RPG philosophy time.
Everyone wants to do cool things. But, cool things are the results from player actions within given situations and dice rolls (or whatever resolution system the game uses).
I look to engineer situations where my, often mechanically suboptimal, characters get to do the things I find cool, whether that’s help a NPC that others don’t care much about or use some unusual ability or whatever. Dice rolls can be the bane of such, though there is such a thing as dramatic failure. I tend to really hate failing at something I care about in the moment but learn to appreciate failure more, later. But, that was a thought for another post.
Some want to have cool characters. Cool characters are within the context of what would be interesting within the game world/system. A fairly stereotypical character can still be cool with just one interesting feature. In other words, weirdness != coolness.
Cool characters are not the same things as effective characters, however. For some, effectiveness is importance. For some, lack of effectiveness is something to be avoided. The playgroup dynamics are important. In one group, being ineffective is humorous, in another, it pisses off the other players, who feel like they are losing out because the party isn’t optimized.
I was partially inspired for this post by the current thread on overpoweredness in L5R 4e on the forums. My first responses are always to beat the dead horses of what I think are balance issues that I’m amazed that others don’t find as balance issues. But, then, I used brain cells a bit more.
I came to a realization. I realized why 3e/3r is a better game. Sure, I’m probably just repeating something I said previously.
Not a better system. 4e is a much better system, being far more coherent, though a bit overstructured. Not a better designed game, as that’s just system, again. The previous edition, though, was a better game. Better = more fun.
Brokenness can be fun.
When the Wheel of Time CCG was going through playtesting for the first expansion, I asked the game’s manager (might have been lead designer at that point) what power level we were aiming at. The answer was being competitive with the best strategies in the base set. That resulted in broken vs. broken. And, it was good. Aiming for some lower level would have meant being saddled with a bunch of suboptimal strategies.
Now, power levels in CCGs can spiral way out of control with this mentality, but this was the first expansion and the base set was largely full of junky cards with a few absurdly broken cards, a number of which got nerfed.
WoT didn’t have much in the way of expansions, so it’s not tricky as to when the game was the most fun. After the first expansion and before ridiculous dice totals for Aiel decks came in was the most pleasing environment.
What makes 4e L5R less fun isn’t the brokenness – it’s the lack of brokenness. Sure, grapple is moronic, but grapple might have been good in 3e/3r. Who knows? That one-shotting enemies was so common with katana or whatever meant that grappling might have been underexamined. All of those folks who find it frustrating that spearchuckers and polearmededs suck in 4e shouldn’t be complaining about how powerful heavy weapons and swords are but how weak everything else, which, admittedly, is what a lot of folks are doing. My increasing annoyance with shugenja being gods compared to other characters really just has to do with how pathetic other characters are. If 4e, R-2 bushi just one-shotted everything except big bads, then it wouldn’t be so noticeable that shugenja not only own noncombat but own combat as well.
Is it dumb to have something like 10k6+15 with three Free Raises on rolls, which would not be that shocking a roll in 3e/3r? Maybe. It’s certainly overwhelming to where there’s little mystery as to how contested rolls and such will play out. But, contests of 7k4 against 8k5 or whatever are really just not all that mechanically interesting. Just as I quite despise the blandness of +1k0, which is all of the rage in 4e, whether school techniques or advantages, I just don’t find the more fair battles of dice pools to be all that interesting.
With a strong reason to go to four in as many Traits as possible and invest little in skills or Void in 4e … added to dull techniques, dull kata, and whatnot, there’s just so much sameness. Yes, there was still a reason to focus on Traits in 3e/3r, just not as much of one, and Void was very cheap (plus the three explosion rule), so there were plenty of Void Points to spend to unbalance PCs vs. NPCs.
In 3e/3r, any awful character, like an Omoidasu with War Fans 10, could do crazy mechanical things, e.g. 60+ wounds to a troll with a war fan at IR-1 or 100+ wounds to an oni with a war fan later on. Dice still explode in 4e, but those crazy things were actually not that crazy in 3e/3r, where 60+ wounds in one shot in 4e is rather crazy and will be statistically improbable with any Xk1 weapon.
I can’t really speak to courtiers and artisans in any edition, as I don’t see their techniques virtually ever mattering. I can’t speak to monks because nobody plays monks, except Tattooed Monks and Henshin, the latter being greater gods where the former were vastly more powerful in 3e/3r if not at the punchingness. But, when it comes to bushi, bushi got to do cool things in combat in 3e/3r even if suboptimally equipped, suboptimally built, and suboptimally played.
Speaking of Tattooed Monks, I can speak to those. 4e is all about social, then you get into fists of death. 3e/3r, you actually got to do odd stuff that was actually powerful and not just subtlely so. Hurricane Tattoo was the most absurd being far better than the 4e Asahina Shugenja ability. But, how about Arrowroot? Oh look, someone can heal besides a shugenja.
One of the other points I made on the forums, which I don’t get a sense that people take to heart, is that what is “wrong” about a game and what I care about being wrong are two different things. I’m not bothered by schools being of different strength in L5R, like I’m offended by how classes are of different strength in Conan d20, something I’ve talked about before in terms of the discrepancy.
I think what my ultimate point in this ramblerrific post is that it’s not about being better, it’s about not being unregardable. If the system makes something so vastly inferior to something else, the inferior thing might as well not exist at all, as it will only lead to frustration. For those who care about weapon differences, I can see where reading about weapons no PC will ever use gets annoying. While I’m not going to be consistent about this with regards to schools, for instance, there really is no reason to play anything other than a shugenja from a mechanical standpoint (unless the group allows Henshin, Lost, or some such), which is annoying. While it’s also annoying when one bushi school doesn’t really do anything of note, like the Mirumoto School in my experience, it can be amusing to try to figure out what you would ever do with the (essentially) techniqueless schools – Omoidasu, Miya Herald, Seppun Guardsman. (Note that Omoidasu and Seppun get techniques at SR-4, but you will have long since gotten yourself killed before you ever reach that rank.)
Archery and Sneak Attackless finesse fighting in Conan d20 offended me so much because I didn’t know they sucked. I constantly regretted decisions I made with my main character. But, you know what? I got to do cool things. I got to flesh out a character in occasionally cool ways. I may have been a sidekick much of the time, but, when the uberbarbarian wasn’t being played, I wasn’t even sidekicking.
It’s easy to speak to philosophical issues with games. They all have lots of problems and horrible imbalances. But, just as I’ve mellowed on bitching about CCG balance issues, I think it’s more just a matter of play more and carp less.