Getting Ahead through Strategic Incompetence
My Wednesday night group been playing Dungeon World in the Forgotten Realms setting. We are enjoying it, and in particular exploring our characters’ differing niches (oo-er). In Dungeon World, whenever there is a challenge in the fiction, you describe what you are doing, an appropriate Move is chosen, then roll 2d6, modified by a stat. You fail on a 2-6, succeed with consequences on 7-9, and straight-up succeed on a 10+. The Move tells you the details of what failure, partial success and straight-up suceess mean. There are basic moves and character-class specific moves, so everyone can Parley, but only the Cleric can turn undead. The effect to me is that Dungeon World feels like a streamlined simulation of playing AD&D.
Dungeon World is powered by the system used in Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World. I gather there are two schools of thought about creating games with the Apocalypse Word Engine, the first being that the Moves act as constraint on which players’ choices are important. Monsterhearts (and I think Night Witches) are examples of this. In the second school, the GM plaintively asks for players to say what their characters are doing in the fiction and then selects an appropriate Move – so there is always a roll, regardless of the challenge. In both games, there is the incentive, common to many games, to use the most favourable move available. For example, when splitting a rock: “I use my mind to guide the pick axe to a weakness in the rock,” “I let my god Ilmartyr guide my blow,” “I use brute strength to shatter the rock” “I strike it again and again until it breaks.” This is known as trait bombing. Our GM manages our excesses well, and the system is configured to give a big incentive to lose in the fiction (using Moves you aren’t good at) as the only way to gain experience, which counteracts this tendency, and can lead characters to out-of-niche behaviour and whoops of joy as rolls are failed. Ratslav the Thief pretty much failed every Move, and as the cleric I needed to patch him up often, but with all the failures he gained a level in short order. These deliberate attempts to fail to gain experience or other in-system benefits are what I call strategic incompetence.
Dodging the Trait Bomb
The advantage of systems with differentiated abilities is that they allow characters to specialise and to some extent give niche protection and spotlight time for each player. Shyer players come out of their shells to blow up buildings or talk turkey with the locals when they are needed. The potential price for games which support differential abilities is trait bombing – that is shoe-horning your characters’ most powerful abilities (and modifiers) to win a conflict. Some protection against this is built into the systems, and there are also play techniques which mitigate trait bombing. The guiding principle behind most roleplaying games is – let the system encourage the behaviour it wants to see, and let the group manage the interface between the shared fiction and system.
First, play techniques. It’s fair to say that if you are really good at a thing, there is nothing inherently wrong with doing that thing. Every problem looks like a nail if you have a hammer. So it’s fine to use your best skill, as long as you are not impinging another players spot light ability, or boring the table. It’s also important that GMs look at the characters’ favoured abilities and ensure that each player has a chance to shine with their ability in the game, which reduces the incentive for trait bombing. At the table, it’s often the GM’s role to adjudicate whether it’s reasonable to use a particular ability for a particular challenge, but it’s also good to listen out for sceptical noises from other players if you are trying it on. That applies to both trait bombing and strategic incompetence. Why is the weedy cleric trying to push the boulder to one side while the burly fighter wittles her nails? There needs to be a good answer in the fiction.
Robin D Laws discusses the benefits and demerits of various at-the-table approaches to this issue in Dropping the Trait Bomb.
As to systems, Dungeon World, Burning Wheel, and FATE use the incentive of experience rewards for failed rolls to encourage players to try abilities at which they are less able. Fail on a skill roll and you tick experience to get better in general (Dungeon World) or in that specific skill (the rest). Other systems (BRP) give you a chance to gain experience for succeeding at rolls. Then, at the end of you roll higher than the skill to improve that skill, giving an incentive to try less useful skills. These systems discourage trait bombing, but the strategic incompetence then need to be justified in the fiction. Often the disincentive is that failure, or even partial success in the system can be horrid to the characters in the fiction.
GUMSHOE, which is resource-based, has its own approach. Trait bombing is to some extent self-correcting, in that while you can try to shoe-horn abilities into tasks, you burn resources in doing so, so spamming one ability is not a long-term strategy. Not only that, when you need the skill for its specific purpose, it won’t be there. The spread of abilities with their resources also encourages you to try a broad range of skills you have, still competently, so that you can make best use of your resources. As well as the usual GMs toolkit of disallowing inappropriate abilities at the table, an option in borderline cases is to up the Difficulty using a General ability, or up the cost for a special benefit, which leads to a larger spend. It requires some fancy roleplaying and a big spend to Intimidate the special ops soldier. However, GUMSHOE wants to give out information, so clever use of abilities which are not listed to get such info is positively encouraged. When you run out of resources, you are still highly competent in both General and Investigative abilities; with the latter, for example, for a typical task, you still have a 50/50 chance of succeeding, and the points are just there to make you shine when you really need to.
So there are tools built into GUMSHOE which discourage trait bombing and pretty much eliminate strategic incompetence. But there is an issue specifc to resource managment games: that of swapping between abilities mid-flow, usually in an on-going test. This happens where you are low on one resource and can use another resource to achieve the same goal. I call this trait swapping. For example, in Night’s Black Agents, if you are using Shooting and you run out of points, mid-combat, there is an incentive to switch to Hand-to-Hand, and in a chase to switch from Driving to Athletics, to run. You can use Investigative abilities or techno-thriller monologue to gain a quick refresh Shooting points, but let’s say you are out of options. This behaviour is, in fact, a dead match to the tropes of the genre, and that’s where you go, cooperating as player and GM. Why would Jason Bourne stop using his Glock 19? The obvious choice would be that gun is out of ammo, so he clubs his foe with it. You can also describe it as a change of tactics to get an edge – “I can’t take it down with gunfire, so I’m going to mix things up by throwing the contents of the kettle at the Renfield’s face.” In a car chase, to ditch the vehicle to flee on foot through the mall to improve the odds makes perfect sense. And because you are more likely to succeed in the fiction with your new ability, it will show that your characters’ new choices make them cool, skilled and competent. It’s even better if you plan this out, for example just flicking the kettle on as you enter the kitchen, or directing the chase to the mall early on with Navigation.
Are trait bombing, strategic incompetence and trait swapping a problem in your games? How do you handle them?