RPG Design – Overkill Penalties

   Despite the “min-maxers”, the “munchkins”, the “optimizers”, and the “power-gamers” (all good in moderation actually, but some players just don’t know when to stop), bigger is not always better – and even if it is, there are always things bigger than you. It’s a very large universe. Overkill is not always a good thing, In fact, it can be just as far from optimum as an insufficient effort.

   One of the classic examples was the priceless enchanted crystal goblet hidden in a locked chest. If you ignored the chest or failed to open it, you missed the prize. If you smashed the chest open, your prize would be reduced to valueless fragments. The proper application of force – a lockpick in the hands of a skilled thief – was the way to go.

   In Shadowrun, I usually ran the corporations under a doctrine of limited response. After all, most of the fights occurred in corporate facilities – places stuffed full of expensive data and equipment, and where the defenses had to allow for the constant presence of valuable personnel. The defenders didn’t want to wreck the place. If some intruders showed up carrying knockout dart pistols and flash grenades and dressed in short-sleeve shirts, security was likely to respond with guys in light protective uniforms with pistols and stun grenades. It kept the damage and risks to a minimum, cut down on paying out death benefits, and let them try to interrogate prisoners. The intruders had rifles? Security responded with standard kevlar body armor and light automatic weapons.

   If a bunch of intruders were wearing heavy combat armor and carrying assault cannons, it was pretty obvious that the facility was going to be severely damaged anyway – so it was time to call in some heavy military vehicles.

   That doctrine tended to minimize damages, casualties, and expenses all around. You could always escalate, but de-escalation was a lot harder.

   Once the players realized that they could limit the firepower coming their way, they began making an effort to look harmless, to use the minimum possible force – and to be as subtle as possible. The ideal mission went from one with no surviving witnesses to one where no one outside the group and their patron was ever aware that a run had taken place.

   In most current game systems, bigger is almost always better, at least by default. Immensely powerful weapons are unleashed with no regard for the consequences or side effects – and no one worries about where the misses hit. Vastly powerful psionic disciplines are employed and horrendous spells are cast – and the mechanics suggest that there are no side effects and no waste energies.

   One simple world law is needed – “Not only do actions have consequences, but overkill actions will often have extremely undesirable  consequences“.

   For example, take d20 and Diplomacy. Some characters will stack their diplomacy skill to absurd heights, and then try to hammer every NPC they come across into doing whatever they want with their incredible diplomacy checks.

   Under that world law, stacking on the bonuses to achieve a diplomacy check of 55 when attempting to get a guy at a bar to buy you a free drink is going to backlash. Maybe the guy will become an obsessive stalker (and immune to further attempts at diplomacy). Maybe your astounding skill will be noted, and the king will have you sent on a very boring three-month negotiation, with heavy penalties for failure or being disruptive, while the rest of your friends are off on another exciting adventure. Maybe Delgaroth the Demon Negotiator decides that you are a threat – or someone it wishes to bind to its service.

   Hitting someone in combat so hard that they explode into a fine mist may get you a reputation as a demonic madman or attract some horror that considers you a rival or a threat. Traveling by Gate for a short trip where horses would do just fine may turn loose some terrible annoyance. Using vast powers without dire need is not a good idea when that particular world law is in play.

   But characters who exercise moderation in their builds and activities should have no trouble at all.

8 Responses

  1. Excellent ideas, applicable to D&D too. If you can make the wizard think twice about casting fireball… so much the better ;-)

  2. I like this idea. I once ran an urban fantasy mini-campaign with a similar goal, but you’ve described it much better than I did at the time.

    • It is always fun to be reminded of old campaigns. Sometime I must get out the first edition Shadowrun stuff again and explain the damage codes to the later-edition players. They did lend a lot more variety to the weapons.

  3. I like this idea a lot! I run a D&D 4e game and I’m not sure right off the bat of how best to implement this concept in that game, but it’s definitely something I want to incorporate if I can find a good way to do so.

    • Well, a world law doesn’t need much in the way of mechanics. Given how much fourth edition revolves around combat, perhaps trouble would start popping up whenever the characters start unleashing effects of more than half their level outside of desperate conflict?

      Of course, as a world law, fundamentally it simply falls on the judgement of the game master. It’s usually easy enough to tell when the characters are going into absurd overkill.

  4. That would be fun. I actually have a tendency to play vastly powerful characters with similar results in mind. If you crush skill checks beyond what is reasonable, you attract unwanted attention, same for exceeding in combat.
    And if you’re the only Mythic character around, that just adds fuel to the fire.
    Which I feel like is how things should work: With great power comes great trouble and great NPC reactions. Nothing makes a world more alive, at least to me, when there’s legit caution, thought and planning by said NPCs in order to counter the character as a threat.
    Be it adoration or fear, such emotional responses serve only to enrich the world and make it seem to breathe. After all, if it’s just static regardless of what feats you accomplish or atrocities you commit, the game becomes stale really fast.

    • I must agree; the setting SHOULD react to the characters as soon as they get past the “local village heroes” level. Reactions to you (and things happening that have nothing to do with you) are a major part of making a world seem alive and memorable. For some amusement along those lines, here’s a Party Template that includes some such reactions.

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