The Joys of Unsophisticated Play

I spoke yesterday about playing “solved” games, and how quickly it can make the fun of playing a game evaporate for all except the players at the top of the heap. Games tend to fall apart when there’s unequal skill and meta-level understanding between the players involved.

One of the places where this can become a huge problem is tabletop RPGs. I’ve heard countless stories of players who figure out an unstoppably powerful character in a game where the other players aren’t doing that, who dominates the game as the only relevant player– either the DM has to throw challenges appropriate to the super-player that would crush any of the others or the super-player just walks all over every encounter.

I’ve been running tabletop RPGs on and off for quite a number of years at this point, and I’ve had to figure out how to balance parties of players who absorb the rulebook and look for loopholes and players who throw together something fun and/or have never played a pen-and-paper RPG before, and figure out how to make it fun for everyone.

The tack I’ve taken is to enforce unsophisticated play. I tend not to give my players the resources to become unstoppably powerful, offering “interesting” rather than “good” rewards. Rather than giving powerful loot, I like to create powerful choices. The phrase that comes up in my group is “bad ideas treasure”. I use next to nothing from the standard magic items tables in D&D– no simple +1 swords of frost here. Instead, here’s a sword that casts a cone of flame out from your target when you kill it or roll an even number on the attack roll. The direction of the cone of flame is random. 25% of the time, it’s going to blow up in your face, but the other 75% of the time it’s going to deal a bunch of extra damage, possibly hit some extra targets, and hey, magic sword!

This item was hugely effective in mixing up the combat strategies of the group. The alternative being a stock, non-magical sword, the fancy-but-potentially-dangerous fire cone sword was quite good. The player wielding it started prioritizing things that would protect him from fire, and turned into more of a flanker than a frontline warrior, since staying close to his allies was a liability. There were some tense moments when something REALLY needed to get smacked with a magic sword but there were nearby wounded allies, and that fire cone might’ve been a disaster.

If that had been a regular +1 sword, it would’ve been boring, and combat would’ve been the same “walk up and hit things” that it frequently was before. The trick is to keep it simple but add a slight twist. Without being able to rely on particular powerful items, the ability for play to quickly turn into a game of “who’s figured the system out the best” goes down dramatically, particularly if players are trying to play around the weird items they’ve gotten rather than mark their stat boosts down and forget about them.

I’d be interested in seeing this kind of thing adapted to other sorts of games, where the level of play is maintained at a relatively unsophisticated level, offering more exploration into the low- and mid-tier play experiences and preventing a rise to the higher tiers of play. Minis games are often very good at this, with supported alternate gametypes and game sizes that significantly change the way the game is played and what strategies arise, and tend to keep things at that nice, everyone-is-still-learning tier of play.

Source: Digital Initiative
The Joys of Unsophisticated Play

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