Chess is not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance


On Facebook, Benoist Poire posted a long response to Wick's blog... with Wick replying. It is worth a read. You can read it here.

i like that guy's counter-arguments.

I like a lot of different aspects of D&D. So if I had an RPG that was finely tuned for story-telling and it disposed of other parts of D&D, I might not be happy with that game, even though i favor story-telling as an outcome of playing and RPG.

I'd be worried that a game that had no equipment lists, and allowed for teacups and thumbs to commonly be used as weapons would actually detract from setting integrity. Suddenly, any silly thing could be a weapon.

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Tequila Sunrise

That's not a fallacy, it's simple fact. I've run many, many games with wide power spreads where the players still all had plenty of fun. Or look at games like Ars Magica where party power imbalances are built right into the system. Somehow a lot of people still love and play the game anyway. I never really heard balance whines until the folks started trying to bring MMO ideas into RPGs. That's fine for MMO's; balance really is important there - there's no DM. But for RPG's it's just not. I've seen far more fun removed from RPGs in the name of balance then has ever been added.
Ah yes, because every concern that you don't personally share is a whine. And hey, I love to hear ttrpgers blame perceived problems on other wildly successful game mediums. It's so hipster, and makes me so proud to be a ttrpger.

Anyhow, if you had bothered to glance at the second page, you would have noticed my reply to a reply that could have been a close paraphrase of yours:

I know that when I get in a car, all that really matters in the end is getting from point A to point B. I don't need to drive super-fast like a race driver does, because racing is a different activity with different goals. I also know that if I'm driving a poorly engineered car, there's a higher chance I won't get to point B.

So yeah, engineering matters for cars and balance matters for games. Unless of course I'm an automotive enthusiast, and I enjoy DYIing in the middle of my trip.
To expand my analogy a bit, I'm sure that people got around in model-Ts, and I know that gamers manage to have fun with extremely imbalanced games. Doesn't mean that an engineer should aspire to antique automobiles, or that game writers should aspire to...sharpie-smudged rulebooks, or whatever it is that Wick is holding up as the platonic ideal of all that is good and holy in rpg-dom.


That's not a fallacy, it's simple fact.

We'll have to disagree about which facts are obvious then.

I've run many, many games with wide power spreads where the players still all had plenty of fun. Or look at games like Ars Magica where party power imbalances are built right into the system.

But those two statements don't necessarily support the claim that balance is unimportant because the GM can ensure everyone has fun.

Somehow a lot of people still love and play the game anyway.

I would argue that they love and play the game because either the game itself addresses story balance in some fashion (the 'troupe' system) or else because the game master or group addresses the game systems lack of story balance by imposing a lot of unwritten house rules on the system. When you examine these games in play, you find that characters disadvantaged by power achieve story importance via unwritten character powers that the GM imposes and respects. For example, you may observe that per the results of play, some seemingly weak character has figuratively written on his character sheet something to the effect of "If it is funny, it works." or "If a favorable coincidence happens, it happens to me." Or often you have an unwritten rule like, "If a player isn't having fun, the GM throws him a bone."

Being unwritten components of the system, does not make them less important aspects of play at a particular table. It just makes them more difficult to translate between tables.

In other words, the GM is often desperately creating balance where none otherwise exists. Even then, that's not always sufficient. Consider how Ars Magica evolved and fleshed out the notion of a grog as a viable player character to make a player who had took a grog role have more interesting things to do and a greater role in the story. Or you may have a game triumphing despite its rules, not because of them, only to find that in the long run its depending only on novelty and continual game reboots as people keep trying to have the game they want to have, not the game that they are getting.

I never really heard balance whines until the folks started trying to bring MMO ideas into RPGs.

Just because you personally don't have the experience, doesn't mean that your experience is indicative of anything on a wider scale. One of the main reasons I have found all of White Wolf's story teller games utterly dysfunctional in play is that they had no balance. A player that created his character in an optimal fashion could utterly dominate play, and given the dark themes of the setting and the conflicts implied by it, this amounted to utterly dominating the other players. This required basically that non-optimal characters built primarily from a story perspective have stories that involved them being abused, dominated, and forced into submission of characters with more raw power. LARPs in particular had this sort of problem in spades and required extremely tight control by the referees over what sort of characters which though legal could be allowed into play. People had a lot of fun, but everything was always balanced on the knife edge of destruction and only herculean efforts by story tellers or story telling staff kept everything from going off the rails. Things only got worse when it became usual for players to want to play characters from different source books. Even when players were generally cooperative, White Wolf stories tend to get undermined by the lack of balance and the fact that the balance (such as it is) isn't interesting. For that matter, I had even more extreme problems with Amber diceless gaming for the exact same reasons.

Honestly, if you never heard of balance problems prior to recent comparison with MMO's, then I can only conclude your primary experience of role playing was with a small group of close friends whose unspoken social contract establishes base rules for how story will be shared regardless of system.

But for RPG's it's just not. I've seen far more fun removed from RPGs in the name of balance then has ever been added.

This vague anecdote doesn't inspire confidence, and in any event, it's just an anecdote. I would say the exact opposite. Virtually every time I've seen a session move on the scale from 'meh' to 'unfun', violation of the Fundamental Law has been the core issue. Rules can be meh. Stories can be virtually nonexistent and if existent make pulp fiction look classy, coherent, and well framed, but if you have a player who with or without the blessings of the rules violates the fundamental rule "Thou Shalt Not Be Good At Everything", then your game is crap.

Going a bit further into my assertion, I honestly believe that it's the lack of this precise game component that is responsible for older children and certainly adults eventually giving up on the notion of role playing as a pastime. All small children naturally role play. The way small children get away with it is that they aren't actually playing together, but playing beside each other. Contradictions with each other's story and incoherence and continual changes in the fictional positioning and the fact that the story doesn't really advance doesn't bother small children. Eventually as they get older and their intellects mature, and their social skills and ambitions increase, and their imaginations soar, the frustrations and arguments as players jockey for theme, fictional positioning, story direction, and ultimately rank in the social hierarchy of players drives people away from such pastime. What's missing is precisely balance. It's balance that made RPing into a something adults could do together. And the reasons and ways White Wolf campaigns in my experience tended to break down were precise mirrors of how elementary school age RPGs tended to break down, precisely because the systems actually failed to assist with balance sufficiently.
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Tequila Sunrise

On Facebook, Benoist Poire posted a long response to Wick's blog... with Wick replying. It is worth a read. You can read it here.
Poire is much more coherent than Wick, and makes some good points.

Benoist Poire said:
The richness of role-playing games comes from the fact that the concept is hard to pin down. The success of Dungeons & Dragons comes in part from the fact it appeals to different tastes and play styles, that it can be a different thing to different people around a game table. It isn't a “board game” or a “storytelling game” or any of those things. It's a role-playing game, which implies all these different bits and pieces of game design inherited from different types of games, war games, board games, many different games, all mashed together to create a set of tools that inspires people and helps them come up with the worlds of their own imagination.
I like this one in particular. I've been known to say that D&D's success is in part thanks to the same thing that has made the Bible successful: Appeal to a wide and diverse audience. And Poire nails it much more eloquently than I do. :)

I still haven't written my essay(s), but I think the author misses the same thing that virtually everyone does.

There is a difference between an activity of role-playing and a role-playing game.

Many "role-playing games" are not, in fact, "games" at all.


Slumbering in Tsar
The article really seems to be much ado about nothing - in that after reading it, my reaction is...nothing. I can see how his point would be relevant in one context - if you want to create a story-based RPG, then don't worry about game-balancing mechanics. Beyond that, I'm not sure it's really worthy of discussion - especially in a D&D context. It's just advice.


First Post
Wick's assumption that a role-playing game is primarily about story-telling is dubious. One could easily get up a counter-argument that a story-telling game is not a role-playing game. One of the features of RPG's that old schoolers in particular bang on about is that the story emerged out of the play, rather than driving the play: the sandbox imposes an environment, and the story is what the characters did in it.

D&D has strong wargame simulation roots but very rapidly it becomes a simulation of being a thief, mage, adventurer, hero, elf etc. Celebrim's rule "Thou shalt not be good at everything" is written all over early games from D&D to Traveller and Runequest: even things like alignment systems are ways of restricting activity while encouraging role-play: you have to find a reason not to do the optimal thing that is character based (again, it's not about story-telling but about role-playing regardless of the story you might want to tell). And if 1e/2e is being singled out for being not-RPG, I am not sure what the rules in 1e penalizing players who act out of role, or the xp system in 2e for rewarding actions taken in role (casters score for casting, fighters score for fighting, thieves score for thieving) are doing if they are not there to enforce a degree of role-playing.


I think he was referring more to improvisational acting than roleplaying games.

Agreed. If I'm pretending to be someone I'm not, thinking through imaginary situations under circumstances I will never experience, how am I not playing a role, whether or not I'm speaking in character, or making suboptimal decisions for character reasons, or whatever else encompasses "roleplaying" in the author's view? If you're pretending to be a dwarf barbarian, or an investigator of the supernatural, or an ace star pilot, you're playing a role in a game. The author's definition of "roleplaying" is far too narrow, and is at best a subset of what is traditionally meant by the term as used in RPGs. You can talk about what that is, and about how different games promote it or don't, but you can't legitimately claim it as the universal meaning of "roleplaying".

Doctor Futurity

Everyone calling John Wick "the author" suggests to me that a number of posters don't realize that he's actually an accomplished game designer, albeit definitely closer to the rules-lite, story-game end of the spectrum. (He did not design, say, GURPS or Champions.)

And maybe I misread the piece last night, but I didn't see him telling you that your games that you enjoy are bad, but just that he doesn't believe most of the crunch in game systems has a lot of benefit and challenges the reader to try it his way. Even if you have different tastes, the idea of dumping rules that don't do anything for you is pretty sound advice, with a long history in RPGs. (Weapon speed, weapon type and encumbrance rules were probably skimmed over by 95+ percent of 1E players back in the day, for instance.)

Some people are reacting precisely because they know John Wick and what he's written before. The article talks about a lot of stuff in a "this is bad" context and even includes examples that are both counter-intuitive to my sense of fun but also indicative that his style of game is decidedly different than the form I enjoy. Nothing wrong with that; I just take umbrage at the idea that his form/style is superior to mine.


I disagree with pretty much all of what he said.

Balance is the most important thing to me in a roleplaying game.

He seems to be very story driven or narrativist when it comes to playing, I am more about the game part. There are plenty of narratives fantasy games he can play instead of D&D, like Dungeonworld, but he uses the whole article to tell people they are having bad wrong fun.

If this was a forum post instead of a someone blog, I would think they were just trolling.


Not your screen monkey (he/him)
If you're pretending to be a dwarf barbarian, or an investigator of the supernatural, or an ace star pilot, you're playing a role in a game.

Depends. If you're using that dwarf barbarian primarily as a game token obeying game rules rather than making decisions from the character's POV, I'd buy the argument you're not actively engaged in the act of role-playing. It doesn't mean you aren't engaging in one of the activities that is part of playing a role-playing game. Most RPGs encompass more activities than just role-playing.


Come to think of it, hasn't there been an awful lot of fiction and stories written about chess? Not about chess players, but the chess pieces themselves? Through the Looking Glass for instance. And at least a few songs (that one by Yes comes to mind).

If RPGs are only about story involving its characters, then I think Chess could arguably be an RPG.


Super KY
I've found over the years that the probability of me enjoying a given designer's game, has no correlation with the probability of me agreeing with their opinions. Take Gygax: love his game, wish he'd have kept his opinions to himself. Another example: love Heinsoo's insights and thoughts; wish he'd never touched the D&D brand.

Which is good news for John Wick, I suppose.


I think that Wick's conception of an RPG is too narrow.

He is correct to compare a module like Tomb of Horrors or White Plume Mountain to a boardgame: like a boardgame, the goal of play in those classic adventures is to win, to "beat the dungeon".

But in my view he is wrong to identify that sort of D&D play with boardgaming. Resolution in ToH or WPM is very different from resolution in a game like Talisman. In D&D, unlike in a boardgame, there is a shared fiction, and it is relevant to action resolution.

It is relevant to action resolution in two ways: it opens up the possibility of players making novel moves (eg "I stick my 10' pole through the mist"); and the GM is meant to have reference to it in adjudicating those moves (eg the reason the ziggurate room floods in WPM if the walls are shattered is not because the game rules say so, but because the ziggurate tiers are full of water, and when you shatter a container's sides the watter in it will fall down and form a pool).

I think it is this role of shared fiction in action resolution that makes a game an RPG. D&D has this; WoW and similar computer games don't.

Whether or not a group wants to use the shared fiction of an RPG to tell a story is a further issue - that's a subdivision of tastes within the space of RPGing.

The real issue with 4e, that Wick only gets at obliquely, is that for many RPGers it is not clear how the shared fiction matters to action resolution. That is why they see 4e as just an intricate boardgame. (Those of us who love 4e as an RPG, conversely, do see how the shared fiction matters to resolution in that system.)

Also, for those who want to read an essay along similar lines to Wick, but thought out in more detail, and a bit less prescriptive, here is a link to Christopher Kubasik's interactive toolkit.

In the first of the 4 essays he makes a point that relates to Wick's examples of thumbs and tea-cups:

The narrative of most roleplaying games is tactical simulation fiction. This style of story revolves around weapons and split second decisions made during combat. Such stories discourage flamboyant behavior though flamboyant behavior is often a vital part of the fiction that the games try to model - because better combat modifiers are gained with conservative tactics.​

One obvious feature of 4e was its atempt to encourage rather than discourage flamboyant behaviour. In part it did this by substituting "player fiat" mechanics (eg the notorious Come and Get It) for mechanics basesd on simulating the processes taking place within the fiction. Whether 4e's mechanics preserve an important place, in action resolution, for the shared fiction, or whether they replace RPG-style action resolution with boardgame resolution, has been debated in endless threads about prone oozes. While I think that Wick's conception of RPGing is too narrow, and also think that 4e is an RPG, I think that Wick (and Kubasik) touch on matters that are relevant to understanding the reception of 4e in the RPGing community.

Agreed. If I'm pretending to be someone I'm not, thinking through imaginary situations under circumstances I will never experience, how am I not playing a role
Unless the imagined situation matters to resolving your action declarations for your PC (which are your "moves" in the game), then you are not RPGing. When I play Talisman I'm pretending to be someone I'm not, and I think through an imaginary situation, but it's not an RPG because the shared fiction doesn't affect action resolution, which is resolved simpy by reference to the game mechanics.

Ah, it's the ol' "The GM's job is to ensure that everyone gets spotlight time, so balance isn't important" fallacy, in extended blog-rant form! With a big helping of implied "You're having badwrongfun" thrown in for good measure!
I'm not sure that Wick has in mind, by "balance", exactly what you do.

For instance, should having a blind PC be something that you pay for at character creation? Or something that earns you bonus points? In Burning Wheel if you want to be blind, or have a nemesis, you have to pay, because those features of your PC will tend to make you a bigger focus of events at the table.

I think in denigrating game balance Wick is meaning something like "effectiveness when it comes to typical events of action resolution" is not the main thing. In some games, though, where spotlight is determined primarily via effectivenes in action resolution", then mechanical balance might be the best way to manage spotlight sharing. I'm not sure that Wick is meaning to deny that. (Though such games might not fit within his overly-narrow concpeption of what is an RPG.)


So, a few more thoughts.

Wick introduces his essay by drawing on two narratives from other media to emphasis his point.

He never considers the irony of this.

The problem with using a movie as an example of role-playing technique is that well, a movie is not a role-playing game.

The two scenes in question are basic Bad Ass Establishing Character Moments. Tons of movies have them. We could probably list hundreds. They are a very lazy form of short hand, and the two he's chosen are just about as lazy as examples of writing as I've ever seen. The basic idea of the scene in it's most stereotypical form is the character is subjected to disrespect from a mook, which allows the character to display to the mook just how far beneath them they actually are. Some 2nd level thug decides to pick a fight with a protagonist or main villain, and as a result gets their clock cleaned. Often the hero will voluntarily choose some handicap - arm tied behind back, blindfolded, refuses to actually punch back, just fights with a tea cup, etc. - and yet the bully ends up destroyed anyway. In many movies, you see parallel Bad Ass Establishing Character Moments setting up a great clash between two characters down the line.

D&D or any other system that tries to simulate a reality in general handles this fight just fine. If a 9th level character (or a 20th level character) fights a 1st level character, it doesn't really matter what weapon the 9th level character is wielding. The high level character just destroys the low level character without really expending much resources. So a set up scene of this sort plays out the same provided you set up the scenario in the rules according to the assumptions of the scene.

The bigger question is "Why?" Why did Riddick use a tea cup? The answer is more on the meta-level than anything else. Riddick uses a tea cup to show the audience that Riddick can kill people with a tea cup. And here we see where the example starts falling apart. Riddick has no free will. He's an animaton of the author. Additionally, Riddick can't actually lose. The outcome is preordained because the story teller has decided what the outcome is supposed to be. Riddick is supposed to win easily. Riddick in fact is risking nothing by using a tea cup. This is because Riddick, for the purposes of the story, is good at everything. He doesn't really need to share the story, and since the audience only passively watches the story they share in the story to the same degree that they can share in the story - as passive witnesses of the story teller's magic.

Anyone who is envious of this situation should get out of game mastering and engage in the story teller's craft in an established medium.

In a game, a high level character generally would only use a tea cup if no more powerful option presented itself - a situation which could be arranged in a scenario, but which doesn't regularly occur without lots of game master force. This is because the character in a role playing doesn't know how the scene is going to finish and is risking something. In this sense, the narratives of a role playing game - even if they are occurring in a high fantasy world - are more grounded in reality than the narratives of an action adventure movie. It's not that D&D characters can't use tea cups to kill someone. It's just that, as in the real world, when you are in a situation of mortal danger where there is real risk, you prefer to use a less improvisational weapon.

And note, when you take a protagonist out of these bad ass character establishing scenes and pit them against a real villain, you don't have them fight with just tea cups and one thumb. Because the whole point of this sort of establishing scene is to establish that if Riddick needs to use a real weapon to face his opponent, then his opponent must also be equally epic and awe inspiring. Of course, in cinema, using lazy writing like this, you'll often fail to pull that off successfully. Both the thumb and the tea cup strike me as really lame attempts to achieve a moment of awesome without the requisite character building.

Incidentally, any game system with any sort of martial arts could pull of secret techniques like fighting with just one thumb.

RPG's don't need this sort of crap. Anyone that plays an RPG for any length of time gets a very well honed notion of just what exactly is awesome and what is mundane. In fact, I dare say that having played RPGs is part of what makes a paint by numbers scene attempting to establish bad ass so incredibly unimpressive to me. You don't show off how cool a character is by having them beat up a zero.

To give you the idea how strongly you can write an actual bad ass establishing scene, two parallel scenes occur in my all time favorite movie and they look nothing at all like what you'd expect. That movie is Chariots of Fire. The first is Harold Abraham race against the clock, and then later Eric Liddel's run where he picks himself up answers it fully.

Those sort of scenes that can occur in RPGs, but they don't occur just because you want them to happen. You just play, and they do. Sometimes you achieve greatness. Sometimes you fail and have to try again. I'm not sure there is a sentence in the essay I don't want to refute. But, at a summary level, it's a big problem that Wick thinks you can just copy technique from a non-interactive medium. But it's probably even more damning to his argument that he picks really weak stories to highlight as the sort you'd want to emulate. Earlier, I questioned whether Wick understood what a role-playing game actually was. Now, thinking about it, I wonder if I should have questioned whether Wick knew what a story was, and if not, whether he was really qualified to be throwing out things on the grounds that he believed they didn't support story.

Or to put a finer point on it, if in a system a tea cup does 1d12 damage - just like every other weapon - what story point is actually being made and reinforced by using a tea cup as a weapon? The whole point of the scene is that the audience knows from experience with the system (in this case something akin to 'the real world) that a tea cup is a substandard weapon. If the audience knows no weapon is substandard, the audience probably finds the thing even more ridiculous and pretentious than it is. At least in a system with a weapon table, which the real world definitively has with a degree of fine resolution far exceeding any game system, you'd have an excuse for, "All I have is a tea cup, so that's what I'm using." In a game without weapon tables, does the lack really make for better stories? A game without a weapon table makes a tea cup the equal of a bazooka - all the time and not just in those establishing scenes.
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I have a huge love/hate relationship with this article.

I agree with so much of it. If you're not roleplaying then you're just not playing an RPG. And if the game doesn't encourage roleplaying, then it's also not an RPG. My go-to examples are Chess and Battletech, as you can freely roleplay in both. RPing during the battles of Battletech does not mean it's not a tactical miniatures board game.
And balance is arguably overrated.

However, I think the author goes a bit too far to the other extreme. Rules and mechanics have a place. If you jettison everything, you're also not playing a roleplaying game, you're just doing some shared storytelling. If Fiasco is crunchy compared to what you're playing, you might also not be playing an RPG.

The part that really stood out was this:
I don’t want you to think I just get rid of combat mechanics. On the contrary, for Vampire, I usually get rid of that whole Social trait thing entirely. Why? Because this is a roleplaying game, and that means you roleplay. You don’t get to say, “I have a high charisma because I’m not very good at roleplaying.”

My response to that is, “Then, you should get better at it. And you won’t get any better by just rolling dice. You’ll only get better by roleplaying.”
That passage just irked me.

See, the mechanics are there to let you play something you're not. You can play the genius and the mechanics will pick up the slack in terms of knowledge. You can play a gun nut and the mechanics will enable you. And you can play a charming smooth talking quick-witted James Bond type character and the mechanics will have your back.

I can roleplay a social character, but only so far. It's not my skill as a roleplayer that's lacking, but my social skills in general. Hey, unsurprisingly, I'm a nerd. I also not entirely neurotypical and have some problems with social cues. I find being around people tiring. Exhausting. I can't always be social, I can't always give my A-game. And it's nice for the mechanics to be able to help me out when I'm just not able.

I've played with a LOT of people. Years of public play. Weekly games at a local game store. And not everyone is great at being social or quick witted with the verbal responses. It's unfair to just deny them the opportunity to even play that type of character because they're lacking. That's like telling someone they can't play the fighter because they can't swing a sword.

Half of roleplaying is being something you're not, being someone you can't be. If you can only roleplay to your strengths then that aspect is lost.

I'd be worried that a game that had no equipment lists, and allowed for teacups and thumbs to commonly be used as weapons would actually detract from setting integrity. Suddenly, any silly thing could be a weapon.
I imagine this would be FATE.
Give a character the features/hook of "Everything's a Weapon in my Hands" and watch them Jackie Chan all over their enemies.


"endless threads about prone oozes" - a sentence fragment from @pemerton's post.

I just had to laugh, thinking how the vast majority of human beings would have no idea WTF this referred to.

And so it is with Wick's post. While there's some good advice within it, such as cutting out extraneous bits from game mechanics that serve no purpose for your game, I was left with the image of a bunch of jazz scholars arguing about where the line between real jazz and fake jazz lies, or wine enthusiasts about what level "fine wine" begins, or watch aficionados about which brands make proper timepieces.

Why not let the people define their own experience? Again, it is not that Mr. Wick doesn't have some good things to say, its that he gets lost in his own mental palate, losing sight of the fact that the point of all games is to have fun, and the point of role-playing games is to have fun while playing a role. If you're having fun and you're playing a role of some kind (playing a role = role-playing) then its a role-playing game.

Now where Mr. Wick gets confused, I think, is that he has a certain bar about what constitutes "playing a role." For many, it is simply "My fighter swings his sword" - and for that person that is enough. Why can't Mr. Wick accept that? It might not be fine wine, but that's ok - it is still playing a role, and presumably fun. Thus, again: playing a role + having fun = role-playing game.

I tend to prefer spectrum models rather than either/or bifurcations. The problem of the latter being that everyone is going to have a different opinion as to where the bifurcation is made. I've openly criticized World of Warcraft and other MMOs for being simulative rather than imaginative, but in a spectrum model they have their place, even if it is "far to the right." It seems clear that Mr. Wick's bifurcation is much narrower than almost anyone who has ever played an RPG, and really more than only a handful of avant garde game designers and Forge devotees. I say, let them have their in-crowd distinctions and definitions, and the rest of us can can continue playing role-playing games in the manner that we most enjoy.
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I imagine this would be FATE.
Give a character the features/hook of "Everything's a Weapon in my Hands" and watch them Jackie Chan all over their enemies.

It could be a D20 game as well. You could take a feat with suitable prerequisites called, "Everything's a Weapon in my Hands", which caused you to suffer no penalties for using an improvised weapon and allowed you to attack with any improvised weapon you could lift and hold as if it was an animated object. Viola, I can kill with tea cups, pencils, step ladders, and towels and pretty much anything else you can grab in the environment while performing cool stunts like 'bind', 'constrict', 'disarm', 'sunder' and whatever else you can think of appropriate to the object. Then maybe you can take another feat called 'The Riddle of Steel' that turns any weapon you wield into a magic weapon with an enhancement bonus to hit and damage, so now you can smash a tea cup over the head of a gargoyle and kill it. And so on and so forth.

The point is that if you want a particular sort of story outcome, you provide resources for it. In general though, acquiring those resources is balanced against whatever cool things you didn't acquire and everyone gets spotlight within their particular shtick. The things you can do are awesome precisely because not just any character could do them.

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