Friday, May 24, 2013

Story vs Mechanic-based play

No, this is not a roll-play vs roleplay post, but that might be a good place to lead into it:

In my head, I have a Pathfinder character rolling around that I've been dying to use. He's got a well thought-out backstory, a nice collection of personality strengths and flaws, and he seems like he'd be really fun to play. There's just one problem:

He is RIDICULOUSLY overpowered.

If you'e a Pathfinder person, you can probably get the picture: crossblooded Fey/Arcane sorcerer, Spell Focus (Enchantment), Greater Spell Focus (Enchantment), with the rest of his build being illusions, stealth, and Silent Spell. At level 1, enemies would have to overcome a DC of 20 to resist his mind control. At higher levels, he'd be walking around invisible, silently compelling anything he finds to do his bidding. By the time he has the Dominate Person spell, he'd be walking around with his own personal army of mind-thralls.

Playing this guy sounds like all sorts of fun to me: the implications of unbeatable mind-control, the ethical battles about who should or should not be manipulated, the battle of wits between him and the great villain (who obviously will be immune to mind control) as each tries to out-think each other while moving their minions around like chess pieces; in my head it sounds like a blast. But what if the GM gets mad at me for breaking the Challenge Rating suggested rules? What if he feels I've broken the game, and decides to fix it by sending nothing but mindless beasts at us? What if he, as I've heard other GMs do when faced with a successful Charm spell, throws the module down and exclaims I broke the adventure?

In essence, what if he refuses to give me story-based play?

Pathfinder, like all D&D variants, sits at the uneasy marriage between story-based play and mechanic-based play. On one hand, they have rules to drive wagons, buy boats, copy spells from another wizard's spellbook,  develop nations and armies, bring siege weapons to a battle, and use the leadership feat to gain cohorts and followers. On the other hand, it also has suggested wealth-by-level rules, a complicated system of Challenge Ratings used to determine what encounters are 'correct' for the players (4 in a day before you start even risking death,) and a combat system that so strongly assumes you will only be a small group of adventurers taking on small groups of monsters that an attempt to do anything else just gets ridiculously complicated.

I know this battle has existed since D&D's first days, but in recent years, what with the 4th-ed/OSR gaming division, it has really moved to the foreground, as people battle over how the game 'should' be played.

Mechanic-based play is best represented by computer RPGs. There are a set number of things you can do, a linear story (or close enough to it,) a series of tactical combats governed by rules to create a sufficient amount of tension, and since the only thing worth buying is a better sword or shield, actual coin-based wealth means little. Mechanic-focused players are most likely to utter things like: "I hate the leadership feat, it's so broken," or "What's the point of taking profession skills?" or "Animate dead really isn't meant for players to use, it's just too overpowered.". If you suggest to a mechanics-based GM that your character, being a cleric, should be able to walk into that big temple to his god and ask for help, he will quickly think of some reason why, even with the world resting in the balance, no help will be available.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the story-driven section, we have the Prose Descriptive Qualities system (PDQ,) or Burning Wheel. The idea is to tell a story, and the ability to push and pull the story in different ways is much more important than calculating the power level of a character. In these systems, you could start the game rich, royal, or insanely powerful, because the focus of the game isn't killing the monsters, it's telling the story or solving the problem, and wealth, diplomacy, combat, or cunning are all equally-valid routes to that end.

The thing is, I like big combats and pitting my build against enemies and seeing if I can survive an epic battle (which, incidentally, is another reason I hate the lethal-less CR, 4-encounters-a-day rules,) but I also really, really love my story. If my backstory includes a father who's the captain of the city guard, and you let us enter that city, you'd better believe I'll be asking my father for help with whatever's happening, because doing anything else when such a resource is available would just be stupid. But when a GM has a video game styled adventure in mind with calculated, constant fights designed on a 4-a-day model, nothing can be as unwelcome.

I've seen GMs give players telepathic access to 20th-level casters to serve as their quest patrons, only to sputter when the players asked why that patron couldn't just teleport in and help them, since it was completely within his power. I've seen GMs go white when players, rather than spending ludicrous amounts of money on a better sword, instead chose to invest it in hiring mercenaries, buying land, or starting a business. I've seen GM's dumbfounded when a player used his background or profession skills to demonstrate that he didn't, in fact, need to charge blindly and alone into the GM's pre-written encounter. Heck, one time I had a GM introduced our party to a city of wizards who knew our epic quest and wanted to help, only to have that GM go slightly speechless when my wizards asked if he could copy some spells from their ludicrously giant library, which had already been established to contained unsightly amounts of arcane knowledge. To these people, there is a way the game was supposed to be played, one that involved combats and very carefully-controlled combat-related resources, and any sort of deviation from that wasn't just unexpected, it was unwelcome.

But isn't that the glory of our hobby? The ability to play any way you want? It's impossible to truly 'break' the game after all, as the difficulty can always be scaled up, or the nature of the game changed. Introducing followers, fortresses, and actually asking NPCs from your backstory for help doesn't destroy the game, it just changes it from the exploits of sellswords to the exploits of generals and kings; a different style of game, sure, but not a bad one.

One of my favorite shows when I was younger was Gundam Wing, back when it was on Toonami. Unlike most soldier shows where there are good guys, bad guys, and the conflict is "will they survive to kill the bad guys?", this show bluntly acknowledged the overpowered nature of the main characters: they were perfect soldiers, they piloted unbeatable giant robots; the fear of death was never really part of the show. So, instead of being about whether or not they would succeed, the show as about what they would choose to fight for. Political alliances kept switching, public opinion kept swaying; the characters wanted to do good and had the power to do virtually whatever they wanted, and so the conflict came from figuring out how they should use their power, rather than figuring out if they had enough of it.

One day I would love to break out my overpowered enchanter to see how he plays, but I don't feel like I can until I have a GM ready for a Gundam Wing style of game. One who's willing to ignore how the game is 'supposed' to be played, and instead find new and exciting ways it could be played.

Finger's crossed.


  1. So what you want to play is Ars Magica.

    Atlas Games. The 4th edition rules are free. But basically, that's what you want. 5th Edition is superior, but not free.

    My blog has a post with an overview of the system at, but I'd be happy to chat about it anytime.

  2. This saddens me. I just don't understand GMs who have problems with this stuff. Any potentially overpowered build has direct counters, both the obvious (enter: the undead antagonist) and the more subtle (I throw a double sized encounter of already mind-controlled level 1 good people at you, with the unwritten implication that everyone you don't 'mind-control' back before the party is force to kill is a death that's going to haunt you).

    My friends and I came to the unfortunate conclusion years ago that most people play D&D/Pathfinder different from us, because we look at the rules and see options and not a straightjacket. The idea here is that the story and the mechanics exist in harmony, not one at the expense of the other. Anyone who doesn't get that needs to work on their GM-ing skills.