On getting powergamers into roleplaying

I read this article at Roleplaying Tips with some degree of amusement. Dealing with powergamers has been, if not the bread and butter, then certainly the morning coffee of both my gaming and roleplaying careers – and it’s always good to see folks thinking of ways to get them involved in the finer things.

It’s a good piece, and one I wish I had read during my return to tabletop roleplay some years back. The all-munchkin group that spurred my prompt un-return could sure have used some of these tips. (My own pro tip: don’t use the WoW soundtrack for scene-setting. Makes folks start jibing about WoW, and before you know it, the thrill is gone.)

But as I read it, I found myself thinking of what would happen if I really did try to use them in a local context. I’m sure this applies elsewhere too, since powergamers are the same the world over.

The article’s thrust appears to be that GMs should “make character identity integral to the plot”, mandate in-character ‘sideline activities’, and dole out in-game bonuses to players who comply with both. Straightforward enough. It scratches the rewards itch that keeps powergamers going. But it’s also predicated on that very itch, which subverts the intention entirely.

Grind in MMOs is incentivized by nature because even with rewards, it’s a chore. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect powergamers who don’t RP to find RP any less of a chore with rewards.

More often than not, I think, they’d simply approach ‘character identity’ the same clinical, min-maxed way they approach their rollplaying. Encouraging them to put the story first calls for an approach that doesn’t penalize them materially, enabling them to pay more attention (and hopefully interest) to roleplay.

One example is collaborative writing game Storium. In Storium’s card-based system, narrators drive their plots by creating Challenges for players to spend characters’ Strength or Weakness cards on. For instance, a Challenge representing an armory guard might be addressed with a silver tongue or an intimidating personality (a Strength card), or with a naïve or chicken-hearted nature (a Weakness card).

The great thing is, whoever ‘completes’ a Challenge, akin to the ‘last hit’ mechanic in MOBAs, wins narrative control on how it turned out. So what’s to stop them from ponying up only Strength cards, and writing that they talked their way past the guard and made off with the armory’s best gear? This is one very simple case, but it makes my point. Whether the rest of the story would be better served by the party not being armed to the teeth was probably not a consideration when the powergamer made his move.

Fortunately, there is a counterweight: ‘weak’ outcomes are not synonymous with losing. An obstacle overcome with a ‘weak’ result is still overcome – just with interesting side effects. Perhaps the guard grew suspicious and attacked the party, wounding someone before he was taken down. Or he managed to escape and raise the alarm. Either way, the way into the armory is clear. This way, GMs can spice up encounters and plots without putting off munchkins.

If we’re looking for compliance alone, incentivizing works. But in the long term, it might take more than rewards for powergamers to prioritise the story over conventional gains. The GM’s own ability to make losing out, or undesirable outcomes, interesting is what counts.

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2 Responses to “On getting powergamers into roleplaying”

  1. Again, another amazing post.

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