Economics of Hacking

Dear Smiorgan,
I really like playing a Warrior Mage and I want to play Beyond the Wall, but none of the playbooks grab me. I want to be able to cast all the spells and still have better armour, attacks and HP than a regular mage. What can I do?
Richard “The Hamster” Hammond

From a recent conversation on social media, names have been changed, etc. Basically the player wasn’t satisfied by the way BtW made compromises between abilities for multiclass characters — they didn’t want to give up cantrips or rituals to be able to swing a sword.

So the conversation turned to what they would be prepared to give up or compromise to get the build they wanted. Some ideas:

  • Lose Sense Magic ability
  • Slower spell progression (like a B/X cleric)
  • Higher XP requirements (like a B/X elf)
  • Behaviour restrictions (you only get your extra stuff if you behave in a certain way, e.g. like a paladin)
  • Lose your ability with cantrips, spells and/or rituals (like the other multiclass options in BtW)
  • Fictional constraints (e.g. can only cast spells at night)
  • Mechanical cost for magic (e.g. it does your PC hp damage to cast the spell)
  • Some other cost (e.g. you have to deal with a demon who casts magic for you)
  • Unreliable magic (e.g. roll for all magic like a cantrip)
  • Metagame costs (as a player, you always have to bring the snacks)
  • Nothing — your GM just lets you have extra stuff for free

All of these are meant seriously — yes, if your GM agrees to you having stuff for free with no drawbacks, why not?

But players and designers worry about these things — they want things to appear fair and balanced. Two points:

  1. Balance is a lie; what matters is equity
  2. While equity can be achieved outside the system (see examples above about snacks), but when “game balance” is sought it comes from three places:
    • statements of Nature
    • statements of Competency
    • Procedures

Statements of Nature are the starting points for the character (fictional, background, and in OSR terms the Attributes before you’ve chosen a class). Statements of Competency are about the character class, i.e. the character in the setting context. Actual Procedures are the game game, the bits concerned with doing the core activity (combat, social interaction, etc.) where there’s a risk, decision making, game currency and chance.

You can trade all of these, but crucially when people talk about “builds” they’re thinking about changing the statement of Competency (character class, etc.), not Nature, and crucially not actual Procedures. Sure, changing the Competency might have an effect on the Procedures in play, and that’s where a lot of the angst comes from when hacking characters — whether that’s an unreasonable exploit waiting to happen in one, three or ten sessions’ time.

And if that’s difficult to negotiate between your players, it’s doubly hard to discuss on the internet. Because what are the real game consequences of Richard Hammond trading away their ability to Sense Magic for permission to wear chainmail? That entirely depends on what Sense Magic means for their group and GM — in their setting and campaign the ability to Sense Magic could be a gatekeeping mechanism for certain parts of the plot (say, your ability to Sense Magic allows you and only you to communicate with certain NPCs). Or, it could be worthless, in which case that character gets to wear chainmail “for free”. Who knows? Who cares? Who wins and who loses?

Barter Economics vs. Centralisation

Thinking about Richard Hammond’s example, one problem is the discussion gets framed as an appeal to a central authority, something that doesn’t exist in OSR land. These trades are more like a barter economy: transactions are between individuals, and you can ask the community “is X worth Y in trade?” the actual transaction is between two individuals.

Compare this with monolithic 80s and 90s generic system designs like GURPS (or pseudo-generic, like White Wolf’s systems) where there’s a central authority on how much everything costs. But the problem remains the same — this balancing is done as a compentency statement, but the impact on the overall procedures is still uncertain. You can spend 500 points on your character and have something extremely effective, or spread way too thinly. Plus, your game comes out smelling of GURPS.

Thinking more broadly, consensus of how to play and what is valuable is shaded by heuristics and biases in game design which come from two places:

  • the designer (i.e. top down)
  • the community (i.e. bottom up)

Designer and community will place different values on the moving parts of the game. Most importantly the design dictates how loose those negotiations are and how much latitude the community has for making transactions. Games like Apoclaypse World seem a world apart from GURPS in content but they are still authoritarian designs; as a consequence they change the tone of community discussions away from what is the value of X against Y in trade, and towards how do I correctly implement and interpret X.

That’s not a criticism by the way. But what it does mean is that the negotiations over trading move X for move Y happen in a different place. When hacking your PbtA game the trades happen in the region of Procedure rather than perceived Competency; the value of the changes can only be evaluated by playing.