On Game Theory: Part I

Game Theory is a branch of economics that applies to rational decision making.  Its of specific interest to game designers looking at playability and balancing options.

Game Theory suggests (and its a pretty good suggestion) that a rational actor will always make the decision with the best outcome, given the information provided.  Sound wordy and confusing?  I’m probably getting a term or two wrong.  The jist of it is: people make the best decisions they can with the information they have.  Every time.  Given the opportunity to do so, rational, normal people will analyze their options and figure out the most effective way to use their resources.

Doesn’t that sound a bit like min-maxing?

Min-maxing means exactly the same thing in economics as it does in roleplaying, except in econ its a mark of a rational actor: to not minmax, one would have to be insane.  In roleplaying, min-maxing is often chided as the last resort of the munchkin or the power gamer.  This is a bad instinct, since it’s out of whack with reality.  People that are playing the game to “win” are playing the game correctly, as far as any analyst would be concerned.

As players, gamemasters, and game designers, we should not fear min-maxing, or make would-be-sly puns about “role” vs. “roll” playing.

As players, we should embrace rational decision making, and make the very best characters we can, and not deride others for their devotion to system mastery.  Attention to one’s craft is a positive trait, not a negative one.

As game masters, we should push the envelope for the players: take the game systems to their limit, push the hard core, and stress involvement from everyone around.

As game designers, we should be aware that people are going to look for the best strategy, and incorporate this into our designs, and be aware of the processes that will occur.  This is of middling interest towards a designer with a “narrativist” agenda, hoping only to explore an idea, but for the game-play afficionado, it is vital.


13 thoughts on “On Game Theory: Part I

  1. Daniel says:

    Why is this of only middling interest to a narrativist designer? Effective, strategic play and powerful, thematic play aren’t mutually exclusive and mechanics can be made to accommodate and encourage both.


  2. Troy_Costisick says:

    Wow, that’s a great insight, Willow. You draw some great parallels there. I totall see where you’re coming from.

    Daniel, no they are not mutually exclusive as far as a game design go, but they are exclusive when it comes to Creative Agenda or player’s priority.

    Either you emphasize theme or you emphasize strategic play. Trying to do both will lead to dysfunction every time. Check out Ron’s articles and Gamism and Narrativism. I’m basically quoting him right now.



  3. Rahvin says:

    I think one of the key misconceptions in both Willow and Troy’s statements in this analysis has to do with the FUNCTION of min-maxing, not the process.

    What I mean is that the reason min-maxing tends to be looked down on in many games is because in order to min-max, the actor has made a definite commitment to what his goal will be – what he considers to win – and make all of his decisions based on that. Often, this goal will be different than some of the other players, and that’s what causes disention.

    Part of this goes back to Willow’s (brilliant) blog about looking at what a game is REALLY about by looking at its sub-systems.

    The archetypical example of this comes from long-time D&D players who get divided on goals such as character development, wordy acting, theme, spellcasting, and combat. The problem here is that half of those priorities don’t use D&D’s sub-systems, and therefore anyone who min-maxes one or more of D&D’s sub-systems is looked down on as a “power gamer” by some because they have “discarded” other priorities not related to those sub-systems. I’m not saying I agree with the view; but I think this is where it comes from.

    The way players will be divided on these issues is based on the relavence of the sub-systems within a game.

    Troy mentions theme. Theme doesn’t have a sub-system in most games; those that pursue it are, by necessity, looking outside the bounds of the rules in most cases.

    Consider a game like Shadowrun. Shadowrun has rules for making interesting characters and can allow even a “ROLE-player” to make his character by min-maxing the rules. The catch is that this player has to make it in strict accordance with the themes presented in the book or it doesn’t work very well and creates division, just like the D&D player looking for more court intrigue.

    It’s not that “theme-seeking” and “power-gaming” are opposed, its that designers rarely connect the two with any relavence. In their defense, it can be hard to do.

  4. Daniel says:

    Troy, my statement was completely directed toward design, not play priority.

    If the reward mechanic supports strong thematic play and the players engage that reward mechanic strategically, they’re still pursuing a narrativist CA.


  5. Willow says:

    “If the reward mechanic supports strong thematic play and the players engage that reward mechanic strategically, they’re still pursuing a narrativist CA.”

    I have to disagree with this statement; that seems to be an example of a gamist agenda. If you take out the word ‘strategically,’ its much more muddled- you know people are playing according to the themes of the game and are getting rewarded, but without any other context, its not possible to identify a creative agenda.

    Dan, I do agree that making a functional and balanced system is a good thing for any game designer. However, if you’re looking for thematic play, its only a secondary concern, and some lapsing is acceptable.

    For example, if I were to drift DitV to make it more gamist, I’d give everyone a pool of dice to buy their starting equipment list. As it stands, I can choose go through ICE’s …And a 10 Foot Pole (which is a wonderful equipment book for any game where that sort of thing is needed), and say “Big And Excellent 2d8.” That’s cheesy, but the rules allow it, and if Dogs was meant to be gamist they wouldn’t.

    To round out the GNS triad, I would argue also that strength of themes, rules tie-ins, and player theme power-thingies (Keys, Flags, whatever) are key for Narrativist play; these are good for Gamist/Sim play too, but aren’t the game designer’s primary concern.

    For the Sim designer, attention to detail in one’s chosen field of exploration is a must. Devotion to setting, realism/genre-emulation, character building, and colorful details are all key. Believability and some attention to detail can be useful in G/N designs, but they are clearly not the main focus (and too much can hold back the creative agendae.)

  6. Willow says:


    I’m not quite sure what you’re point is here. D&D is, arguably, about going into dungeons, killing the inhabitants and taking their stuff.

    If you look through the Player’s Handbook, there’s not really that much in there about court intrigue, acting out a wacky character, or exploring the nature of whatever premise have you. It’s about killing things, preferably in a dungeon, and with stuff around to take afterwards. It is a game, and the rules support a certain kind of play. The person who identifies the powerful ‘minmaxing’ combinations is accepting that type of play.

  7. […] On Game Theory: Part I […]

  8. Willow says:

    In retrospect, I’m pretty sure my Dogs example is a straw-man argument. That equipment list would never pass the whole peer-review principle. That said, I’d still want to see set equipment dice in a more-Gamist DitV.

  9. Rahvin says:

    Willow, regarding reply #6, above:

    I was trying to identify where the derision comes from that chides effective min-maxers into “munchkiny roll-players”.

    To mix-max is to accept a certain theme, just as you clarified, which is detrimental to all other themes. I believe this to be the centralized divide between differing philosophies regarding roleplaying games.

    I do not believe min-maxing is opposed to theme, but it does favor one theme over all others. It pre-selects a theme, in essence creating a natural divide to others who may be searching for other themes altogether.

    Whether or not you think they should be playing other games is beides the point; it is an example of the divide at work.

  10. Willow says:


    Indeed. I don’t think we’re in disagreement here.

  11. So, two thoughts (can I just say also I’m a total newb/amateur) when it comes to p’n’p rp, I’ve done it a couple of times and loved it, but never had the people around motivated enough to do it (or been motivated enough to take charge myself) so I mostly do it with computers (ha), and then read things like this to try and get a feel for what I’m missing out (I love the theory you see). Incidentally, the older I’ve got the more fleshed out I’ve required my character concept to be, and the more I’ve wanted to make the choices that character can make, while still beating the game (often using simple methods because my skill and patience ain’t always up to the long way round if you know what I mean).

    So that said can I just say that I think there’s two things being missed by this discussion. Firstly, there are character types who are min-maxed that can be entirely acceptable characters. They seem a bit odd, but then this is fantasy land we’re in…odd things rule. My example here is the most cliched barbarian you can imagine, a massive dumb guy who can crush anything with a single blow but can only use one syllable words and hits his head on every door he walks into, no matter what the sign says about his mind or head or whatever it says. (maybe I’m missing the point of min-maxing by the way..like I say newb). Isn’t this barb totally pumped into one thing that allows him to be super good at one thing to the detriment of others…and isn’t this also a perfectly natural thing to find in a fantasy environment. The whole thing can still be character driven.

    The second (and possibly more interesting thought) that I had is about this idea that ‘players…should embrace rational decision making, and make the very best characters we can’. This is cool, and I don’t think these our mutually exclusive goals. A good rational character is going to improve himself in the best way to make himself the strongest/bestest at whatever he/she does. If min/maxing is just getting the most out of the given situation then it is perfectly rational (as you say) for a character to do this (Note that I’m saying character and not player). Most players will choose to play rational characters…If they choose not to min/max then they are simply implying that their character has stronger motivations to do things other than just be the best at their craft…maybe learning is their goal so they are also trying to find out about history within their realm, so they divert xp into scholarship desptie not being a cleric or whatever. Not min/maxing just means making your character different…you might end up with a more sterotypical character for your class…but that’s not really too much of a problem is it. (sorry if this is all obvious…i find it interesting)

    Thirdly, and leading on from that point, what about a wholly irrational character…they wouldn’t min/max at all…might just keep shifting profession and skills and learning random things along the way. I think this would be great fun to play, even if you’d end up totally underpowered compared to your team mates…which would probably annoy them just as much as min/maxing. Fun though.

    anyway, hope I’ve not wasted your time, just wanted to add my tuppence

  12. Willow says:

    You seem to think that I’m overlooking “story” or “character” driven characters, I’m not. There are plenty of tools out there to help people with that sort of thing; it’s my opinion that traditional RPG-thought is overloaded with it.

    (We high-faluting types like to call that “Simulationist” play.)

    I will tell you though: there WILL be times where you are put in a situation where you are presented with a choice: do I take option A, which makes my character more powerful, or do I take option B, which I feel makes my character more interesting?

    My position is that both choices have their merits.

  13. I’m pretty sure I was agreeing…just in a very long winded way. I do that

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