A role-playing game (RPG) is collaborative story telling, but the most popular systems are another game as well.
I discussed the basic elements of RPGs in an earlier post. What I left out was the secondary game in the larger systems: Fighting “the system”, also known as “min-maxing”.
One element of the average RPG is what I earlier called “the library”, the collection of specific rules that describe the kinds of things a character can do. No matter the specific library, it is always found, in play, to have two faults. First, it leaves out rules for things the player want to do (“I’d like to duck under her swing, put a marshmallow in her mouth, then escape down the dumb-waiter”); second, it leaves out details in the rules it has (“You’re telling me my metal armor doesn’t protect me from lightning? any more than her dragon-hide armor does?”).
Now, these problems aren’t actually problems in play; you just make up enough rules to cover the case and move on. But it leads to library bloat: there is always another rule to write, another corner case to consider. It is certainly possible to stick with a small and limited rule base, but it isn’t common.
One last note before I get to the secondary game itself; since the real world doesn’t work by dice, a large library may pretty fairly be said to be a complicated library. That is to say, the larger the library the more a character is designed to fit the rules rather than the rules being selected to fit the character.
The “other” game in an RPG (that is, the one that has nothing to do with role-playing) is the game of trying to beat the system. The more complicated a set of rules, the more difficult it is to match a vision to the rules. In a game like D&D, where the number of rules is measured in books, not pages, I’ve been known to spend dozens of hours looking for the best way to achieve a particular characteristic and end up uncertain it couldn’t have been done more cleanly.
Hence the game of min-maxing: playing against the rules with the objective of achieving the best PC you can.
This secondary game has some benefits outside of mere entertainment. It teaches the inevitability of trade-off laws, an idea often concealed by entitlement societies. It also means that sometimes a player discovers a desirable combination of library elements which will not be available until after the character advances in ability, providing an element of anticipation and patience.
For thespians or mixed-experience groups of players this secondary game can be a real bother. For thespians it can be an obstacle to freely playing the role they desire; for mixed-experience groups if leads to imbalance, where the more experienced players have a rules advantage and the less experienced end up feeling useless.
On the whole, I find the secondary game annoying. I enjoy it sometimes myself, in a quiet cross-word puzzle kind of way, but the echoes of it sometime pollute the more enjoyable role-play of the primary game. Still, though some games are more balanced and less secondary-sensitive than others, the only way out of this game that I know is to have a sparse library, and that has its own problems.
So, I play both games.