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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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