Powergaming VS. Roleplaying

Author: Andrew /

First some definitions for you guys:

Powergaming: (taken from Wikipedia) - In role-playing games (mainly, but not exclusively), powergaming is a particular way of playing in which the emphasis lies on developing a player character that is either as powerful as possible, usually to the detriment of other aspects of the game, such as character interaction, or violates roleplaying etiquette by either taking control of other players' characters, actions, or the outcome of a game.

Roleplaying: (taken from Wikipedia link http://www.gardenofeden.net/eve/about-roleplaying/roleplay-glossary) - Roleplaying (also RP, role-playing) is a game or exercise where the participants assume the roles of characters and collaboratively improvise to create stories. This is often likened to acting or interactive storytelling, whether it happens live in real-time chat or instant messages, or whether it unfolds as a story, post-by-post on forums. A more basic comparison of roleplaying is to children’s games of “Cops and Robbers”, “Cowboys and Indians”, “Playing House” or simply “Make Believe.”


One of our readers wanted my take on this, so here it is. I'm firmly against powergaming.

Little one-sided, maybe? Well, when you think about it, it's a fence you can't really stand on very much, in this case.

Here's the thing. In a roleplaying game, such as D&D, you're working with other characters to tell and interact with a story. THAT is the goal of the game. Without story, you've just got basic, unimaginative hack-n-slash where the player (or players) are simply existing to crush stuff, in which case you may as well go load up a beat-em-up brawler video game because that's what they reduce a roleplaying game down to.

A roleplaying game is called such, for a reason. You assume a role and you play it. Even if you're a fighter, you're still a character, you're still a "person" (be it a dragonborn, tiefling, dwarf, or what have you) and there are certain qualities that are found in all sentient beings. You have emotions (or lack thereof, which could in itself be a plot point). You have the character's past, where they come from and how that's affected their beliefs and views on the outside world. You have how that comes into play when interacting with other characters. Perhaps your dragonborn warrior's village was over-run by a horde of overzealous gnomes on steroids, looting and pillaging wherever they went, leaving everything in ruins. Later on, in his travels, a gnome joins up with the group. How do you think that you (the dragonborn) would react? Even if the gnome is nothing like the ones that attacked your childhood home, you still have those ideas and images in your head. That makes for an interesting story. And THAT is why D&D exists; to tell stories; NOT to just give players rooms of monsters to kill (that's just a small part of it).

The biggest example of powergaming I think there is (or one of them, anyway) was mentioned in an earlier post about how players would, in 3rd edition D&D, take classes and prestige classes and feats and whatnot and combine things that were never designed to be put together. The designers looked at this and said "Wow, we tried to make these cool options but now these options are being taken out of context and just being used to create characters that can circumvent the rules."

That needed to be fixed. Enter 4th edition.

Now, this has been a major gripe from the 3rd edition purists. "Where'd the customization go?! We can't do all the stuff we could do before! This isn't D&D!" etc etc. The thing that some fail to notice is that 3rd edition wasn't 2nd and 2nd wasn't 1st. It always changes. Secondly, the focus shifted. As D&D is a party based game, the game focus shifted from a character optimization format to a party optimization format. Now, they have the roles of Defender, Leader, Striker and Controller (which always existed, now are just labeled for ease of conversation and being upfront about a class' abilities and particular bent). These tell a party "Ok, this is where you're heavy, where you're light, where you're balanced.

The main key to remember, in all of this (because there are infinite tangents that could be gone off on) is that a roleplaying game is for roleplaying. Now, if you have a group of powergamers and want to just go stomp a dungeon and play with the mechanics, go for it! But just know that the system was built to be a framework for interactive storytelling and using it just to make fights is failing to utilize a great tool to its fullest extent.

Thanks, as always, for reading and let the comments fly! More posts to come soon (I've got a nice list here, but feel free to add to it, I take down all ideas!)



Magus Stragus said...

It's hard to DM to a powergaming group, as you can sometimes feel as if you were just a machine that moves monsters around. I recommend to slowly introduce rp to powergamers as ways to improve their characters, and maybe they'll grow fond of it in the end.

Andrew said...

That's usually the plan. If you try to straight up tell powergamers "Ok, you guys need to RP more." They'll usually just tune you out. Introducing some powergaming to RPers can actually be kinda fun tough. "Alright, how about we get you guys kickin' some butt w/ dice WHILE rping, eh?!" lol

silent stone said...

I think that any DM that wants strong roleplaying in their group needs to start from day one by making sure the environment at the table is not hostile to roleplaying.

If one player starts trying to get into their character, and another starts making fun of them, shut them down posthaste ("Hey, you don't need to do that. Acting in character is what this game is about").

Show by example (in the form of the NPCs) how you can turn yet another level 1 elven laser cleric into a unique individual.

If the players are afraid to roleplay because they might be laughed at, the DM should roleplay his heart out, I mean, really put the Shatner into it. That way, a reluctant roleplayer might say, "Well, I won't be the only one getting into a character...and I'm not going to go that far, so I think I'll give it a try..."

This being said, powergamers shouldn't be ostracized. Combat is an important part of the game, and being able to squeeze every last iota of potential out of your character is a desirable talent. But powergamers should be actively encouraged to think of their character as more than a precisely calculated DPR value.

Andrew said...

Silent, you make a really good point and perhaps I was a little rough on the powergamers. Being able to know the mechanics and find the best combinations is absolutely great. I think the thing that, as you mentioned at the end, that they just need to know that they aren't JUST a combat machine; that RP needs to factor in too.

I also agree that RP needs encouragement from the get go and all players need to feel comfortable to be able to RP because it will allow all the players to get the most out of the game.

Thanks again for your thoughts, helping me expand my conceptions as I help you with yours lol. Time to head back to the list!

silent stone said...

Yeah, as I see things, whether or not someone powergames and whether or not someone roleplays are two totally separate issues. Just become someone is powergaming doesn't mean they can't also be roleplaying, and vice versa.

It's only the extremes (of both excessive powergaming and excessive roleplaying) that I think can drag a game of D&D down...and with any group, exactly how much is too much as regards to either will vary considerably.

An excellent player (and in this sense of the word "player" I include the DM) is one that not only has a firm grasp of the rules of the game and can think critically about the decisions they make as regards their character's mechanical potential, but also turn that collection of dry statistics ( regardless of how optimized) into an interesting character that not only belongs in the narrative the group is creating, but also helps create the narrative the group belongs in.

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