Instead, I would like to focus on internal conflicts within the characters. A small innocent child has been possessed by a demon. Do I kill the child, thus removing the threat. Or do I let the child live--struggling to prevent the demon from harming others while I search for a way to banish it. Here, the conflict is the decision that the character must make. Say that I choose to kill the child, the actual combat is unimportant. I should succeed easily--I probably don't need to make a single roll. But, the results of my actions are important. How will I deal with the guilt? How will the child's parents react? How will the townspeople? Once I make a decision to act, the world is profoundly changed, and I must live with the results.

Also, failure should not necessarily be a bad thing. Let's say I make a character who sucks at combat. I get into a fight with the bad guys, and draw my sword. Again, the actual combat doesn't matter. They disarm me and beat me bloody. Big deal. Then they drag me off to their camp, where I'm tied to a tree. Sure, it looks grim, but now things get interesting. I have a chance to uncover clues about their plans, and I must use my silver tongue to try and worm my way out of this mess. In many cases, a good failure can create more interesting stories than a simple success. Had I fought off the attackers, the conflict would have ended. Now, it has grown deeper and more intriguing.

Once the conflict is bigger than simple actions, then the actions themselves loose their significance. We no longer need to balance PCs and NPCs at the action level. We can often get rid of multi-round, multi-roll resolution systems. We're not focused on the action's result, we're focused on the changes those results make in the world. And, from this vantage point, Chris's problems largely vanish.

One last example, look at the Princess Bride. No singe opponent ever comes close to matching Westley with a blade. Yet, he is forced to surrender when outnumbered by Humperdinck's guards. While in the pit of despair, he is completely at the bad guy's mercy, and he is reduced to using trickery and deceit when recovering from a bad case of the mostly-deads.

Looking at it with an action-focused view, he either dominates or is dominated at every step. Yet, the resulting story is quite satisfying. The movie created numerous, interesting conflicts for Westley, without ever feeling the need to pit him against an opposing sword master of equal skill. We should strive for the same in our stories.



Anonymous Chris said...

Hi Rich,

I wrote that article with the narrow look at mechanics based conflict, not because I believe that to be the only kind of conflict possible, but rather, as being the only type of game where it makes sense to even bother trying to install a point-based character generation system in the first place.

That is, if mechanics based conflict isn't the point of your game, you wouldn't need to have a tight point-buy system trying to balance things out. Instead, you'd have something like Polaris where you can just describe who your character is, and what they can do is kind of color to the fact.

The reason to have a point buy system is to develop some kind of strategization (ala building a Magic deck) so, if the system itself shoots you in the foot when it comes to making strategic choices in play after you've built the character, it's pretty useless.

The point of a game focused more on a fulfilling narrative story is choices, character development, and pacing- in which case you're looking at systems like Polaris, Grey Ranks, My Life with Master, or With Great Power that shift the mechanical focus away from "what your guy can do" towards those things which build a good dramatic structure.

In which case- you find these games creating stories like The Princess Bride etc.- because whether Westley succeeds or not isn't objectively based on "how good he is" but rather if it makes for an interesting story.

So, with all that in mind, you might see we're talking apples and oranges. I agree with all of your points applied towards one style of game design, while my post is talking about another style completely.

Anyway, I look forward to seeing what you think a few months down the line, after I further develop the game I'm working on. It's aimed more towards the latter style of gaming which might be what you're looking for.

6:44 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

I don't think it needs to be as clear cut as you're trying to make it.

You can have a narrative game that still uses point-based mechanics for resolving actions. I've run many solidly story-focused BESM games, and that definitely has a point-based character generation system.

Let's say we're running a game. The characters get into a fight. Now, what's important about this fight?

In a strategic game, the importance is focused on winning or losing the fight at hand.

In a story-focused game, the importance is focused on how the fight changes the state of the game world. It doesn't matter so much whether the characters win or lose (as long as they don't die). Instead you focus on the consequences of the character's actions.

Note: it doesn't matter what system you use to resolve the combat. Indeed, you could use the same, exact system for either example. Sure, some systems work better with one style of play or the other--but it's not a clean division. Many systems work fine for both, and in many cases it's just a matter of style.


8:04 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Hi Rich,

Did that point system actually -help- your narrative game, or did it just -not- get in the way?

See, I've played lots of BESM, and, at best, it's only been that people have ignored the point system (either in strategizing OR in fudging in play), in which case, you can say it might as well not be there.

I don't think all games can be so cleanly cut, but definitely so with point build systems that equate all mechanics of a character to points- they're built to create balance and at the same time, do a terrible job of it without siloing to prevent hyper-specialization.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

I think we may have to agree to disagree on this one.

As far as BESM goes, in the longest running game, having the point system definitely made the game better. However, in that game, the players were well aware of my GMing style. Instead of building the characters towards some strategic optima, they used the points to build interesting characters (focusing on advantages and disadvantages that could play an active role in the story).

In many ways, we just re-defined the power axis. In that game, power is a measurement of how vital your character is to the story, not how many orcs you can cut down with one blow. And the players simply optimized their character along this new axis.

I think, if I tried to use the same system with my most current gaming group, the situation would be different. That group is largely made up of strategic players. They would instinctively build strategically optimized characters--even though those characters would prove sub-optimal in the game itself. In that case, the point system would, at best, not interfere with the story.

Here's a couple more points to consider:

* I don't think specialization is a bad thing. For a story-based game it is often good, if not vital.

* I don't think balance is so important. I don't think you can ever have a truly balanced game. None of the games on the market even come close.

* I strongly believe that game mechanics (to a point) can improve the story content of a game.

* I think point-based systems serve several important roles, beyond simply "balancing" characters. At a minimum, point based systems give you the following:

1) They place limits on the players. Ironically, limits encourage creativity. Give a writer a blank piece of paper and ask them to write a story, and they will struggle with the task. Tell them to write a story about an alcoholic teenager who has just run away from her abusive mother, and they'll be off and writing before you finish the instructions.

By providing a framework for the players to work within, point based systems actually enhance player creativity. Good point-based systems sit at the sweet spot (at least for me) between structure and flexibility.

2) The mechanics help enforce consistency. Consistency is very, very hard. Even professionals screw it up a lot.

Having a clear description of what your character can and cannot do helps keep your character consistent from scene to scene.

I'm sure there are other benefits that I'm just not thinking of right now.


5:33 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

I agree with all of your points except the last one. I'm absolutely a believer that system can help story, just point builds not being one of them. Have you checked out any of the games I've mentioned?

All of them show perfect examples of systems which provide ALL of the benefits you point to without the possibility of players twinking the numbers. All of the pros, none of the cons.

That's why I think point builds are bad from both a gamist/strategic standpoint and a narrative standpoint.

Now, can you have "Choose menu A/choose menu B" builds that work for either? Yes. Can you have "Split 8 points between these skills"? Yes.

But you'll realize that both of these ideas work from the same logic of siloing- the designer limits how far the players can twink the game, which can either provide better strategy AND/OR give focus to narrative games.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

I don't think point-based systems are perfect. In fact, if you look back at my original post, I started with several criticisms of point based systems.

My original post was more a criticism of the idea that specialization is bad than a defense of point-based systems.

And I agree. There are several systems out there that do a better job supporting narrative gaming. Several of the titles you mentioned are on my "to buy" list, but I don't have any of them on my bookshelf. Though, I do have quite a few other indie titles.

But I don't think point based systems are pointless (sorry, I couldn't refuse). Sure, I'd much rather play Sorcerer--but BESM is still one of my favorite systems. And, though I hate to say it, it's a lot easier to find players willing to try BESM. It's hard to convince the players around here to try anything indie.

I'm also a little worried that many of the indie games are a bit too soft and fuzzy for many players. In both HeroQuest (the RPG, not the board game) and Sorcerer, I have had trouble getting players to make interesting characters. They have too much freedom, and seem to flounder around uselessly. However, almost universally, the second time they play the game, their characters rock.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Hi Rich,

You'll notice that my criticism is "hyper specialization". That's the problem of the 1-trick pony- it's not even good for 3 tricks, where you could make choices between them, which is required for both interesting strategy and interesting narrative choices.

The whole other topic you're talking about- getting people to try new things, is pretty much a problem for ALL roleplaying. Unless something is being hyped as the next big thing, gamers are a fearful lot when it comes to trying new stuff.

And you can't design a game good enough that it impresses someone who hasn't played or seen it yet. (It's like saying people would try new foods if they tasted better, but if they tasted better, how would the people know, not having tasted it?)

Your concerns about HQ & Sorcerer stem from the same place- both games use a pretty tight niche of genres they pull from and few gamers make the connection- they have no idea of what a character is supposed to look like, and they flounder. Same thing happens in any game where the players don't click into genre material (try playing a supers game with someone who's never read comic books, you'll see the same problem).

But none of this really stands here nor there with point builds. Though silo builds do a great job of laying down genre ideas- that's why D&D sticks with classes and White Wolf uses splats to define characters- the menu choices force players to build characters within the genre, fitting the world.

11:20 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

Chris, thanks for all your comments.

I could point out that the phrase "hyper specialization" was never used in your original post--but that's just bickering over terminology.

Really, we're talking about the type of specialization that inevitably occurs under point-based systems (regardless of what we call it). In actual play, I just haven't seen the type of hyper specialization you're talking about.

In my experience, point-based systems lend themselves to a nice level of specialization that works well in the story. But, even if it did drive everyone towards hyper specialization, I don't think it would really matter given the type of stories I tend to run. I've had munchkin players before that border on what you describe, but even their characters fit positively into the story.

And, if D&D and WOD are examples of silo systems, then I'm afraid you'll never convince me of their merit.

Character creation in D&D and WOD is simply too stifling for my tastes. Even in the best splat system, I feel like I'm not really creating a character--I'm merely being allowed to act out someone else's idea.

Take the new Mage game. Why can't I have a character that specializes in Spirit and Fate magic? Because, it's not one of the options given to us by the splat. And if I wanted to really personalize the magic system to give it a truly personal flavor--well, just forget about it.

Sure, you can add more options--but that's just giving me a bigger menu to choose from. It doesn't change the basic problem.

This leads to another, unrelated point. I think that a lot of indie game design and RPG theory is driven by our bad experiences--probably to an unhealthy extent. I by no means exempt myself from this. My outright hatred of level/class systems probably has more to do with bad gaming experiences than any real flaws in those systems.

And, I'll also say this: different players require different levels of support (either from the system or from their GM and peers). New players in particular tend to need more support than veterans.

It seems that siloed games, for the most part, provide the most support (and the most restrictions), whereas many story-focused indie games provide little or no support (or restrictions). Point based systems lie somewhere in between.

As a writer, I'm used to making up characters on my own. I don't need a lot of support or limits from the game system. So I favor systems that are as open as possible. That, however, may not be the best choice for everyone. But, in a practical sense, it means I will always favor point systems over siloed systems.

Yes, it's possible that someone could come up with an incredible new silo system that keeps all the flexibility of a point-based system while eliminating all of your concerns. But call me a cynic, I just don't see it happening.


9:29 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Hi Rich,

Yes, it's possible that someone could come up with an incredible new silo system that keeps all the flexibility of a point-based system while eliminating all of your concerns.

Did you notice the bit of siloing in the way HeroQuest assigns numbers to abilities in character generation?

It's not only been done, but several games feature exactly what you're not seeing: CAPES, Beast Hunters, OctaNe, Inspectres, Hero's Banner, Wilderness of Mirrors...

And this is my point of criticism- if a mechanical system doesn't -aid- the game in some manner, it's not worth having.

For example, yes, I've had plenty of point build games where the players didn't twink the numbers, but it wasn't the point build system that prevented them from doing that.

And since point build systems are built with the concept of balancing things, that means it in fact, did nothing, and I had to rely upon social contract to take up the slack.

A good system designed to do something, whatever that something is, needs to reliably provide that. Point build systems do not reliably provide balance, nor do they do anything to help narrative games.

Again, can you say anything a point build system would have done for your players for Sorcerer or Heroquest?

1:19 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

I think we're reaching the point of diminishing returns on this conversation, since it feels like we're starting to talk past each other.

Just to repeat, I never meant to defend point-based systems as an ideal system. They have a lot of problems--but I'd rather play BESM than D&D.

Unfortunately, I cannot find my copy of HeroQuest. I hope I didn't lend it to someone.

However, I don't remember any real Siloing in there. As I recall, you wrote a 50-word description of your character. Then you underlined various words in the description, and used them as traits. Nothing prevented you from overspecializing in one area (for example, taking all combat-oriented traits).

I guess maybe I'm misunderstanding your idea of hyper specialization. Do you mean that a character in a point-based game would over-specialize in one area (like combat)? Or that they would literally spend all their points on a single trait (e.g. giving myself a 528th level fireball)? I assumed you meant the former.

Anyway, I think we need to make a distinction between lower-case siloing (like dividing points into attribute/skill/whatever categories, or placing minor limitations on how many points you can spend on a single trait) and upper-case Siloing (where the major character creation decisions are selecting from a limited list: e.g. pick a race, then pick a class).

I also think we have a very different viewpoint on what we want from our games.

Yes, I would prefer a game that fully supports my desired style of play--but I'd rather play a game that only partially supports my play style than no game at all. More often than not, that's the choice I'm forced to make.

I do think point based systems provide a reasonably good structure, and in that sense they help support a narrative style game. Sure, they aren't as good as a full-bore narrative game, but they work, and I can find players.

Hopefully I can corrupt those players and get them to try something a little more indie.

More importantly, I would rather play a game that had few restrictions on character creation, and relied on social contract and GM oversight to prevent abuse, than a game that tries to lock down everything, thus highly limiting player choice. It sounds like you would disagree with this last statement.



3:13 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Hi Rich,

Oh shoot, I mixed up the older version of Hero Wars and the newer version of Hero Quest.

The older version had one thing the newer one pulled out- you'd pick one of your abilities to be the best, and I think it was 3 of them to be second best, and then the rest got a flat number.

This assured that pretty much everyone had the same numbers floating around, and that you had an immediate focus on your character- there was a core set of abilities that defined them, and the rest were extra.

Do note that siloing can be used for genre limitations, but not all genre limitations are siloing.

What I mean by hyperspecialization, is that you build all of your skills/abilties/whatever towards doing this -one- thing to the point where no other options are really viable in a normal situation.

For example, in Rune, there was one power that basically knocked down an enemy, preventing them from doing anything the next turn. If you bumped it up far enough, you could basically keep enemies in perpetual stun mode and never actually have a chance to do anything.

Though that's an example of a specific broken mechanic, you find many mechanics can become broken after a set point, and especially if it becomes unfeasible to resist them without making a ultra specific build to resist them.

Anyway, it was good talking to you, do check out some of the games I mentioned, I think you'll be pretty interested to see how many other design options exist.

7:40 AM  

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