Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fetishizing The Suboptimal

Since it is -37 degrees celsius in the world today (-35 F), this seems like a dandy time to talk about suboptimal characterizations.  Would I have it warmer out there in order to make my life better, or would I rather have it colder to give me more character?

In the comments of the previous post, Tahotai attempts to distinguish players who intentionally adopt suboptimal character traits from those who think doing so is 'dumb.'  It's a little unclear, but the long and the short of it seems to be, suboptimal = character while optimal = fakery (i.e., avatar).  Very well: where did all this suboptimal stuff in D&D begin?

I don't care to be specific here, and I'm sure if I tried it would start a nit-picking session about who started what where, so I'll stick to generalities.  Sometime in the late 70's/early 80's, eons ago when the world was new, people began to bring out games that allowed a feature in character construction whereby you chose flaws for your character in order to increase the overall combat potential.  The logic was that a character who was missing half of their left leg would have somehow compensated for this by having powerfully strong arms that would dispense out damage at a higher rate than someone with two healthy legs ... in the same way, supposedly, that a blind man has highly sensitive hearing on account of losing his sight.

It's a rather ridiculous conception of being handicapped, but games are full of ridiculous conceptions.  This particular manifestation came part-and-parcel with the Rolemaster-popularized skill set buying system, wherein your character was given a certain number of points with which to buy skills, rather than having 'classes.'  Rolemaster wasn't the only system offering this in 1981, but I remember it as being the most popular.  It proved so popular throughout the 80s that eventually aspects of D&D were rewritten to reflect the method ... a detriment to the game, I say, but beloved by those who will connect it forever with the game because it is the first system they played.

But in D&D it inspired the same pattern that it had earlier inspired in Rolemaster.  Players realized fairly early on that not all skills provide the same return for the amount they cost.  The most powerful players - combat-wise - in the game became those who made a certain set of choices ... choices that made every power player a duplicate of every other power player. Those who decided not to make the 'best' choices, but rather the suboptimal ones, found themselves getting pushed around at the table while constantly having to justify their choices to people who became, in effect, combat bullies.  That suboptimal choice was usually made by players who recognized, and didn't want to be part of, the standard power track.  It was usually made by players who were TIRED of optimization.  More to the point, by players intelligent enough to be bored by optimization ... and therefore intelligent enough to see that there was something very wrong with the reward-system D&D had been saddled with ... a reward system that rewarded optimization and punished independence and creativity.

Now, just at the point when I could go on with the philosophical stance offered by this suboptimal group, I'm going to take a huge departure far, far to the right bleachers, and talk about an entirely different social group - a non-RPG group.  I'm going to talk about fiction writers.

Once upon a time I did a foolish thing.  I submitted my writing material to a professor at a university, as one of three hundred candidates.  19 were chosen, including yours truly.  And so began an 8-year journey into the world that is grant-funded authorship.

The gentle reader may be unaware, but there are thousands upon thousands of would-be writers wandering out there in the world who will never be writers.  But they want to be, very badly.  It is a hunger.  And this hunger hurts, as they know deep down in their hearts that they are not good enough.  But because the hunger to be a writer is enormous, the hunger translates into a belief that, somehow, if only someone could tell them how to write, they would be writers.

Now, mix into this emotional soup a select group of individuals who, in high school and university, entered into writing contests as young men and women - and won.  They got a scholarship here, a chance to attend a writer's camp, a part in a writer's festival ... and so on.  In the process they met professors and previous contest winners who had successfully parlayed themselves a grant from the federal government ... and who were now looking for up-and-coming writers upon whom to bestow their approval.  Their approval in the form of a letter to the same government, you understand, so as to confer that self-same grant that they 'earned.'

The government in fact has no earthly idea what good writing is, so they follow through with the giving of grants entirely upon the approval of people who have already received grants.  What's more, if you have received a grant in the past, and you win yourself a little cherub by ensuring that they receive a grant, you can count on that worshipping little cherub to approve your grant application next year.  In this way, a tiny incestuous butt-fucking elite is created.  Are you with me so far?  Good.

Now, we have this marvelous elite, and we have this crowd of would-be writers looking desperately for an elite.  This creates a community.  But mind you, its not a 'rich' community.  Government grants are enough money to keep you from having to work a real job for a year, but they won't buy you a house.  The big grants provide approximately the same amount of income as a lesser clerk would make in a company farm.  The little grants give you as much as you'd get from MacDonald's in about four months.

Still, there's notariety that comes with getting a grant.  You'll develop a name for yourself, certain little government-sponsored bookshops will stock your books and a few people ... ahem, wanna-be writers ... will have heard of you.

These funded writers and their unfunded associates looking for answers will meet together in groups of sixty or eighty in community hall basements, libraries, university lecture halls and such - anywhere that costs little money, or no money at all, to obtain.  It always helps that there's a few students or professors among the grant-gifted in order to get free campus space ... and this is the most likely place to encounter this particular human herd.

I'm sorry that I've had to provide all this background on a D&D blog, but please bear with me.  We come now to the crux of what is talked about all of the time at these meetings between approved writers and writers desperately wanting approval:  what is good writing?

The definition, in case you haven't guessed it yet, circles around one basic principal.  If the writing earns money, it is shit.  If it is struggling to earn money, and it has been published by the right people, the writing is good.  If the writing isn't earning any money at all, and is of the sort that might someday be popular, the writer is a sell-out, and should be shunned.  All writing that is not approved by the elite - money-earning or not - is bad writing.

Now, what is it the elite write about?  Well, in a word: inadequacy.  Ugliness is more interesting, more real, more believable and more accessible than beauty.  Failure is something that everyone has experience with.  Success is a false god, an unfulfilling illusion.  Success is something that ignorant people strive for, as they are unaware that success doesn't solve the real problems of life - those problems being, of course, the difficulties of dealing with inadequacy.  We all have inadequacies, so being the common denominator, that is what writing should address.  Not the optimal circumstances we wish we possessed, but the suboptimal circumstances which we overcome day-by-day.  That is TRUE heroism.  Any imaginary and impossibly-conceived character can be a hero in the comic-book sense of the world ... but that's infantile and make-believe.  A honest-to-god real HERO is someone who is dealt the worst possible circumstances and yet shows the tiniest glimmer of success in spite of those circumstances.

The Oscars are coming up, so there are plenty of examples.  Many of which are, yes, government funded.

There is a strange fetishistic quality to suboptimal lives and lifestyles which appeals to a particular kind of person.  For them, it isn't success unless they have to overcome something ... or more to the point, they ARE overcoming something and they want special points for achieving success in spite of it.  The more flaws they have, the more special points they're owed.  Your fighter or mage may have an 18 strength or intelligence, but my cleric with his 12 wisdom survived the battle right alongside you and isn't that amazing!

There's no recognition at all that the weak cleric survived because the fighter was right there ... just as there's no recognition in the writer's clique that the money for their fetish comes from the same people who'd rather see Transformers 68: Sam Gets A Pension rather than read half a page of any of their crappy books.  The fetish is all about that individual with the fetish, who wants it to be about "Me, Me, Me" and his or her particular suboptimal choices.

There is a general agreement among my players that if Pippin were a player character, Gandalf would have pushed him down the well rather than merely threatening him.  Even as a DM I find it a remarkably annoying thing to have a player wallowing around in their own character jizz in order to produce a "real, honest to god character."  It's a tremendously self-involved mastubatory instinct to feel that the most important thing about the game isn't that people battle together to overcome the odds, but that "The Me" personally battles against the odds of his or her own made-up nature in order to have trials and tribulations that are much more debilitating than anyone else can imagine.

Ugh.

It isn't much different from the real world ... in that the world is full of self-involved people who feel their suboptimal problems are greater than anyone else's.  For them, D&D - or any other pastime - is an opportunity to air out those grievances in a quest to prove to themselves that they're better for it.  The whole thing reminds me of a quote from Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut:

"People took such awful chances with chemicals and their bodies because they wanted the quality of their lives to improve. They lived in ugly places where there were only ugly things to do. They didn't own doodley-squat, so they couldn't improve their surroundings. so they did their best to make their insides beautiful instead."

You know what?  It's a fantasy world.  Let's have a little fantasy, shall we?  Let's leave the angst on the doorstep.

20 comments:

Zzarchov said...

I see another group who want sub-optimal characters. The MacGuyvers, the "Hard Mode" players. That guy who saw DOOM II and thought "I need to play this through on Nightmare". I personally see the mindset hobbling yourself in this light as a different sort than you mention.

James C. said...

There's also a difference between a player taking the suboptimal character on purpose and he or she that simply take whatever the dice give them. I guess, though, that the distinction on motivation or original circumstance becomes irrelevant \... the gist of this blog's original post re: the squaring of cows is that you simply kick out the whiners and spotlight hogs, yes?

irbyz said...

> This particular manifestation came part-and-parcel with the Rolemaster-popularized skill set buying system, wherein your character was given a certain number of points with which to buy skills, rather than having 'classes.'

Who stole RM classes while I wasn't watching? :)

> But in D&D it inspired the same pattern that it had earlier inspired in Rolemaster. Players realized fairly early on that not all skills provide the same return for the amount they cost. The most powerful players - combat-wise - in the game became those who made a certain set of choices

There's far more than just combat skills in "roleplaying", one would hope, but if the GM wishes to focus hugely on combat that's /their/ call, not a fault in the system IMHO.

In RM, anyone who can, and wishes to, fast-track their skills has to pay through the nose, only to see other (same class) players start to catch up after they max out their 5% ranks. By highlighting the benefits of a broad skills-base the tendency to hyper-focus on combat skills is reduced since the player will simply run out of DPs.
The percentile (and open-ended) nature of the system also makes it quite difficult for anyone to be "pushed around at the table".

More recent D&D editions on the other hand /actively/ encourage optimization to such a degree that anyone who thought "old style" D&D played to character class stereotypes really ain't seen nothing yet...

> We all have inadequacies, so being the common denominator, that is what writing should address. Not the optimal circumstances we wish we possessed, but the suboptimal circumstances which we overcome day-by-day. That is TRUE heroism. Any imaginary and impossibly-conceived character can be a hero in the comic-book sense of the world ... but that's infantile and make-believe.

The tortured, imperfect (anti-)hero can also be a cliche, of course.
Striking a middle ground is definitely an art form - both in writing /and/ gaming.

> There is a general agreement among my players that if Pippin were a player character, Gandalf would have pushed him down the well rather than merely threatening him.

Better saved for Balrog fodder, IMO. :)

> Even as a DM I find it a remarkably annoying thing to have a player wallowing around in their own character jizz in order to produce a "real, honest to god character." It's a tremendously self-involved mastubatory instinct to feel that the most important thing about the game isn't that people battle together to overcome the odds, but that "The Me" personally battles against the odds of his or her own made-up nature in order to have trials and tribulations that are much more debilitating than anyone else can imagine.

Mhmm... really easy to end up playing with oneself (so to speak) rather than actually considering what their character living in their imaginary world might actually do were it not for the player's ego being imposed upon them.

02c, in passing, anyhow...

Best wishes & thanks for the (angst-free?) thoughts,
David. :)

Oddbit said...

I've only asked once before to be nerfed when creating a character. And that was when I was preparing to play a barbarian and the GM made me write the background before I rolled the stats. Expecting at least two lows I had written them to be dumb and lacking wisdom. I got excited about the background I wrote and ready to play them. Then I rolled nothing less than 12.

I asked to lower stats and was denied, so I had to rewrite the background a bit... I learned something there. Let random chance play out before you write the story, I didn't have a choice, but I'll be sure to give my players one.

Alexis said...

James,

Well, let's give 'em a chance first to shape up, no?

Oddbit said...

There is in fact a difference between doing something about a problem person and kicking them out. A gradient of solutions varying somewhere from rolling eyes to locking them up in your basement for torture.

Tahotai said...

I think it's basically a spectrum.

On the one end you have people who wear their full plate while sleeping at the inn in the major walled city.

At the other end you have the player who decides that because he's a cleric, putting the body of the dead princess they were hired to find inside the portable hole is disrespectful so the entire party is just going to have to carry her murdered corpse through the streets. Because, of course, "Well that's what my character would do."

To get away from playing the game like a wargame (which again, perfectly valid just not my cup of tea), you need to be willing to make suboptimal choices if they're more in line with what your character would do.

The problem is that even if people are willing to do this, quite a few of them are very bad at it. For example, your barbarian is young, strong and reckless do you A) Play him like a cold as ice master tactician B) Play him as someone aggressive in combat who's willing to take an occasional opportunity attack to cleave someone's face in or C) Charge like a maniac into horrible odds and situations and force the rest of the party to wade into bad spots to save your ass

I've met plenty of players who seem to think that C is playing the character properly, mainly because they aren't really giving it much thought. "My character has the trait reckless, time to look for the absolute craziest thing I can do in every situation!"

James C. said...

Sure, give 'em a chance. Since I've been an adult, though, I've had zero contact with the sorts of bad players described here and elsewhere. Before then I was always an advocate of giving 'em a chance on principle, but in practice it never ultimately worked out. First impressions were generally accurate ones.

I've been lucky overall. Never been so hard-up for players or moving in such small social circles of potential players that I've had to grin and bear a bad one for too long. As a player, the few bad campaigns I've joined I've simply quit or they came apart due to their own crazy inertia.

Arduin said...

Hmm. Tough.

Gandalf is awesome, yeah. Who wouldn't want to be Gandalf?

It's just, when the whole group is Gandalf, who cares? I mean, really.

He's -the- magic user. The only one. If there's another, he becomes half as important, instantly.

Awesome, by design, is based in rarity. If it isn't rare, it's mundane, and therefor not awesome.

There's a difference between being an attention whore, and wanting to play in a game that's not all about putting numbers as high up as they can go.

In AD&D, this isn't a super-huge problem. Everything is "roll under stat" or THAC0. Every character has a chance, generally at least a three-in-ten chance.

As later editions went on, however, and monsters, abilities, and power levels became more uniform (in the interest of "balance"), any difference between your character and the assumed power level made you effectively worthless.

This could be sparked off by something as small as taking the "Focus:Hiding" instead of "Focus:Dagger". Suddenly you're two points behind the expected power-level for attacks, and your hits drop significantly. Because the later power levels assume the earlier ones, you may never catch up. Ever.

Crunch is fun and all, don't get me wrong. I love a good number-crunching session. I make NPCs that I'll never use just because I enjoy the number excercise, but it's not what I want my game to be.

If my PCs decide to put a few skills into political intrigue instead of smashing things, I'd like the game to be able to handle that without needing to dial everything down from then on.

Again, why put the sub-optimal options in at all, if the goal of the game is merely to create the most smashingest PC possible? Why not just put every character along a given track, and keep it uniform?

Because that's boring.

Playable shouldn't have to be munchkin, and sub-optimal doesn't have to be angst.

It is entirely possible to have a useful PC with low stats, or with high ones. Or at least it should be.

Blaine H. said...

The problem with the race to have the most crunchiest character possible, to push the rules to their utmost highest echelons is that might drag others along for the ride who were not intending to in the first place.

The players who are really good at creating 'optimized' characters tend to be the detail oriented people. The ones who track every last rule and cross reference across two dozen source books or errata. They check message boards to compare notes with their fellow slightly unhinged brethren. Some of us just do it as thought experiments to see just where a player could theoretically push the limits or to create a memorable fight scene without having to resort to a refitted monster.

The problem arises is when one of these characters 'go live'. Players gasp at either the NPC's incredible potential and demand explanation or they gawk at how much incredible damage or batman level preparedness is displayed by the player. It sets the bar higher.

They want to go out of their way now to match the guy who was by himself doing more damage than the party or out talking the entire senate. They want to cast spells that would make Raistlin stutter because they want to either match the NPCs or the player in question.

Suddenly, the party becomes too good for their level. Nothing of their level is a challenge, hell even survives a single round against an optimized party. That means the monsters have to get tougher to be able to challenge them.

If you aren't on the optimized curve, you feel kinda left out of any spotlight time. When the bigger monsters start to arrive, you suddenly find yourself unable to do anything against them, but then the GM has to now give things to keep the 'sub-optimal' characters challenged and not instantly splattered by the threats to the optimal characters.

Like the nuclear genie, once it gets out though, you can't put it back in. Sure, you can go the totalitarian route and say that all the books that are not core are banned, but that never goes over well. It is the fast route I have seen to having no one but a few die hards stay and everyone else going off to form a new group.

There is always banning the most broken classes and combos but some of the combos are so core and integral that changing them is rebuilding the engine of the game itself. Then you run into the problem of eventually having so many house rules and refits to the engine that anyone from the outside who is joining will have to spend a couple of weeks learning all the special rules that are custom.

It is a terrible thing, flaws only enrage the problem. When handled right, they can be great tools to flesh out a character, to give the GM instant hooks to play with the character or when integrated properly with the feel of the character.

The real problem with flaws comes from when players who are only thinking in the most bang of the point start taking them. Suddenly, it is all an equation to see which stat or bonus can be nerfed to get the most return to the damage. It is just another tool in the arsenal of destruction by the power players.

So really, there needs to be a scaling back in the player-GM arms race to see who can crank out the most damage possible or be the biggest tool at the table and bring the focus back towards characters who are more rounded and versatile without making it completely in the bag of the Batman preparedness characters.

Sadly, as long as combat is the dominate and determining factor in D&D, this is not going to go away. Unfortunately, in the age where huge forums and databases of knowledge exist that display for all these power builds for all the various engines and how to accomplish nearly everything... there just isn't a place for the 'average' adventurer.

Alexis said...

Guys.

Calm down.

I'm not recommending fetishizing the optimal, either.

If either Arduin or Blaine think for five seconds that I'd put up with any of the crap they suggest in my campaign ... color me baffled.

E.G.Palmer said...

Heh, that's great. my writing was given the cold shoulder by my prof in college until, as an experiment, I wrote a self-hating piece about a terrible social mistake I made in high school.
She loved it. Wanted to read it aloud to the class. That's when I thought, "yeah, this course is crap. I have nothing to learn here."

I would take a grant to play D&D though.

Alexis said...

E.G.,

When I get rich, I'll remember to establish one.

Dave Cesarano said...

I thought the angst-ridden character belonged in a World of Darkness game. I mean, White Wolf always projected their stuff as either the emo-goth game or the English majors' rpg.

Sub-optimal doesn't have to mean nerfed. It could mean you've simply got a cool idea that you want to try out--a kind of experiment. "What would it be like if I played this? I would be a bit unconventional, but it might be fun!"

Lo-and-behold, that character ends up being totally worthless in a combat-heavy game full of optimized characters and NPCs. My advice? Either play an optimized character or find a new group.

Oddysey said...

Are you specifically condemning only mechanical sub-optimization here? When you write "It's a tremendously self-involved mastubatory instinct to feel that the most important thing about the game isn't that people battle together to overcome the odds, but that "The Me" personally battles against the odds of his or her own made-up nature in order to have trials and tribulations that are much more debilitating than anyone else can imagine." it seems like you're veering off into a discussion of what is, to my mind, a somewhat separate issue -- play styles that focus on internal conflict don't necessarily go hand in hand with intentional mechanical nerfing of a character.

Alexis said...

Yes, Oddysey, there is a difference. When someone chances to roll a 5 wisdom and then plays that character accurately to that wisdom, this is one thing. Any game has that possibility. When someone in a skill-buying system buys skills that are less combat friendly because they prefer the alternative - then that, too, is personal taste.

But when these people then demand that the whole system be reshuffled so that the 5 wisdom isn't actually a flaw, and that the skills they buy ought somehow to be regarded as extra-beneficial because that particular player chose them, then there is a problem.

Suboptimal is suboptimal. When suboptimal is argued to be some kind of special extra-prestigious optimal that isn't really respected, and ought to be - with rewards and everything - THEN we are fetishizing it.

Zzarchov said...

Well,

If Richard the IVth level fighter enters Constantinople and faces off against 10,000 scimitar wielding turks armed only with his trusty fruit knife and lives...

I must say I would think he does deserve a little bit of extra respect over a properly armed expedition.

Badmike said...

Alexis;

I think I'd love to read a blog just about your writing experiences. Take it from someone who experienced roughly the same thing you are so on the money with your description of the process of writing grants. And because when I left graduate school I was this close to going postal after hearing so many times that "Female ethnic writer X is soooo much better than Faulkner because you've never heard of her and no one will publish her". The elite cult of educators worshipping inadequacy, failure and downright dumbness is alive and well on the campus. Ok, back to the gaming....

Oddbit said...

Z;

I'm thinking either respect or laughter depending on how it works out. He's going to have to actually use those chosen weapons with stock stats and come out alive, I'm not giving him bonuses till he does.

Anthony said...

I detect a hint of Nietzsche slave morality in this fetish for the suboptimal...

/pedantry