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The Powergamer

I have looked upon the face of a powergamer, and it is not pretty. It's not ugly; it is beyond revolting. I must warn you, as I write this I am feeling mostly brain-dead from the shock of it; if you see a part of this which makes little sense, skip it, as I will likely be unable to understand half of it myself when I recover.


What was I talking about, anyway? Right, the powergamer! I and my friends thought we knew what powergaming was - we played less of a politically-oriented campaign, and went out there to eliminate dangers to our interests personally, rather than manipulating events so we got the land in safe territory instead of on the border. I have since come to two conclusions, which I will (hopefully) explain the reasons for in detail later on. One, we styled ourselves powergamers but were low level, had no magical items, and nothing else generally considered typical of powerful characters, so had just managed to move ourselves a little closer to what most gaming groups considered 'normal'. Two, roleplaying on its own was good, wargaming on its own was good; it was when you tried to combine them, that powergamers occurred. Which is not to say that they result from all such combinations; merely that I find it incredibly difficult to believe that they could be spontaneously found without such a catalyst.

I recall someone telling me, recently, about an old magazine article he read a few decades ago; it divided gaming style into four basic types. There was powergaming, in which the person doesn't remember the characters name but does know how many +3/+3 flaming vorpal swords they have. There was storytelling, in which the world had an ongoing history that the characters had to interact with, instead of shoving it aside. There was strict roleplaying, where the player wasn't the best in the world, but they knew their character - down to the last unmatched sock in his/her backpack. And there was wargaming, where you focused solely on the capabilities of the character, ignoring any non-mechanical aspects of it. Well, a few days ago one of our players brought home a wargamer.

I had opportunity to talk with that new player extensively, and here is what I learned. He had played 'lots' of game systems. I named several I knew (of), and he had played almost all of them; he also said he owned all of the books. Call it fifteen to twenty, in the table-top RPG section. I asked about a few wargames, and received an emphatic yes, with a comment from the player that brought him home about the insane amount of models he owned. I asked about LARP's, starting with NERO, and upon hearing him answer that 'Yeah! I love to beat people up!', I looked carefully at him (he still looked young), and asked how long he had been playing. He said it was a few years ago. Having read the Safety Regulations, I knew that players below 14 weren't allowed to participate in dangerous activities - like combat. Maybe he looked (exceptionally!) young for his age, but a few years ago he was NOT beating up people in NERO, of that I was sure. So I decided not to mention LARP's any more, and moved on to GM's. I wanted to make sure his gaming experience wasn't limited to just one group, that had tried out each game once and moved on. He told me that he didn't think I would know any of the GM's, but reluctantly gave their names - if the words he gave could be considered 'names', that is. After the fifth of six, C3-PO, I was wondering if any of his non-wargames had been table-top; not a single GM had a 'real' name, each was more like the handles one might adopt for an E-mail campaign.

Of course, I was already pondering whether he would need an introduction to face-to-face RP'ing, since there are certain visual and real-time actions difficult to convey by E-mail. Well, at this point three other things surfaced, which led me to believe that he viewed roleplaying as merel another set of rules to apply to the game - the rest of the group had been playing out a few things in town in the meantime, and since I was the only one not doing anything in town, I was the only one with enough free time to talk with the new player before he played. Anyway, the rest of the group had somehow managed to get into a fight, and one person was playing two characters (both of whom were in the area), that person's character was the first to be injured/fall (few enough hit points that one hit knocked him down). He said "Okay, my cleric goes over and heals him.", and our new player immediately broke in exclaiming "Now THAT'S what I don't like about people playing multiple characters, they ALWAYS share everything with each other! Healing, magical items, information." ; the player of the cleric protested that his cleric ALWAYS did that, healed whoever was hurt.

Stunned by the idea that playing multiple characters at once would 'always' happen this way, I told the new player that this wasn't true; I related to him the story of the two characters I had once had, that I had been playing for several years each, and really loved and wanted to keep; they met once (one of them was semi-retired at a certain place, and I didn't even see it coming until she was described as what my current character was seeing), and because of the backgrounds/personalities that I was roleplaying for them, they hated each other, and ended up killing each other off. Not deterred, our new player continued to express his distaste for roleplaying, when (a few minutes later, as I had to pause for my character to do something) he added that the problem with evil characters, was that they couldn't be in a party for any length of time at all without killing the other party members.

This was in reference to my character getting experience for killing another, and after a long argument between him and the GM about how alignment would affect that so I was actually LOSING experience. Now, I will refrain from mentioning any evil characters that I have played in a party without killing anyone, because the reason they haven't killed anyone is to *keep their cover*, and telling anyone about them would kind of break that; just because you're 'evil', doesn't mean you're stupid/suicidal. Now, out of sheer annoyance and to end his arguing of the rules, I told him that the character was lawful evil; he STILL argued that the lawful would affect it, so I told him you could see the lawful evil with a True Seeing, but needed a Wish to see his true alignment, which was something different. Incidentally, in the end I DID kill his character, but only after that person had most clearly made themself NOT part of the party, and they deserved the death too (I mean that multiple ways).

Taking a break to deal with a minor part of the whole alignment issue, which is pertinent as this minor part was directly connected to my character; Lawful alignment my character was, because he carried out the edicts of his Deity; a God of Chaos. Seem contradictory? Well, a truly chaotic character would be sometimes lawful, sometimes chaotic, sometimes neutral, whenever (s)he felt like it; my character was consistently chaotic, ALL THE TIME, in the name of that Deity. Also, my character was the child of a Deity of Death (possibly some generations removed, as all that was inherited was the knowledge of such, and being called upon from time to time; roleplaying hook more than anything else), and viewed death as a -gift-, which was only given to the most worthy. All the attacks were 3/4 temporary damage, and I always tried for knockout; healing spells were dispensed to accidentally felled enemies. Now, that's a bit different from your average adventurer, who goes around slaughtering everything that looks threatening or attacks it, not thinking twice about the slaying.

My character was good, in that for the most part noone was ever killed - and, if someone proved themselves worthy, he was doing the ultimate of good deeds by rewarding them with a trip to the next plane of existence, to serve the Deity of Death in the form they had in the prime of their life, not as an aging slowing grizzled fighter whose last days had come a few decades later. It may not have been 'good' by everyone else's standards, but I was roleplaying his misunderstandings - and who knows, maybe they really WERE rewarded in that plane beyond. So, alignment should not always be clear cut good/evil/law/chaos; there should be the personal alignment, which is how you view your actions, and the global alignment, which is how the majority of people around you in whatever area you're in would feel about your beliefs. If someone has a problem with you themselves? Well, the world isn't a peaceful perfect one, people don't always agree - in fact, they often disagree, or would - with each other's views.But for some reason we don't always come to blows, we somehow manage to ignore those parts of everyone else, and not go totally insane because there's amost noone out there who is completely in agreement/compatible with our world-view.

So, characters should not be likely to have the issue get in the way of the party (or whatever else they're doing), unless they feel strongly about it (or are high-strung, prone to impulsive bahavior, other extenuating circumstances), or they feel everyone else would agree with them (the geographical/social area they live in). It could be argued that every country is lawful good within its borders, because whatever the majority of people believe, seems right and proper to them; anyone else, say a pacifist in an area where everyone robs, murders, razes, and pillages at will, would be considered sociopathic. Anyone else who doesn't believe as they do, could be called 'chaotic' or 'evil' because their actions are so distanced from what everyone knows should be, regardless of what they were before. Of course, to the rest of the world, that entire area might have a different alignment (like the only country of paladins being thought evil by the rest of the world, which freely engages in the aforementioned acts), hence Global Alignment differs depending on where you are, and who is doing the evalutions (you are in a bandit hideout, and backstabbing is the norm; you are also in the county, where it is outlawed; you go a bit farther out, and it might be something different).

Well, the new character, who, it became apparent, only joined our camp long enough to find out which of us was the more serious threat, went out in the night and fired an arrow at my character, who tried to block. It took over half of my attacks to do so, and since noone had ever come that close to harming me before, except this one person who fired a really good arrow, I knew that he had earned the right to die - he truly deserved his death, and my character went out and gave it to him. Well, if I didn't get experience for killing him, I got experience for roleplaying. Now, starting to wonder if the GM's he had named were each of the other players, and they cycled the GM-ship, I asked him how many roleplaying games he had played, since the other systems named might have been just treated as additional wargaming rules; after all, his comment on the previous two aspects of roleplaying indicated a one-sided viewpoint taken to the extreme, and it seemed that if he'd done very much roleplaying he would have to have seen the other parts of it (unless his other players also had all the same misconceptions). He immediately began naming "Baldur's Gate, Visit to Icewind Dale" I interrupted him before he got too far, saying "But those are computer games, not roleplaying games.", and forestalled his next protest by telling him that connecting with a bunch of other people online to play a Quake-style game wasn't roleplaying, no matter how fancy the graphics were. I further challenged him with the Troll Test, asking how his game would do with it. The Troll Test, was mentioned to me by the same person who recommended this particular newsgroup to post on; it consists of this.

You encounter a troll; the usual options are surrender, flee, fight. What if you want to take a torch, light your head on fire, and headbutt the troll? Would the game let you do that, and would it even have an option to let you enter your own special action?

Well, as it happened, he didn't answer the question; he avoided it. He listed a whole long amount of reasons why noone would ever do that in the first place, saying that it was too hard to light a torch and then your head on fire, and would take too long, it would be much less effective than most other stuff. I asked, what if you had decided that your encounters with all the supernatural horrors and other monsters your character had been encountering, you had become slightly unhinged - yes this would be reflected by the game as a reduction in Intelligence or Wisdom, but that didn't matter - you had decided to roleplay that your character would treat the arrival of the troll with a mixture of good old satisfying physical violence, and fire to make sure it didn't regenerate. He replied that noone would EVER do this, as it took a far shorter time to cast Fireball or something, and did a lot more damage; I was struck speechless.

His worst crime was not that of being a powergamer, it was that he expected everyone else to be like him, and could not see why anyone else WOULDN'T take the most efficent course of action, wargaming-wise. Seeing my silence, he forged on to tell me that a game was supposed to be fun, and if it wasn't fun, it wasn't worth playing; a sarcastic inner voice wanted to ask "Yeah, and if you're not winning it's not fun?", but I had already heard enough. No point in prolonging my agony. Nonetheless, he continued to rant on bitterly about having fun, and roleplaying games, for a few minutes. I deduced that he didn't see the roleplaying as being important at all; it was another set of rules, another aspect of the game, just like dice or a board, and if it stopped him from maximum enjoyment of the game, it could be tossed to make room. Now, I had always thought of roleplaying as the most important thing; the rules were there as guidelines, primarily to turn your intent and everyone else's intent, into results, with the gamemaster to referee and handle anything the rules didn't make sense about/cover. To hear that a gamer existed that could ignore the whole roleplaying issue like it wasn't even there, has been extremely depressing. Yet, what can I blame?

I think I'll blame the computer games, for one. From what I've heard they can't pass the Troll Test, and even if they can, they still aren't able to cover everything else; which a true roleplaying game, with GM('s), would. The computer games call themselves 'roleplaying' games, and then these people get really expert at playing them, and come over to other roleplaying games, thinking that because they've mastered the computer games, they've mastered roleplaying. When all they've really learned is a variant of wargaming. They come over to our games, and play it like they've played Baldur's Gate and the others, not seeing the difference (except the lack of a save and reload game function). I think the true crime of these computer games, is that they are taking 90% of the people who WILL end up joining our groups, and turning them into wargamers who don't understand how to roleplay. Oh, they think they do, they think they've roleplayed; but since the programmers have packed the game with enough infomation to provide 'infinite replay value' even without going online, and they never see anything repetitive in the games, they think they can do anything.

However, their thinking is being shaped by the options presented in the game - they'll never (or at least have a hard time with) think of anything else to do that wasn't imaginable under those rules - rules which offer them such an overwhelmingly wide range of options, they're fooled into thinking they can do anything. In truth, when they make 'choices' in those games, 'talking' to NPC's or deciding where to go, they're not roleplaying - they're hungrily searching for the next replay tidbit, the new information they haven't seen yet. They greedily hunt after anything the programmers have put in there that they haven't seen yet, knowing that the key to do so is trying something they haven't done yet. When they realize that they don't get a save/reload function, they might either go through characters as fast as possible, trying to see each new experience as quickly as possible, or become absolutely obsessed with survival, hoping to take the paths that let them survive first, and then they can see which interesting roads that they might die on, reveal something. They become wargaming freaks, not even paying attention to roleplaying anymore (or how it might influence decisions), but always taking the best way for their character, never doing anything that might get them hurt, regardless of whether or not their character would even (know to) do this. Maybe some of them don't care that they don't get a save/reload function, and I hold out hope that these might be redeemable. Maybe, one day, they can be saved, and shown the true spirit of

I think I'll blame wargaming, too; after all, wasn't D&D once Chainmail, a modification to wargames? And now, here we are again, returned to our roots. But wait, that doesn't make sense. After all, AD&D isn't the only roleplaying game. But, according to what this new player told me, D&D -invented- roleplaying, and as AD&D changes (like from 2nd Edition to 3rd Edition), it will change the way people roleplay. Amazing. Just imagine that, all those people out there playing other games, free-form and table-top, who have never HEARD of AD&D, much less been influenced by it, are going to spontaneously change the way they roleplay when it does. Now, how do you change the way you roleplay? It would seem to me that your roleplaying can only get better - change genres/characters perhaps, but it wouldn't be connected to the RULES changing, let alone the rules of a game you've never played, never heard of, and wouldn't care about. Me, insight into my character(s) is what I've noticed to change the way I roleplay. Stuff I didn't realize before, and I'm always spending hours devoted to thinking about characters, realizing their thoughts.

Now, next week, if he shows up again, I'll have one more test for him, to determine how much wargaming is rooted into his thoughts of roleplaying. I'll tie him up, gag him, and read the entire Wrap-Up: Ultimate Amber Role-Playing (Page 234 - Game Master Technique) to him; see how much he screams. Not many straight wargamers would agree with taking out random elements from the game (there ought to be a few out there, wargames with complete strategy that is), which is what Amber starts out with; I'll see how badly he takes to the idea of taking out the character creation process, the point system, the magic system, the rules, and the GM :)

Postscript: Obviously I was just joking about the penultimate sentence there; if I gag him, I won't be able to hear him scream :)

TSATPS (The Script After The Post Script): Seriously, I was just kidding.

Staff Comments

As of 24/08/2003, this, and all other articles authored by FireCat which are held on this site, have been released into the public domain. Please feel free to use them as such.


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