Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Solving the Peanut Butter Conundrum with a Firehose

For my first blog post, I’m working myself in easy. I’m not making a new edition of D&D or redefining the gaming industry. I’m going to rehash the work of people who are much smarter than me and put my own quirks into it. (see what I did there? Quirky DM. Quirks. Clever, right? Right? … Yeah, well get used to it)
Today’s rehash is from Angry DM’s Playing Mind Games: The Peanut Butter Conundrum. Angry DM discusses how too much choice in something from as simple as buying a jar of peanut butter can ruin your PB and J experiences forever. Here’s the summary in Angry DM’s words:
Everyone has doubts when they make choices. It is human nature to question the choices we’ve made and compare the options we chose to the ones we didn’t. The more options we have to choose from and the more similar those options, the more doubts we will have initially and the more likely we are to imagine that a perfect option exists that we simply failed to find. The easier it is to undo a choice, the more likely we are to do so. And the more we undo the choices we’ve made, the less likely we are to be satisfied by any outcome. And, as that happens, we begin to question our own decision making abilities.
On the other hand, if there are fewer options to begin with, we don’t suffer from the illusion that there must exist some perfect choice. It is easier to be satisfied with choices we make if we had few options to begin with. And, even if there are many options, if we can’t undo our decisions, we tend to make the best of the decision and become satisfied over time.
 He goes on to explain how this applies to D&D, which is easy to see. The character builder puts every option in front of you and says go. Hybrid classes in the Player’s Handbook 3 told us to take every class in the world and mash them together into its own special peanut butter brand built to your exact specifications. The weight of options could crush an elephant.

Angry DM recommends solving 4E’s peanut butter problem by removing some of the options that cause your players to freak out and stall their brains. I love to figure out details like this, but I've got a campaign to develop, treasure parcels to place, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I'm swamped.

The Peanut Butter Fire Hose

Angry DM’s approach is the intuitive approach- too many options are the problem, so let’s solve the problem by restricting options. That makes a lot of sense. But I’m the Quirky DM, not the Sensible DM. I’m going counter-intuitive. Let’s drink from the fire hose. I’m not going to add restrictions to make my player’s life easier. I’m going to remove all the restrictions, even the ones built into the game. I’m going to open up the fire hose and splatter peanut butter all over my players. (note, peanut butter is not recommended for use as flame retardant nor as a way to greet your players) Whatever you want to make, go ahead. You want to make Drizzt, make Drizzt. You want a fantasy version of Spiderman, web swing to your heart’s content. If there’s nothing in the rules that let you do that, we’ll make it up. The powers in the rulebooks are just guidelines. If we can find a power or feat in the rulebooks that fits your concept, it’ll save us the time it takes to make up our own. But otherwise, we’ll make anything you want. This is Rule 0. This is “say yes”, except it’s time for the players to “say yes” to themselves.

Really, we’re just doing what the guys and gals who make the games haven’t gotten around to yet. We’re filling in the gaps in the game that haven’t been covered. The designers keep putting out more options because there’s a character concept that isn’t supported and they’re trying to fill in the gaps. The only difference is that they are accountable to everyone who buys their products, and they have to worry about every other official rule that has come out to make sure their new addition doesn’t break the game.

Me, I’m running my home campaign with four guys. We only need to fill in the gaps for four characters at a time. Plus, these aren’t strangers; they’re guys who smile and put up with me even when I don’t hold the fate of their characters in my hands. We don’t have to worry about balancing a new feat with every other combination out there. We just have to balance it with what works in our game and be comfortable enough to change what doesn’t work.

You might be saying “Isn’t this just house rules?” Yes. Yes it is. I told you I wasn’t doing anything shocking in my first blog post. Plus, I’m talking about house ruling character creation, something that seems to have been treated as sacrosanct in 4E. Between tournaments, organized play, the encounters series and a D&D character builder that is geared towards official options only, tweaking anything regarding character creation is rarely discussed. Some rebel might bring up rolling your stats or using 24 points for point buy, but that’s about it. Not only that, but character classes are 20 page entries in 4E, where in previous editions they were considered lengthy if they stretched to 2 pages. No one wants to rebuild a character class if it means poring over 20 pages of fine print.

And there’s the mindset that with all the options available in the character builder, there MUST be some race/class/feat/paragon path/magic item combo that does what you want if you only search hard and long enough. That’s the Peanut Butter Conundrum. So instead of searching through near endless options, make a simplified new option that does what you want wrapped up in a nice, neat little package. You should try to follow the options set out in the existing rulebooks, but as soon as you can’t find what you’re looking for with a 2 minute search, you should just take whatever is close enough and make the final jump yourself.

Now this is not unlimited power. There are a few provisos, a couple of quid pro quo. I’m still going to impose a generic set of rules: it’s still the 4E combat and skill system, we all use the same method to derive our 6 base stats, everyone starts at the same level with a set amount of feats, powers and class features around the same power level. There’s a campaign world with its own set of thematic rules built in, like no laser guns, cyborgs, televised royal weddings or celebrity awards shows.

Peanut Butter is Cheap

One of the features implemented into 4E is that everybody is very similar. Powers and feats are doled out equally. All characters use a weapon or implement to get their attacks. Leaders help and controllers hinder. Strikers attack and defenders protect. They each have their own style, but there’s a lot of overlap. This also makes it easy to make new powers and feats based on what’s already out there. Martial practices are just rituals with a new wrapping.  If you want to add a new multiclass weapon feat tree into the game, there’s great guidelines by using the existing ones. If you like fighting styles, but you’re playing a wizard, add guild styles to the game which work the same and focus on arcane powers instead.

Again, just simple house rules. But a few things happen. You don’t get tied to the character builder. The character builder is great utility, but it’s reached the point where you have to know what you’re going to make before you even open the builder. Then you use the character builder to checkmark the boxes you’ve already decided on, fill in the last few holes and take care of the fairly simple math.

When I said earlier that you should try and build a character using the existing rules and then stray when you need to, I didn’t define what those existing rules are. Those rules are whatever books you happen to own. (which is practically all of them if you’re a DDI subscriber) All of the extra rule books out there are filling in gaps. They might do exactly what you want. Or you might have got tired of waiting around for the Heroes of Care-a-Lot Essentials sourcebook to be released and you filled in the gaps yourself. When the sourcebook finally gets released, you can take a look. Maybe their cloud car combat rules are awesome. Or maybe your rules for magical belly tattoos are a better design than anything they came up with - at least for your character. So then you can save your money and do something else, like buy a nice present for your hard working DM.

When you start to do this more and more, you’ll realize that you don’t need the character builder, 20 different rulebooks and the past three years of dragon articles to make the best character you can. You need to have some base guidelines, some great ideas from the designers in the books you already have, your own great ideas and the willingness to throw the rest away.

Changing your Mind

One other point of the Peanut Butter Conundrum is that having to live with your choices will force acceptance on your part. After having recently bought a car, I know this feeling to be completely true. Once you drive the car off the lot, you better love your car because it’s yours for at least the next 5 years and the huge chunk of money that could have bought you a life sized miniature of your character is gone forever.

However, my station wagon and I are in a work relationship. All I want to do is drive the car, fill it up with gas and take it to the garage to have it maintained. Maybe if I’m ambitious I’ll hire someone to put on a trailer hitch. The station wagon agrees not to dump me into the ditch and we get along fine.

On the other hand, I have friends who are car guys and they race recreationally with their Mustangs, BMWs or whatever else they happen to own. These people are in a witch-doctor love potion relationship with their cars. They’ll move to a new house so they can get a bigger garage for their baby. They call their vehicle by some strange name like Blue Belle or Golden Sue even though their car is pitch black inside and out. They’ll even open the hood and do stuff under there involving tools and grease and things.

When my friends race, they pay attention to the sound the car makes, the way it takes the corners and even how good their car looks in rear view mirror of the guy ahead of them. And when they come home, they don’t park their car in the garage and forget about it until the next race. They look on the internet for new tires, do oil changes and see which synthetic works better. They even drive for fun.

Now, I may not be a car guy, but I know just about every player out there treats their characters more like a Mustang and less like a station wagon. And if I’m using all my own custom made parts, it’s almost necessary to make some adjustments because I’m still experimenting. I’m not going to overhaul the entire machine. But the options I was testing out to fill in the gaps in my character, I might need to play with them a little bit to make sure they slide smoothly into that gap and have the effect I intended.

This takes some of the pressure off when you first make a character. It can grow into the role you envisioned- especially at the start when you are just discovering how to drive your new character. I’m not talking about letting characters do retraining at will. It’s more about taking what they’ve already built and clarifying it to match what was in their head. Retraining still plays a role, but it is used when the character concept actually undergoes a change. In this case, the character retrains to fit into the new concept and not to fix a broken power or feat.

A great side benefit of this approach is that your character is a little freer to evolve. You don’t have to plan your next 10 levels of feats to make sure you qualify for a paragon path or to make sure the level 17 power you get will be optimized. And because you’re still discovering your character, you might not determine what you are doing at any new level until you get there. Gaining a level might actually be exciting again and not simply printing out a power card that you picked out three months ago.

Peanut Butter is Sticky

At this point, we haven’t really solved the Peanut Butter Conundrum. Now a player can do ANYTHING they want - take the current rules and then add whatever you need to get the rest of the way to your character. We have increased the choices, but we haven’t stopped the second guessing and search for a perfect combination. We’ve made it worse because the player knows that anything that isn’t perfect now is his own fault because he got to do everything he ever wanted. We even said we’re going to allow him to change things more often to help him get everything he wants. And at this point, the player realizes he doesn’t want everything.

Every character in every adventure that has ever found a ring of wishes never wishes for “everything”. Mostly because you know if you wish “for everything there is,” your ass-hat DM is going to grant your desire by having Atlas throw his load in your direction and let Mount Dragoncrap be the point of impact. If there’s something we’ve learnt over the years of wish making through our characters, you don’t wish for everything. You don’t wish for all the money in the world, to know about everything in all existence or to have everything you touch turn into gold. It always turns out bad.

What you want to wish for is something small and specific, like an extra +1 to strength, being sultan or the perfect turkey sandwich. Then you get your wish fulfilled, sit back, sigh and say, “That’s just what I wanted.” You put some restrictions on your wish and you got it. And this is what Angry Dm said to do in the first place. So yeah, he was right. But now, it’s the player who’s putting on the restrictions. It’s his job to do that. I already told you I was too busy. (The Quirky DM can become the Lazy DM really fast)

So if the player can solve all his troubles by restricting himself, what’s the problem? The problem is most people don’t know how to restrict themselves because they rarely know what they want. If players could decide on the 3 or 4 things that were important to their character and discard the rest, they would focus on those points and all the other options would fade into the background as noise.

How do you get your players to decide what they want? And do it so they knowingly put limits on themselves and agree to it? That’s for the next post where I’ll rehash other people’s great ideas.


  1. Hey Quirky,

    I generally agree. It takes a long time to flesh out a character with all of the options that are currently out there. And not all of the options are a perfect fit for the hero you may have in mind. Having the flexibility to create new feats/powers/etc. within the current guidelines may help speed up the character creation process or at least help you get closer the type of character that you are looking for. My only note of concern is that new powers/feats/etc don't introduce a level of power creep over what is already happening in the game (personally I think that the new powers/feats/etc are getting a little more powerful than the first generation ones:)

    I do find that he character builder helps direct you character build; however, that only helps if you want to build one of the stereotypical characters they have themed within the builder.

    I'm looking forward to trying this open concept out when we start our next campaign.


  2. Oh, power creep, how I loath thee. But I usually love the presents you always bring around with you so I'm never mad for that long.

    Besides my players would never abuse the system and maximize their characters and ... holy crap, what am I saying? They'll do exactly that. But I'm the DM so there's always a chance I keep it in check off the bat. Second, these are complete house rules, which means given a mature group of players (another stretch with my group) these can always be tweaked as the game goes by. In fact, should be tweaked is more like it.

    My power-o-meter is the right "feel" for a new power should be that it seems pretty good, but the min-maxer in a player doesn't quite want to pick it over the uber-powerful most bestest option at that level. But since it fits their concept so well, they really can't pass it up, either. When I have that kind of back and forth, I'm in the right ball park.

    All this is easier said than done so we'll see how the pieces fall when you guys come out guns ablazing. But I'm hoping that we'll work it out, for with great freedom comes eternal responsible vigilance. Or something like that.