The Arms Race

Seriously, we didn't make this picture... we found it!

This is a long overdue article, much like everything else on our pretty relaxed (nonexistent) schedule of releasing content other than PNG Daily. It originally started as a five part series, which I’ve condensed down to a single posting with me speaking directly from my ass, with the possibility of additional postings.

The Gamemaster and Player arm’s race.

Whenever I’d grab a new gaming system, be it Shadowrun 4th Edition, Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition, or if I was particularly drunk, something from the World of Darkness or Twilight 2000, the system would always be very new and shiny. A nice base of skills and abilities, basic spells or weapons and enough fluff to get me started with a game of my own. My players’ characters would have the same pool of rules to work from, everything was evenly matched and the focus was on the story, because of the set structure of progression.

Then a monthor so would have passed and twelve books worth of expansions would have been released by that point, each one busting at the guts with new weapons and abilities, and in every one of my games, it would then turn into an arms race with those new abilities and weapons, which I’ve always felt was unnecessary.  The game would devolve from a story standpoint into which character amassed the most bonuses from the new abilties.   In the beginning, it wasn’t so bad, the players knew which cheese abilities I’d use to amass a super character, and I knew which combinations that they would use.  My first experience with the problem was those player’s options books they released back in the AD&D 2nd edition days.  Was I supposed to tell the fighter he wasn’t able to use the $20 Fighter’s Handbook in my game? Of course not, that would make me a douche.  The book introduced class kits and special proficiencies which, at the time, made the fighter all but unstoppable only by storm giant that would murder the rest of the party.

The problem I was having was that I was struggling to adapt to the new, most powerful fighter.  The other classes grew bored with having the fighter wade through fodder, and when I took the fighter out of the equation with challanges for the other classes, the fighter would complain of having wasted all his levels on fighting skills. Blah blah blah.  Granted, I was a very novice GM fifteen years ago, but I was struggling with having to balance the inflation of combat bonuses granted by this new and evolved fighter class with trying to provide fun and a challange at the same time.

The point I’m getting at, and I promise, that the previous wall of text had one, is that almost every RPG system I’ve ever run or played in eventually had such inflated combat bonuses due to new abilities, that the GM was often burnt out preparing for it all and the players fun suffered because of it.  Not only did I have to account for keeping each player involved, I had to make sure this new and most often cheap way of dealing with my session’s challanges was actually artificially challenging while not punishing the other players for not having the same abilities.  The game became less about advancing the story and more of a mathematical exercise of putting the PC fighter’s THAC0 roll averaged above 5 for the entire night.  Never have I used so many lame conditional modifiers.  Light of a full moon during a foggy and rainy night into concealment.  Then the magic user slapped down a few light spells and the druid did a weather dance… that’s a -2, a -4 anda -1 but the light is a + 2, with the concealment and your weapon specialty withthe magic weapon and  your strength… fuck it. Your THAC0 is 5. Roll.  I was bored as hell.

Conversely, on the other end of the spectrum, my Shadowrun players very so paranoid on their runs, they almost became afraid to play the damned game.  It didn’t help they frequented the sometimes rabid boards over at Dumpshock.  While Shadowrun is a game where some paranoia is healthy, they were so worried about the new blood magic ritual rules and magic detection on the forensic end of things, my players once passed on all three runs I had presented for them that night.   Rituals, in which by leaving personal evidence behind, it could be linked back to their essence and let them suck a fireball from a hundred miles away.  My sessions lost all their cyberpunk fuck’em all attitudes and had tried to become tactical bank robbers like a Michael Mann film.  I was bored as shit with listening to them try to plan a crime for two hours of a three hour session, spending more time going over minutae that I never bothered to consider, because I never planned to use those kind of rituals.  The game had become less fun for me and my players because of one optional rule.  I had to explain that I wasn’t going to screw them unless it made sense for the story to advanced in such a way.   Those rules didn’t exist in the RAW (rules as written) when was started playing, but one of them got look at the book and assumed I had as well, and word of death spread fast.   The game eventually got back on track, and everyone lived happily ever after, no longer having to try to plan a crime while I got drunk behind the screen anymore.

So, in summation for the first article in an eventual series, watch what you let in your games and don’t let shiny and new expansive rules bog your game down, no matter how neat they may seem on paper.  Sure, they were test by the writers and publishers, but it still may not fit your style of gameplay. 

I hope this served an decent introduction to the mindset of the series.  Stay tuned for the next article, with a much more specific bend: Weaponry.

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