In my last post, I ranted about the evils of min-maxing. I had more to say but I cut myself off in the interest of not taking up a month of your time reading a single article.
Something I almost always hear when I bring up the topic is: Why don’t you want people to play powerful characters?
My response: That is so not the issue. I have nothing against powerful characters. In my mind powerful equates to effective. If a character is too clumsy to scale a short wall, can’t drive to the next town over, or is too obnoxious to function in a social setting… they’re just not effective, no matter how many goblins they can kill before becoming winded.
Say you’re playing a psychic character. It’s fine to bump up your powers a little bit by taking a physical flaw like “limp.” You could even take it a step further and get another boost by making them “wheelchair bound” and having little-to-no melee ability. The next step is to go for total paralysis… and thence to abandoning the body altogether until the character is nothing more than a psychic brain soaking in a bucket of life-sustaining fluids.
Now comparing our limping psychic with the brain-in-a-bucket… who is more effective at the task of making a sandwich? Dusting for finger prints? Convincing the boozy derelict to tell you where the McGuffin is? Hailing a taxi? (Depending on your game system, the brain-in-a-bucket may be able to accomplish them through telekinesis, ESP, and telepathy respectively, but it’s likely that they either can’t afford all three or they use up all their “spell points” performing them, so there’s nothing left to fight bad guys with).
Believe me, I understand the virtue of power fantasies. It feels good to pretend to be completely bad ass… but do you always have to be Superman? Isn’t it just as satisfying to be Spider-man or Cyborg (both of whom are more bad ass than you or I will ever be)?
But I digress. The point of today is to light a candle rather than to curse the darkness.
How to keep Min-Maxing From Killing You
Friends, the solution is so simple that I, myself, doubted it at first. But it works and it could be yours for… sorry. I started channeling an infomercial there for a moment.
But my solution is pretty simple: Make everything a cooperative roll.
By everything, I mean “most important things”.
Most systems have some sort of mechanism for allowing two or more characters to pool their efforts so that the highest-skilled character gets a bonus to their roll, allowing them to achieve feats they otherwise aren’t capable of through the power of teamwork. Sounds great… in theory. Because in most systems, the bonus is so paltry it’s hardly ever worth the bother. On the plus side, there’s also no penalty if the lower-skilled characters fail. The only downside is the higher-skilled character doesn’t get a bonus they wouldn’t have gotten anyway if the lower-skilled character never made the attempt in the first place.
I’m not talking about that type of cooperative roll.
I’m talking about the type of cooperative roll where the highest skilled character makes their roll and everyone sees how well they did. Then I make the characters with absolutely nothing in that skill make a nominal roll as well to see if they did something to mess things up for the high-skilled character. (Depending on your system, you may need to reverse the order). If the zero-skill-ers succeed, fine. If they fail, the high-skill-er gets a penalty — and suddenly everyone at the table is irritated at the zero-skill-er, who is suddenly motivated to acquire that skill.
This method enforces teamwork and cooperation, not just in how the characters are played… but also how they’re built. Thugs can no longer safely skimp on social skills, knowing that the party leader can carry them. And I primarily use this method on social rolls (those being the skills my players tend to forego in favor of the skillset of murderous hobos). I justify it as: Picture your brother and yourself in a fancy office with leather seats, and velvet curtains. Your potential employer has the Queen of England on speed dial. That’s just how classy they are. You, being the team negotiator, have just made an incredibly compelling case as to why you should be hired for double the usual rate when… your brother inexplicably starts picking their nose. All your work is undone; you are clearly ill-mannered peasants and undeserving of a high-paying job. That’s an extreme example but the same principle applies to most other interactions. Even if they sit perfectly skill throughout the encounter such robotic mannerisms can still be off-putting.
A character with absolutely no skill in Diplomacy/Negotiations/Etiquette has absolutely no idea how to behave during Diplomacy/Negotiations/Etiquette, hence they have to roll to see if they unwittingly commit some sort of faux pas. It shouldn’t be a difficult roll. I’m only talking about DC 8-11 (for Pathfinder) or +2-3 (for Savage Worlds, which offsets the penalty for lacking a skill). You want to incentivize, not mandate the skill so there should be a better-than 50% of the skill-less player succeeding. On the other hand, if you make it a sure thing then the roll becomes a formality and is easily skipped over so try to keep the odds of success less than 75%. Also, only unskilled characters should have to roll. If they have a single point of a skill then they have some idea of how to act and know enough not to do anything embarrassing and counterproductive. (I suppose there might theoretically be cases where a character might need more than the bare minimum in a skill to avoid slipping up… but those should be extreme exceptions.)
As for a penalty… I’d say -2 is adequate for Pathfinder and -1 for Savage Worlds, those being the inverse of the “teamwork” bonuses in both systems. And the penalty is cumulative. This means that (using last post’s example) of the melee fighter, ranged fighter, healer, and sneak… about half of them will fail, giving the face a -4 penalty (-2 SW) most of the time. The next time they level up, they’ll think hard about learning the basics of social conduct.
You can use this mechanism for non-social rolls — as long as you can think of a logical application. For instance, those with absolutely no knowledge of crafting and/or repair won’t know to clean and oil their weapons. Those with no ranks in Riding or Animal Handling not only can’t do stunts in combat but also might slow the whole caravan down by 15% because they waste everybody’s time by being thrown from their steed or being unable to stop their mount from racing off into fields. The same thing applies to vehicle operation — except speed is reduced by 50% because the unskilled driver can’t get the vehicle out of second gear… and so on.
You don’t want to use this mechanism where there’s already a penalty for failure (such as climbing or swimming). Nor do you want to overdo it. You don’t want to seem like you’re picking on the player(s) of unskilled characters. I’d say no more than twice per session — and even that can be too much if it’s twice every session — should be enough to nudge your players toward reasonable characters.