Friday, August 9, 2013

On Game-Breaking and Powergaming

This is a post about powergaming, except, it isn't.  Not really.  I'll ramble all over the place, so just bear with me.

I've devoted a lot of word count to my love of Unknown Armies.  My occult horror gaming background informs much of what I do gaming-wise — I try to make my fantasy wizards at least a little off-kilter, for example.  I try to keep this picture in mind when I contemplate fantasy wizards.  In my current 4e game, the gnome wizard was given a temptation in the form of a sexy vampire wizard woman with forbidden knowledge.  (He took the bait, and is now a vampire diabolist himself.)  The other wizards encountered in the game tend to be weird and buried in their own pet projects.

Don't worry, I'm getting to it.

I don't have a head for powergaming.  I have a head for numbers and figures, sure, but I usually would rather make a broader character.  In our recently-ended Deadlands game, I could have made Father Seward a straight-up gunslinger with a 5d12 shootin', but I wanted him to have a bit more happening, so I also made him a holy man and theologian with a troubled past.  In classic World of Darkness, I typically couldn't conceive of making a character without at least a dot of Etiquette, for example.

Basically, I tend towards a well-rounded character.  Jack of all trades, master of none, and all that.

One of my powergaming triumphs?  The guy who ran Deadlands is running a Changeling: the Lost game.  I just made a character who is amazing at chemistry — assuming he has access to his library, he rolls twelve dice with the 9-Again quality.  He tried to physically resist someone else at the first game session and failed miserably.  Not typically how people min-max their characters.

Of course, that's not really the focus of this blog post.

What I really want to talk about is the game-breaking sort of powergaming.  You tend not to find it in horror gaming — even if you max out your rifle skill at 99%, Cthulhu still eats 1d6 investigators per round.

This sort of min-maxing never really bothered me.  Real people do it all the time — if you're a Nobel-winning astrophysicist, you're probably not also a UFC champion, and if you're an Olympic-award winning boxer, you're probably not also a famed actor.  (Not to say that these things are impossible, just that they're rare).  If you make a combat character, he probably has some notable flaws, like an inability to negotiate through social situations or a weak will.

Game-breaking, though, is a different story.  Since it doesn't really happen in horror gaming, one typically finds it in games such as D&D.  Various people have attempted to create game-breaking characters, frequently in D&D 3.x, that exploit poorly-written or poorly-considered rules to make characters of preternatural power.

Of course, since the heights of power typically rely on magical abilities, this means that it is typically magicians performing these feats.

In my mind, that is what magic-users do.  Player character magic-users decided to throw away a life of quiet experimentation to use their talents for profit, but the majority of wizards and sorcerers in the world are probably idiosyncratic research scientists, spending decades to unlock the properties of the philosopher's stone, or some similar eldritch discovery.

Do you remember the Zodiac wizards in Isle of the Unknown, each of whom is perfectly aspected to a sign of the Zodiac?  What about the mosaic magician in that same book, who bound his mind and spirit into the mosaic in an old temple?  What about Louhi from Vampire: the Masquerade, who has spent centuries engaged in a ritual to blot out the Sun?  What about every gutter magician in Unknown Armies, trying to turn his life into an allegory for some grand occult design?

I imagine that magic-users do that sort of thing all the time.  With that in mind, game-breaking characters seem pretty natural.  It's an intriguing thought exercise to consider what makes them tick: why would you engage in a particular avenue of research to the exclusion of all others.  Consider the following:

  • The muscle wizard is a very specific character build: you have to be an Illumian, for starters.  This works, though; Illumians are very driven magical researchers who always hope to be the best in everything.  At second level, an Illumian has two power sigils glowing around her head; these two power sigils combine into a single word.  The "Aeshkrau" word allows the Illumian to use her Strength score to determine bonus spells for a spellcasting class.  When combined with the Cancer Mage prestige class from The Book of Vile Darkness (allowing a character to become a disease carrier who receives the benefits but none of the drawbacks of any diseases, among other things) and the Festering Anger disease from the same book (which causes boils, fits of rage, and a degenerative constitution but also causes increased strength), this allows the character to increase her Strength score every day and gain more bonus spells (in addition to slowly but steadily gaining a ludicrously high Strength).  Within weeks, you'll be able to memorize prodigious numbers of spells and split boulders in half with your bare hands, although you'll be a pock-marked pariah with a crippling vulnerability to Cure Disease spells, not to mention the fact that you had to mentally train yourself to maintain a near-constant murderous rage for about a year to catch Festering Anger in the first place.  Such is the price of power.
  • Pun-Pun the super kobold is a kobold from Forgotten Realms whose quest for power led it to learn (or steal) shapeshifting abilities to assume the form and powers of a sarrukh.  It uses this same power to do this to its serpent familiar.  As the progenitor race of all Scaled Ones on Toril, the sarrukh can use the Manipulate Form ability to enhance their statistics.  Since both Pun-Pun and its familiar are both reptilian creatures posing as sarrukhs, they can use Manipulate Form as well as various other enhancement magics to form a feedback loop whereby they can constantly improve each others' statistics.  Through this method, Pun-Pun slowly but surely becomes a potent being, even holding Divine Rank in some character builds.  If allowed to continue this activity, Pun-Pun will eventually become immune to the puny attacks of mortals, although the gods themselves would likely take interest in such a creature's activities.  Interpretations of the character tend to cast him in the vein of the Monkey King; a divine trickster who stole power from the gods.  Pun-Pun might cause havoc on the Material Plane, but it seems more likely at that point that such a creature would move into the realms beyond and quickly fade into legend.  Who can say?
  • The Locate City nuke is not quite as narrow as the other two, but still requires a significant level of dedication.  The Locate City spell locates the nearest city within several miles (specifically ten miles per caster level).  The classic version of the build requires a specific selection of feats to add cold damage, lightning damage, sonic damage, and an explosive effect that throws everyone in the radius outside the radius of effect.  This modified spell now locates the nearest city while also causing small amounts of elemental damage to everyone within its radius of effect, and flinging them several miles.  Since the spell is centered on the caster, he is recommended to remain indoors while casting this spell.  Assuming a Level 12 caster, he will be struck by the elements and thrown a few feet, likely surviving the encounter with significant but not life-threatening injuries.  However, anybody else inside the area of effect is hit with elemental damage and thrown to the outside of the effect, which should strike in a 120 mile radius around the caster.  (As noted, this is about the size of Spain.)  Being thrown even a single mile will kill just about anybody, to say nothing of being thrown 100 miles.  This will certainly kill every Level 0 entity in the radius, whether or not they are indoors when "thrown," and will kill many characters with class levels, as well.  This 45,239 square mile holocaust will probably also make the character the most wanted person on the planet.  Why someone would wish to inflict this level of villainy on the world is unclear, but any magic-user with a grudge or an agenda could clearly perform such a feat.  Of course, it is also possible that the magic-user in question has no intention of surviving the blast, feels like he has no other option, or has been brainwashed to train in such a way.
Each of these potent wizards seems to come with significant weaknesses that make perfect sense of some mad genius who sought the heights of power.  Of course, that doesn't necessarily justify allowing a player to attempt to derail a campaign in such a way, but anyone dedicated enough to try these sorts of antics might deserve having the opportunity to try.  Even if it backfires horribly, as it often does.

Edit: This post marked two years of this blog, and I totally didn't notice!  Happy birthday to me.

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