Exploiting the Rules

There’s a certain class of player behavior in tabletop RPGs and LARPs that often causes issues. It’s when a player notices a way to be really good at something. There are two ways this is done, and they have gained the nasty names “min-maxing” and “rules-lawyering.” But this isn’t actually a bad thing.

Min-maxing, canonically, is the act of increasing certain traits to an unusually high value by lowering other traits below average. This is most often done in a point-buy or similar system, where dumping as many points into one thing as possible (and maybe taking some advantageous flaws) allows a player to have a socially inept, learning-disabled amputee with the shooting skills of an Olympic marksperson. When done to less of an extreme, this practice earns the euphemism “optimization,” where a player squeezes the most out of the system to get a character with amazing skill in one or two things. The typical GM reaction to this is “No.” In more detail, it’s “No, make a more well-balanced character and stop trying to be the best in the world.”

Rules-lawyering is a term with many definitions, from arguing with the GM over a poorly-worded item to finding a way to claim that a ranged touch attack contains the words “touch attack,” so the spell isn’t used up if you miss. In this case, however, I mean the case where a player finds a genuine rule loophole that provides a surprising benefit. Maybe a certain magic item combined with a certain ability allows for double the normal combat damage. Maybe making your giant robot armor magically-summoned lets you buy it for half the cost. Regardless, this tends to be a case where a specific, complex combination of factors lets someone get really powerful. The GM response to this is, by default, “No, and that’s not how the game is supposed to work.”

It’s true that there are some problem players that will always try to one-up everyone and ruin the fun. But you shouldn’t be playing with them, just like you wouldn’t dine with someone who always steals your burger so that they can have the most food. For the most part, the players min-maxing and rules-lawyering are perfectly well-behaved the rest of the time. Why, then, are they trying to ruin the game? They’re not. They’re giving you a message. The message is, “this is what I want in the game.”

When a player optimizes their character for a task, they’re saying “I want to be able to use this ability in the game.” In the Geist LARP I run, a player is optimized for driving. His best skill is Drive, he has a bunch of merits related to stunt driving or driving well, and he spends downtime actions souping up his cars. My initial reaction was, “Stop trying to be an amazing driver; you’re min-maxing, and there’s not even that much driving in the game to begin with.” But I wasn’t listening. By building his character like that, the player was saying “I want to see car chases and destruction derbies. I want to get to be the wheelman.” He was asking for a certain kind of scene, so that he could get to play a fun character concept. Does that mean that he should get to drive to every scene, like some even-more-contrived version of Knight Rider? No. I can still put him in situations where his driving skills are useless, and where he gets to reap the consequences of not having a more rounded character. But in exchange, he should get a scene periodically where his driving skills get to shine. Instead of talking to him about min-maxing, I decided to put in an occasional opportunity for vehicular action in a campaign that otherwise would have been crash-light.

Similarly, when a player finds an advantageous rules combination, they’re saying “I want to be rewarded for my cleverness.” Over the mailing lists for GMs in the Geist LARP, there’s been a discussion of a certain power combination (Pyre-Flame Caul 2 plus Mending the Mortal Coil) that lets a character gain extra plasm (energy for their abilities) by causing damage to themselves to gain plasm and then healing the damage at a cost of less plasm than they gained. According to the GM who raised the issue, this “breaks the plasm economy.” At first, it seems to be the case: for no cost, a character can have a near-infinite amount of plasm. However, it’s the “no cost” bit that’s inaccurate. In order to use this technique, a player must first purchase a specific set of abilities. They then have to take time and make tests to use those abilities in a certain way, gaining a rather small amount of benefit each time they go through the process. Finally, they either have to hide the fact that they’re ritualistically harming themselves and then healing it, repeatedly, from other characters, or they need to deal with the in-character social ramifications of being known as a person who mutilates themselves to gain power. The character gets plasm, it’s true, but at the cost of experience points, time, effort, and possible social stigma. Much of the time, looking closely at a rules “exploit” reveals it to be merely a trick that trades one resource for another.

Really, these issues come down to what RPGs always come down to: if it makes the game better, then it’s okay. Players can min-max or rules-lawyer for the wrong reasons and end up ruining the game. But by taking a step back and examining the situation, I often discover that the player is simply saying, “I want to see this sort of thing in the game,” or saying “I found a clever trick, and I’m willing to pay the cost to use it.” Look at how the player’s choice would actually affect the game. If it would annoy other players or break the system, disallow it. But if it would just let the player enjoy the game more, or give them a reasonable advantage for their clever strategy, then allow it. Knee-jerk reactions are seldom the most cogent.

One thought on “Exploiting the Rules

  1. I’m with you. I don’t understand why so many GMs push their characters towards being balanced. Overly balanced characters are often generic and do not help create interesting situations. It’s just like with real people.

    When a player goes for something extreme which still makes sense with the rules and doesn’t break the game, I’m always extremely happy. To use your example of the character who causes himself (or herself) harm in order to gain more power: what more can you want as a game master? This is story, real character-driven story; not a plotline dictated from above, but events that are the direct result of player choices. Not only do the players get to feel that they are special, that they are unique; they also get to feel that the things they have to deal with are related to who they are (portraying). And you as a GM are given fascinating material to work with and unpredictable events that you may have to react to.

    I never discourage my players from this sort of thing; I just make sure they play it out in character, and remind them that there will be consequences.

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