Being non-judgmental about play styles

The RPG community seems to constantly be struggling with denouncing one another as having “badwrongfun”. I get it, really; people have a certain way they like to play, and they tend to see other ways of playing as “wrong”. I’m trying to fight against that tendency in myself.

This isn’t about editions or different games for me; I’m really quite happy with people who play 4e or Pathfinder or older editions of D&D or Savage Worlds or whatever game floats their boats. I hope to get the chance to play with them at some point, too! I really enjoy learning new games.

Where I struggle is within the game I’m playing (currently D&D 4th Edition). Different people get different things out of the game (as described very well in the Dungeon Master’s Guide). Some people are Actors and want to speak and act in character. Some are Explorers who want the party to discover new places. Some are Slayers who want to beat stuff up in combat. Some are Instigators who want to try goofy things to see what happens (it looks like Factotum is going to fall into this bucket).

And some are Power Gamers. They enjoy system mastery. They enjoy putting together super-powerful characters that can deal incredible damage or perform incredible healing or lock down armies of monsters or what have you. They’re optimizers, min-maxers.

I struggle with my own inner Power Gamer. If I didn’t have any kind of internal judgments of the way I thought was “best” to play, I’d be a Power Gamer. I’m good at it. I can optimize very well. I played Magic: The Gathering for years, and I was very, very good at it. I can evaluate the best options and the worst options and the options that work well together. And in a game like Magic, where the goal is to win, I embrace that.

But D&D is not about winning, at least not against the other players. It’s about working together with friends to have fun. You’re not trying to beat the DM, and the DM isn’t trying to beat you (at least not in the games that I’ve played, though I know that Lair Assault will be all about this type of game).

Thus, I tend to be judgmental toward Power Gamers, because it’s something that I struggle against in myself. And I don’t WANT to be judgmental.

Originally, I was a little judgmental toward Slayers. They just want to kill stuff and they don’t care about a story or role playing or anything like that. Give them a battle with some monsters to kill, and they’re happy. The occasional game I run with my family (my wife, her brother and his wife) is all Slayers. We played Reavers of Harkenwold, which has a great story and setting and I enjoyed running it – but I had to get comfortable with the fact that what the party really wanted to do was fight bad guys. And I got there, and had more fun because of it. With this group, I try to make sure they have lots of cool fights.

Now I’m struggling with overcoming my judgmentality (is that a word?) toward Power Gamers. Part of the problem is that a party with a mixture of Power Gamers and non-Power Gamers is going to have problems, as I discussed here. I’m still not sure how I’m going to overcome that issue, when a Power Gamer is in a party with non-Power Gamers.

But I really want to overcome it. Just because I like characters that are non-optimized and that focus on things other than combat doesn’t mean that someone who gets fun out of maximum possible combat efficiency is “doing it wrong”. I find myself rolling my eyes at discussions of “maximum DPR” and feats that feel “cheesy” to me. It’s great that your character can drop a dragon in two rounds, really, but it feels “wrong” to me.

I want to be more accepting. How can I overcome this? Just because I like to be more of an Explorer / Storyteller / Thinker at the game table (and now dabbling in Instigator) doesn’t mean that a Power Gamer is having badwrongfun. How can I welcome Power Gamers at the same table as non-Power Gamers who still enjoy exciting combats?

When I’m the DM, I maintain a little veto power over my players’ choices. If something is too crazily powerful (in my opinion), I’ll ask the player to choose something else. So far, this has worked well; the players seem to trust me enough to go with this (and I don’t have to use it very often).

When I’m a player, though, I obviously can’t restrict other players’ choices. They’re going to power game if that’s what they enjoy, and my struggle is to still have fun myself without judging them for their choices.

Does anyone else struggle with this? Do you have any tips for making peace with the fact that some of your fellow players might have completely different gaming preferences from yours, and not judging them for it?

18 thoughts on “Being non-judgmental about play styles

  1. Dude, I just wanted to say, I just finished reading this and finally, thank god! Lol, this is something I think about a lot with these games, not just with D&D. I would love to know how we can figure out the solution to bringing those different types of gamers harmoniously together. Normally when I bring this up on irc or in forums it just turns into a storyteller/min-maxer war and that’s totally what I would like to avoid. It’s relief to see that I’m not the only one that tries to find that balance.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one either! For what it’s worth, the only advice I’ve gotten so far is “If you don’t like someone’s play style, don’t play with that person.” I feel like there has to be a better way, but I don’t know what it is.

      • Dude, that’s something I’ve always asked myself as well. I feel like there’s gotta be a good way to bring more gamers together and let them enjoy the game the way they want to. I think it’s something that should be talked about more, for the sake of game design at least.

  2. There are several tips that I’ve gleaned from various sources over the years. First, talk to the Power Gamer and explain your issue. Just asking them to tone it down to keep their character on an even keel is often enough. Especially if you sweeten the approach with “OMG, your system mastery is so awesome, no one else can keep up!” Just that recognition is what a lot of Power Gamers are looking for.

    Second, ask the Power Gamer to help the other players. Everyone wants to play highly effective characters, they just often don’t want to put the effort into figuring out how to make that happen. (Or, admittedly, sometimes don’t have the skills to master the system.) Get the Power Gamer on board with bringing the other characters up to his level. There are a few caveats here. Highly optimized characters tend to be highly focused, and some players may not want that focus. Much of the oomph in optimized characters comes from playing them to their strengths correctly, which the non-Power Gamers might not do. (And, the Power Gamer should *NOT* start dictating their actions.) You need to watch to see if the Power Gamer is being too condescending or controlling, as that can quickly foster resentment from the other players.

    Third, try talking to the Power Gamer about skewing the fights. If he can drop a dragon in two rounds, ask him if he’s cool with the dragon always attacking him instead of the other characters. You lose some realism, but it is one way to solve the imbalanced combat issue.

    Fourth, one thing the Power Gamer can’t control is spotlight time. If he outshines all the other characters in combat, make sure to include a lot of non-combat encounters where his vaunted abilities are useless. Don’t do this to punish the Power Gamer. Rather, do it to deliberately give the characters who want a lot of story their story time, in between the Power Gamer’s combat spectacles. But, also make sure that his combats are spectacular enough to satisfy him.

    • Although I think those are all good ideas, I don’t think it’s answering my question at least. Since it only is addressing one type of player, the power gamer here. That’s not really what I meant personally, since honestly I like both styles of gamers. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you here, but I do think that the solution I’m looking for is running a game that rewards both types of players rather than addressing either of them. I would love to see a good way of bringing them both together and experience different ways to enjoy these games and hopefully opening their minds to different styles. What do you think?

      • Well, then, you just need a way to reward the other types of players. I think what you really need to learn is spotlight control. Find ways to specifically shine the spotlight on each character in turn, and to shift the emphasis in a way that fits that player’s style. Once you have your spotlight moving around, look for ways to specifically bring out the Awesome in each character.

        Also, have a chat with your players out of game about it. Get an email thread or something going about it. Encourage them to help each other be Awesome. Find ways to assure them that their spotlight time is coming, and they shouldn’t try to hog other players’ spotlight time. This presumes a certain level of maturity among your players, but hopefully that’s not an issue.

      • Thanks for the advice, I’m definitely gonna try to focus on that. For me it seems that most important thing is to find ways to allow everybody to have their own fun, if not the group falls apart, and for me that’s something I can’t afford to lose on a count of the trouble I’ve had finding players around here lol.

        Again, thanks for the input, it’s always good to other dm’s perspectives on running games.

    • Thanks for the well-thought-out reply! The first suggestion about toning it down works when I’m the DM. When I’m a fellow player, well, I don’t really feel that it’s my place to talk to another player about toning down the power level of their character (though I could talk to the DM about it).

      On your second point, I disagree with your premise. It is assuredly NOT the case that “everyone wants to play highly effective characters.” I can say that with certainty because I personally like to build characters that are not necessarily “highly effective” from a combat perspective. Sometimes that’s what I’m going for, but sometimes I have more of a concept (like my do-everything Bard Factotum) that doesn’t jibe with “highly effective” in combat – and that’s okay. I’ve seen this lots of times with other characters, too; the concept is more important to the player than extre,me effectiveness in combat.

      On the third point, again, that works if I’m the DM; I probably wouldn’t even ask the player before having the bad guys come after him hard! After all, if the power gamer is the biggest threat on the board, monsters are likely to go after that character anyway.

      On the fourth point, you’re right that the other PCs might be able to shine outside of combat, but everyone wants a chance to feel good about their characters in combat, too. This goes back to my earlier blog post about balanced-power parties being ideal. If one PC is off the curve (either way too high or way too low compared to the rest of the party), it’s going to be tough for everyone to have fun in combat.

      Again, I appreciate the thoughts, but it doesn’t really help me figure out how to be more accepting of power gamers. Deal with them as a DM, yes – and that’s a good thing. But to feel accepting of them, well, still no. And that’s really what I’d like to get.

      • 1. Why not? If your fun is being impacted, say something. Don’t make a big deal about it. Just say, “Hey, dude, I don’t think we’re playing the same game here. Maybe we should try to find a middle ground?” If you can talk to people without being confrontational, it’s amazingly effective.

        2. Ah, but you added two words to my statement. I wasn’t necessarily talking about highly effective “in combat.” Just highly effective. Maybe you want the half-elven bard with +25 to Diplomacy. Maybe you want the rogue that is effectively (or literally) invisible. Maybe you want the wizard who just always knows things. These are all very legitimate concepts, and there are ways to reinforce them mechanically. The Power Gamer is generally very good at finding those ways. He may also be very good at finding ways to apply your concept to combat situations (e.g., the wizard is able to rattle off the specific vulnerabilities of any creature you meet). I do think that every player wants to have a highly effective character, regardless of which niche they want to occupy.

        3. Even as a player, you should encourage the Power Gamer to take point. Or, encourage the Power Gamer to talk to the GM about ways to attract the attention of monsters in combat.

        4. I find it interesting that you assert that not everyone wants to be highly effective in point 2, then assert that they do in point 4. I recognize that there is a nuanced difference there, but it’s still interesting. There are a couple things you can do here. First, find ways to have fun in combat that have nothing to do with body count. Running around screaming “Not the face!” can be fun and amusing. Second, find ways to contribute to the combat that aren’t simply about attacking and damage. Set up combos with the Power Gamer, use social skills to demoralize your foes, or use unusual combat maneuvers that play to your strengths (e.g., trip, flank). Finally, learn to play as a team. If the Power Gamer takes down the dragon in two rounds, give him a cheer! Yeah, you didn’t get to do much, but you’ll have your turn when it comes time to fence that massive hoard.

        As to your final point, I’m not entirely sure what to tell you. You seem to hold a grudge against Power Gamers because you think they are trying to beat you, or beat the DM, or just beat the game. For the more immature members of the type, that’s probably true. For many of us, though, it’s just about playing with the toy. A system has a lot of cool moving parts. If you line up those parts in just the right way, you can get OMG AWESOME POWER out of it. We just love finding those hidden easter eggs in the game. For most of us, once we’ve found it, we actually don’t get a lot of joy out of playing it.

        Maybe you need to step back and see where your prejudices against Power Gamers are coming from. Have you been burned personally in a game before? Maybe your local Power Gamer just happens to be a jerk, and you need to solve for the person, not the type. Are you basing your judgement on forum posters? If so, recognize that those people aren’t really human. They’re complex Turing machines designed to wreak havoc. Or teenagers. Same difference. Are you thinking about the problem in a theoretical sense? In that case, I kind of have to wonder why. If you don’t currently have a Power Gamer creating a problem, I think you can pretty safely ignore the problem.

      • 1. Sorry, I just disagree here. Remember, my goal is to ACCEPT power gamers, not to convince them to tone it down. That’s a lovely thing when I’m the DM; not when I’m a player.

        2. 4e in particular (the game I’m currently playing) spends a lot of time in combat. I apologize for putting words in your mouth. I’ve never seen someone I’d describe as a Power Gamer who’s NOT focused on being highly effective in combat. And again, I disagree that all players want to be “HIGHLY effective” at whatever it is their character is focused on, be it combat or skills or whatever. Effective, yes. HIGHLY effective, no, no no. If a character is HIGHLY effective at something, then it’s either not a challenge at all for them (auto-hit in combat, auto-succeed on skill checks, etc.) or if it’s a challenge for them it’s something that the other characters have very little chance to succeed at. That’s not much fun in my prejudiced opinion (which is the opinion I want to change, remember).

        3. Again, sure, but it doesn’t help me to become more accepting of power gamers.

        4. Again, it’s the difference between “effective” and “highly effective”. Very big difference in my opinion (and maybe I’m alone in that). As I said in number 2 above, the problem is when one player is SO effective that they either always succeed (boring) or the other players have no chance to succeed at that task (frustrating). The lack of balance among characters creates unfun situations. And that’s where my judgmentality comes from, and that’s what I’d like to change.

        My prejudices against power gamers come from two places. First, as I said, it’s in myself. I could be a power gamer. But I for some reason don’t like that tendency in myself (I think because my wife doesn’t like it; we’ve had issues in the past when I “play to win” in games – not RPGs – and she “plays to have fun”). Second, I’ve played in groups with power gamers when the rest of the party was non-power gamers, and the power gamer basically ran the show. The rest of the party was along for the ride. It wasn’t fun for the rest of the party. The power gamer I’m thinking of here is actually a really nice guy and I like him a lot and consider him a very good friend. But when he created min-maxed characters and the rest of the party didn’t, it led to unfun situations for the group.

        One way to address this is to dial back the power gaming, and yes, I’ve gotten loads of lovely suggestions on this point and there’s plenty I can do about it as the DM and even some things I could do as a player. That’s great.

        But the whole point of this post is me saying, “I look down on power gamers. I don’t like that fact about myself. Does anyone have suggestions on how to stop looking down on them?” If they stop being power gamers, well, the problem goes away, yes, but that doesn’t address my question here: Can I becoming accepting of them without them having to change? I can control changes in myself; I can’t make other people change.

  3. OK, then let me shift gears a bit. I didn’t entirely get that from the original post.

    I will admit that some of my bias comes from being a system monkey myself. Also, most of the games I’ve played have emphasized that the party is a group of highly skilled, and usually highly specialized, professionals. Espionage settings are the big one, but even my fantasy games assume that you are playing people who are very competent. The games I play that don’t assume competence are usually powered by story concerns over capability concerns (e.g., FATE). So, the idea that you might not want to maximize your effectiveness in your chosen niche is pretty foreign to my way of thinking.

    Aaaand, my gears are stuck. I’m going to have to think on this one a bit. I’ll be back. Trying to come up with ways to encourage you to lose your prejudices is harder than I thought. Especially when I don’t actually know you.

    • In my opinion, it shouldn’t be so black and white. I don’t see myself as judgemental to one type of player more than another, my problem is more about getting the players to understand that there are many different and equally viable ways of playing their games. Different players get different things out of these games because, well, our imaginations pretty much dominate our perspectives while playing these games.

      It’s time to figure out how we can not just learn how to deal with these different players as a dm, but also teach other players how to play a game together and not be so close-minded about how each one of them chooses to play.

      The fact of the matter is though, that these games don’t stop being just that: games. As long as we can remember that some players get more enjoyment out of dominating the game systems while others prefer the storytelling aspect we can definitely become better at running these games. After all, I like to think that as a dm, I’m just sort of there to sometimes direct the show and sometimes be the audience, but always, always enjoy the ride. 🙂

  4. Let me preface this with the statement that I do not like powergaming, but understand why it can be so important.

    I like to choose options that make sense to how I role-play a character. Skye and I are actually avid online roleplayers and we very much enjoy telling complex stories and having detailed backgrounds for interesting, yet realistically flawed characters. This is very enjoyable to us. That being said, it doesn’t translate very well to a game of tactics and efficient cooperation like 4e. There aren’t a lot of “fluff” options to choose, and the ones that are available almost feel like a waste to take. It’s like “When will this ever come up? Will anyone even care if I take this? How badly is the party going to suffer if I don’t take ____ feat this level?” Case in point: Rylos.

    I decided to make him the way he is and I do role-play him (albeit in a very rp-lite way compared to how I normally would). The character is a lawful good pacifist cleric of Pelor who is traveling in a group with some people who probably couldn’t care less about the feelings of their adversaries or the moral implications of killing monsters. If I decided to play Rylos in a realistic way, it might be fun for ME, but it would constantly be a wrench in the gears of the campaign. It would quickly lose its novelty and the other players would be -very- annoyed that every time they want to beat up the bad guys, the healer says: “I’m not doing that. I refuse to be involved in this senseless violence.” The party has also grown to 7 players, and we only have one healer. If I didn’t exercise a little bit of power-gaming to maximize his healing output, we’d be in a lot of trouble. You know how our group is!

    I think the system almost encourages players to choose the most optimal path, because the consequences for not doing so are worse than death on the battlefield; you’ll end up being sub-par in your role. Most battles in the game are very protracted. If you can’t deliver something on a round-by-round basis, you’re really slowing the group down compared to a system with shorter or less involved combat where the other players can make up for your lack of strength. Battles can take like 40 minutes to over and hour to complete, and are often the most common situation players are presented with.

    I like 4e, but a combat-heavy system can sometimes be a drag for those of us who actually would rather not powergame. Unfortunately, there aren’t many DMs out there that I trust to play a system I’m not familiar with, so I can’t comment on any others out there in order to make a fair comparison. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to do that at some point.

    I just felt like I’d put that out there. I really enjoy our Friday game and can’t wait until we resume!


    • Just to be clear, I haven’t had any issues with excessive power gaming in our Friday night game, in part because I’ve retained veto power on character choices (though I only remember using it twice). Sure, the characters have a lot of oomph, but it’s a level I’m okay with (perhaps because I spend more of my time thinking about where the story is going).

      And to your point about choosing not to power game meaning that you’re dragging the rest of the group down, that’s only the case in a group of power gamers. Again, balanced-power parties are ideal. If you’re the only power gamer in a group of non-power gamers, you’re sticking out and making the game less fun for them. That said, fitting in with the rest of the group is the way to go, yes, and if everyone else is power gaming you’ll probably want to do the same or else feel left out.

  5. I think what’s important is for us to all remember that no matter what kind of gamer we are (or are being on a particular day for those who stretch across multiple options), not only are we going to clash with the DM from time to time, we’re going to be irritating to, and irritated by, the other players who aren’t playing the same way. I have a really hard time playing with people who are optimizers, because I’m all about character design from the idea down to the stats, and if that means I don’t get an 18 in my primary stat, so be it. It means that I’ll be irritated by those who went balls-out and put a 20 in theirs, and are really aces in their chosen field, detrimentally to my own chances to shine in play.

    But that doesn’t mean that they’re not just a ticked off at me, for being “ineffective” in their eyes. They went to all that trouble to pick the right race with the right class and the right weapon with the right feat combination to be able to do the literal most damage per turn that they possibly could, and I’m back here holding them back, unable to keep up my end of the bargain.

    It helps to remember that the game is designed around not being an optimizer, so that if you choose to, you’ll really shine and be heroic and all that, but if you choose not to, you’re not going to be dead by morning, but rather you’ll be challenged more, and that perhaps that’s what the player wants the whole time.

    And as a sideline, LFR (and for Pathfinder, PFS) games are the root of much of the optimziation/power gaming/slayer “problem” for me. When the game is centered around a single event, there’s literally no impetus to create a character with any depth at all.

    • I think your point about public play is a good one; since there isn’t generally any kind of meaningful ongoing campaign in that sort of game, it’s hard to come up with a reason to do anything other than maximize combat effectiveness. I’m actually more accepting of power gaming in public play for that reason, though. I still prefer being at a table with players who have non-optimized characters that are actually interesting to play with, but I wouldn’t necessarily be able to appreciate all of the interesting things those characters can do in a one-shot public game if all we’re doing is stomping monsters. So I’m more forgiving of the power gaming mentality in that setting.

      • As it turns out (didn’t realize this when I was posting) but we’re both in the same town, so if you are interested in a weekend game, we’re gearing up for an “occasional sunday evening” game of Pathfinder, up here on the opposite side of town from you…

      • Small world – that’s awesome! I think I’m pretty well booked up with RPGs right now (Monday night Pathfinder, Wednesday night D&D Encounters, Thursday night Living Forgotten Realms, Friday night my online War of the Burning Sky game, Saturday night Tomb of Horrors…) but I appreciate the offer.

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