The ultimate goal for a Game Master is to include everyone in the problem solving, but many systems have exploitable skills or abilities that allow savvy players to circumvent or simply ignore most challenges. In World of Darkness, if you get your armor to a certain level, nothing threatens you but the largest of die pools. Those same pools will turn your less armored friends into mush. Now the GM is forced to choose between allowing you to trivialize the encounter through immunity or running the risk of turning your feeble friends into goo.
But power gaming isn’t done out of malice or a desire to outshine others. At least mine isn’t, and if you are a decent human being, neither is yours. Power gaming comes out of a love for the system, a desire to think outside the box and either find unique solutions or just see how high you can stack the numbers. It’s a fun, unique way to interact with the rules space you’re given, and it can lead to some pretty interesting characters in the process.
The toll it takes on the game itself is sometimes too high a cost, however, and concessions have to be made. So if you have ever been pulled aside and asked to tone it down a little, I have some suggestions for you.
1. Diversifying Your Abilities
Whenever you create a solution so powerful it solves all problems, the GM is put in a tricky situation. Does she give every rival vampire crazy amounts of Auspex* so you don’t murder them effortlessly? It’s an extraordinarily unlikely coincidence but becomes a requirement for any semblance of a challenge. Or if the wizard is out of control in Pathfinder, magic immune golems begin to crop up everywhere as the DM attempts to give your teammates something to kill. The point is, while every powerful build has a counter, those counters are often rare in whatever setting you are playing, and it stretches believability when you force your GM to produce one every time they want to challenge the group.
The easiest way to prevent yourself from over-focusing is to force your character concept to be well rounded. So well rounded it hurts. It’s difficult – and rewarding – to create a character so versatile that they have a role in every aspect of the adventure yet never overshadow the rest of the party.
“But what about my time in the spotlight?” You might be asking. Never fear. Forcing yourself to accumulate numerous skills will ensure that you almost always have the right skill at the right time. Did no one else take Handle Animal? Of course they didn’t! But you did, and now that hungry bear won’t bother anyone. Heck, you might even get a bear mount out of it. What about Knowledge: Nobility? Just who is that pompous jerk with a Unicorn Tabard anyways? Oh, you read about him in your copy of Noblis Oblige Monthly. He is Lord Faffamus, and he loves taffy. Buy him taffy and score a high-ranking friend. Need to beat a Cultist at horseshoes? Good thing you have 70% in throw!
The terrible secret of spreading yourself thin is that it’s almost a separate version of power gaming. Suddenly instead of just applying your massive numbers to every situation and brute forcing your way through the world, you have an entire toolbox of levers and pulleys with which to torment your GM. Wait did I say torment? I meant… solve… problems with, yes. Yes.
2. Focusing on Versatility Instead of Power
Okay. You aren’t convinced a cornucopia of skills is your thing. It’s too normal. I get that. But murdering the entire encounter before anyone else even gets a turn is a good time for exactly one person. And sure, they could “get on your level,” except most people either don’t want to or in some cases can’t. So what can you do that isn’t murder?
For starters, be careful that your new focus doesn’t also disrupt the game. If you put all your effort into becoming the world’s best diplomancer, then instead of sitting around watching you kill things, the adventuring party has to sit around watching you talk to things. Unless you’re funny, this could be worse.* Money can be another problem area; it’s hard for a GM to find a problem that isn’t solved by the proper application of money. Your replacement focus should be something that’s useful and versatile but can’t independently handle most situations.
The most relevant and non-offensive areas to focus on are information related. Knowledge is power, but by creating a character without the means to apply the knowledge, you have a useful member of the team and your friends have room to play. In Hunter this could be the eighty-year-old veteran. Her glory days of wrestling werewolves are long gone, but she has replaced her ubermensch muscles with a library filled with hard learned information.
Another option is a Ranger in 3.5 who has maximized his Wisdom and taken feats specifically for Sense Motive and Spot. He becomes a living lie detector and early warning system, helping the party immensely: ratting out all the thieves and manipulators before they find knives in their backs. While focusing so heavily in prevention, you remove the ability to single-handedly stop what you have detected. A Ranger built this way will be no slouch in combat, but with his stats and feats focused on utility, you can leave the major fights for other party members.
3. Buffing Other Party Members
If you like big numbers, but don’t like the dirty looks you get for hogging the combat spotlight, becoming a buff master might be right for you. Enchanting weapons, increasing stats, or even making someone double in size; help your fellow man without doing his job for him.
Buff stacking is a time-honored power gaming tradition, but what if I told you that you could put those buffs on other people? And what if I also told you the results would be even more glorious? Consider how much effort goes into stacking buffs. In Mage, oodles of experience are deposited into the Life sphere of magic. In 3.5 you start out as a subpar combatant like a Wizard or Druid and then apply bonuses until you become a monster. But what if you were applying those bonuses to someone who was already a monster? Did your GM ask you to tone it down because there is a newbie in the group? Make that newbie into a fifteen foot tall murder monster and watch your creation go to town! It’s fun for the new girl because she gets to kick ass like a pro, and it’s fun for you because, deep down inside, you know it was your power gaming that made it possible. Even if you aren’t rolling the dice, you know the fantastic results wouldn’t have been possible without your help.
As an added bonus, you aren’t forced to split your efforts between finding ways to enhance yourself and making sure your character has a solid base to start from. You can throw yourself entirely into the enhancement side, reaching new heights in ridiculous power stacking.
4. Acting as a Facilitator
Beyond just dominating the numbers game, power gamers often dominate the direction a story takes, often at the expense of other players’ enjoyment. Quests for revenge over a perceived slight from a minor NPC can derail the entire session. If the powergaming wizard needs several months to complete a boss-destroying ritual, the other PCs better have a good book on hand. The solution to this has less to do with mechanics and more to do with the personality of the character you are piloting.
A quick solution that will leave all your overpowered dreams intact, but provide greater enjoyment for your companions, is just to remove your drive. Or at least tone it down. Make the very personality of your character one of support and assistance. This is different than creating a character focused on applying mechanical benefits to others because the focus here is facilitating their character goals, not the numbers on their sheets.
You could be a calm and collected bodyguard, self confident enough to not be provoked but still strong enough to put down anyone who would attempt to stop your ward. You could be an ascetic with no desire for money. Without greed, you will have no motivation to drag the party off on foolhardy tangents revolving around collecting valuable (but unimportant) items. You could be new to the area; playing a character with little social ties or investment in the adventure reduces the amount of influence you have on the party. This can make other players feel more empowered despite their numerical inferiority.
However you do it, building a character that specifically lacks individual agency can take some of the heat off of the statistical superiority that looms over the other players. People are less upset if the person you just murdered in one round was someone they asked you to stab, even if it’s functionally identical to someone you were both competing to kill.
5. Installing Handicaps
This last muzzle is the RPG equivalent of setting the difficulty to hard. Maybe you want to make the ultimate spellcaster. Roll up a bard and see how far you get. Do you have some crazy ideas of how to become the best bow man in all of Bowlandia? I hear Paladins are pretty terrible at that. You want to be the biggest bruiser of your vampire clan? Try to do it without either Potence or Celerity. If you want to be really hard on yourself, try it without either.
A literal handicap can sometimes be more fun than just attempting to alter your desired role wholesale. Sure buffing everyone is fun, and being able to have every tool for every situation is a blast, but sometimes they just won’t work as a replacement for doing your best to warp the system. You still want to leave some work for your companions to do, right? So change the parameters.
Choosing suboptimal classes or excluding the most obviously powerful option has two benefits. First, it frees up build points to be used elsewhere in your quest for power. When searching for alternate strategies to make your numbers huge, you will absolutely have the resources to do it. That feat you never had room for because Power Attack and Cleave always take up your first two slots? Yours now. Through the power of pretending those other two don’t exist.
Secondly, you may find surprising new combinations and hidden synergies you never would have seen before. A crack shot Paladin in Pathfinder could use their Detect Evil as a form of target acquisition, and Smite works just as well with a bow as it does through a hammer.
Each one of these strategies can work independently, or you could try to mix and match, but keep in mind that none of them are silver bullets. They either may not address your specific power gaming problem, or they may just end up taking all the fun out of the game for you. Hopefully one of them strikes your fancy or at least inspires you to build your own muzzle.
Remember, power gaming is not a crime. You shouldn’t have to play a game in a way that prevents you from having fun, but by the same token it’s important to be considerate of the impact your play style has on the game as a whole. If you want to stay with your group, meeting everyone halfway is the most important step.