Sunday, July 17, 2011

RPG Musings: Power Level

At the heart of most, if not all, RPGs is the power level of beginning characters. For example, early editions of D&D all assumed that level 1 characters, while better than the average peasant, were pretty weak compared to the world around them. Other games, like Traveller, assumed that characters were generally experienced and competent in their fields. They might not be movers and shakers in their world, but they could hold their own in their chosen fields of endeavor. Yet other games, like Amber, assume that characters are some of the most powerful beings in their world or universe.

My past preference as a GM has been for systems that start players off as relative neophytes and allow them to grow into competent and powerful characters. This kind of game, in theory, allows for the most character development over the course of a game. In practice, I've come to realize that systems that allow characters to at least begin the game as competent, if not downright powerful, seem to lead to the most player satisfaction.

There are a few reasons for this, some of which are probably obvious, but some of which might not be. The first is the instant gratification factor. If players start out with characters that are already heroes, they get to do heroic things from the beginning. Otherwise, they have to "level up" first doing relatively menial tasks.

Now, in an extended campaign it can be argued that the players will get more satisfaction out of becoming a hero than they will out of starting as one. The problem here is that if the players don't get something up front there's likely to never be an extended campaign, as the players lose interest and drop out.

That's not to say that a game where players start out as peons can't work, but I think it's better to have such games as the exceptions rather than the rule. An experienced group that's used to playing together, and that knows what they are getting in to, can have a good time playing a campaign that focuses on the characters becoming heroes. Most other groups are probably better off starting with the characters being heroes from the beginning.

Going back and looking at my past experiences, I think this was a reason that my Shadowrun campaign was the most successful one that I ran back in college. Unlike pretty much any other game I ran back then, Shadowrun characters started out as competent characters. There was room for growth (and it was too much of that growth that eventually helped derail the campaign, but that's another story), but from the very beginning the characters were capable of holding their own against decent opponents.

Giving the players what they want is an important part of RPG design, both at the level of the game designer, and the level of the GM. The starting power level is a big part of that.

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