Powergaming in D&D - A Rumination
LOL, “Rumination”, that’s a word I don’t use anywhere near often enough.
Another week, another gaming concept does the rounds on Twitter AS IF IT HAS NEVER BEEN DISCUSSED BEFORE!!!!
This week it was POWERGAMING, is it good, is it bad!!!! For the most part I have seen comments that hover around the idea that it’s a problem if there is a big disparity. If one PC has substantially more power than all of the others the game can be a drag for those others.
And I basically agree with this perspective, but to a point.
In addition to this relatively common view, I have seen another view expressed, that it is really a system issue. Because you can’t discuss any issue in TTRPG gaming without blaming D&D for “bad design”. Ignore the fact I have run into powergamers in every game I’ve ever played, it is still assumed to be a “D&D design issue” and if you don’t like it you should “play other games”.
I’ve given up engaging people on these issues, I’ve found that those who despise D&D for whatever reason (it’s hiring practices, the racial issues embedded in the game, it’s pass/fail mechanics, etc.) are almost genetically compelled to blame any problem on game design. And once that happens, the conversation is over.
It’s not that there aren’t design issues with D&D, OF COURSE THERE ARE. It’s that people tend to blame all issues in D&D on game design, where style of play is often the main issue.
So back to powergaming. I’m going to tell two anecdotes, then discuss some mechanics.
About 8 years ago I ran a group of PCs through Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. We made up pregens for this module, and to save time rather than having them roll to get the PCs they wanted, I grabbed a copy of the AD&D Rogues Gallery and they rolled on the tables to get PC stats. That way they would automatically qualify for whatever class they decided to play.
One of my players wanted a ranger, and he rolled the following entry:
Leave it to your players to find the one wildly powerful result on an otherwise unremarkable table.
So I had to make a decision, would I allow the player to run this PC despite the fact he was wildly over on ability scores or would I ask him to roll again.
Well, fair is fair, so he ran the PC.
We gamed for a full week, five eight hour days on that module. And here’s the interesting thing, the player in question did not dominate the game, he almost died twice, and for the most part his wildly high statistics didn’t influence the game in any significant way. He did no better or no worse than any other player in the game.
Segway to another example, I’m playing an illusionist in an AD&D game, and I roll… wait for it… 1 HP to start!. I was in a party with a monk and a ranger (all 1st level) and I had a single, solitary HP. If ANYTHING hit me I was dead, my only weapon was a dagger and I was bad at using it, I had one spell (phantasmal force) and I had an AC of 8.
The monk died before I did. I survived as long as anyone did in that campaign, and I contributed in ways other than melee and pew pew spells. I threw a lot of oil flasks then lit them. I distracted, redirected and otherwise confused enemies with my one spell.
In short, having the absolute worst stats in the group didn’t really matter to the outcome of the game, or my usefulness at the table.
Making Sense of the Statistics
So clearly there is something going on here, am I an outlier? Am I doing it wrong? No, I think the issue is that the game has different play styles, and if you play it a particular way you will have these sorts of problems.
As it happens, AD&D has everything you need to run a game where “powergaming” isn’t an issue, for the most part. This is likely due to the fact that Gygax ran a competitive game where powergamers, min-maxers and rules lawyers were a concern, one addressed through the game mechanics. So why have powergamers, min-maxers etc. been viewed as a problem for decades now?
I think the main reasons that people have issues with this are:
They run a combat focused version of D&D
They “soften” the game to avoid regular deaths
Despite the memes and the reputation, AD&D solves both of these problems with its base design. In short, you will only have an issue with powergamers if you run the game in a particular way, one that ignores a lot of the base design of the game.
Now, the first objection here is that “D&D is all about combat!”, so how can you run an AD&D game that doesn’t have the powergamer problem? The key observation here is that, as written, AD&D is extremely deadly.
But people don’t run it that way.
Let me give an example, then a list.
A while back I saw a discussion on Twitter about allowing players to run avian PCs like aarakocra, they were bemoaning the fact that giving a low level PC flight would make the game "too easy" and they would dominate the game. I found this interesting, as in AD&D flight, though useful, would be a challenge for a few reasons:
1. No heavy armor so AC is worse
2. You become an obvious target in combat as you are a threat
3. If your HP drop below half you fall from the sky, taking lots of damage
In short, yes, it was an advantage, but if you weren't careful it was actually MORE dangerous to have a flying PC. AD&D balances advantages against disadvantages, but DMs frequently drop the disadvantages (they are boring, they slow down play, etc.) then wonder why certain PCs are "too powerful" for the game.
There are so many examples of this its ridiculous, I regularly see AD&D games where they:
1 Use exaggerated stat creation methods in a game where the bonuses are big and clustered at the high end
2 Allow players to pick PC classes and then tailor the ability stats to those
3 Give “bonus” HP to the starting PCs, or let them take the average
4 Start PCs higher than 1st level but start them in 1st level adventures
5 Allow henchmen without using loyalty rules
6 Allow the use of spells but ignore material component restrictions
7 Allow them to carry tons of stuff without encumbrance restrictions
8 Allow them to carry “endless” arrows or torches
9 Let them get up and run around after being healed back from under 0 HP
10 House rule initiative in ways that help the party / ignore flanking rules etc.
11 Arbitrarily lower HP/nerf monsters to help the players win and hit a story “beat”
12 Don’t use morale rules
13 Don’t use grappling and overbearing rules*
14 Place magic items rather than rolling for them
15 Ignore alignment restrictions on classes who have them
16 Ignore weapons restrictions on classes that have them
17 Use the same monsters over and over
18 Ignore the PCs reputations in the game world
19 Introduce house rules that favor the players (e.g. crits)
20 Ignore class limits on treasure/adventuring
*No one uses 1st edition grappling rules, they are too fiddly, but some mechanically different but more or less equivalent system
I could probably mention more if I put my mind to it, and I’m sure there are similar lists for other versions of D&D and other games. The point being that one of the reasons why powergamers are a problem is that the game is intentionally run on “easy mode” by ignoring a ton of the rules as otherwise it would be “too deadly”. This allows “powergamers” to survive and then dominate the game.
I tend to avoid modifying or ignoring rules that make the game challenging for exactly this reason, if you do so you will of course help out the characters at the lower end. But you will also permit PCs at the higher end to run amok. And that produces the resentment everyone is concerned about.
When you run AD&D with all of these rules intact you discover something interesting. I have been running AD&D using these rules for the last 8 years, and we have had a good subset of deaths to use as a baseline for evaluation. Deaths have fallen primarily into two categories: the death of “weak” characters (e.g. magic-users) and the death of “powerful” characters, often fighters, who take the lead because they have the most HP / lowest AC, and as a result take the most punishment and often die.
It ends up that “powergamers” are quite often the ones who suffer in a game that is run with the standard rules of AD&D. They are expected to do the fighting, to take the lead, as they have the chops for it, so they are often left dead on the dungeon floor.
So why, all other things being equal, do powergamers do badly in games like AD&D, even in some cases worse than their less optimized fellow adventurers? AD&D is packed with effects/monsters/spells that make high HP, good stats, magic items and saves and such less significant, and powergamers as a whole like to mix it up, be first in line, be the one to “win” the day, so they are far more likely to run up against these things.
There are a multitude of examples:
A. Creatures that can only be hit by magic weapons
B. Creatures with psionics
C. Creatures with magic resistance have some degree of immunity to spell casters
D. Save or die poison, save or die anything!
E. Monsters with special attacks: Green slimes, shambling mounds, meazels
H. Energy drain
I. No save spells and effects
J. Mass combat (e.g. individual targets swarmed by mooks)
K. Creatures with multiple attacks
L. Auto-hit on stunned/helpless creatures
O. AOE spells
P. Unbalanced encounter tables
Again, the list is longer than this, but you get the idea. A single green slime can take out a party, a shambling mound can resist many forms of attack, a carrion crawler gets 8 attacks per round and all force a paralyzation save.
Good stats, spells and magic items will only help you so much.
And spells. A 1st level sleep spell puts a 1st to 4th level PC down with no save. Slit their throat, that's the ballgame. And that’s a 1st level spell. So your badass 3rd level barbarian with 18 in STR and CON, AC of 2 and a good 30 hp can be taken down by a 1hp wizard with sleep.
I watched with anticipation and glee as a bold as brass party of mid level PCs (5th to 7th level, 8 members) were taken down by a 4th level magic-user with web and stinking cloud. I once saw an entire party buy the farm (at a convention game) with one well placed rock to mud spell.
The list is really quite long.
I have seen this happen so often it is almost a truism of play in AD&D and many older edition games: the PCs with the best stats are very likely to be the ones who die. The only meaningful exception I have found to this is the game where you have a min-maxer/powergamer who stays OUT of combat and holds back. That’s a pretty rare thing, but it has happened.
Otherwise, the powergamer is not a problem for AD&D. The single most important correlating factor with success in AD&D (and I suspect many older editions) is this:
That’s it. You can stack your PC however you want, you can come into the dungeon loaded for bear with magic items. But all of it is for naught if you don’t play smart and avoid conflict where possible. I don’t even have to make a special attempt to make it happen. I don’t “go after” powergamers, make things harder for them to “teach them a lesson”, stack things against them or fudge dice to punish them. I just run the game as is and let them get themselves killed with overconfidence or sloppy play.
So bring on the powergamers, bring on the min-maxers, the players obsessed with “builds”, the rules lawyers and the attention hogs. Roll up whatever you want, bring your custom build PC from another campaign. Bring your custom class, custom race, your home-brewed magic items, and your high level monty haul PCs.
Everyone is equal in death.