Friday, March 6, 2009

The Choice to Suck

I wanted to take a few minutes to pontificate on one of my gaming pet peeves: that is, giving players the Choice To Suck.

Giving players choices is good. As Delta quotes Sid Meier (of CIV fame), a good game is a series of interesting choices. A game without choices is a railroad, and while those can be fun (after all, isn't great literature largely a linear railroad with few interactive choices) and effective for telling stories, but that generally isn't the main reason that folks play an RPG.

However, not all choices are good. Specifically, when you give players the Choice to Suck, you introduce a dangerous element into your game. For example, say a fighter can choose three weapons. He can use a 1H Widget, (1d8 damage), a 2H Dire Spork (1d10 damage), or a 2H Gimptastic 2000 (1 point of damage). Most players will opt for the Widget or Dire Spork, and that's fine. But someone will opt for the Gimptastic 2000. The Choice to Suck refers to a false choice, one where one of the options is clearly mechanically worse in almost all situations imagineable (compare Skill Focus Basketweaving to Power Attack in a 3.X game).

Player motivations for selecting such a choice are varied. Some players are truely slow, and don't realize its a bad choice. Some are deliberately contrary and want to "break" the system or prove some inane point. Some are great roleplayers but don't pay too much attention to the mechanics. In any event, they've just made a choice, and its bad.

This is bad for your game for a few reasons. First, it makes it hard for the GM to set up challenges. If your group has one highly effective twinked out munchkin, 3 average characters, and 1 Gimp, then anything that challenges the uber-tank and his three sidekicks will likely wipe the gimp. If you don't believe me, try doing encounter design for 3E. The first character should be a classic spiked-chain trip monkey; the second character is a cleric 1/wizard 1/fighter 3 (he heard mystic theurge or odd numbers of fighter levels were a good idea, or something). If you can build an encounter that challenges both characters, you're a better GM than I.

The other reason this is bad is because in most RPGs, the other players are counting on Gimpy McGimp to fill a role. If there are niches or classes, the Gimp is likely the only one in that role. If he sucks at it, everyone else will pay the price too. The other players will likely realize this and it will generate malcontent and bad feeling. I've seen it at the table. The gimped player may realize their handicap and feel frustrated and/or left behind. Not good.

I think that in general games should avoid even giving the player the option to suck. AD&D did this to some degree with minimum stat requirements for various classes and by encouraging a high prereq very obviously. I often introduce house rules that prevent obvious suckage (for example, in a 4E game, I likely wouldn't allow a starting PC with less than 16 in their primary statistic). You should probably reward players who have system mastery a little bit, but not so much that they put everyone else in the dirt.

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