Level (more than) 1

In your entertainment, do you prefer cool characters or not cool characters?  (Of course, we all prefer hot characters, but that’s a whole unrelated thought process.)  I’m perfectly willing to concede that a lot of books, TV shows, or … well, I don’t watch movies … I like aren’t of the highest quality when you look at writing, plot, message, texture, whatever.  I tend to be attracted mostly to cool scenes.  After that, and sometimes because of that, I get attracted to cool characters even if the characters’ stories really aren’t the best.

I’ve grown weary of the World of Darkness.  From a thematic point of view, I believe it has something to do with how the world is presented.  Not so much by the material itself, perhaps, but by the interpretation of those I’ve played with of that material.  Somewhere, the idea of dark and fantastic is more often replaced with dark and mundane.  The “oh, we need a second car to make sure all of the PCs can get to the fight scene” or “how do I pay for things when I have no job” or whatever types of concerns suck out anything actually appealing about the nature of the world.  But, there is also a mechanical aspect of my decreased interest that has pretty much been present since I actually started playing RPGs like Vampire: The Masquerade rather than simply thinking about what characters I could create.

Vampires suck.  Starting character vampires are just incredible wimps.  But, that’s not the key point that feeds into where I’m going with all of this.  What was recognized but not absorbed when six dot and higher discipline powers were printed and what was absorbed after playing characters who couldn’t even get to four dot powers was that characters just couldn’t do the cool stuff.  Now, I will say that my experiences with Werewolf and Mage weren’t like this, but then, I was never comfortable with Werewolf because it’s just not a creature that interests me nor did I care about Mage which was just too cosmic-powered for the WoD.

White Wolf games were not unusual in this regard.  A common theme throughout RPGs is that powers that get “unlocked” at higher levels or at significantly higher XP points are far more interesting than the powers that characters begin with.  This is pretty much the opposite of the way it should be.

My model, whether it’s a good one or not, for what I expect in RPGs is what I expect out of fantasy fiction (whether the fantasy is superhero comic books, fantasy, science fiction, or whatever).  The protagonists must be interesting to begin with.  They may not be that powerful, so it’s not power in and of itself that I’m looking for out of starting RPG characters, it’s a specialness.

Maybe someone feels like Dread Gaze is special … the first time or the second time.  At some point, will run across others with Presence or the narrowness of the power will make the player realize it’s just not special.  Sure, specialness can come from power – I’ve watched a decent amount of anime.  The paradigm of “level one – blow up a mountain, level two – blow up the planet, level three – blow up the solar system, level 4 – nuke the galaxy, level 5 – collapse the universe” is incredibly common even if those specific levels of power aren’t achieved.  This power-based paradigm, which is what RPGs often seem to have in mind when it comes to advancement, is certainly something to be concerned by in that it is kind of dumb to plan on playing a multiyear campaign when characters can start off by reshaping all of time and space.  The mistake isn’t in modulating power, it’s in designing the game in such a way that that is all advancement is about.

Let me provide some examples.  My mind is much more into L5R right now than most things.  The rank 5 techniques of the schools have, historically, had either awesome names, awesome descriptions, or really cool mechanics.  “The Final Lesson – There Is No Failure” doesn’t need cool mechanics, but the rank 5 Akodo school gets it with the “you don’t fail” power.  I had a non-starting vampire in a V:TM campaign who had three dots in Presence and I couldn’t wait to get to four so that a lot of cool stuff would be opened up.  In our Conan campaign, no one’s main character is single classed, so even though we plan on playing through 20th level, something virtually nobody will do, ever, the 20th level class abilities will never appear to a PC.  What got me thinking strongly about this topic is a current thread on the AEG forums about playing a rank 2 Kenshinzen; many posters thought it was unrealistic for someone to get into an advanced school at only rank 2, but the person who wanted to do it made this point:  when will you ever see a player get to use the school’s techniques?  I’ve never gotten a character to rank 5, yet the expectation is that you wouldn’t max out the school until rank 8, something that’s not plausible in anything I will ever play.

The thing is that many powers at higher levels/XP totals aren’t actually any better than powers at lower.  The 17th level barbarian ability of Unconquerable only functions when you are in negative hit points, that’s not nearly as good as the 4th level power of Uncanny Dodge; but, hot damn!, don’t you want to be able to say, “Down?  I don’t even lose hit points for attacking.  I’m Unconquerable!” The Kenshinzen discussion has gotten into whether a 1/1 Kakita Bushi/Kenshinzen is even a better duelist (the whole point of the advanced school) than a rank 2 Kakita Bushi.  My frustration is that many powers that require “unlocking” are just too cool to never see the light of day.  No PC V:TM character of mine will ever have seven dots in a discipline, so I just find it annoying that they even exist.  Yes, even though they are intended for NPCs.  PCs should always be cooler than NPCs, if not more powerful.  In some respects, the discipline levels should have been reversed, especially with the higher levels allowing for choice of powers being moved to beginning levels providing choice, to generate greater variety.

I want to talk about this more in a separate post, so I’ll avoid getting too far into it, but another thread that got me thinking about these sorts of things was one about using CCG cards in RPG play.  Properties with both CCGs and RPGs aren’t superrare, however the CCG will typically play at a much less personal level than a RPG, so the translations don’t often work well.  In V:TES, where you have individual minions doing things, one would think it would work better than, say, L5R.  I got to thinking about how disciplines are represented in the CCG, and I actually started thinking about how it’s a more sensible system than how the RPG does them.  In reality, having a two-level split in discipline power generates a lot more variety and, even, plausibility to me than the “one more dot and I unlock XYZ”.

I have a thought on how to address my frustration.  Give the character every power.  Well, not every power.  In fact, some powers just can’t be given to a starting character without being at the nuke the galaxy level of power (unless the intent is to run a high power game, which, interestingly enough, is not at all what I want most of the time).

Even given the many holes in this idea, here is what an example might look like:

L5R 3e Hida Bushi, rank 1

Way of the Crab – Add Earth Ring to attack rolls and damage in melee.  Ignore TN penalties for heavy armor for all skills except Stealth.

The Mountain Does Not Move – Spend a Void Point, roll raw Earth Ring vs. TN equal to wounds suffered to ignore the damage.  Earth is increased by School Rank to resist Knockdown.

The Mountain Does Not Fall – Spend a Void Point to ignore all wound penalties until next turn.  Double your number of wound boxes per rank.  Gain a Void Point for TMDNM or TMDNF only.

Sure, I skip giving a second attack, though I’m not sure it’s a bad idea to give a second attack to a starting bushi to differentiate the bushi schools from the courtier and shugenja schools.  As with most house rules, it requires way too much thought to figure out whether something like this will work.

Naysayers will complain about how broken doing things like this are in RPGs.  “Come on, Majesty as a fledgling?”  And, so forth.  But, an essential thing to keep in mind is that I’m looking to give powers (perhaps it will seem less powerful to call them “abilities” instead) only and not all of the other things – attributes, skills – that would come with being a higher level character.  So, just for instance, the Hida may very well only have an Earth of 3, so TMDNM is only a 3k3 roll to try to ignore damage (if it didn’t cost a VP, it would be sick, but it does) and the doubling of wounds is the equivalent of what an Earth 6 character would have for wounds not an Earth 10 character, like a typical Earth 5, rank 5 Hida Bushi would possess.

I’m also less interested in this idea for games that have numerous levels, like D&D.  Giving 20 levels of abilities is a lot different, just from a bookkeeping perspective, than giving 5 levels of abilities, even if the 5 levels of abilities is more powerful.

So, if you can do all of these cool things as a beginning character, what’s the point of advancement?  What’s the reason to play more than a few times?  Well, there’s still lots of room for power.  You may get two attacks as a rank 1 bushi, but going from Agility 3 to Agility 4 and Kenjutsu 3 to Kenjutsu 5 (3e, 7 in 4e) upgrades those two attacks from blow up the planet to nuke the galaxy.  Then, there’s simulating a lot of material where heroes don’t become significantly more powerful so much as they become significantly more diverse.  It’s always a bad example to use comic book characters as they often do get power upgrades, but let’s take Wolverine.  Wolverine’s attacks get better, but he doesn’t start blowing up nearby mountains to intimidate his enemies – his XP are mostly going into “oh, you didn’t know I was totally a ninja-slaying, military special forces, been everywhere, speak whatever language I need, blah, blah, blah” dude – in other words, he’s buffing his skills to become absurdly well-rounded rather than absurdly powerful.

As a more personal example, I spent a lot of XP on my HoR2 characters on things that didn’t make them stronger.  I got into Artisan: Cooking to impress chicks.  I had a character in the most badass bushi school in 3e with worse fighting/dueling ability (Kenjutsu 2) than a lot of courtiers, who had 5 ranks in Lore: Spirit Realms and was working on 5 ranks in Craft: Sailing.  I, of course, eschew power and seek unusual abilities to achieve that specialness/uniqueness/distinctiveness in my characters I so often talk about as a desire for all PCs.  I guess I’m just trying to force everyone else to be more like me because the alternative is that my characters will tend to be ineffectual losers as I pursue interesting powers where everyone else will tend to focus on effectiveness, even if I think the effective builds are boring.  Or, maybe not.  Maybe I just don’t really like the concept of starting characters.

Oh, one more way to try to make this concept work:  give every power but limit the number of uses per session to one for powers above one’s level.  For example, the Hida would only be able to use The Mountain Does Not Fall once during a session, which is messy with doubling wound boxes but can be figured out – doubled until end of day or something, until he actually gets to rank 5.  A cleaner example would be the Akodo who gets to succeed on a die roll even if he didn’t make a higher TN from raises once a session until the character gets to rank 5.  Or, the fledgling vampire who uses Majesty once in a session or Form of Mist once in a session or Pulse of the Canaille once in a session.  Each time that the level/rank/dot/mechanic advances, the power goes from a one-shot to a consistent one.  This is actually extremely appropriate when you think about characters advancing in entertainment – the stunt becomes the norm or the largely forgotten because something new (but unreliable) is better.


7 Responses to Level (more than) 1

  1. finbury says:

    Theme is relevant here too. Take the WoD example. If the theme of the game is “you are a superhero with fangs”, then sure, Majesty is fine for a low-level player. If the theme is “you are the victim of a horrible and debilitating curse which you must learn to (un)live with”, it’s probably not…

    • iclee says:

      The theme is supposed to be that you are a monster, not some useless vermin that is generally inferior to humans in only being able to function some of the time and not being able to fit into the dominant society while being mechanically rather pathetically mundane even when you aren’t being outclassed.

      In no genre do I see the point of being essentially a normal person or someone inferior to a normal person. After all, could have played something worth aspiring to, instead.

  2. Brandon says:

    The scheme you talk about where starting characters have some access to good powers could potentially be a solution to the whole “twink” style of character creation. For example, why max out on physical stats, combat skills and celerity + potence/protean when having a little of a few things lets you do a variety of things reasonably well? To hurt the believability of your character? To not give yourself anything to do in social situations except “hulk smash!”? I am not a good storyteller, I’ll just say that up-front. I can write the story, come up with plot, etc, but the delivery leaves something to be desired. That said, players can definitely screw a game by insisting on playing the most broken, unbelievable characters you’d ever think up.

  3. John Eno says:

    I played in a V:TM game once in which the GM ruled that the discipline powers weren’t a strict hierarchy. Any time a player purchased a dot of a discipline from levels one through five, he could pick any of the five powers for that level. The other houserule he implemented was that use of any non-physical power against a vampire of an older generation than yours didn’t work, just like Dominate does in the regular rules.

    Aside from nobody ever taking Obfuscate 1, for the obvious reason that it doesn’t do anything, it really didn’t unbalance gameplay or theme at all. Our characters were still low on the totem pole in vampire society, since all the powerful abilities didn’t work on our betters and we still didn’t have as much mortal power as they did, but we were suddenly a whole lot scarier to the mortal population, which ties in with what you mention in your comment to finbury here.

    • John Eno says:

      Actually, now that I think about it there was one more powerz-based houserule which we used, which I’d forgotten about since we used it in all our V:TM games. Rather than roll [some attribute]+[some skill] for discipline checks, we rolled [some attribute]+[score of the discipline being used]. In practice, that both simplified use of powers so that we could spend XP on more interesting skills and also helped to protect niches – your Presence 1 guy might have Majesty just like my Presence 5 guy, but mine’s going to be a lot better at it when he uses it.

  4. Azel says:

    Yeah, tech trees are one of those things that should be regularly “pruned.” Either that or as a GM you should vomit forth character points, or just write up characters as a compromise of the player’s desires and what the setting can withstand. Many campaigns fade before 10 sessions, so at some point it’s just agonizing wait for wish fulfillment. It’s one of the reasons I don’t bother with levels & EXP and just move straight onto character points.

    Another thing is I believe games give you an idea of what level 1 abilities are, but then leave it up to GMs to create new options. I could be wrong, but I believe WoD disciplines just opening up a level of power [i]as a guideline[/i]. But if players collaborate with me to create something interesting in combination with another discipline or skill I’m quite open to the development.

    I will say, for all that I complained about AD&D, early level spell options were robust enough to keep mages interesting. Spell lists tapered down in higher levels, but increased immensely in strength. But that early flexibility always stayed with me. So when I do look at WoD games I carry with me an assumption that there must be license to do the same.

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