Sunday, June 7, 2015

Risk-Aversion and Powergaming

This came out of a discussion I had with my father yesterday, where he mentioned a skill-focused / noncombat session he played in where one player had a strictly combat-focused "damage monster" character, and was subsequently bored.  It got me asking the question "why do we often see characters built to focus solely on combat, but rarely see characters built to solely focus on noncombat capabilities?"  In some sense this is part of the OSR's Thief Problem and maybe an issue with ACKS' Venturer, so it does sort of matter.

The naive answer is "combat is the biggest portion of the rules, and most options during character creation and advancement focus on combat", ie "the rules made us do it."  There is some truth in this, but as an explanation it is incomplete.  It begs the question, "Why are the rules this way?"

A more complete explanation, I think, follows from risk aversion and what is at stake during combat vs non-combat challenges.  In combat, if you fail you are likely to die.  Your only other remedies are retreat (often infeasible) and surrender / trust in the mercy of your foes (also often inapplicable, as with unintelligent monsters, and probably quite costly even with merciful intelligent foes).  The rules for combat are detailed precisely because of what is at stake, and players build combat-monster characters in order to avoid dying ignominously.

By comparison, non-combat encounters are likely to feature a wide variety of possible outcomes, and are less often immediately lethal on failure (these do happen, but the proportion of potentially-lethal combats much outweighs the proportion of potentially-lethal noncombats).  This is why noncombat gets both briefer treatment in the rules and less attention from players; if a non-combat is going poorly, one can often "retreat" from it more effectively than one could a combat, and seek another way around.  Couldn't pick the lock?  Time to bring out a hammer.  Couldn't bribe the guard?  Time to find some blackmail fodder, or a back door, or any number of other approaches.  But once the swords come out, somebody's going to end up under a shroud, and you'd rather it weren't you.


Michael Prescott said...

Agreed. I also think that part of it is that the nature of role-playing distances us from social threats. If you're in a group of people, exploring a hideously dangerous place, your friends are your online lifeline. Their approval, cooperation, and good will toward me means enough to force a compromise in many situations.

In an RPG session, however, I'm insulated from all of that. Most games advocate against allowing PCs to use social skills on one another. As a consequence of this, intra-party social conflict is all a bit toothless - when there's genuine conflict, it frequently escalates to party-splitting or violence, both of which carry way more weight.

When we play Burning Wheel, or other games with binding rules for PC-vs-PC social conflict, I find this doesn't happen - you often get purely non-combat characters.

My first BW short campaign was a bunch of dignitaries heading to a doomed holy city to try to recover its artifacts, and two of the characters had zero combat skills - an elven diplomat, and a venal bishop, both of whom were interpersonal monsters.

John said...

Hm, I had not considered the intra-party conflict case. Then again, my groups tend to run pretty tight; I think we've only seen direct PC-vs-PC violence once, and one or two instances of intra-party Charm Person. More typically we end up with in-party plots that all the players know about and play along with while most of their characters remain in the dark.

John said...

I guess the difference might be "having social rules binding on the PCs at all, ever" rather than the difference being made by having rules that let PCs bind other PCs.

trollsmyth said...

Weird. I do run into the pure combat monster frequently (most groups I run for generate at least one such character) but I also get the social characters (as much as D&D allows such things) fairly frequently.

Actually, let me rephrase that: I get the investigation-focused characters fairly frequently. Characters with contacts, observation, and research skills tend to do well in my campaigns, so I frequently get those.

Also, related to the topic on hand, I think:

Edward Wilson said...

I think one influence leading to combat-focused characters comes from MMORPGs. It the early days of RPGs I rarely heard anyone talk about "builds" or "optimizing". But in MMORPGs if you wan to PvP effectively or be in a dungeon raiding guild you must optimize--and DPS classes seem more "badass" than tanks or healers.

Fern Kali said...

Just found this following a link from Your thoughts mirror some I've been having recently. I think there's a problem that many players don't know how to create a character who is not comabt focused, and I've known many GM's who don't know how to deal with a non-combat character being in the party - and that's very frustrating and exacerbates the situation.

John said...

As a rule, I'm fairly skeptical of allegations of negative MMO influence on tabletop culture. It's really hard to quantify this sort of impact, and I wasn't around at the beginning anyway. It looks like the biggest MMOs before WoW were Lineage and Ultima, which combined never crossed 4 million users (and a lot of Lineage's 3 million users were in Asia and separated from the American tabletop RPG market). I think it's safe to conclude from this that pre-WoW MMOs probably had little influence on tabletop RPGs, though if anyone has evidence otherwise I'd welcome it (likewise, if anyone knows of historical discussions of builds during the 2e era, I'd be curious to see that as well). WoW launched in late 2004 and hit 3.5m users around mid-2005, eventually peaking at arond 12m users in 2010. On the tabletop side, the WotC CharOp board FAQ was posted in 2003, more than a year before WoW's release and long before its peak. The archives of the 3.5e CharOp board only go back to 2008 (probably something to do with 4e's release and subsequent forum reorganization), but the community existed and the "character optimization" language was definitely in use by 2003. It's very possible that MMOs (vis-a-vis WoW) encouraged the spread of optimization language in RPGs, but I really don't think they initiated it. Notably, the "classics" of the CharOp boards like Pun-Pun (2005) and TreantMonk's Wizard Guide (2008) all postdate WoW's release.

In conclusion: drawing conclusive conclusions about this sort of stuff is hard :P

John said...

That's definitely true. I've had DMs who viewed "building an adventure" as "planning a series of carefully-balanced combats". Having a guy with a ton of Diplomacy talk his way around and out of those combats is really irritating for that sort of DM, so they discourage their players from doing this. So it's partly a DMing problem as well.

John said...

Solid analysis by Natalie. Analysis of the Combat Monster is tricky for OSR/TSR games, where there might or might not even be rules for non-combat skills (except thieves I guess?).

I'm beginning to think more that the viability of noncombat characters relies heavily on the DM and his style. Some DMs insist on speaking in-character and nerf Diplomacy, while some will never ask you to speak in-character, and there Diplomacy is strong. Likewise, some will hand you clues on a silver platter, some will require you to be able to ask and answer the right questions. It's just not standardized the way combat is - investing heavily in a noncombat strategy is risky, while investing heavily in a combat strategy will tend to bear relatively consistent rewards across DMs running the same ruleset (I've heard of grounds that can run multiple sessions without a combat, but never met one myself).

Shelby Urbanek said...

It occurs to me that I view this issue from the other way around. Combat has lots of rules because it's easy to quantify. The opinions of thinking beings is infinitely more difficult to satisfactorily quantify or predict. Everybody has different motives and different "buttons"

Thus it is my thought that every character ought to have some input during social encounters. Lack of rules does not mean a lack of available action, but rather a freedom of action. Any character can be a social one, especially with a decent charisma. (Let us not forget that even a fighter with an 11 Charisma is no less personable than the average man in the street)

John said...

Depends a lot on your ruleset. In B/X, yeah, the fighter with 11 Cha is reasonably prepared to deal with diplomacy. In 3e, with its skill system and assumption of ever-increasing difficulty, a high-level fighter with 11 Cha and no skill points in Diplomacy is almost certainly going to make a hash of things by opening his mouth, because skills in high-level 3.x are basically all-or-nothing; you have them at full ranks or you may as well not have them at all. In Traveller, a marine with 7 Soc and no Advocate is unprepared to represent himself in a court of law. There are plenty of delicate social situations that the "average man on the street" is unequipped to deal with; testifying before congress, deceiving the secret police, brokering a disarmament treaty between nuclear superpowers, corporate acquisition negotiations, court intrigues, &c. I guess a unifying theme on these situations is that your opposition is very socially-skilled, and in most the stakes are high as well. But most social interactions in RPGs are not of this type.

Anyway, the question I intended to address was more or less, "we see lots of powergamed combat characters, but few powergamed social/investigative/stealth/... characters (in systems where powergaming such characters is possible, like 3.x). Why?" Variety is sort of an answer (in that there are lots of noncombat skills, so which ones do you choose to exploit?), but I don't think it's because of the infinite variety of human (and demihuman and so forth) opinions and worldviews. The systems I'm talking about have rules for talking to people (social interactions are already quantified); players just don't utilize those rules as much and as effectively as the combat rules.

Maybe an answer is that most social interactions in RPGs are softballed, and you don't *need* to optimize for them - many DMs are railroady, and if you blow the diplo roll with the king that they put there for no good reason, they'll find a way to get you back on the rails. Even if you're not on the rails, it's probably still possible to recover from most failed social situations, because few DMs will follow through on the full logical consequences of "well you failed to deceive the secret police while unarmed and in their custody" (which would normally imply "you're all going to a gulag in Siberia for the rest of your natural lives", but in RPGs often does not).