In a comment over on Deep in the Game, Tony Dowler suggests handicapping skilled players in gamist RPGs as a way to account for varying skill levels. Here’s the heart of it:
I’m learning to play Go. The guy who’s teaching me is way better than I am. Yet we have fun games because Go has handicapping built in.
I think this is a great idea, and for day 22 of the Blogging for GMs project I’ve got 4 suggestions for handicaps that sound pretty workable.
For starters, here’s a definition of gamism, in case you’ve never heard the term before.
Tony suggests two handicaps in his comment: scalable goals (tougher for the skilled player, easier for the neophyte), and “death points” that can be used to make your next character better when your first one croaks.
I like both of these suggestions, and thinking about them led me to come up with 4 of my own — here they are:
Vary the amount of stuff each PC gets, so a player who’s new to D&D might get the magic items normally allotted to a higher-level character right from the start.
Make the new player’s character more powerful. Avoid giving them more, or more complicated, abilities, and stick to things like giving them higher skills or stats than normal.
New PCs get bonus hit points. If dying a few times until you get the hang of things doesn’t sound ideal, provide a protective “cushion” between the new PC and frequent death (which can be disheartening).
Borrow from videogames: give the new PC several “lives.” If they croak, they spend one life and — poof — it never happened. (Warhammer FRP calls these Fate points, and gives them to everyone.)
What do you think of this idea, and these approaches to trying it out?
I’d totally forgotten about Fate points – an absolute necessity in the very deadly Warhammer world.
What do you think of my other suggestions, Tony?
All 4 suggestions look fine, but they assume that the group as a whole agrees that handicapping’s required. Otherwise you’ll have conflicts as people disagree on who is the most skilled, and the penalty applied to them. [Every benefit to everyone else is a penalty to me after all…]
If your group backs you, it sounds worth a try. The last [extra lives] looks easiest to implement and least unbalancing– if it’s not used, there no unbalancing at all.
Handicapping in Go works because:
– It’s for a limited period. After a single game (whether that be 10 minutes or 3 hours), you know whether the handicap was set right. Matter of fact, it has an implicit benefit that setting the handicap incorrectly makes the game shorter. You can set the handicap independently for each game.
– It’s objective. If the handicap is set correctly, each player should win roughly half the time. A glance at a player’s win-loss record (and margins of defeat/victory) can generally tell you what the appropriate handicap should be.
– It admits that the purpose of the particular game is to have fun, not to determine which player is more skilled. A handicap is an implicit admission that the player giving you a handicap is more skilled; at significant handicaps (4+ stones), you’re admitting that you would not be able to defeat them without the handicap. Handicaps are for use in games for fun, not games for competition.
I would contend that handicapping in RPGs would only work when those three principles are met.
Take a one-shot (limited period) with a player’s SO who hasn’t ever played before (objectively in need of a handicap) in a pickup game of Paranoia (clearly just there for a fun few hours). Here, giving a bonus to the unskilled player (higher level, more equipment, position of leadership) might make sense–it gives the player more of a chance to take part, making up for the fact that they don’t have any experience with the system or gaming.
When these principles are not true, however, handicapping is likely to be problematic.
In campaigns, for example, the principle of limited harm will crop up–if you guess wrong on the handicap or the player increases in gaming skill, you’ve just created a source of unbalance.
From a gamist perspective (insofar as I would claim to understand gamism), the third principle is going to be a problem. If I have an unskilled player in a game, my usual reaction is that the unskilled player should make an effort to gain the skills needed. “Okay, Jim, we’ve noticed that you always do stupid things in combat, so we’re going to give you magical armor so that you can live longer” strikes me as going in the wrong direction. My response if told that we could gain ‘death points’ to allow us to make stronger characters after one dies would be to inquire as to how many PCs I could kill during character creation; such a system could create an interesting campaign where each player attempted to outdo the others with creative deaths, but I doubt it would produce the desired result.
The only time I would consider handicapping would be in the case a brand new player (objectively in need of a handicap), and would only give a handicap that clearly had limited effect. More build points or more equipment will haunt you for the life of the campaign, if they turn out not to be needed after a few sessions. An inherited manservant who carries the character’s gear, gives tactical advice and helps protect him in combat, however, can always heroically expire when not needed any more.
Scott: Good point about need broup buy-in; I was assuming that would be present as a pre-condition for trying this out, but I probably should have mentioned it.
Brian: Great comment! Your analysis looks spot-on to me. Two things caught my eye that I’d like to respond to, though:
In campaigns, for example, the principle of limited harm will crop upâ€“if you guess wrong on the handicap or the player increases in gaming skill, youâ€™ve just created a source of unbalance.
I’d approach this like any other house rule: if it turns out to be wrong/not fun, just drop it and move on. Even in a longer-running campaign, assuming the whole group bought into this oddball idea in the first place, I don’t see any barrier to just removing the handicap/boost and continuing on.
Up top, you mention that in Go:
It admits that the purpose of the particular game is to have fun, not to determine which player is more skilled.
Perhaps I’m throwing around the term “gamist” without understanding it completely myself, but even in a gamist RPG isn’t the point still to have fun, rather than prove who the best player is?
Perhaps Iâ€™m throwing around the term â€œgamistâ€ without understanding it completely myself, but even in a gamist RPG isnâ€™t the point still to have fun, rather than prove who the best player is?
A good portion of gamist play is showing off your skill. Not saying you have to be completing with the other players, but part of it is being the guy to make the smart play, come through when it counts, etc.
There’s a lot of tricky things with rpg handicapping.
First, most games treat characters as a gestalt of the party- not as individuals- so upping a player’s stats doesn’t necessarily guarantee equality- especially if they don’t understand the basis of strategy to the game.
Second, when we’re talking about handicapping in most other strategy games- it usually deals with giving the weaker player more strategic options or an easier time to make those choices (more pieces on the board for Go, longer time for turns in Chess, etc.).
I could see a worthwhile “handicapping” thing to be either “do over” turns, where the player can try out something, then take back their turn and do it again, perhaps doing things differently, a certain number of times. This gives them more chances to explore the strategic options and see how they work out.
(Chris) A good portion of gamist play is showing off your skill. Not saying you have to be completing with the other players, but part of it is being the guy to make the smart play, come through when it counts, etc.
I took another look at the definition, and you’re absolutely right: I was leaving out that aspect of things entirely, and focusing on the player-vs.-environment/survival aspects. My mistake — thank you for pointing that out!
I like your suggestion for “do over” turns.