Playing Mind Games: The Peanut Butter Conundrum

August 28, 2010

Limit Your Players for Their Own Good

For DMsI want to take some time to respond to an e-mail question I’ve seen a lot of lately: “why would any sane player keep coming back to one of your games you overbearing, abusive tyrant?” That’s a great question. What is my secret to running a great game that keeps the players coming back for more? The answer is: psychology. Understanding psychology, how people think and behave and why they do the things that they do, is an integral part of being a good Dungeon Master.

For example, the CIA has done a number of studies on how people form attachments to inanimate objects and personify things when they are feeling threatened or isolated and this can be used to control behavior. In a D&D game, the players become attached to their characters because the character represents their projection of themselves into the fantasy world. The character sheet and the miniature figure are inanimate objects that come to represent the character itself and the player forms a deep attachment to these objects.

That keen understanding is why I keep a paper shredder handy and use only plastic miniatures. Metal miniatures are harder to damage, melt at much higher temperatures, and can damage a microwave.

Psychology also teaches us that people want to maximize positive experiences and avoid negative ones. While it will come as no surprise that I tend to behave in irrational, frightening, and unpredictable ways at the smallest of annoyances, I also make sure to be extremely polite, cordial, and grateful the moment a player does something I want them to do. The vast difference between the way I behave when I am annoyed and when I am pleased encourages people to keep me happy.

The most important psychological tool in my aresenal, however, comes from understanding that people in group situations are far more likely to unite against adversity than to run away from it. By presenting myself as a terrifying, nigh unbeatable enemy, I cause the party to unite against me. With each game, each loss, each molten plastic death, they simply become firmer in their resolve to defeat me. Great villains make great heroes, as they say. So they keep coming back to fight an impossible fight, week after week. But, thanks to my paper shredder, microwave, and behavior that could be charitably described as terrifyingly bipolar, they are too afraid to question me and thus they will never win. It is a perfect psychological cage made of crushed spirits, abject terror, group obligation, and false hope.

I’m not suggesting that every DM should adopt this strategy. I’m something of an expert and it is possible to push the fear, the enmity, and the unification too far in one direction. Too much fear and enmity, and the party flees forever. Too much unification and false hope, and the part unites against you in a much more real way (in a flagrant example of extreme metagaming). Even with my expertise, I’ve had incidents involving expensive property damage and at least one hospitalization. But DMing is a labor of love and I’m willing to make these sacrifices.

However, there are many less risky ways to use a little psychological warfare against your players. Or, if you are so inclined, to use a little psychological trickery to improve your game. In this article, I’m here to discuss how the psychology of decision making can actually hurt your players’ enjoyment of the game and why you need to be able to say ‘no’ sometimes.

Limiting Choices and Forbidding Options

Every DM eventually runs into the question of whether or not it is okay to restrict the players’ freedom in character generation. This question might arise because of a DM’s personal preferences, because of the story, or for the sake of convenience.

For example, I don’t like science fiction and steampunk elements in my fantasy game. There’s nothing wrong with liking them, of course, but they break my immersion in the setting. So, I do not run Eberron games and I do not allow warforged characters or psionic characters in my games out of personal preference.

In a recent campaign I ran, the story focused primarily on the differences between elementals, immortals, and mortals. In order to create the proper atmosphere, I had to exaggerate the qualities that made immortals and elementals different from each other and from mortal beings. Unfortunately, the result rendered genasi and devas inappropriate options for PCs.  This is an example of a story restriction.

As a matter of convenience, I try to make sure that the PCs can work together as a team. I also like to make sure they have common ground and common values. Thus, I forbid evil alignments and I tell the players that they must come from the same general region or location. This also has story implications.

Whatever the reason, though, there are always some players who will balk at such restrictions. And there are more than a few DMs out there who will tell me that I am running the game wrong. Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition certainly seems to go to great lengths to convince the DM to give the players as much freedom as possible.

But, psychologically speaking, too much freedom and too many options can be bad things. In fact, allowing too much freedom can actually cause your players to be less satisfied with their characters and the game they are playing. This is a result of something I call The Peanut Butter Conundrum.

The Peanut Butter Conundrum

I was reminded of The Peanut Butter Conundrum a few weeks ago when I watched my players generate characters for an upcoming campaign. It was something I had been aware of for a long time in a vague sort of way and I had coined the name years ago before I really knew exactly what I was talking about. Ultimately, an excellent book by Barry Scwartz called “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less” helped me put it into words. While he doesn’t discuss peanut butter much in the book, he does start out with an anecdote about shopping for jeans that echoes my own peanut butter experiences quite closely. He also has fancy scientific studies and evidence and credentials. If you’re interested in the Peanut Butter Conundrum outside of the scope of role-playing games, or if you just want to see that I’m not just blowing smoke, you should check it out. I’m definitely going to be summarizing some of his main points, so I want to give credit where credit is due.

If you go into a supermarket to buy some peanut butter, you will discover that picking peanut butter is not as simple as it used to be. Apart from choosing a brand, you’ll need to select either crunchy or smooth peanut butter. You can buy it salted, unsalted. You can buy low salt or low sodium, and I’m not even sure how those differ. You can get it all natural. You can get it with low oil. You can even get peanut butter already mixed with jelly for ease of sandwich preparation. Of course, if you want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, we have to discuss jelly choices and bread options as well. The gods help you if want to buy hot cocoa. Did you know it comes in vanilla now? Vanilla-flavored chocolate violates some sort of chemical law, doesn’t it?

It may seem like a wonderful thing to be blessed with so many options for every little thing. But it can quickly become overwhelming and the availability of too many options can actually keep you from enjoying the choices you make.

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15 Responses to Playing Mind Games: The Peanut Butter Conundrum

  1. BoyGenius on August 30, 2010 at 2:41 am

    I’ve never considered myself much of a DM. For me, the amount of work involved outweighs the fun of storytelling.

    That said, I am personally a big supporter of limiting the players. Back when I was playing AD&D I despised Monks and Bards, because the monk ought to be an effing Cleric, and was just way overpowered.

    And Bards…well, by the time you got to be a Bard back then..you tipped the balance so much you may as well just be a demigod. And they still annoy me to this day, and I always outlaw them as pc’s.

    I’ve also been pretty strict to support the story. For instance I routinely outlawed some races, or forced the party to all be human, because I wanted to keep the other races mysterious.

    You make it up to the players in other ways. By making sure that the restrictions aren’t just arbitrary (hatred of Monks being the exception) but that they actually play into the storyline, and true role-players will get invested no matter what.

    Powergamers and Min/Maxers have a serious problem with this philosophy, and they can get bent as far as I’m concerned.

    Maybe that’s why people don’t ask me to DM very often.

  2. Slimboy on August 30, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Again, you’ve described something that’s been rattling around in my head with no name on it. In my current game group, there are two Min-Max types and two others who don’t seem to know how to cope with a roll that doesn’t lead to success. All four of which are just destroyed by the amount of options available. The latter two can’t function round-to-round, sometimes. One of my better players is a rank novice who is content to eldritch blast every round with her warlock. It’s effective, and she’s happiest with her character. Every now and then she throws down a big blast, but they usually miss, and she’s fine with that, because eldritch blast never lets her down. Honestly, though, I’m probably going to bust everybody back to 3rd ed, just to let them play characters, instead of stat blocks.

  3. The Angry DM on August 30, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    @BoyGenius: You would be surprised when it comes to Power Gamers and Min/Maxers, which I mention briefly in the article. I’ve noticed some can be prone to excessive tweaking and frustration in their pursuit of perfection and that can be a result of Peanut Butter Burnout except that they don’t realize it. I’ve found in past groups that often, players who complain about limitations, thrive under them, relax, and have more fun. Again, this is just an observation and it doesn’t apply to everyone, but the psychology behind it is sound.

    @Slimboy: I don’t want to start an edition war or anything, but, where 3rd Edition offered fewer codified options during combat, it still offered a dizzying array of decision points in character generation, many of which seemed much more important than they really were. I’m not saying not to do it, I’m just saying not to expect 3rd to solve your problems without some imposed limitations – which can also be accomplished in 4th Edition. You might want to look into 4E Essentials (and introduce it as a “hey, let’s try this out for fun” thing at first) which at least seems to offer players the chance to pick how many choices they want to deal with. Give the Red Box a try, perhaps, when it comes out this month.

  4. BigGoon on August 31, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    I’m allergic to Peanut Butter.

    It’s amazing how comforting that sentence is. I often get an astonished reaction from acquaintances. “How do you survive?” “What do you do for lunch?” “How bad is it?” It’s actually a relief in someways. I have a thousand options for lunch, the number of options are staggering, and having one less is a relief. Especially because Peanut Butter is sooo popular.

    The same thing can be said for Multiclass and Hybrid class characters. The number of new optimizations for characters is overloading. My first character was a multiclassing character, and I regret it. He ended up being half a rogue, half and fighter, and half a elf – in other words, he was half a character.

    I wish I was allergic to multiple classes.

  5. The Angry DM on August 31, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    @BigGoon: I don’t think I could live without peanut butter, though, depending on the seriousness of the allergy, you might not be able to live with peanut butter.

    You can always impose your own limitations. Make a pledge to be a one class guy if you feel the number of options weighing down on you. Or, if you are feeling really crazy, roll randomly for your race/class and stick with that. Or ask the DM or another party member to pick for you.

  6. Valkyri9 on September 1, 2010 at 8:59 am

    I blame the parents who tell their children, “Don’t make that face. Try something new! How do you know you’ll hate that dish if you don’t try it first?” thus instilling the need to try everything so as to ensure you don’t miss out on something good.

  7. LowSlash on September 1, 2010 at 10:36 am

    I’m definitely a peanut butter burnout, and am slightly ashamed to say I just switched characters, albeit to one that I’m much happier with both mechanically and developmentally.

    In terms of restrictions on character building, I’m very much looking forward to a low-magic campaign that my friend is developing; as all the PCs will be from the same small town, we must be human and can only choose martial classes.

  8. Colmarr on September 2, 2010 at 2:22 am

    Interesting article, particularly in relation to Min/Maxers and Peanut Butter.

    It matches the experience of my group (the two players who I would nominate as the greatest min/maxers are also the two who suffer most from character wanderlust.

    The players who are most “into” their characters seem perfectly content to stick with their choices.

  9. Josh W on October 11, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    At first I thought you were talking about choice paralysis, so I dug out this article about it. But even if it’s mostly irrelevant, the fun thing about this is that both sets of studiers think their studying “human nature” and get opposite results, never considering whether being in different countries makes any difference:

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/9cebd444-cd9c-11de-8162-00144feabdc0.html

    But then I realised you were talking about choice regret, and it remembered someone talking about their complaints about D&D: “I did want to play my character, but more than that I wanted to test out the right character to fit the situation” They ended up making loads of characters in their spare time and never playing with them, while constantly considering finding ways to retire their main character.

    That’s a paraphrase of who knows who, but it fits some of my experience; if character creation is a fun game, then people will want to make new characters, so it’s not so bad when you kill them off, but if character creation is too fun compared to your game, then people will want to keep on repeating those first few choices, and not continue into your world. Harsh as it might sound they can get better feedback (in terms of satisfaction, learning and feeling of discovery) from exploring the configuration space of the character generation stuff than they do exploring your world. (as a world, rather than as a boundary condition of their real game!)

  10. [...] Not to mention that the Analysis Paralysis factor outlined in many articles wherein things like peanut butter and jam are used as reference points. In summary, and at least in this case I can honestly [...]

  11. npinkert on January 18, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    Agreed. In my character generation, I try to think of a personality type and build around it. I spend my skill points and train feats based on what my character would get. I usually end up using most of the skills and feats in game, and it always leads to interesting scenarios.
    Most of my fellow players spend hours deciding whether they want an extra 5HP or +1 attack bonus. In the end, it won’t really mean that much.
    As a DM, I merely outlaw PH3. Although this doesn’t mean I won’t use the races or classes for NPCs.

  12. Ride The Rails Like A Rockstar | The Id DM on March 16, 2011 at 7:54 am

    [...] in two ways. The first is the “bridge is broken” device mentioned above. You are the DM, and it is acceptable at times to say, “No.” The second is going along with things for a while to determine if there is a way to get the PCs [...]

  13. [...] Hits, Sly Flourish and At Will for helping me finally get it. It was AngryDM’s post about The Peanut Butter Conundrum and Winning D&D that really began my true understanding of the right way to play 4e. It turns [...]

  14. FallingTeeth on January 12, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    Funny article, crafty metaphors. But ranting, raving, controlling, you people are a little too much on the OCD side for my taste.

    Just sayin’.

  15. Frank on October 31, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Good article Angry,

    I do have something to add that may help with this conundrum. It helped me a lot when I was a player.

    Before ever putting a single stat on your paper or rolling or what ever, first come up with concept for your character. Having a well defined concept automatically limits your options available to be able to keep to said concept.

    Examples: 4th Edition. Basically the concept was lazy adventurer. I wanted to never have to actually physically exert myself specially in combat. This pretty much limited me to one class, and then when looking threw the powers severely limited what powers I took. Took a few levels to where I had access to some of the higher level powers but once I did I never rolled another die in combat again. Awesome char and a ton of fun for me.

    3.5 Example. I wanted a char that couldn’t be hit in combat but if I was I could take the hits. (I didn’t care if I could hit I just didn’t want to be hit.)This limited my options pretty well and caused me to think ahead of what will most allow me to meet this concept.

    I use concept in this to mean what is the one thing you want this character to do over anything else. It should fit in one sentence and be simple. AKA I want to make lots of magic items, or I don’t want to lift a finger in combat. I want to backstab everything in site ect.

    You will find that coming at character creation from this point of view really does limit the options you have to meet that concept and really does help with the peanut butter issue.

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