Playtest Shout-Out and A Good Question

By | August 4, 2012

Hello, everyone!

We’re one week closer to playtesting now, and in case you missed it, we’ve got a great announcement about Game Theory in Raleigh, NC hosting Tuesday night Playtests of Infinite Earthsyou can check that post out here.  Those aren’t the only playtests we’ll be holding, either, so in case you can’t make them: don’t fret!  We’ll be making more playtest announcements next week.  We’re aiming for early in the week, late in the week, and on the weekend, rotating from week to week so we can get as many people involved in the playtests as possible.

Earlier this week, Bill Collins asked me a really good question:  what will Infinite Earths do to combat players who try to grab and hog the spotlight?  The answer, after the break.
And the answer is that we’re not aiming to introduce any specific rules to prevent this.  Because different players have different “attention thresholds” they’re comfortable with, and that’s something that the GM is going to have to judge on a table-for-table basis.  We can provide the tools to help GMs figure out what that attention threshold is (and we will, in our GM Guide), but we would not want to dictate that, for instance, a player who doesn’t like the spotlight must be in it a certain amount of time.

And as we discussed it a little more internally, we began looking at the two major forms of “spotlight hogging” that exist in gaming today:  the Combat Monster and the Social Monster.  In both of these situations, you have a character who captures and holds the spotlight to the potential detriment of the other players.

The Combat Monster is designed to murder the crap out of anything that gets near him, or within a certain range of him.  He’s so good and powerful at this, the other players either have to become Combat Monsters themselves, to “keep up”, or they’ll find themselves feeling marginalized in combat.  The Combat Monster also makes life difficult for the GM because, really, who do you build challenges for–the guy built for murder, who is challenged by nothing short of three dragons, a titan and a demon prince working together (boy, that sounds like the beginning of a joke), or everyone else?  Whatever challenges the former could potentially slaughter outright the latter–and how is that going to be fun for anyone?

The number one way we’re handling the Combat Monster is by removing the statistical bonuses from our “feats” (called Talents in Infinite Earths) and balancing challenges in our adventures between social and combat.  Can you still build a Combat Monster (comparative to the other PCs)?  Absolutely–if you choose to slot Combat as your Primary Role, and everyone else makes it their Tertiary Role, you’re going to be a beast.  But if the majority of players are slotting Combat as their least important role, that’s a cue to the GM that the table is not interested in a combat-centric game, and so the challenges the party as a whole faces should be modified appropriately.  That way, when combat does raise its head, the Combat Monster finally gets his chance to shine, because everyone else has had their non-combat opportunities for awesomeness.  And now it’s the Combat Monster’s turn.

The Social Monster, by contrast, is the guy who wants to talk his way out of every situation.  One major reason this is a problem in many game systems is that the mechanics of social interaction are barely present.  “Social” situations might call for a single Diplomacy or Bluff role, and then you’re done–binary success/failure.  As this is not considered sufficient or effective by most GMs, they will usually “wing it” and give more weight to the actual words and descriptions provided by the player.  This allows the player clever enough to be social to take the stage and really chew the scenery.  And this can be very boring for the other players at the table, because with social play in this state, social play is very much a one-man (or one-woman) show.

I have a confession to make.  I almost always play the Social Monster, especially at the lower level.  And I’ll confess why:  at low levels, my chance for success is abysmal if the dice get involved.  So I try to maximize what I can accomplish while minimizing dice rolling.  And it usually works fairly well.  The thing isfrom a certain point of view–this is technically a form of cheating.  I’m cheating the system because the strength of my roleplay, and not the strength of my rollplay, is allowing me to bypass the primary conflict-resolution mechanic of the system or accumulate bonuses to the point that the sway of the dice are minimized.  And if it weren’t for Bill’s question, I wouldn’t have even realized that’s what I was doing.  But, after our Thursday night gaming session, I got to thinking about why I always do this, why I see it as so advantageous and interesting.  And the answer was flashing at me like a great big neon sign.  I am able to do things I technically shouldn’t, because I am exploiting a hole (or weak spot) in the rules.

So we’re minimizing the power of the Social Monster, too, by making “social tactics” every bit as complex and involving of all the players as “combat tactics.”  Everybody gets a chance to talk, and everybody participates.  The players that are naturally better at talking still get bonuses, but these are minimized to the standard “good description” bonus of +2 (or “you just made it harder on yourself with that description” penalty of -2).  Can you still play the Social Monster?  Not really in the same way, and that’s got us quite excited.  How will this work out in play?

Well, we’ll see if it works the way we hope it does once we start public playtesting.  It can work all the live-long-day when it’s being playtested by the designers, but let’s face it:  we know how we intend for it to work.  That blinds us to ways in which it can break.  But there are plenty of people out there who like to break things, and we hope some of them try to break our shiny new toy.  Cuz then we can fix it.

Thanks for listening to me ramble on, and remember to sign up for Infinite Earths playtesting if you’re available, willing and able.  We look forward to seeing you soon!