Thursday, May 22, 2008

Character Calibration Revisited (?)

I'm not sure exactly when this article was written, but I found it via a message board posting dated September of 2007, so it's probably a year or two old at least. While it does deal with D&D 3.X, it does have some good ideas regarding the notion that, contrary to most D&D worlds, by and large most NPCs, even the most famous ones, should really only make it to 5th level or so, and that characters of 6th level or more are really superhuman specimens.

Now, it's easier to make this judgment with a system like 3.X that uses a level-based skill system, as you can say "you only need to be 5th level to have a rating of XY in this skill, which would allow you to do anything humanly possible with it". The exact numbers and figures used in the article can be debated to death, but the point behind it all is that what most players consider an acceptable level of character power and what, realistically, a character's power level should be, are two very different things.

This carries over into all sorts of gaming systems. Taking a look at GURPS (as we did yesterday), the typical PC in your "average" campaign is a 100 point character. But your average person is NOT a 100 p0int character - far from it. You could actually build perfectly acceptable, realistic people with Zero Character Points. It's not going to give you amazing characters, and you have to be willing to take on a few disadvantages, but hey - who among us doesn't have a few flaws? But even if you're generous and consider your typical person to be, say, a 25-point character, that means your average PC is four times as capable.

I guess the point I'm trying to convey here is that there really isn't much of a need to populate your campaign world with super-powered NPCs and monsters. Keeping a game "low-powered" might not be to everyone's taste, but players and GMs should try to get at least one campaign in where the PCs are kept at the lower end of the system's power scale. For something like D&D, this would probably mean a campaign that keeps PCs at 1-3rd level, with perhaps attaining 4th level right before the climactic end of the campaign. For a system like GURPS, this might mean PCs kept around the 50-point range. At this end of the power scale, there's a challenge for both sides of the table - the players have to learn how to take on challenges in ways that don't necessarily rely on statistical inevitability for success, and the GM has to find ways to challenge the PCs that extends beyond "just throw bigger monsters at them", meaning ways to make, say, the humble goblin into a foe to fear once again - something that is actually going to be difficult for GMs whose natural inclination is to power up their PCs as fast as possible so they can be presented with "real" challenges...

Anyhow, give the article a read, and let me know what you think, keeping in mind more the philosophy behind the argument and less the mechanics used to represent it.


trollsmyth said...

Some folks over at developed a version of 3.x thye called "E6". It was basically D&D, but with a level cap of 6th. After that, the only thing you could acquire were more feats, I think. You can read the details here:

It's interesting to see this argument slide back and forth. I remember Dragon articles from back in the day explaining how your average villager must be at least a 3rd level fighter because of all the deer and kobold raiders they've killed, and how villages shouldn't be simply wiped out if the PCs decided to raid them.

For a standard D&D game, I prefer to keep most NPCs at the low end of things, but pepper the world conservatively with exceptional characters. Most organizations have a few level 2s and maybe a level 3 in them, and others have some really exceptional characters.

However, sometimes I like to really cut loose and have a game that's full-on mythic. If I run a game in a magic-rich world, for example, high-level individuals become a lot more common.

- Brian

noisms said...

Damn, ninja'd by Brian, although I originally found out about the idea here:

I like the idea of the E6 campaign, and if I was going to play a 3.X game these days I think it would be an E6 one. It keeps the players at that stage where they are powerful and can do cool things, but there is still quite a high level of danger associated with what they're doing.

Badelaire said...

Playing with power levels is always a lot of fun, granted as long as your players and you are all on the same page with regards to what the game's going to be about. Keeping things "low and slow" vs. very rapid advancement (I had a relatively short but sweet 3E campaign I played in a couple of years ago where we leveled every session, just to get into the higher levels quicker. I believe we went from 1st to 9th level, and could have gone higher if it wasn't for PCs deaths (the death and resurrection of a character cost you the level for the session).

I'll need to check out the E6 idea, but it sounds great. Mazes and Minotaurs only has six character levels, and all the spells etc. are built around that progression. Aside from the fact that I think it's an AMAZING game, I really like this progression cap because it produces very powerful PCs, but no so powerful that the major monsters in the book aren't a real challenge or threat. Gotta work on a column about M&M some time soon...

Jeff Rients said...

Gotta work on a column about M&M some time soon...

Yes, please!

Matthew James Stanham said...

That article has been discusssed a lot over on GitP. There have been some very articulate and well thought out explanations as to why it is extremely misleading and some excellent defences made to counter them.

For the most part I agree with the general themes of the article, but the general themes are nothing new.

Badelaire said...

True. Part of the level-creep problem, I think at least in part, is the idea that certain things can only be done, by the rules, at certain levels. Certain magical feats (like raising the dead, or creating magical gates) require a certain level of magical ability, by the book.

Also, things like the "name-level" benefits with regards to NPCs and strongholds, I think, caused a lot of confusion. If you're thinking that they only way a "Lord" can build a stronghold and attract henchmen is to be 9th level, then every "Lord" is going to be at least 9th level, meaning their lieges are probably higher. This would also hold true for Clerics, Mages, Thieves, and the like - so every major temple would have a Cleric of level 9+ etc..

I guess it's just a matter of campaign perspective.