February 7th, 2017

Me 2012

RPG Pet Peeves

Everyone ends up with their own pet peeves in tabletop gaming. One of mine, which has annoyed me since I started gaming 38 years ago, is "character creation choices that require the players to bet on how long the game will last."

Most games are short-lived. I haven't made up as many characters for games that never started as I have for ones that have, but the ratio is probably no better than 1:3. Many games that make it to one session do not get more than one. The campaign that goes on for years is the outlier. Moreover, you never know which you're going to get when you're making up a character. Plans for epic story arc campaigns often die after a few sessions. The game where my character gained the most power, from starting level to finish, was advertised by its GM as 'a half-assed playtest that will peter out after a week or two.' Mirari and Game of October were both intended to be short-term games and both ran for 2-4 years and had more than a hundred sessions each. The only sense in which they were "short term" was that they each ended at the completion of the game's full story arc. ("Just Trust Me", which took several months to finish, was as close as I ever got to running an actual short-but-complete game).

My point: I can tell you many things about a game during character creation, but "how long will it last" is SO not one of them. And yet many games have things which are in place nominally for "character balance" but in practice are only "balanced" if your game is lasts for exactly X sessions. In original AD&D, the nonhuman races generally had stat advantages but in most cases had harsh level caps. If your game didn't last past level 5, the elves and half-orcs were clearly better. If your game lasted to level 18, they were at a vicious, hideous handicap. (If your group actually played with level caps. I don't know anyone who did.)

Most of D&D descendants don't take approaches quite this dramatic, but I still know many systems where you can take a short-term handicap to get a long-term advantage. "Your character is a Quick Learner: pay 10 xp now and get +1 xp per session." Or conversely: "You are a Slow Learner but you've studied hard to get this far: you get an extra 10 xp to spend now but will get -1 xp per session". Sometimes the abilities themselves are like this: "the skill is useless at the starting level but it's great once you've built it up." "This skill starts out great but it doesn't improve at all with experience, unlike other skills." Vampire: the Masquerade did this thing where your max power was entirely determined by your generation. If you didn't buy the lowest possible generation at game start, your character could never become powerful -- but if you did, you had few points left to be competent at the outset.

It's like the designers think "well, you can trade being great now for being great later, that's balanced." Except that I don't know if later exists, and if later does exist, I have no idea how much later there will be. It's like being told "plan for your retirement: you have about a 40% chance of dying tomorrow and a 1% chance of living 2000 years, and we're not going to tell you the odds of the possibilities in between, and no, you can't get a job again later if you don't save enough. GOOD LUCK." Systems like these always make me feel like the game hasn't even started yet and I've already lost.

I usually make the bet that the game will last for years, when some system makes me do it. I don't think I've ever been right.All my games that lasted for years weren't in systems that did this.

That may not be coincidence, come to think of it.

Nothing in particular motivated this, just thinking about game systems. So what are your tabletop peeves or preferences?