Chapter 10: Powergaming vs. Roleplaying

          There is, in a sense, a continuum of gameplay attitudes, and all RPG players fall somewhere along its line.
          At one end of the spectrum is the hardcore roleplayer, who immerses himself totally within the game, making all decisions with respect to how his character would feel about it, if his character has the Intelligence and Wisdom to make the right choice, even refusing very rewarding quests simply because his character is Chaotic, and doesn't like the idea of working for the woman offering that particular quest. The hardcore roleplayer denies himself all forms of outside help: No hints, no tips, no tricks—he might not even read much of the game's manual, for fear it might give something away. No out-of-game knowledge is allowed: If his character doesn't know it, he doesn't know it. The hardcore roleplayer does NOT Reload the game, ever (with the possible exception of encountering a bug), will not allocate any proficiency points to a weapon that he has not yet used in combat, and recruits new party members only when he happens to blunder into them, and their personalities seem to mesh with the A party engaged in a moment of roleplaying. Art by Larry Elmore.
A powergamer at work. Art by Alan Rabinowitz.PC's beliefs.
          At the other extreme, we find the hardcore powergamer, whose one drive is to beat the game, and beat the game HARD. He demands the utmost in everything: The most advantageous race/class/kit, the best party members using the deadliest weapons, and the optimum order in which to do quests, all in relentless pursuit of collecting ever more EXP. He reads full-disclosure walkthroughs, cheat codes, and uses every single opportunity available to pwn that n00b game as hard as it can possibly be pwned: If the game allows it, it's legal, and should be exploited for all it's worth—there is no such thing as "abuse." He's not happy unless he's winning winning winning; being anything less than the very best, most awe-inspiring character ever is simply a waste of his time.

          All players are going to find themselves somewhere between these two endpoints, in terms of how much they care about storytelling and believable gameplay, vs. how much they care about steamrolling through the game. (It's possible to care quite a lot about both, but in most cases players find themselves favoring one side over the other.) Roleplayers deride powergamers for being "munchkin" and/or "cheesy," while powergamers mock roleplayers for being "stupid." Some examples of roleplaying "stupidity" include the "Snow White" party, in which the main character was a Female Bard who was not allowed to perform any action except sing her Bard Song and carry stuff—the real work was done by the other 5 party members, all of whom were Dwarves, Gnomes, or Halflings. There is also the tale of "The Reluctant Protagonist," in which the main character was a total coward: The player set his AI script to flee in terror whenever he saw an enemy. Most "stupid" of all, at least from a powergamer's point of view, the roleplayers who run these games frequently write up in-character reports of how their game is progressing, and post the installments on their favorite forum(s).
          As for being "munchkin" and "cheesy," first I must define those terms. Munchkin is being visibly fixated on power and personal gain; this manifests most often in rolling one's stats (particularly when you "min-max" them, selecting one stat that you won't need and dropping it down to the absolute minimum, thus freeing up those points to drive those stats that you do want to their absolute effective maxima) and in use of metagaming knowledge; e.g., taking the party on a long
journey to an obscure location that your character has no reason to go to yet, simply because you know there's an enemy there who drops this great Shield. Cheese, on the other hand, is not (necessarily) about power, but rather about your knowledge of the fact that you're playing a computer game: When you are aware of some possible flaw or unrealistic detail in the way that the game is implemented, and you choose to take advantage of it, that is cheese. The most infamous example of cheese is the Fake-Talk "strategy:" Stand far away from some neutral creature, and click on them to talk to them. They will turn toward you, and wait for you to walk right up to them so the conversation can take place. Before you reach them, Screenshot by Dundee Slaytern
however, you cancel the action to speak to them, and instead direct your entire party to Attack them. Now, it is hardcoded that creatures prompted to talk will wait for nearly a full round for that conversation to begin, and during that round they will not attack, cast spells, or even turn Hostile, so as long as you have 1 party member initiating (and breaking) conversation every round, you can effortlessly slaughter the mightiest creatures in the game without them lifting so much as a finger in their own defense.
          Two terms closely related to "munchkin" are overpowered and über, which are synonymous and mostly used in the discussion of mods, to describe items, spells, or creatures that are noticably more powerful than comparable items, spells, and creatures from the default game. But some aspects of vanilla BG, especially BG2, are commonly judged to be overpowered as well, because at certain points of the game, your success or failure can depend not on your party's levels or preparedness, your own skill, or even the roll of the dice, but rather on whether or not you're using that particular item/spell/creature. The terms overpowered and über can be applied to all aspects of the game (frequently, the only safe way to defeat overpowered enemies is by using overpowered items, starting an "arms race" that quickly leaves most of the vanilla game in the dust), while munchkin is usually used to describe only the PC and his party.

          The object of this chapter is not to influence you either for or against powergaming or roleplaying, nor to encourage or discourage the use of cheesy or munchkin practices—this chapter is intended merely to inform you of what the game will and won't let you do, especially if that might seem unrealistic. The goal is to present you with a range of options, to help you choose for yourself what your own personal playing style will be. I will at times state my own opinions on certain matters, but remember that that's all they are; opinions.

Character Creation: Choosing your Class/Kit.
Hardcore Powergaming Method: Plan ahead and juggle your possible options for party members, choosing the most skilled and useful NPCs available, and build your main character in any of the stronger classes/kits that will best augment the strengths, and cover any possible weaknesses, of the party, so that all bases are covered as thoroughly as possible. If you are Dual-classing, work out precisely when you will Dual before you even begin the game, in order to get the maximum benefit from the Dual, and so that you can prepare ahead of time to have backup party members cover for you while your first class's skills are unavailable to you.
Hardcore Roleplaying Method: Choose whatever class, kit, or class combination whose ethos sounds like a fun character to play, even if it's a kit as badly implemented as the Beast Master, and just roll with it, recruiting party members as you bump into them. If you are Dual-Classing, perform the Dual at some crisis point in your character's emotional outlook: e.g., if you encounter a quest in the game where a high-ranking Priest of the same god that your PC worships is revealed to be a false Cleric (in actuality offering secret prayers to an entirely different deity), that might be a good roleplaying moment for your PC Cleric to suddenly lose faith and Dual-class, regardless of what EXP level he might be at the time.
Middle Ground: Unless you're running a Solo game, putting together a well-balanced party is often critically important, so recruiting your desired NPCs quickly, and Dual-Classing at an appropriate level, both fall under the heading of simple "good tactics." But for roleplaying considerations, you might try to avoid visiting areas, even areas where your desired party members can be found, until your party has a valid in-game reason (with a relatively high priority) to go there. Also, consider rushing/delaying important plot events that might influence your Dual-Classing, so that they occur when your character is at a good level to start the Dual anyway.

Character Creation: Rolling Your Stats.
Art by Mike Sass Hardcore Powergaming Method: Keep hitting Reroll and examining the numbers, frequently adding them up and Saving the result when you get a stat total that exceeds the previous "high score." Once you have a total that is very high (usually above 90), pour those points into the stats that matter the most to how you intend to use the character, raising each stat all the way up to its effective maximum. The stats that you don't intend to use much (your "dump stats") can share however many stat points happen to be left over.
Hardcore Roleplaying Method: Whatever numbers come up the very first time, those are your stats. No Rerolls or moving points from one stat into another, at all.
Middle Ground: There are dozens, if not hundreds, of variations on this. You could limit the number of times you allow yourself to Reroll, and then min-max the best set of numbers you get from that, or you could Reroll as much as you want, but penalize yourself for min-maxing: For every point you add to a stat that's already 15 or higher, you have to subtract two points from somewhere else. Etc. My own method is to allow
myself as many Rerolls as I want, but I'm not allowed to move any stat points at all. This allows the potential for good stats but makes for less obvious min-maxing, and makes those good stats tedious to get but also rewards the patience required to Reroll so many times.

Gameplay Situation: Party members are almost the only characters who can open & close doors.
What a Powergamer might do: In most situations, this is a non-issue. But if you find yourself losing a fight, it is often possible to run into another room and shut the door behind you. Even if the bad guy was right on your heels and you slammed the door right in his face, he will have no idea what just happened and will just stand at the door like an idiot, while you are free to heal yourself, re-evaluate your tactics, wait for his buffing spells to run out, and even Rest, because he can't figure out what a doorknob is.
What a Roleplayer might do: Knowing the limitations of the game's AI, a roleplayer might decide to never close a door on an enemy, unless that enemy is known to be extremely stupid (e.g., Golems), or they leave a bladed weapon near the door, under the roleplay that they wedged the door shut (applicable only on doors that swing open toward the party member).
Middle Ground: Holding a door shut makes sense as long as you remain directly in front of the door, keeping it shut by force, and not using it to stop enemies whose Strength score is much higher than your own (or high enough to be able to simply break the door down).

Gameplay Situation: Party members are almost the only creatures who can move from one area to another.
What a Powergamer might do: Take advantage of it! If you're fighting a spellcaster, allow him to begin casting his spell, and then leave the area before he can complete it, thus wasting his spell(s). If you're being chased by Warriors, simply step out the door and most of them will fail to follow, so you can divide their forces and destroy them piece by piece. (In BG1, they can't follow you between areas at all.)
What a Roleplayer might do: Give the game's AI the benefit of the doubt, and stand & fight until the battle is won (or lost), always keeping at least 1 party member in the area with the enemy.
Middle Ground: Do whatever you want, as long as you refrain from repeatedly ducking in & out of the enemy Mage's sight, thus forcing him to waste all of his high-level spellslots for no reason.

Gameplay Situation: For speed & efficiency reasons, the BG2 engine tends to run the AI scripts of ONLY those creatures that are within the sight
range of at least one party member.
What a Powergamer might do: Repeatedly use Area-of-Effect spells to harm, or even kill, powerful enemies that are just out of sight. Who cares if Dragons and Illithids would be smart enough to realize they're being attacked, and to either step out of the Cloudkill or simply retaliate?
What a Roleplayer might do: Realize that if a non-party NPC needs to walk from Point A to Point B, it's best to walk beside him, chatting about the weather.
Screenshot by Dark-Lauron
Middle Ground: Hit the bad guys with AoE spells from out of their sight range—but only as an opener to the actual combat, softening the enemies up a bit just before your Tank goes charging in for the kill.

Gameplay situation: The "Potion Swap" trick allows character to use certain items (potions & scrolls) that are forbidden to their class or kit.
What a Powergamer might do: Milk it whenever you want: By placing an allowed potion in your Backpack, saying "Drink Potion," and then removing the potion and quickly placing the outlawed potion or scroll in that exact same Inventory slot, you can fool the engine into granting you the effects of the item that's flagged as Unusable by you. Your Abjurer is barred from casting Stoneskin? Hell no he ain't.
What a Roleplayer might do: Respect the rules—if your character is restricted from using a certain item, that restriction must have been put there for a reason.
Middle Ground: Use the Potion Swap cheese to circumvent only those restrictions that don't make sense. For instance, only Warriors can drink Potions of Hill Giant Strength . . . is there some secret Warrior "training" that teaches them the mysteries of how to uncork a bottle, tip the contents down your throat, and swallow? Or the Wizard spell of Find Familiar, usable only by Wizards and Bards; if you feel that your PC Ranger or Druid would be fully justified in having an animal companion, swap away.

Art by Mike Sass Gameplay Situation: The recruitable NPCs of Xzar and Montaron only come as a team. You want Monty in your party, but you don't have the room to take Xzar as well.
What a Powergamer might do: Use Xzar as cannon fodder on the next decent enemy the party encounters, or simply throw him to the Wolves.
What a Roleplayer might do: If the PC's Charisma score is sufficiently high, convince Xzar and Montaron that it really would be better for everyone if Monty went adventuring with the party while Xzar stayed behind in a tavern, chatting up the serving wenches, all expenses paid.
Middle Ground: The same as the roleplaying route, only without the Charisma or the serving wenches. Find a building that you're not likely to want to enter ever again, send Xzar in alone, and then boot him from the party. Since the only reason you can't include Xzar is because of the arbitrary and unrealistic rule that that you can't have more than 6 party members, there's nothing wrong in using cheese to circumvent a hardcoded limitation.

Gameplay Situation: When playing BG2 with ToB installed, pressing the Tab key highlights all containers in the current map area.
What a Powergamer might do: Since both BG1 and BG2 occasionally have "caches," containers that contain valuable items but are hidden due to their very small size, the Tab key is a great way to avoid spending time and effort to find these little treasures.
What a Roleplayer might do: Ignore this feature as hard as they can. If they didn't mouse-over the container, they did NOT see it.
Middle Ground: Sometimes, enemies are killed where their piles of loot are obscured by trees, walls, or even the body of the creature itself, making the loot difficult to see and pick up. The Tab key highlights loot as well as containers, and it's quite possible to use it only to make sure you've checked all the bodies, rather than as X-Ray machine that finds secret compartments for you.

Gameplay Situation: A powerful enemy is about to appear at a certain position.
What a Powergamer might do: Pause right before fulfilling the conditions that will cause the enemy to appear, and cast some buffing spells appropriate to the type of enemy that you know it's going to be. Possibly, call forth some good Summons, and buff them too. Then trigger the enemy's appearance, and clean up.
What a Roleplayer might do: Everything depends on how much knowledge that the party has about what to expect—hardcore roleplayers shun the use of metagaming knowledge. Unless the party has some fore-warning (or the main character has a Wisdom score so abnormally high that you're pretending he's prescient), they may make no preparations.
I must find out if the rumors are true.
Middle Ground: Depending on the specific situation, you may be able to have only a single party member, such as your Tank (or even better, a Stealthed/Invisible character) in the enemy's sight range when they appear, which allows you to mitigate the immediate damage that the enemy can cause, while maintaining a certain amount of realism.

Gameplay Situation: A powerful group of enemies is waiting for you right where you enter a party-required map area.
What a Powergamer might do: Same as before: Buff the hell out of the party, but with the exception of Summoned creatures (because Summons cannot cross area transitions), then proceed to kick as much ass as possible.
What a Roleplayer might do: It seems pretty clear that BioWare meant your encounter with this group of enemies to be a sudden surprise attack; a hardcore roleplayer might choose to knowingly have his party blunder right into the fight, without any preparation at all.
Middle Ground: Ordinarily, you would be scouting ahead with your Thief. But since the new map area is party-required ("You must gather your party before venturing forth"), you can have no warning of the impending battle before you're already in it. But since the "party-required" bit is an unrealistic restriction imposed on you by the game engine, it seems perfectly kosher to pretend that your Thief fully scoped out the enemy, and cast your prebuffs anyway. Of course, this only works in "mundane" map transitions, where your Thief would simply sneak through a door, check out what's on the other side, and then report back. In more exotic area transitions, e.g., you step through a magic portal that closes behind you, this would not be a plausible tactic.

Gameplay Situation: There is almost no defense against Traps.
Art by Mike Sass What a Powergamer might do: Use Traps with the specific intention of not giving the bad guys a chance. If the powergamer knows that an enemy will appear at a certain spot, he will Trap that spawn point. What's more, if multiple enemies come within range of a Trap at the exact same instant, the Trap will go off and hit them all. Pretty much the only protection from Traps is to be immune to Missile damage, which is provided by Stoneskin—but there's a brief second between Dimension Dooring into the area and one's automatic buffs taking effect—and in that second, the Traps will hit the target and likely kill them. Moreover, if you lay all your Traps on the exact same spot, stacked on top of each other (try doing that in real life), any enemy that comes in range of one them will be within range of all the others as well—meaning they will unavoidably get hit with 7 Traps simultaneously, which can kill pretty much anything. What's more, while regular Snares are always set at the Thief's feet, Bounty Hunters' Set Special Snare ability has a range of 30, meaning they can effectively "throw" their Snares into the middle of an ongoing fight (which is clearly ridiculous), possibly even hitting multiple opponents each time. Possibly the cheesiest exploit of all, however, is
setting Traps near a creature that is not Hostile to you, but (possibly through metagaming knowledge) you know soon will be.
What a Roleplayer might do: Set Traps only defensively: Around the party when they Rest outside, scattered near a "fallback position" if they need to retreat from a difficult enemy, or placed in a doorway that enemies are almost sure to pass through. They will always shun actually abusing Traps by placing them close together, having a Bounty Hunter "throw" his Special Snares, or laying them where an (unexpected) enemy will appear. They might set Traps near a not-yet-Hostile creature if the Thief is Stealthed or Invisible while doing so.
Middle Ground: I'm not sure there is one, really—either you cheese the use of Traps, or you don't.

Gameplay Situation: NPCs that appear multiple times may be Pickpocketed each time—for the exact same items.
What a Powergamer might do: Go nuts with your best Pickpocket! This works because whenever the game wants "Billy Bob" to be present, it creates a "Billy Bob," complete with all his gear. If any of that gear can be Pickpocketed from him, it can be nicked from him each time, enabling you to gain multiple copies—sometimes, even unique and very powerful items can be duplicated in this fashion. If you were to kill Billy Bob at your first meeting, however, you would only get the one copy, because the game knows not to create him again if he's already dead.
What a Roleplayer would do: Needless to say, any self-respecting roleplayer wouldn't touch this exploit with a stick.
Middle Ground: To acquire duplicates of supposedly unique items and use them in combat would clearly be extremely cheesy . . . but you might be okay with selling them instead of actually using them. You could also rationalize getting (and keeping) multiples of more mundane items, depending on the NPC's personal circumstances and the amount of time between appearances: If he's a poor commoner and all he did was step outside into the street, he obviously hasn't been able to obtain another Emerald. But if he's rich and you haven't seen him for days, he's had ample opportunity to refill his pockets.

Gameplay Situation: Spells targeted on the caster ignore Magic Resistance.
What a Powergamer might do: Milk it. If you're a Mage fighting a bunch of enemies with high Magic Resistance, no big deal—just cast Protection from Fire, and then walk among them, Fireballing yourself, and giggle as you watch them burn.
What a Roleplayer might do: Recognize that the reason for this mechanic is to prevent self-targeted things like Healing spells and drinking Antidotes from failing simply because you're resistant to harmful spells—it was never intended to be used to affect other creatures.
Middle Ground: In BG2, only offensive spells can be blocked by Magic Resistance, but in BG1, MR can block all spells. It makes little sense that a person would want protection from beneficial spells, so when casting party buffs like Chant and Haste, it's hardly an abuse of the system to have each caster target the spells on themselves when there's a magic-resistant party member.
Art by Mike Sass

          In the course of your games, you will doubtless encounter many other situations besides these, where the limitations of the game engine do not always mesh perfectly with (what, in a world filled with magic & dragons, passes for) realism. When that happens, you will either complain about why the game won't let you do a certain thing (insert creative idea, like using your Halfling Fighter as a thrown weapon, here), or more likely you'll be faced with a choice: Whether to be a cheesy powergamer, or an uptight roleplayer. It's your game—play it however you want.

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