Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Playing to Your Strengths

Having my own little blog from which to proselytize has been very liberating for me…not in the sense that I now speak my mind where before I did not…but in allowing me to cut down on time pent surfing various net forums and moderating/following discussion threads. Sure, my “message” (if I have one! Still refining that) may not be reaching as many folks as it could be, but dammit I can’t be responsible for everyone anyway! If it’s meant to be, people will find their way here and if anything I write interests them, they’ll stick around.

Doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes miss or get nostalgic for the old web forums.

One set of forums I frequented regularly circa 2006-2008 was those over at deathguard.org. Unfortunately closed up now, deathguard.org was THE premier site for discussion specific to the Death Guard chaos space marines of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. In addition to fun tips on painting, modeling, and army building there was plenty of discussion on strategy, tactics, and theoryhammer regarding the use of the Death Guard against other army types. The place was quite the think tank, and there were a lot of victories forged in the fires of those discussions.

Which often surprised other 40K players. Fielding an “all Death Guard” army (or any chaos specific-dedicated force) is kind of the equivalent of showing up to a Con with your Little Brown Books and running an OD&D game. In the original edition of 40K, if one wanted to field a chaos legion army, one would choose a single patron demon (for Death Guard this would be Grandfather Nurgle, Lord of Decay) and build the army using those troops specific for the patron. However, beginning with the 2nd edition (WH40K is now in its 5th or 6th edition) the designers moved to a more “Chaos United” kind of format, where you could sample a little of this and a little of that from the Chaos buffet line.

Of course, to older (or more stubborn) “traditionalist” players like myself this was frigging blasphemy! I ran a “Khorne only” army for a looong time, up till I discovered deathguard.org a whole community of dedicated curmudgeons drawn to the plaguey ones for the modeling opportunities a diseased horde affords the a budding sculptor. Seeing them as kindred spirits, I quickly switched allegiances and built a very nice collection of plague marines; a veritable “pox hammer,” if you will.

Other 40K players call this a “theme” Chaos army. But really, we’re just Old Schoolers of a 40K variety.

Anyway, on the Death Guard forums I developed my own pet theory of strategy called the Doctrines of Strength. I wish I’d saved my essays on the subject, as they were lost with the closing of the forums. They were a bit controversial (that is, heatedly debated at times), but they served ME well. The basic idea behind them (I’m not going to try to eloquently re-create them today) is that an army/force is good at SOMEthing, figure out what that something is, and do THAT. Hell, overload it! One gets more “bang for the buck” playing to one’s strength and can achieve crushing victories using the same.

The reason this was contested was of the existing idea of “shoring up one’s weaknesses.” This was the theory that if an army was weak in one area, one should add units to compensate for those weaknesses, thus becoming more “well-rounded.”

To me, this appeared to be a coward’s deception…hell, trying to compensate for weakness is simply denying your own strength! For example, the Death Guard were never going to be great at long range shooting, so why bother worrying about adding one or two (very high priced) long range weapons to the mix. Just focus your tactics around the areas your force is strong (short-mid range and close combat) and crush your opponent in the areas where YOU are strong.

Anyway, as I said, there was far more to it than that, and several good discussions on the subject that I wish I’d saved somewhere (maybe they are saved on my old PC hard drive, but that’s sitting in my garage still). Anyway, they weren’t entirely original (except perhaps in application)…I got the idea for the Doctrines of Strength from a seminar/training at work!

The training was based on a book (I don’t remember the title, as I’ve never read it, though it’s stuffed in some book shelf at home) and involved a video of people throwing fish around the Pike Place Market…or maybe I’m confusing that with a different training (maybe there was a jazz trumpet player? I don’t remember). ANYway, the basic gist of the training was this: different people have different strong personality traits, the older we get the more we become “more of the same” (stronger in our strong areas, weaker in our weak areas), and we gain more by exploiting our own strengths than we do by compensating for our weaknesses.

Interestingly enough, while I think the Strength theory works great for Warhammer 40,000, I probably come down on the opposite side of the argument with regard to human beings; it is much more important to be a well-rounded person in day-to-day life than it is to be “super strong” in one area. Also, I don’t believe everyone becomes “more of the same” as they get older…it really depends on the self-analysis and work you do on yourself over time. Otherwise, I’d suspect I still be a full-time jerk in stead of just a part-time one!

But with regard to GAMES including RPGs, the strength doctrines are interesting. I see two applications of them with regard to standard RPGs (like D&D) the first obvious, the 2nd less so.

The first, is in choosing character concepts that fit one’s randomly rolled profile. Now of course this only applies to games where random chance is a factor in character creation (for example: ALL old TSR games, Traveller, Chaosium BRP games, etc.). The recent post over on Grognardia about ability scores is what got me thinking about this at all. In OD&D, the three Prime Requisites (strength, intelligence, and wisdom) did nothing but increase the rate at which you gained experience points. This is the Doctrines of Strength in all its glory! You can certainly play a fighter with an 8 strength…and hit just as hard as a fighter with an 17 strength (same to hit roll at any given level, same 1D6 damage regardless of weapon type)…but the guy with the 17 is going to get more “bang for his buck” in earned XP than the lesser dude. The same applies to the un-intelligent wizard or the cleric that lacks wisdom.

I like this…hell, I like it A LOT. Most of the gamers I know do NOT like it (simply because they prefer more bonuses and more distinctions between characters), but I do. You can role-play the wimpy fighter or ignorant wizard with great fun and enjoyment (and you know what else? No one gets an advantage over someone else simply because they happened to roll a higher strength than the other! THAT’s game balance, folks!). And yet there is still a reward for the players who “play to their character’s strengths” in the form of more rapid advancement (though not “meteoric” advancement…just a bonus).

The second, less obvious application of the strength doctrines is regarding players’ choice of character type within an RPG. Certainly many folks gravitate to different types of characters depending on their temperament and personality. However, some of us (like me), want to try a whole slew of different personas seeing great “role-playing potential” (whatever THAT means!) in various character types; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean we are best suited to a particular class or archetype.

Let me give a personal example before I write something that offends someone. Now for me, I am a fan of the Western genre (duh!) and I am an aficionado of the spaghetti western (Clint Eastwood blazing away). I think the silent, stoic, lone gunman is totally badass and cool (who doesn’t?), and it really appeals to my Scorpio nature.

But folks who know me and role-play with me know that I am probably the least likely candidate to play the strong, silent type. Why? ‘Cause I’m loud and talky and perhaps (not too much I hope!) obnoxious at times. I can glare and sneer with the best of ‘em, but especially at the gaming table (a “fun” environment) I tend to be very sociable and un-Scorpionic. Something about role-playing brings me out of my shell.

Similar to my earlier posts about my Toad cleric…I had wanted the guy to be a sleezy, in-the-shadows kind of priest, but I couldn’t help bringing him to the foreground. Now this is NOT because I have any kind of tendency to be "heroic." It IS because I have a tendency to be impatient, aggressive, and (at times) ballsy. Being the support guy or the “thinker/schemer” is NOT my forte…unless I can be thinking up plans and tactics on the fly (I tend to be decisive in the “pressure cooker” situation).

This is probably one of the main reasons I have NEVER played a magic-user or magic-user sub-class in D&D…in ANY edition (oh, well, there was my abortive attempt at a Gandalf knock-off in 3rd edition…but that’s the exception that proves the rule in my opinion). I’m not good at walking in 2nd or 3rd rank…I like to be up front where the action is. I don’t like having to plan my spells in advance (unless I can just take a bunch of utility spells and rely on my SWORD, as I did with my Gandalf character!). Yet another reason why I hate the bard of the 2nd and later editions…they are designed to be a purely support role (they will be quickly up-staged by any “focused” class), and I can’t abide that.

But that’s ME. I have gamed with many folks who don’t share my particular berserker temperament. Clever, outside-the-box players, thoughtful-intuitive players, players who used their social skills to advantage IN GAME. And yes, those heroic players that always, ALWAYS play paladins (hi, Alex!).

Some players like to take a wait-and-see stance, only stepping forward when called upon (these are thieves of the non-swashbuckling variety) and they are perfectly content to play such a reactive role in the party. This is FUN for them. But would they make a good fighter? Not necessarily one of the “tank” variety; that’s quite possibly outside their comfort zone.

This post is getting long so I’ll just talk about one last RPG example (one that, along with Grognardia, blew this whole post into existence). Top Secret (1st edition; I haven’t played SI) is an excellent example of an Old School game that is “wide-open” as far as character possibility, but one where paying attention to one’s strengths is critical. There are only three character types (occupational Bureaus) in Top Secret: Confiscation, Investigation, and Assassination. Nothing chargen-wise distinguishes any of them from each other…you can roll any scores for your random attributes and choose any Bureau. Likewise, Bureaus themselves confer no special abilities or kewl powers…PC s are all trained spies; they simply happen to work in different departments.

The “only” thing Bureaus do is completely influence behavior and one’s role in an adventuring group (because the rewards system – money and experience – is tied directly to one’s actions and the expected actions of a Bureau member). So an Assassin gets more “points” for killing and kidnapping people, a Confiscator gets more “points” for stealing and hijacking vehicles, etc.

While ANY character generated in Top Secret can choose to be of any Bureau, certain (randomly determined) ability scores would be desirable for different departments (for example, an Investigator would like to have more Areas of Knowledge and an Assassin would probably like a higher Hand-to-Hand rating) and could (and should) prompt a person to take a particular “career path.” However, it is even MORE important in a game like Top Secret that players consider their own personal temperament, and how they feel comfortable “playing their character” as the character’s behavior within its Bureau’s specifications are going to be directly linked with game advancement. A person with no stomach for killing or (like myself) no patience for planning “clean” or “ultraclean” assassinations, should probably think twice before picking an assassin character…even though government hit-men seem cool and “glamorous,” the style of playing involved may not fit with our personality types, thus leading to slow advancement, discomfort in conformity, and less overall “fun.”

Just something to think about.


  1. While I don't play a Chaos army, I do like the strengths of the Death Guard legion. Very hard to kill, very relentless, great up close and personal. Good army to field!

    As to playing to strengths in RPGs, I can largely agree with you that it is, in general, better to play a character who does something well but has weaknesses, rather than someone who does a lot of things "okay". I'd rather be the best fighter/thief/whatever in the party than mediocre at all three.

  2. I never got into W40k, but I do like some of the chaos miniatures.

    As for JM's musings on stats, I do think stats should mean something, otherwise why bother rolling them? On the other hand, I am opposed to stat creep.

    SO where does that leave me? Giving some minor advantages for higher stats (xp bonuses, small to hit/damage adjustments, higher max encumbrance) without making the higher stats critical to success.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. PS: Failed to link on the previous post :-p

    Hope you find your essays!


    Heh funny, I could not pretend to be an oldschool Warhammer 40k player, as i began to play around 95, but it always struck me as odd using a "chaos united" army (as in fact it collided with my assumptions of chaos derived from D&D).

    I agree with your Doctrines of Strength, as I used to play with Khorne Berserkers leaded by Khârn (Omg I love that mini), sadly I could never work out a strategy that worked for armies over 1500 points :-p (But skirmishes on the other hand.... I owned them)

  5. bah just realized that you can't enter the forum :-( (gonna see if there is some way of recovering that info)

  6. (GAH! Blogger seriously needs an Edit post option)

    (Blogger needs an edit post function :-p)

    Hah! the forum software is not working (obviously duh!)

    But you can search the individual topics here:


  7. Hey, thanks, Felipe!

    Unfortunately, I could only get the first dozen or so threads to load and there were HUNDREDS on the ol' DG site. I'm afraid it might be a lost cause without any sort of search function.