Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why Do I Keep Poking At This Thing?

One often heard complaint about the Palladium system is its propensity towards “munchkinism.” For those readers who are un-familiar with the term (I’m guessing less than 1% of you, but well, I like to have things DEFINED, don’t ya’ know?) I’ll try to spell it out in a non-pejorative fashion.

Muchkins, also known as “Twinks” (short for “Twinkies”), also known as “Power Gamers,” also known as “Min-Maxers” are folks with a gamist creative agenda intent on creating the most powerful character possible using knowledge of the rules, possible “broken” classes, powerful combinations, etc. GENERALLY with (what is considered blatant) disregard for the idea of “character” (role-playing) and/or maintaining “game balance” (whatever that is!) in relation to the campaign world and/or other player characters at the table.

When I write “the most powerful character possible” I speak in terms of combat advantage, as this is the general arena of conflict resolution in an RPG (though in a game driven by social mechanics I can see certain combinations still being considered “twinking” or “munchkinism”). The potential for creating munchkiny player characters is more prevalent in systems that allow a wide range of player choice in the creation of their characters; it is much more difficult to “twink” or “min-max” a character in a system where character creation is based on random systems…however, the potential for munchkinism may be present in some systems for certain character builds and not for others (as some character classes provide MORE choice and LESS static/random advantage).

For example: in AD&D it is fairly difficult to accuse someone of munckinism, unless players are allowed to create characters at a “high level.” Starting characters cannot be “twinked” because their ability scores are random, their equipment likewise based on a random (and limited) amount of coin, and 1st level abilities (and rate of experience) are generally balanced against one another. Certain race-class selections (a Halfling thief, a female Drow cleric) may provide some additional bonuses straight out o the box, but such opportunities are limited. Treasure (especially magic items) are the main source of power gain over time, and this is moderated by the DM so little “twinking” can occur unless the DM permits such (a Monty Haul style campaign).

As a contrasting example: in Werewolf the Apocalypse, a player creates his or character through a series of selections and the assignment of certain points. It is completely possible to choose all the “combat optimal” options with regard to species, clan, moon-type, “gifts,” and in addition assign the majority of points to physical attributes and combat skills, thus creating a virtual juggernaut in combat. This can be problematic for a gaming group if the rest of the group is not “on the same page:” the Storyteller (GM) can still “hose” the player’s character by placing the troupe in situations where combat is a non-issue (and where the PC is woefully inadequate) which can lead to frustration on the part of the player (the player wants to use the character’s abilities after all) and the possibility of “acting out” (forcing even non-combat scenarios into physical conflict through in-game action), while IN combat the character out-shines the other player characters, possibly harming the “fun” of those with different creative agendas.

ANYWAY, that’s how I define munchkins in gaming: folks willing to break social contract (generally with regard to disbelief suspension, “role-playing,” or sharing spotlight time) through rules manipulation and inattention to theme or premise.

Now, having said all that I ALSO want to say that I believe gamism is a valid creative agenda and power gaming is JUST FINE…assuming everyone at the table is on-board and along for the ride. There’s nothing wrong with indulging one’s twink fantasy after all, and some people like to play that way. NOT ME…but I don’t speak for everyone. My ideal gaming environment is a bit different from Munchkin Paradise, but that doesn’t mean others have to play the way I do. Hell, I don’t even throw down $500 on Free Parking when I play Monopoly, though I know A LOT of people that do (and truth be told, I did in my youth as well…I’m such an old fuddy-duddy these days!).

So back to Palladium and specifically Rifts: in addition to the complaints about the poor lay-out and mish-mashed rules, as well as the patronizing tone and protectionist stance…the MAIN complaint I hear from folks AFTER all that is “the game is only for munchkins.”

Just yesterday I was surfing around the Rifts web ring on-line, looking for some house rules (and the stats for a borg railgun, now that Sourcebook #1 is no longer in print) and I ran into a whole site dedicated to stopping munchkinism in Palladium games…basically setting a list of DON’Ts for the GM (don’t allow classes X, Y, and Z, don’t allow certain skills and power options, etc.). There was even a page for stopping munchkinism in Heroes Unlimited with the main commandment being Thou Shalt Not Allow Invulnerability In Thy Game. Say, what? Invulnerability is one of the only ways to represent certain (comic book staple) characters/powers in the game!

Here are my thoughts on the matter:

First off: the short and sweet. With regard to Heroes Unlimited and Rifts both, neither of these games model GAME BALANCE. That is, character classes are not created equally. And that is just fine by me…to a point. HU especially could use some additional rules (not just streamlining) similar to Marvel’s karma rules so as to allow the comic book improbable to occur (like Squirrel Girl beating Doctor Doom or Mr. Fantastic and Co. not getting automatically destroyed by Galactus). But HU especially is designed to model the characters one finds in comics…a Kraven the Hunter is NOT on the same base power level as, say, the Hulk or Captain America, and it’s not just because one guy is a “higher level” than the other. Sneakiness, clever plans, traps, and hired thugs can make the difference AND, with regard to an all SDC (no MDC) campaign, there is still danger for most every character at every level. HU allows players to play the kind of character they WANT and it models characters fairly well in relationship to one another (and sometimes that means looking at two characters that ain’t on the same power level).

Second thought, and piggy backing off the first: I hate, Hate, HATE people saying that it’s up to the GM to balance the campaign to meet the players’ needs. I do NOT hold this as a universal truth and thank God because that is too much damn work for me to do. When one player is playing Thor and the other guy is Rorschach, I’m supposed to make sure every encounter is balanced? No friggin’ way!

It is the GM’s job to create the campaign/game world. A competent game group will have a discussion about this ahead of time so everyone is on the same page before the campaign starts. A competent GM is going to listen to input from the players so that their “fun needs” are met, but there’s no call to completely roll-over. A GM is allowed to set parameters for the game (for example: “we will only be using the Rifts core, Bionics Sourcebook, and Warlords of Russia for this campaign”). And there should be expectations of players being on the ball.

I’m not saying players should be cut-off from playing a Super Sleuth or Vagabond in a World Shaking campaign. But if the player wants to go that route, he or she will be expected to be twice as clever to not only ensure survival, but ensure in-game effectiveness.

And by the way, I LOVE the Vagabond OCC in Rifts…of all the “adventurer” classes, I think it holds the greatest appeal, because it’s so wide open. The first ever “practice game” I ran with Rifts I had my brother play a Vagabond so that he could gage the world and the various powers-that-be. Now he did eventually lose a leg to a stray MDC shot, but he got a bionic replacement, no sweat. Like the drifter career in Traveller, the Vagabond has plenty of opportunity to shine and role-play in the world of Rifts.

Which brings me to thought #3: Rifts does NOT have to be about combat. Neither does HU for that matter, but being based on “comic book land” the regular slugfest is, I’m afraid, inevitable to the genre.

Rifts IS about CONFLICT. There is inherent conflict in every part of the game world, from the core book to each of the supplements. In the core book we have the Coalition versus everyone, though especially Tolkeen. In the NGR it’s about Triax versus the gargoyles. In Warlords of Russia, it’s the Warlords versus each other and the Sovietsky. In Juicer Uprising it’s the juicers versus their own biological clocks. In all of the setting it’s about the hostile, crazy wilderness against the folks trying to survive and re-build a society.

Conflict does NOT equal Combat. Conflict is good for drama; it’s good for adventure, it’s good for problem solving. As with all Old School role-playing games, one can set-up the game to “challenge the players,” NOT the stat block. This ain’t 4E or a video game!

Now a lot of this confusion is Palladium’s fault…they don’t talk about the possibilities of game play in their core books, and the bulk of the written rules system pertains to combat. But just look at that stupid experience table…there’s no points awarded for the amount of damage one does, only for “defeating a menace;” and who knows how one might defeat it? Clever plans, heroic action, and skill use are also well rewarded…none of this is dependent on how big an MDC gun you have.

Again, I blame Palladium for not making this clear (or coherent) in their writing/system. But problem solving, with or without ammunition, gives more “points” as a reward. It’s unfortunate that the benefits of the Palladium reward system are so miniscule (remember how reward systems influence behavior in game? Well a shallow reward system has a lot less influence).

Even so, look at the major menaces of Rifts. Starting with the first two World Books we have, right off the bat, Vampiric Intelligences and Splugorth…creatures with thousands or tens of thousands of MDC/Hit Points. Even a Glitter Boy (the game’s biggest gun) is going to have little to no impact in direct conflict with such creatures. Going into combat with them (or the Apocalyptic Horsemen of Africa) is going to take scores of fighters, many of whom will die…which is of course as it should be. Sure Beowulf killed a dragon single-handedly but he was at the top of his game, the dragon wasn’t huge or ancient, and he still DIED…oh, and there’s a legend and epic poem to Big B’s heroic greatness. It’s going to take brains an outside-the-box thinking to defeat the Supernatural Evils of Rifts (and generally combat is going to only be a factor against their minions).

If supplementary Rifts books have created OCCs that powerful in an especially silly way (personally, I think the mega-juicer is fairly unnecessary to the setting…let’s keep magic supernatural and scientific human augmentation on a “normal” scale), I’m guessing it has to do with Palladium attempting to satisfy consumer demand. But that doesn’t mean one has to use ALL the published material. The classes in the core Rifts book (I don’t know about the new Ultimate Edition) are as balanced against each other as I care to have. As I wrote earlier, I’m inclined to only use the core book and whichever setting specific World Book I need for the type of game I’m playing (thus, if I WAS playing the Juicer Uprising story line, having a wide variety of juicer PCs would probably be both cool and SUITABLE for the setting!). It’s not necessarily about the GM working over-time to balance encounters nor is it about putting down draconian edicts about what power/OCC is not allowed. It IS about creating a setting that makes sense for the type of game you want to play (hopefully with full collaboration between GM and players) and then having folks play to the appropriate level.



  1. Another fine post. I don't know if you releaize of if your doing it on purpose. But, much of what you say in regards to the problems of Palladium is great advice for any system. Balance, conflict, focusing on a core rather than 'everything and the kitchen sink'.

  2. Thank you for the kind words, Norm.

    The blog itself gives me a platform to organize and express my thoughts on gaming in general, as well as a chance to dissect and analyze my own gaming experience/history. My experiences from one game will sometimes have applications to another...I have to give a lot of credit to the indie game designers of recent years who have opened my mind to the idea that:

    a) design matters, and
    b) gaming has value

    When I keep those things in my head and analyze my own play experiences, ideas come out. I'm just pleased I've got some people interested in my thoughts (it encourages me to keep thinking).

    Thanks for reading!

  3. I've only recently warmed up to Palladium after dismissing them many years ago.

    I would actually say a lot of their games don't seem overly concerned with balance, but as of late I find that appealing. Truly no game is balanced unless you want silly situations like dwarves tripping gelatinous cubes, but that's another can of worms entirely.