Is the Swiss Army Knife Killing MacGyver?

MacGyverisms, creative combinations of disparate components to solve a life-threatening situation is a key component of all RPGs. Since the very first game that pitted a PC against a twisted GM’s plot line, kludged together solutions saved many a player character. Children of the 1980s call these solutions “Macgyverisms” after the show of the same name and it is quite apt. Macgyver used wits, science and a Swiss army knife to foil the villain’s plan and save many a fair maiden. And his own hide, of course.

RPG players have more resources, such as magic and super-science to mine, but ultimately it boils down a human brain producing an expedient solution with materials at hand. Any player worth his salt does this every game. Truly gifted players execute near-miracles with a chopstick and a couple of empty gum wrappers. This challenge of overcoming obstacles with only your wits is the primary reason I play RPGs. It hones my, cliché alert, out of the box thinking. Gamers that live in the box, die in the box. Linear thinking is a straight road to character generation.

That said, I noticed a trend among gamers recently where the Swiss army knife becomes more important than the hand that wields it. For those that do not know, there are dozens of Swiss army knife models, from the simplest two-blade version to a beast with dozens of screwdrivers, a USB drive and a compass. I am quite happy with my wits, creativity and a two-blade version in most games. Sadly, I see gamers now that will not leave the inn without enough gadgets to build a stealth bomber.

I get that equipment is part of the cool factor with many games. “Ooh, look at my +7 sword of phallic enhancement Are you not awed by my mighty rod?” Still, this style of play with players seeking the precise device for every occasion both beggars belief and cheapens the intellectual challenge of the game. It is corrosive to the gaming and gaming in general. You are in an RPG campaign, not a scavenger hunt. It is lazy gaming. And no, I do not want to hear about your…rod.

That said, I will offer a full pardon for one class of players for this sin. New, young (under 15) players weaned on MMORPG grinding need guidance and role-models to escape this trap. I even did it in my early campaigns, in fact I worked assiduously to get a Rod of Lordly Might because it was, literally, an adventuring Swiss Army Knife. Later,  I evolved as a player, got captured by some slavers, stripped of my toys and came up with some expedient weapons on the fly. Much more fun than screaming “I have just what we need ” every encounter.

I know some disagree this is a problem, but I see degenerating creativity as a true threat to the hobby’s future.  Tabletop RPGs are clearly inferior to video game RPGs in many ways, like ease of entry, rules adjudication and visual impact. The one area that tabletops exceed all other media is the raw creativity and flexibility in implementing that creativity in the game. If we, the collective gaming public forget this simple fact our grandchildren will talk about tabletop game while mining for gold in some hollow, linear digital realm. I can think of no sadder fate for RPG gaming.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer






Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.