A month ago, I posed a poll to the forums concerning what out-of-game player abilities a game should reward. You can see the results of the poll here and you can join the forum discussion about the poll and the results here. This article will discuss my analysis of the results of the poll.
Essentially, I broke player skills into seven categories: character optimization, preparation, knowing the DM, knowing the players, puzzle-solving, strategic gaming, lorekeeping, and aggressive roleplay. I then asked people to rank each category's desirability from "Should be punished" to "Should be mandatory". In between those extremes were "discouraged", "no effect", "minimal effect", "some effect", "pronounced effect", and "reward mastery".
Not surprisingly, the median of almost every poll registered "some effect". However, a close look showed that different skills were valued very differently. I ranked by the median preference from most desirable to least desirable and will discuss these results below:
MOST DESIRABLE: PREPARATION AND STRATEGY
Preparation and Strategy were the highest valued skills in the poll. In fact, the median for each of these polls was only a smidge away from getting pushed from "should have some effect" to "should have a pronounced effect". Both of these skills received the most votes for "pronounced effect" of all the players skills listed, with preparation getting only two votes more than strategy. Preparation also got more votes for "mastery" than any other skill. These are clearly highly valued skills to those who responded to the poll.
I was surprised to see that these two skills were ranked equally, as, in my experience, each was rewarded by a different edition. In my opinion, First Edition rewarded preparation more than any other. It was full of traps and monsters that required specific weapons or materials in order to navigate. Ten-foot poles are the poster child of prepared adventurers, prodding the floor for traps from a relatively safe distance. Fourth edition, in my opinion, eschewed preparation in favor of strategy, rewarding teams that perused the battlefield and attacked foes in an intelligent and coordinated manner.
In some ways, however, this probably should not have surprised me so much. Because both preparation and strategy are simply ways to describe foresight in different pillars. Preparation is the equivalent of strategic thinking in the Exploration pillar. Being prepared means having thought ahead about your team's resources, the equipment they need to fill in any gaps in their skill sets, and carefully approaching each exploratory encounter. Strategic thinking is the equivalent of preparation in the combat pillar as it means having carefully considered your teammates' combat capacities, how the team can work best together in a number of different combats, and approaching each combat carefully and intelligently.
Despite all the talk about "kick in the door" style of play, which implies reckless abandon in both exploration and combat, it appears that the consumership may in fact prefer a more cerebral approach to adventuring.
MODERATELY DESIRABLE: PUZZLE-SOLVING, LOREKEEPING, AND AGGRESSIVE ROLEPLAY
The skills of puzzling, lorekeeping, and roleplaying were ranked almost evenly by the people who responded to the poll. These three skills were firmly in the "some effect" camp, with equal numbers preferring more importance and less importance for each of these three. These three abilities are also useful in that they don't require a lot of mechanics to incorporate into a game, but do require a lot of DM and player skill to incorporate well.
I would recommend that any Players Handbook or Dungeon Masters Guide have extensive guidance to players and DMs on how to incorporate more puzzles, lorekeeping and roleplay in your games. A regular Dungeon article on traps and puzzles would also be something to consider. I know that I got a subscription to Games Magazine specifically because many of the puzzles there are useful for constructing traps and puzzles for the players to overcome.
LESS DESIRABLE: PLAYER KNOWLEDGE AND CHARACTER OPTIMIZATION
I do not take the lower ranking of these skills as evidence that people don't enjoy knowing the people with whom they play, or building effective characters. Indeed, these skills still ranked in the "some effect" category, albeit near the bottom.
Some oddities: Player knowledge was unique in that nobody voted that this skill should be either punished or discouraged, and it received the most votes for the "should be required of all players" category. So people clearly see the value of this ability. Optimization was the only skill that had more people wanting to punish it than require it. Optimization also had the most votes for punishment and discouragement, so there's clearly a strong segment of anti-optimizers out there. And yet, Optimization also got the most votes for "some effect" of every skill in the poll. So there is a significant portion of the consumership that wants optimization to receive at least some reward.
Rather, I think the consumership acknowledges that the effects of these skills should be kept firmly in check. After all, the game should be available to people who play in casual pick-up games at D&D Encounters or other conventions. You shouldn't have to know who you're playing with. Also, I think, after 3e and 4e, with their robust character optimization forums, and all the talk of optimized builds, that people are wary of overly optimized characters impinging on the fun of more casual players. Optimization, like each of the skills should get some reward, but it appears to me that people want to ensure that optimized and nonoptimized characters can share a table without resentment.
LEAST DESIRABLE: KNOWING YOUR DM
Of all the skills, only this skill failed to score a median in the "some effect" category. This skill was at the top end of the "minimal effect". This skill got the most votes for both "no effect" and "minimal effect" and the only category that had more votes for "minimal" than "some".
I think this makes a lot of sense. Not only does "know your DM" have all the pitfalls of "know your player" for casual games and tournaments, but it has additional pitfalls. Knowing your DM feels like a particularly pernicious form of metagaming. It seems to encourage DM favoritism and many of the worst traits of bad DMs. And yet, there is a recognition, in my opinion, that knowing your DM is in some way inevitable. My players know that I love the twist endings, so they adjust their behavior accordingly. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, though I always try to keep them on their toes. In the end, I think the respondents are asking the designers to be careful not to place so much discretion in the hands of the DM that the DM is given leave to be completely arbitrary. The DM should be given guidance and help to avoid playing favorites, and to recognize their own quirks and foibles and adjust for them.
I hope you found the results of this poll as entertaining and informative as I did! Next week I'll address the results of my Adventure Time poll!