Monday, August 29, 2011

I Need A Hero

One of the many complaints against D&D 4e is that the characters start out practically superhuman. Well, super whatever-race-you-pick, anyway. From what I've witnessed, our DM tends to favor the "start out as average nobodies, and gradually become heroes" style. I can certainly see the appeal. I enjoyed that "Dungeon Crawl Classics" game we played a while back. However, I play these games to get a break from normal life. It's great to be able to sit down and live another life for a while. I already emulate an average person 6 days a week.

Of course, you could argue that it's still a change of pace. You're not just a normal person, you're a normal person in a medieval setting. Great... so now I'm a normal person who doesn't even have indoor plumbing. Yay.

I don't claim to be typical, though. I know people have different reasons for playing. Some players like the stories, some like the combat. Some like collecting XP, gold, and other virtual treasures. Some like how it feels like gambling. For some, gaming is just a way to socialize, no different than having a weekly poker game or book club.  Some use gaming to escape real life, to fill a different set of shoes for a few hours, like virtual cross dressing.  For most players, it's probably a combination of several of these. For me, it's all of the above.

I've heard people claim that powerful characters kill roleplay. I can see why they'd think that, but I still disagree. Optimization doesn't kill roleplay, optimizers do. It's more about group dynamics than the system itself. If the DM and all the players are roleplayers, then the DM can throw easy encounters at the group, but still make them scary through theatrics and plot twists. But if you have even one optimizer in the group, then you have to make the encounters harder, lest his character rip the enemies to ribbons and take all the drama out of every fight. And if you make the monsters tougher, then all the other players have to optimize their characters to compensate, or they'll have to cower behind the optimizer every time a fight starts. One bad apple ruins the bunch. While you can roleplay in any edition, 4e seems to attract a lot of combat lovers.

I think people should have a lot of freedom when building their characters. But I also wish more players would use this freedom to do interesting things, rather than just squeeze out every possible point of damage. I'd love to see more characters built around an unusual weapon, even if it's not a very damaging one. Heck, I would have built more interesting characters for myself in the ToEE campaign, but I was afraid the optimizer in the group would yell, "She doesn't do enough damage, I don't want her in our party!"

I am having fun with our current Pathfinder game, where we randomly rolled our classes. It's kind of cool not knowing what your character is going to be. We're seeing some players run classes they wouldn't usually play, and building combinations we wouldn't normally try. There's nothing we're doing that we couldn't do if we'd picked our own classes... but would we? It's basically like saying, "You wouldn't normally build a Half-Orc Sorcerer, so I'm forcing you to, because it's interesting."

I like to think I actually would choose an unusual race/class combination without being forced to. But only if I knew it was going to be the kind of group where creativity is encouraged more than combat prowess, and only if I knew the campaign was going to be survivable without optimized characters. And that's the logical fallacy of the hardcore DM: he discourages optimization, but you won't survive his sessions without it. In a plot-heavy campaign, I'll be glad to wear a tutu and wield a large rubber fish if it makes sense for my character. But when I see teammate after teammate fall in battle, I'm more likely to spend my feats on crunch than fluff.

This is also why I don't like rolling stats. For example, if my Pathfinder monk had decent stats, I could take more personality-related options instead of using every feat to make up for her lack of hit points and AC. So while some say optimization killed roleplaying; I say optimization had the potential to enhance it if it hadn't also attracted too many optimizers.

This argument came up a lot back when I played NeverWinter Nights. I was on a persistent server called the Silver Marches, which focused heavily on roleplay. They were very picky about how people acted while playing on their server, to the point where eventually it felt like a police state. Anyway, one of their complaints was people building very specific characters in order to get certain benefits. For example, taking only one level of ShadowDancer just to get Hide in Plain Sight. In that particular case I somewhat agree, but they tended to criticize a lot of people for more benign leveling choices as well. Basically, they didn't want you to plan your character's path ahead of time, as that would be out of character. But some of the prestige classes had prerequisites that were so specific, that you couldn't qualify unless you'd planned ahead.

Personally, I planned out my characters ahead of time anyway. I'd generally level up in the middle of a dungeon somewhere, and I didn't want to have to spend much time thinking about what to pick before returning to battle. Of course, the server mods would have preferred we head back to town before clicking "Level Up" anyway, to represent the training we do to get our new feats... but clearly these people were nuts. Besides, is it really better roleplay to assume your character has no life plans? In real life, some people know what college they want to attend before they even enter high school. By the time they graduate high school, they sometimes know everything they plan to study in the next four years, right down to the electives. So is it really bad roleplay to assume my character knows in advance that he's going to practice certain fighting moves someday?

I'm actually not very good at RPGs, whether on the computer or at the table. If I built characters completely based on their personalities, I'd spend all my time in-game yelling "Save me!" to my teammates. This would be allowing my out-of-character incompetence to influence the in-character actions of my toon. So I usually try to build hardy characters in order to help me stay in-character.

That's why I tend to like my RPGs a little on the easy side. I'm more interested in the story than the combat, so I don't want the story bogged down by having to roll up new characters all the time, or spending three sessions in a near-coma while my companions take a sidequest to cure my Filth Fever. I'm not a teenager; I'm not out to prove that I'm the baddest by building an awesome megacharacter or by rolling higher than the DM. All I want is to build a character around their personality, taking roleplay feats like "Linguist" if I want to, without being splattered into paste next combat for my lack of optimization.  I'm simply not hardcore.

Fourth edition lets you build tough characters. It gives you higher starting hit points, At-Will powers that are better than basic attacks, more healing options, and so on. Even the weakest classes are tougher than they ever were in previous editions. But with tougher players, you have to have tougher monsters, otherwise combat-lovers will complain there's no challenge. And when you have tougher PCs facing tougher monsters, you have longer combats. Which attracts combat-loving players, which lowers the quality of the roleplay... so I can't win. I'd love to roleplay in 4e, but I think I'm better off with Pathfinder.

That said, I have seen 4e roleplay done really well. My first 4e campaign, Tantris, was heavy on the roleplay. We generally only had about one combat per session, and those combats tended to take about 5-10 minutes. The DM didn't try to build a balanced encounter that challenged our resources, instead he built plot-specific encounters filled with realistic enemies. Most of the fights would be considered too easy by some standards, but we were all new to the game so none of us had optimized characters. The harder battles usually had other plot-related ways out. Heck, the DM even told us up front that he wasn't going to kill our characters. That was the only campaign I've played where I didn't feel the need to play a hero; I would have been just as happy playing a non-classed NPC. I know a lot of this would turn some players off, but I have yet to see better roleplay in an RPG, and I applaud the DM for making it work.

Now if you'll excuse me, there's a Bonnie Tyler song that I must purge from my brain.

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