When Sub-Optimal Is Better in TTRPGs

For those of you who haven’t heard “Due Respite Media” (https://durespite.com/) have started a Table-Top Role-Playing Game (TTRPG) focuses VODcast / Talk-show that runs every Monday night, 9pm Mountain time.  It’s titled “Story Teller’s Studio” and you can catch it live at https://www.twitch.tv/duerespite or the next morning on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIiBBusPG1DoXelX3lIUNLg .

The driving force behind Due Respite Media (DRM) is Erik Taylor, who you can catch up with on Twitter as @Shrimpiclese .  He’s clearly passionate about TTRPGs and stories, as well as the tight group of awesome people he’s got working with him in his vision for DRM.

Thus far, the show has hit episode six.  The conversations are consistently smart and thought-provoking.  It’s done in a curated-table format, with Erik putting questions out to his three co-hosts, and then discussing his own perspectives.  They’ve had guests on the show as well, bringing different angles and experiences to the discussion.

The latest episode was about “Story Pacing and Interaction“.  Beyond some tech issues affecting one of the co-hosts, it was an interesting hour of conversation.

However, it’s my nature to have an opinion, and that gets us to the meat of this blog-post.  At one point, Erik brought up that one of his co-hosts, Shauntelle (@ShauntelleB on Twitter) was well known for making “sub-optimal” decisions on in-game / in-character actions;  in other words, prioritizing role-play over plot progress.

“… make a decision strictly for character, regardless of how suboptimal that decision is, regardless of how much crap that’s going to throw, (no) matter how much the world will burn around them, they will make a decision for plot related reasons …”

— Erik Taylor, Due Respite Media

Erik then questions Shauntelle about her priorities as a player at the table.

“… pushing your story forward as a character, verses pushing the primary plot-line forward by doing those sub-optimal things …”

— Erik Taylor, Due Respite Media

Breaking the Code

This is one of these ideas that I’ve encountered a few times over the duration I’ve spent running games and playing in games since the early 1980s.  A sort of “honor code”, if you will, that suggests that since you’re at a table with other people in a shared game, with an objective of “winning” in some fashion — completing the module, defeating the Arch-Villain, whatever — sub-optimal play is in some way bad play.  

An example Erik gives is a player putting character resources into part of the sheet that are going to slightly hobble that character in the end-game phase of campaign, just because it made sense for the character to do so from a role-play perspective.  That choice, to mathematically hobble the character in the end-game phase, is going to directly impact the rest of the party.  Is that really okay?  Is that just being selfish?

Editors Note: Erik, if you watch the video I am referring to, is clearly playing Agent Provocateur / Devil’s Advocate. He’s all about collaborative story-telling and “investing in stories”.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me as a Game Master (GM), it’s not just okay, it is the entire point of role-playing games.  I actively encourage it from the point of character creation, onwards.

Now, to be fair and honest, I’m a (mostly) reformed min-max’er and power-gamer.  I used to aggressively pursue optimal play, optimal character design and optimal progression.

These days, for me, TTRPGs are all about story.  Specifically, 

The story is about the characters, the choices they make as people, and how that relates to and influences the world around them.”

— Michel R Vaillancourt, GM

I want to ask you to stop and re-read that last sentence again.  If that doesn’t make sense to you, then nothing else I’m going to say will.

Good Stories come from Bad Decisions

Stories are about mistakes.  From the point the plot meets the characters, what we’re talking about is people making mistakes, and either being successful in, or failing to, learn from them.  What makes characters interesting is their weaknesses, and how those weaknesses shape their behaviors.  Those behaviors, almost by definition, are going to be sub-optimal.

From being afraid of snakes (“Raiders of the Lost Ark“), to letting the Arch-Villain win because it turns out you agree with them over tea (“Hero“), to giving into fear of your own potential for evil and running away (“The Last Jedi“), these are all sub-optimal choices where the player decided that the character just could not move forward in a perfect light.

What’s funny is that many readers or viewers often actively dislike idealized or flawless characters.  “TV Tropes” (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MarySue) defines a “Mary Sue / Marty Stu” character as:

“… a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.”

In other words, a flawless character.  Unless the point of the character is to be deus ex machina in the story, this is remarkably boring to me as a GM.

Don’t “Kill ‘Em All and Let The Rules Sort It Out”

One of the things I am actively interested in avoiding in my games is the “Total Party Kill” (TPK).  Mostly because if that happens, the most important part of the game dies;  the story.  As long as one character survives, then the story lives on.

That doesn’t mean there are not ramifications and consequences in my games.  A TPK has resulted in the fall of a kingdom in one game, and the characters being branded as chattel in another game.  These are non-trivial outcomes, moving their respective stories in different directions.

As I’ve commented in my Twitch.TV stream (https://www.twitch.tv/902pe_gaming), the primary job of the GM is to facilitate the game.  They are not there, in my style of GM-ing, to force the story to take any particular shape.  They are there to represent the world, including the people and forces within it, to the characters.

The Arch-Villain is gonna Arch-Villain.  If left unchecked, they’ll probably win.  That’s part of the GM’s purview; that’s the world and setting.  However, the story is about how the characters recognize that, address that, and deal with that.

While the optimal play might be to “…take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure,” (Ripley, “Aliens”, 1986), that’s likely not going to be the best story.  Going back down to the heart of a monster-infested hole to rescue a little girl from a fate worse than death is going to be a much better story.

The question is always “why would they do that“, or “why wouldn’t they do that“?  Those aren’t questions the GM should try to answer.  Those are the questions for the player to answer.  Those are the questions the GM should try to have the world ask.

Those answers should come through the filter of the personality, flaws and foibles of the characters.  If those answers are contradictory to each other, that’s dramatic, character-driven conflict.  That’s the good stuff in a story.

A World Full of Questions

The other thing that’s important to note is that approaching your game, as a GM, from this perspective, shifts a significant amount of workload from your shoulders.  It is explicitly not your job to know what the next scene is going to be.  Instead, you just need to know what the next question the world will ask is.

An example would be a recent game I ran.  There was a TPK and the group was captured.  The villain made a deal with the group;  conduct some shuttle diplomacy on behalf of the villain, and the group was free to go.  They had to give their personal word they would follow through; an oath taken on the graves of their ancestors.

So, the question the world is asking is “are you true to your word or not“?  That question hung over the players and characters like a Sword of Damocles for two full sessions of gaming, including a couple of heated in-character discussions.

The “optimal” play would have been to betray the villain and go against their sworn oath.  One character went so far to argue that an oath under duress was valueless.  Another character argued that because of the race of the villain, they weren’t really people, so it didn’t matter if the group betrayed them.  Another character pointed out that the villain was Evil Alignment, and therefore, the right thing to for the party to do was to go back on their word.

In the end, the characters followed through, and that action has allowed the villain to achieve one of their goals.  “At what cost, honor?”.

Two full sessions of good role-play, that define the characters and how they fit into the world around them, with very little actual work done by myself.  The bulk of the heavy lifting was done by the players.  At least one player told me “well, that changes how <Character A> sees <Character B> from now on“.

Sub-optimal play is where the best stories hide behind the least work.  The hardest part is convincing your players that they won’t be “punished” for sub-optimal play.  Let the villain make mistakes too.  Reward sub-optimal character design and sub-optimal play with the odd lucky break, such as an NPC who lauds /understands their choices and does something beneficial for the group that clearly wouldn’t have otherwise happened.

Changing Focus

The other hard part of making sub-optimal, personality-driven story the focus of your TTRPG is that as a GM, your vote about what the story is about is deprioritized.  “Your” game, “your” table, is suddenly almost entirely in the hands of the characters, not even the players.  That will take some getting used to.

However, in my style of GM-ing, this is a good thing.  You now have three to five more creative minds invested in making the most memorable experience possible.  You may find you’ll be left with more creative energy to sink into more memorable NPCs or more expressive scene descriptions.  You won’t have to do it all, or be responsible for it all.

Character-driven, flaw-driven, sub-optimal-action-driven stories are collaborative stories. I personally think they make the best stories.

A Word of Caution

I want to close this article up with a word of caution.  You need to trust your players, and they need to trust you.  “Sub-optimal play” is not a euphemism for “carte blanche to be an asshole“.    I expressly forbid player-verses-player action at the table, without the express consent of the entire table for that one scene.  The Evil Ranger shooting the Good Paladin in the back when confronting the Arch-Villain as an expression of “sub-optimal play” only happens at my table if A) it’s been heavily foreshadowed, and B) everyone is okay with it.

One of the most memorable experiences in my time as a player is the road-to-Paladin-Cavalier party member confronting the obviously-falling-to-corruption-Evil-Cleric party member.  I shook the other players hand and they said “right, let’s do this” and the two characters went to war in the name of the fate of the world.  The scene made sense, everyone at the table agreed is was a long time coming, and everyone was open to where-ever that battle would take the story.

The Good Guy lost, but escaped with their life.  The effect on the story was massive.

I’m just playing my character” is not an excuse for play at the table which ruins everyone’s fun.  The players have to be happy, even if the characters are not.  

In Closing

Thanks very much for your time to read this.  I hope what I’ve said makes some sense, or helps you out in your own stories and games in some way.

I’d love to get your comments here on my blog, or come chat with me when I’m streaming (https://www.twitch.tv/902pe_gaming).

I strongly encourage you to take the time to catch up with “Story Teller’s Studio” with Due Respite Media (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIiBBusPG1DoXelX3lIUNLg). Let Erik (https://twitter.com/shrimpiclese) know I sent you!

One thought on “When Sub-Optimal Is Better in TTRPGs

  1. I’m lucky to be in a group now that favours story over “winning”, is as likely to drink a spy under table as to try to knife him, and who remember the rolls for their character flaws (in GURPS) even when it’s not in their apparent best interest.

    We have, over the years now, lost one player whose focus in the game was building and running the best killing machine. The folks left like to talk their way out of trouble, and consider killing a sign that they made a mistake.

    And it’s all great fun! No getting wrapped up in mechanics, lots of improv, and lots of laughter. I can’t see why I would want to play any other way.

    Now I don’t mind min-maxing a build; but that’s because I like to get combat over with quickly so we can get back to the fun stuff.

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