In the good old days, I’d turn up to the game with a rulebook or two and have fun. Now it seems, I need dozens of books to have fun. What happened?
Last week, I blogged about when everyone is special, no one is special. Doing so got me thinking again about options and the profession of them in the games I love to play.
I recently re-watched the amazing video, Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz over at TED.com. It’s one the best, most informative videos I’ve ever watched. I highly recommend it, if you have a spare 15 minutes or so. It’s a very thought provoking talk and (inevitably) I wondered how it might apply to gaming.
In brief, Barry’s position is that choice is good for us, but too much choice is bad for us.
With crazy amounts of choice it is virtually impossible to make the best choice. This inevitably makes us feel bad about our choices (once we’ve eventually made them) because we know — or at least suspect — we could have made a better one if we’d just expended a little more effort. In essence, we’ve failed to do the best we could.
Since the start of 3rd edition (and before that the tidal wave of 2nd edition “Splat books”), we’ve become obsessed with options – particularly options for our characters.
A couple of years ago, I participated in a high-level 3.5 game and several times I had conversations with friends about their characters that end with something like “I’m sure there’s a feat/spell/magic item for that – you just have to find it.” While that’s not intrinsically bad – I like doing cool stuff with my characters and I’m guilty of optimisation from time to time – I wondered if not having all these options would really degrade my fun level.
To compound this, we started a new campaign shortly thereafter and had to make new characters. This filled me with terror because of the sheer quantity of books I “should” take with me to get the “most” out of character generation (and also because I can’t roll stats for toffee).
Looking at my bookshelf, I needed to take the Player’s Handbook (obviously), but if I wanted to make full use of the official options available to me I also needed the eight Complete books, four Race book, Spell Compendium, Player’s Handbook II and other bits and pieces. If I wanted to play a particularly strange character I needed to add another ten official books or so (Sandstorm, Races of the Dragon etc.) In total, I’d be potentially using something in the region of 27 books to make a 1st-level character.
Of course, I don’t *need* to use that many books, some will likely be irrelevant to my concept, but there’s always a nagging feeling I need access to that many options to play a really cool character; you know – one I haven’t played before.
Many factors play into our lust for options. One is the sinister allure of system mastery: the desire to make the absolutely best character (mechanically) by choosing from as many options as possible. Stuff in the non-core books is invariably more powerful or less balanced. This isn’t intentional on the designers’ part (I hope). Rather these rules options are inevitably tested less than the core material or it interacts with other feats, skills or whatever in unintended ways. Thus, I “need” those books and options to have a character as powerful as my chums!
But, let’s say each book cost £15 – that’s getting on for £450 of books just to make a character. Bravo WoTC, bravo…
Back to Basics
But just for fun, let’s look at the bog standard 3.5 Player’s Handbook (or Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook). The books contain seven races and eleven classes. That gives 77 basic combinations to play – more if you take into account alignment, clerics’ deities, specialised wizards and, of course, multiclassing. I play D&D (and Pathfinder) a lot, but there is no way that I’ve even come close to playing that many different characters in the last four decades. I doubt, I’ve even played 10% of the available combinations. Of course, there are some I’m not interested in playing – a gnome paladin springs to mind – but even taking those out of the equation I’m still left with a world of choice.
I’m beginning to think all these options are not worth the bother. I get why companies publish this kind of stuff – hell, I’ve done so in the past myself – but I’m not sure I personally need so much choice any more.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a rather busy life. What with my family, Raging Swan Press, running, gaming and my other hobbies my spare time is valuable. Thus, for me, the 20/80 rule has to apply to my gaming. If using only the Player’s Handbook makes me 80% happy with my character and it only takes me one hour to generate why spend another four hours of my busy life hunting through all the other books to find the one feat that might make me 90% or 100% happy? The expenditure of effort far outweighs the payoff.
Options vs. Character
Perceptive readers will notice that thus far I’ve spoken of character exclusively in term of mechanics.
I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the mechanical aspect of a character is only part of the story. When you start considering a character’s background, personality, goals and dreams, appearance and more your options truly explode. Even if you’ve just played an elven wizard it doesn’t mean your next elven wizard has to have the same personality, background and so on. They can be completely distinct characters even though mechanically they are similar.
If you love options, I’m not saying you are playing wrong. If you are having fun, rock on. What I am suggesting is that you can have as much or nearby as much fun with a simpler, streamlined game for far less effort. Have a go, and see how you fare!
Help Fellow Gamers
So that’s my take on options in gaming at the moment. Do you game with only the core rulebook or do you allow anything published into your game? Let us know you experiences in the comments below, and help your fellow gamers game better.