More Ruminating on Roleplaying Games

I continue to play roleplaying games, as might be expected from such a nerd as I am, doing so almost exclusively through online platforms even before COVID-19 prompted many people to retreat from public spaces, ushering in an Age of the Introvert likely to be brief. Most of them have been campaigns following a predictable power curve, with most of the advancement a returning character achieves happening between games and only moderate advancement occurring “in-game.” It makes sense on the surface of it, although it is sometimes a bit of a drag.

Warehouse 23 - The Munchkin's Guide To Power Gaming
Yes, it’s on my shelf.
Image from Texas-based Steve Jackson Games, its publisher;
support the Texas economy!

Other games, though, do more with advancement. One I recently played in offered more benefits in game than usual, a few more points to put towards character purchases, but nothing exorbitant. Indeed, there’s a lot about that game, Heavenfall, that I think I will use if and when I go in for running a campaign of my own; Canary (Birb), Bakuriel (Underbirb), and Tyrus did a hell of a job, I feel. Another, ongoing now, goes even further, running right into powergaming–and that, dear reader, is what I mean to ruminate on this time.

Tabletop roleplaying games are, by their nature, escapist. I’m not about to go through the “scholarly” part of my undergraduate honors thesis in full–nobody wants to read that–but I will note that the history of the genre speaks to it, as do most of the settings. Few play in “the real world,” and most do not play in something too close to it; even those games that focus on milieux akin to the “real world” bring in and make use of concepts foreign to it (magic and extradimensional horror are the usual examples). It is not to be wondered at, then, that play would exaggerate things, sometimes greatly, and ostensibly for the entertainment value of it.

When done well, the exaggeration adds to the enjoyment of the group–because, for all its association with introverted, nerdy types, the tabletop roleplaying game is a social endeavor, and group cohesion matters a great deal in it–either by making things funny or by making them larger than life, such that players can feel like they participated in something that matters, something epic (as the literary genre more than as the intensifier). Some of Tolkien’s comments in “On Fairy-Stories” come to mind–the ones about not blaming the person who feels imprisoned for a longing to escape; many look at modern life as stultifying, ossifying, and while I am still medievalist enough to know that earlier times were not necessarily better about that, I am not immune to scraping myself on the walls of my life’s many ruts.

The “When done well” is telling, however. It is not always done well, not always done with the intent of being done well (and there is a difference between trying something that does not work and not even trying it). Oh, no, sometimes it is done for the aggrandizement of a single player, and it inevitably happens when such cases are indulged that the one player does well at the expense of the others at the table, for whom the game is also supposed to be enjoyable. It is not that the one player–usually referred to as a powergamer–gets a chance to shine; it is that the powergaming precludes others from getting their own chances to do so. Powergaming as anti-polish, as it were, occluding rather than enhancing.

The game now going does seem to move towards powergaming; each of the characters is able to do quite a bit, especially so for the normally-assumed level of capability at the event around which the game centers. I feel myself looking for ways to display my character’s power–and, given how the game is set up, there’s a damned lot of that to go around, even if other characters have as much or more. And there’s the offsetting factor; my character, powerful as she is, is but one of many; to mix a metaphor slightly, she is not Supergirl among humans, but Supergirl among other superheroes.

Even so, some of the online discussion of the game–because such games attract nerds, and nerds gonna nerd–turned quickly to ways to “get over” on the system and on other players in the game, and there was more to say about such things than usual due to the power-curve. I soon found myself checking out of the talk; I know I need to look at it because it is going to be used in the game, but I do not play quite so intently as I used to do. I used to be a fan, remember. And I probably ought to think more deeply on a game that obliges me to be wary about what will be used against me, even if I have enjoyed playing thus far.

My character’s story does try to bring in others. That’s about as much as I can do to counter the powergaming. I try not to let others’ shenanigans keep me from enjoying my play. Sometimes, I even succeed.

Could you send a little my way to help me roll more dice and tell more lies?

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