Playing Mind Games: The Peanut Butter Conundrum

August 28, 2010

Limit Your Players for Their Own Good

PCs and The PB Conundrum

First of all, creating a PC in 4th Edition (or any edition) is a weighty choice. It is a time consuming process, even with the Character Builder. Barring one-shot adventures and delves, a player usually expects to spend between six months to two years playing a character in an ongoing campaign, so it is also a long-term decision.

Second, creating a character involves a lot of individual decision points with a lot of options for each. You must choose a race, role, class, ability scores, class options, attack powers, and skills. If the game is starting at a higher level, you need to pick more powers and select magic items. The first PHB offered about 24,500 combinations of just race, class, class options, and attack powers. Many of these choices involve tradeoffs, making them look equally as attractive. Choosing between races, for example, might involve choosing between an ability score increase to an important statistic or an attractive racial power. While some choices certainly affect other choices (such as the synergy between certain powers and certain build options), the list of choices is still quite daunting. And, because most of the choices are balanced against one another, the options are actually fairly similar. Beyond that, few of the options will actually lead to a bad play experience. Most of the options are potentially fun options. Finally, in the past two years, the number of options has increased exponentially.

Retraining, of course, offers a way to undo some of the decisions and try other things out. And, of course, this can lead to more dissatisfaction. In fact, because retraining is limited to once per level, it can exacerbate the problem immensely. Sure, you can undo a decision, but which decision do you undo and what do you in its place? If you need to undo three decisions, which do you undo first? And if that decision doesn’t work out, do you undo it again instead of undoing something else? A DM can compound this problem even further by granting more retraining opportunities or by allowing players to freely switch characters. Of course, most DMs realize that consistency is very important and so they try to dissuade frequent switching of powers, feats, skills, and entire characters.

Already, we have the makings of a Peanut Butter Conundrum. There are many, many options, all offering similar levels of satisfaction. Personal preference does lead to some firm decisions (the choice of role is usually the strongest decision point), but there are so many decision points and so many options that most players are likely to reach a point where they are struggling to choose between two similar options with no strong criteria to guide them.

The options are so numerous that it is impossible to imagine not being able to build a perfect character, but character building involves trade-offs. Every character will have strengths and weaknesses. And there are so many events in the game that can lead to doubt (missing too often, doing too little damage, getting reduced to zero hit points, running out of healing surges, getting hit too often, etc) that it is almost inevitable that anyone who didn’t go into character generation with an extremely strong concept will start to wonder if they made a bad choice.

Now, there are some players who will claim that they thrive with so many options. It’s certainly possible with the proper attitude and mindset, but the players who will be happiest with their characters are not the ones you might expect. Generally, it is not the players who sit around optimizing their characters trying out all sorts of combinations. It’s not the folks who unwind by opening the character builder and slapping a new character together. Because these are the folks who put more weight on the mechanical decisions and are much more analytical about the outcome. Thus, they are more prone to the Peanut Butter Conundrum. The more you tweak your character, the more likely you are to believe that there is a perfect character to be made, even though there isn’t. And the more characters you have sitting on your hard drive, the more likely you are to think about the characters you didn’t choose to play.

These are, of course, generalizations and players can and do eventually get past the doubts and just enjoy the game. The longer a player spends with a character, the less likely they are to focus on perceived flaws and flawed comparisons to characters that never were. Satisfaction comes if the DM can convince a player to stick with a character for a while. And, in the event that a character truly is flawed, that will show in time and can be corrected at that time.

However, some people don’t cope as well with the Peanut Butter Conundrum. These folks have a hard time being satisfied with a character, even after long periods of time, even if they don’t show it. If you have a player who mentions characters they used to play frequently, or other characters they’ve been working on, or characters they almost played instead of this one, you might be dealing with a Peanut Butter burnout. Likewise, if you have a player who has a hard time choosing between powers, feats, and other options and who waffles on the decision, he might be a Peanut Butter burnout. Players who get bored with characters and want to try other options frequently or players who retrain frequently are also likely succumbing to the Peanut Butter Conundrum. This is something to be wary of because the player probably won’t recognize the problem for what it is and instead keep constantly tweaking because “he just can’t get it right” as his self-confidence dwindles. The least likely candidates for Peanut Butter Burnout are the players who choose a character in order to fill a empty role, the players who let you help them build their character or build it for them, or the character who plays a pregenerated character or one they downloaded off the internet. Strange as it may seem, those players are, on average, most likely to be satisfied with their character from the beginning.

What to Do With Your Knowledge

The point of this article is not to encourage DMs to just start removing options from the game for the sake of satisfaction. Remember, the Peanut Butter Conundrum is usually temporary and, as players spend time with their characters, they tend to become happier with the choices. However, this knowledge should make you feel much better about restricting or removing options from the game for reasons of personal preference, story, or convenience. It should also make you feel much less obligated to incorporate every new supplement that comes out into your game.

Players may complain about the removal of options, but the complaining won’t last long. If someone threatens to leave the group because a favorite race has been removed from the game, resist the urge to give in. Ask yourself if that is really the type of behavior you want to encourage or the type of player you want at your table. Players may grumble during character generation, but they will still enjoy the game and may enjoy it more as they are forced to be satisfied with something not quite what they wanted. It can backfire, of course, but it usually doesn’t and it often leads to a better experience for everyone.

At the same time, watch for indicators of Peanut Butter Burnout and do your best to forestall them. Don’t be so quick to allow retraining or replacement characters. Again, this may feel like it is against the spirit of the freedom of choice promised by the game, but it is entirely in keeping with the spirit of ensuring an enjoyable game experience. If someone is struggling during character generation, the best thing you can do might be to assign them a character. You can present this however you’d like, but be positive about it. “I see you’re having trouble picking a character. I’ve got a character I’ve wanted to play for a while, but I’m DMing so I won’t get a chance. Do you want to try it out?” If this question produces a look of relief, you’ve just saved someone from a peanut allergy.

Finally, keep in mind that there is always a chance you will have a group with two, three, or more people prone to Peanut Butter Burnout. If you notice warning signs from more than one player, it is time for a more drastic change. Start a new campaign and place a severe restriction. Allow only options from PHB1, for example. Or try out a single race or single power source campaign. If one or two players balk at that suggestion, ask them to choose the race or the power source (or other restriction). That way, they feel like they made the choice and those with peanut allergies reap the benefits of having some decisions forced on them.

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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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