Giving Powergamers What They Deserve…

Chances are if you asked a room full of gamers to list some negative player types, powergamer, min/maxer, rules lawyer, and thespian would vie for first place… Then the powergamer would take out the min/maxer from a position of advantage in a flurry of massive dice rolls, and the rules lawyer would drown in the murky seas of the golden rule as this sort of contest is not covered by any RPG core book to date. The thespian would be emoting up a storm through all of this but as no dice were rolled for this contribution to the dramatic depth of the narrative, no one else in contention would pay much heed. When the smoke cleared, I think the powergamer would come out on the top of the RPG no-fly list.

It’s easy to slag the powergamer, as it is for all of our favorite ‘love-to-hates.’ Labels and the willingness to label and cause division make it easy. A quick search for powergamer by everyone’s beloved demon-familiar, Google, will return pages of advice concerning the powergamer and what can be done to solve this woeful problem. It seems like these guys are out there everywhere, ruining games, breaking hearts, and getting the last piece of pizza. Jerks.

What is a Powergamer?
I find that there is less clarity on this concept now than when I was a beardless youth, so for the sake of clarity in this post, I will offer a definition of the term as I came to know it. I do not mean or intend to impugn the reader’s personal definition of the powergamer, but will be using my own so that certain things are made more distinct in this blog entry.

The powergamer is capable of identifying a concept they wish to put forward in the game, based around a principle of force (violence, special abilities, social skill, etc) that will enable them to complete their objectives – often through massive overkill. Their interest in this concept is sufficient enough to inspire them to seek out and evaluate multiple methods of implementing it in the game, and refine it over time. There is a clear and explicit idea, and a distinct expression of that idea in the system toward which the character is optimized.

Because of this willingness to optimize to achieve the capacity for whatever expression of force the player is seeking, the powergamer can often be conflated with the min/maxer. By way of comparison, the min/maxer is not directly a powergamer. I feel these terms are often used as if they were interchangeable, but while the skill of min/maxing a character is of use to a powergamer, it is not a necessity. Likewise, powergaming itself is not the only reason (nor even the most common one) to engage in min/maxing.

The min/maxer is capable of making mathematically optimal uses of the character creation system to produce the most efficient use of resources supporting the concept they are seeking to play. Over time in a given system, most players will develop an awareness of what choices to make to bring the traits of the character they are creating into focus, and grow less likely to choose or invest points in those areas they know will never manifest in play. The player at the table with the label min/maxer is just better at seeing these relationships and often is more ready to learn and manipulate the game elements of play to support their vision of their character. However, without the desire to hold a measurable power sufficiently in excess of the opposition’s, so that the fear of loss in the arena of that power is reduced significantly, min/maxing is more about efficient use of resources than the acquisition of power.

The powergamer seeks, for example, to know how they can become the most effective fighter as a fresh-from-creation character. The min/maxer, on the other hand, seeks to figure out how they can create a character with some combat, some stealth, and some investigative abilities right off the bat. They are more concerned with ‘not wasting points’ than they are on ensuring the ability to apply a chosen type of force.

What’s my motivation in this scene?
For all the so-called problem player types listed above, and especially the powergamer, I find it is an error of judgement to react against them without first understanding what it is that makes them that way. What is their intention when they join the game? I find intention has more of an effect on a game than any manipulation of the rules ever will.

When a player comes in with the intent to glorify themselves through abuse or exploitation of the system, they are giving you clear messages. They are not that interested in playing the game, they want to use it. They are not that interested in playing a role, they want to succeed. They are not that interested in collaborating to build an appropriate expression of the setting, they are looking to beat the system. If these are their intentions, then it doesn’t matter what their play style is. This is the root of the problem, not the decision to focus solely on charisma and charisma related skills so high that they can talk a bank door into opening. Someone who walks in looking to dominate the game, the story, and the other players, is not there to cooperate in what most of us agree is a cooperative venture. Such a person is not a powergamer, they are a tool.

A powergamer runs a character that is more powerful than the rest in some specific way. The question is not, ‘what to do about this?’ but rather, “Why?” This holds true of all the player types you might identify, liked and unliked. It is more important, and a better use of your time, to ask why the player is building a character this way than to prepare a defense versus powergaming or erect a mana-barrier +1 vs min/maxers, +3 versus thespians. If you ask why, you can identify the tool from the gamer. If you ask why, you can discover more about one of your gaming buddies and be a part of building better stories. If you ask why, you might discover that things that you do in the game are contributing to their desire to powergame. These things do not appear in a vacuum. While you may not have been present when this particular seed was planted in the player, you may be doing nothing to encourage more divergent growth.

Ask why.

Classic Connections
One use of a tough character built by a powergamer is to kill off all the NPCs early and often. The GM has several responses to this, but the most common seems to be blaming the players for not roleplaying, or being too lazy to pay attention to what is going on.

  • One reason I have personally encountered for that tough, powergamer character to react to NPCs with swift and lethal violence was that during the campaign and the two before it, the NPCs were invariably more powerful than they seemed, were invariably intended to screw the party, and unless they were stopped cold when out of their safe zones, they would be too tough for us to handle. The player was paying a great deal of attention to the campaign and spent a lot of time putting clues together. The character evolved in response to perceived threats from their starting point, into a reluctant, but effective killer.
  • If the players encounter overwhelming odds, powerful beings, and betrayal as a matter of course, powergaming is a sensible reaction.

Another reason lurking behind the powergamer facade is the extreme end of the wish-fulfillment aspect some find in RPGs. Either as an expression of rejection for a weakness or a trait they cannot stand in themselves, or as the expression of a fundamental aspect of their personality or personal ability they cannot imagine life without, some powergamer characters make the difference between having that player or not. Some come to the table looking to escape, or some come to the table relatively unable to put themselves into the mental shoes of others. Forcing them into weaker or lesser roles than what they are comfortable being perceived as in the game is asking too much.

  • Strong and competent players with strong and competent characters is not a problem. Being unprepared to run a game for them is a problem
  • Cooperation is a relationship between everyone at the table. If the intent of each person is to game together to have fun, then that cooperation entails finding a balance between all the players, not telling ‘the powergamer’ that they have to de-optimize their character.

Balance within the party, and balancing threats, encounters, and finding ways to appropriately challenge the party is often the point of entry to the land of complaints verus powergamers for GMs. Roleplaying is up there, but that ‘meh’ feeling after the party easily trounces what was hoped to be a tough encounter is responsible for more upset than that, I suspect.

  • Not being able to balance an encounter so that “the powergamer is challenged without nuking the rest of the party” is in no way a result of having a powergamer in the group. Wow. There is so much askew with this viewpoint, I cannot include it all here. [balance, GM-oriented vs player-oriented vs group-oriented play, understanding of player desires and intentions, XP and advancement as goal/reward, level/class-based systems, etc]. This is a GM skill and group communication problem, not a play-style clash problem.

Some systems are decried for being too easy to powergame, or that their default mode of play is focused on such approaches.

  • This is entirely possible, and rather than knocking the game, it might be of more use to knock the people who try to run it against its grain. We don’t run All Outta Bubblegum, or Roll for Socks as tactics heavy sims with grid-based miniature use, we don’t run Wraith: the Oblivion for solo GMless play, and we don’t play The Morrow Project as a light-hearted 2-3hr party game. If you are playing a game that has clearly-defined and modular powers whose effects and interactions are made explicit for ease of optimization and implementation, there is a good chance that someone is expecting you to make use of that as a feature, not to call it a bug.
  • Knowing why people are drawn to these games can help you learn to enjoy them more yourself, contribute more to entertaining play in a wider range of styles, and include ways for these players to be fulfilled in your games and benefit from the cross-pollination of ideas.

Talk to your Players
A ubiquitous and overused bit of advice many of us who participate in the YouTube RPG Brigade chuckle over is to talk to your players whenever there is a problem. This is invariably perverted (or perhaps misunderstood from the start) as meaning to tell the players what they are doing wrong, what it is specifically that you do not like, and what it is that they can do to contribute to making the game better…. for you). Communication is essential in good gaming, so we do not laugh because we feel you should not talk to your players, but that it takes a group to make an RPG tango and unless the group as a whole has decided to play the GM’s game the GM’s way, the idea is clarification and collaboration as being the cornerstones to this hobby.

In the case of unwelcome or ‘misunderstood’ player types evolving in or joining a game group, communication from the first session is the method I most strongly endorse for preventing there ever being a problem. Spotting a tool before they join the game is much better than letting them reveal their nature as a tool during your campaign. Knowing why your new buddy Ron is interested in having a maxed-out Willpower score and what that score means to his character concept and its personality means your game and the level of investment in it is going to rock, not that you are trying to arm yourself to make him fail a Willpower roll.

Collaboration is not agreement among the players to bring the GM’s game to life. Being the GM means facilitating an enjoyable game with the skills, talents, inspirations, and players that you have. Becoming better gamers means learning more about how to play, how to run specific styles and genres, how to create specific scenes and encounters, and how to work together to make the best story that you collectively can. Recognizing the powergamer as a gamer first is an important early step in developing skill as a GM. Culling them or setting up an escalating game of one-upmanship to curtail or keep them in line is not about being a GM at all. It’s just meeting force with force… and isn’t force what the quest to stop the powergamer was about in the first place?

6 Responses to “Giving Powergamers What They Deserve…”
  1. morrisonmp says:

    I loved this post… Been there many times, balancing groups with radically different play styles and reasons for wanting to be there. Some of my favorite moments have been when we’ve crossed over and embraced each other’s styles for a time.

    I’ve had power-gamers and min-maxers who have taken a chance on a deep RP scene and storytellers who have gone whole hog with playing optimized 4e characters. It makes the whole experience just more fulfilling.

  2. Murderbunny says:

    This is thoughtful and useful. Most people, when they speak of the powergamer, are actually talking about what you call a Tool: someone who’s motives are to dominate the game at the expense of everyone else’s fun. Powergaming (or min-maxing) is the method by which the Tool (I prefer the more modern term: Douchebag) operates. Method and motivation become conflated.

  3. My experience has been powergamers are usually players for whom wish fulfillment and catharsis are the main joy in gaming. The game is a chance to vent their frustrations — usually through violence and force of personality — on a world that cannot strike back at them. That kind of attitude can usually be redirected by providing small victories that don’t require bulldozing through the game world, but also can be altered by providing challenges where brute force is non-career enhancing.

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