Playing through the sweet spot on the zero to superhero curve


#1

Not every role-playing game is afflicted with an experience system — classic Traveller and FATE 3.0 are examples of successful games in which player characters’ skills and attributes did not routinely improve through play, while in Call of Cthulhu characters generally got worse (if they survived long enough to change appreciably¹. 00). Among games that are so equipped not all are burdened with long character development path which only a small part is actually fun to play on. With those prolepses accomplished: most RPGs take the lead from D&D. They are designed on the premise that PCs will start out as too feeble and delicate, and have too few reliable abilities, to be fun to play, then pass through a fleeting sweet spot, and then turn into toons².

Is this just an appeal to power-gamers for whom levelling up is better than enjoying the game? Or are there other good reasons for it? Under what circumstances is playing a 1st-level invertebrate before you progress to a fun character justified as a good way to learn the rules in a staged fashion before having to deal with the choice paralysis of a versatile and competent character? Can you do that and then not explode out of the top of human characterisation? Are there other good reasons to bake the zero-to-superhero progression into the basics of the game?

Are there examples of games in which players getting to sacrifice experience points for brief advantages (while having the choice to save them up for game-breaking and fun-spoiling abilities and improvements) worked well? Would any of these break if you capped or cancelled the character improvement?


¹ Which was rare. My few CoC characters either got ripped limb from limb because they were not xenophobic enough to shoot deep ones on first sight, or else went unplayably mad because I could never get them past the point at which looking at things seemed reasonable in character. In one campaign the Keeper introduced a raft of rules tweaks to keep PCs ticking; my character got up to Cthulhu Mythos: 57% (and got his SAN back up to 23!) before I conceded that he had become unplayable.

² For a human, a fall from above 12 metres onto solid ground is survived only with a parachute or by fluke. For a tenth-level D&D character jumping off a fifty-foot cliff may be a cunning way to escape a vampire when you have run out of Protection from Evil and Turn Undead.


#2

I wonder whether any of the Gaming Dinosaurs could comment on what the reason for levelling-up may have been in the first place.

In the Fantasy Supplement to Chainmail, a Hero has the fighting ability of four men, a Super-Hero roughly eight. No sort of progression; indeed it would be unusual in a wargame. So White Box D&D, which still calls itself Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns, seems to be where it starts:

Magic-Users: Top level magic-users are perhaps the most powerful characters in
the game, but it is a long, hard road to the top, and to begin with they are weak,
so survival is often the question, unless fighters protect the low-level magical types
until they have worked up.

Is that seesaw the point? To force party cooperation by having one class weaker than another, and to swap it over so that things don’t get boring?

When I was playing D&D in the 1980s, there was a strong feeling that you were supposed to have “earned” a higher-level character by playing them as a lower-level one first. In the latest Grognard Files, Dirk the Dice talks about an article in an early White Dwarf: when you’re setting up an adventure for 9th-level characters and someone comes along with only a 3rd-level, you can give them a temporary 9th level and then scale back their experience points so that they don’t get more levels than they have “earned”. (“Brevet Rank for Low-Level Characters”, Lewis Pulsipher, WD33 p. 26.) When people began to suggest that if you joined an ongoing game you should start with a character roughly on a level with the existing ones, this was regarded as highly daring.

One of the things I like about GURPS is that you can play a 25-point campaign, or an 800-point campaign, and you can even shift from one to the other over time.


#3

Aah yes! I well remember having the occasional original-flavour munchkin go on for five minutes about his character with three or four classes and a total of eleventy-one levels, and who dished out hundreds of hitpoints per turn doing multiple backstabs with his flaming +5 mithral vorpal holy avenger longsword of vertebrate slaying, and when he had done saying “I got a fighter up to eighth level once.” It was best fun when they didn’t get it.


#4

Games that clearly don’t need progression:

  • one-shots; I think this is where Call of Cthulhu shines.
  • serial-type fiction with iconic characters; Doc Savage or the Shadow are always who they are, they don’t get more powers over time. And mostly ditto for Conan, who’s probably a more direct influence on D&D.

Looking at The Lord of the Rings, though, there is progression, and I think that may have been another reason D&D got it.


#5

The D&D progression actually strikes me as an inadvertently good piece of marketing. Basically, it provides a royal road into the game: You start out playing a character (particularly a mage or cleric!) without knowing a lot about the game, and having few enough options so it’s easy for you to understand and remember them. As you gain mastery of the rules, your character gains access to new abilities. It’s strangely as if you started playing chess with a king and two pawns and were allowed more pieces as your chess rating increased.

It also seems to have some overlap with the current clichéed Hollywood plot, the heroic arc, where every character starts out not merely lacking in abilities but lacking in character or resolve, and is then set on a path into a larger world by finding his uncle and aunt murdered by Imperial storm troopers. Perhaps that story arc is easily assimilated by people whose exposure to narrative and drama is limited to recent popular works—though I think D&D was doing it before the movies made it popular.

Personally, I’m weary unto death of the heroic arc, and would like to be able to open the door to stories with more variety. On the other hand, I’m not discontented with my current GURPS campaign where players started wth 200-point characters and earned around 3 points per session; that let them show their characters learning things from their ventures into Forn Parts without turning into monsters of competence. Doubling your capabilities in a couple of sessions is very different from adding a few percent to them.


#6

Shadowrun did that, in the edition I played. Experience was “karma points”, which you could spend for re-rolls, or in larger quantities, on permanent skill and attribute improvements. You also got a gradually increasing “karma pool” of points that you could spend for re-rolls but which refreshed itself, periodically. Sorry the details are vague, but I joined a long-running campaign 24 years ago and left it about 20 years ago.

I’ve played a lot of AD&D1e, and still do so occasionally, and find it fun at any level, if the game is being run sensibly. At any character level, you should have to think about what you can take on, and find the best way to do it. The more modern variants of the game, with rules about “challenge levels” and expected wealth and equipment by level seem to me to be missing the point of adventure gaming: it’s supposed to be dangerous, and characters should take responsibility for their own survival (accepting that combat risks simple bad luck).

A rules system that ensures a series of survivable fights while building up “heroic” abilities seems like a computer game being run by a human, or maybe rats running mazes for rewards. It has no romance, nothing truly heroic about it.


#7

Indeed. This is something that to my mind 3e got quite wrong: if you plan to last to a high-level campaign, there are specific things you have to do in specific orders and you have to follow that roadmap pretty much from the point you hit level 2. I don’t know whether 5e has the same thing.

In my Weird War II GURPS campaign, the characters started at 150 base points + 75 for magical talents; some are now hovering about 600ish total, having got 3 points per session since the start (plus some training time). But while they’re going up against tougher opposition (and smarter, because they’ve been applying a concerted evolutionary pressure against German magical operators) and they’re playing in bigger arenas (particularly with some of their allies), the fundamental business of “there is a potentially-magical problem; go and do something about it” is still bsaically the same.

Torg did something similar: Possibilities are spent on one-shot benefits or on character improvement.

I think game design orthodoxy has swung away from this, perhaps because a great many players would relentlessly refuse to spend points on immediate benefits if that meant their characters would advance more slowly. Something like Savage Worlds makes them quite separate things.

Aye. I very rarely kill off characters, but the possibility of death has to be there. And in a vaguely realistic world, you don’t only hear about adventures that are just challenging enough to suit you right now…


#8

That’s my philosophy of risk, too. More broadly, the dramatic effectiveness of “challenge” scenes exists largely because, when you pick up the dice, there is a real chance that things will go wrong, perhaps badly wrong. If you can only die, or be crippled, or go mad, or the like when you tell the GM you want that to happen, those dice rolls produce far less tension; and I don’t think it works, either, if you know that the GM will decide whether your character dies and only pretend to consult the dice. Rolling dice isn’t just a gamist device, but a dramatic one.


#9

I think this works better with more choices: a classic D&D fighter can fight or run away, but that’s it. If they have a choice between plugging on relatively safely and a risky move that might end the fight sooner, that gets more interesting.


#10

I think making players choose between short-term and long-term advantages is probably a bad move. I realise there haven’t been a lot of good moves found in this field.

I think we want:

  1. To allow players to see their characters change at a reasonable rate. Ideally for them to make a decision about how their character should change, and see that reflected near-immediately, though D&D shows near-zero interest in this.

  2. To keep the rate of improvement down. Partly to keep the characters in Brett’s sweet spot, or the campaign’s sweet spot, partly because system mechanics may get wobbly at one end or the other, partly because rapid rates of change are kind of stupid. (“So my brother was basically an ordinary guy, and he went off on a quest for a month and came back a weakly godlike being.” “Yeah, that happens.”)

One possible solution: let characters change in ways other than Pareto improvement. So a character who starts out a pure fighter, then develops into a tactical leader, may decline in fighting ability (“Bit out of practice on the front line, Sir?”). I haven’t seen this done in a classic RPG but a card game that limited hand size might have a similar effect.


#11

Fate 3.0 (Spirit of the Century) had an experience system that let you swap one pair of skills on adjacent rows of your character’s skill pyramid and (or or?) replace one Aspect with another Aspect, between adventures And in addition the GM could increase the height of everyone’s skill pyramid (adding one to the level of every skill and allowing players to pull another row-full of skills up from the default (mediocre) to average, when the progress of the campaign called for it.


#12

Well, the existence of iconic-character games suggests that this is not a universal requirement. It’s still popular, of course, but perhaps some of that is because ~90% of RPGs are some sort of D&D anyway.

I think something that goes with this principle of improvement is a profound player aversion to losing any of that improvement. I remember AD&D level-draining undead being feared far more than things that would merely kill you, and the rules on GURPS Special Ops about losing extra-high skill levels if you don’t spend lots of time on maintaining them were very unpopular.