“After you push the door open, six goblins standing near a chest charge, roll initiative …”
“As you turn the corner, six orcs see you, scream something, and charge. Roll initiative …”
I got to thinking about scale. At a point in our Conan campaign, Brad and I talked about the point of playing higher level characters. If all we were going to do was just face tougher enemies, why not just reboot the campaign and play at a more manageable level?
There’s a reason Gorgriffspidrascorps exist. People crave variety. Just increasing hit points, improving AC, increasing damage output is repetitive. Different special abilities allow for playing essentially the same videogame over and over and still having a varied experience.
Then, I started thinking about several other things.
One, people may crave variety, but so, so many players crave doing the same sorts of things over and over as evidenced by how many players will play functionally similar or identical PCs. I’m even prone to doing something along these lines in that my first two HoR PCs were the same character, at least up until the point where my second PC had some sort of personality and goals. Gamehole Con wasn’t great, but it gave me important insight into which classes I enjoy and which I don’t in True Dungeon, while giving me more variety than what most seem interested in in terms of mechanical variance.
Two, I got to thinking about L5R in contrast to D&D style games. It occurred to me that leveling up didn’t produce the same experience, that mechanics change as you rank up. Combat goes from interesting at rank 1, rank 2ish in 4e to … vicious … above that.
Sure, it’s possible to adjust challenges to try to scale them, but offense so outstrips defense outside of certain spells that it’s a lot of effort to find the right numbers to make combat feel similar to lower levels.
Now, the D&D player, used to magical abilities and whatnot is going to bring up that “save or die”, et al, change the nature of combat. Conan had a built in save or die mechanic, though that seems rather similar to just dealing enough damage with a bardiche to one shot some dude with 8hp, anyway. If anything, Conan might have done a good job of maintaining the feel of low level combat.
Anyway, back to L5R. Higher rank play does feel different. The mechanics of brutality align(?) with the focus on culture to encourage less mechanical play. What’s the most common challenge that is actually challenging in my experience? Trying to prove someone did something wrong who has higher status than the party and/or trying to conduct an investigation with someone of higher status impeding it.
Do other sorts of games scale? Putting aside dungeon crawl boardgames, obviously videogames scale – see Tetris. But, do CCGs scale? The players are generally better the larger the event, but the game itself isn’t providing greater challenges unless you make up your own in solitaire play.
Is there a reason to get (mechanically) stronger?
A challenge fight anime has is that the power jumps are so massive that you lose any sense of character abilities. If you go by dubbed Dragonball Z comments, whatever the official stats may be, Super Saiyan Goku has a power level of one billion. Compare that with the 180,000 that he reads at earlier in the same arc, nevermind what a wuss everyone is when Vegeta first arrives on Earth. Bleach’s Ichigo’s fights become far less interesting because it’s just massive energy attack after massive energy attack.
Stronger has issues. It’s prone to “fighting ogres instead of orcs”. Now, more interesting applications of abilities is interesting in the moment, but how often do characters “forget” their own abilities because they need to be challenged in their stories?
Is higher level play more fun? I certainly never found higher rank play more fun in L5R, though I got into a discussion with one HoR player who said that higher rank play was what appealed to her.
From a mechanical perspective, I have the sense that when we were in the 8th level range in Conan, we had the best adventures, but was that because of the level or some other factor? Low level felt too much like you lacked a variety of abilities or anything that distinguished you from another bardiche wielder. High level was prone to ability paralysis by analysis because of more Feats.
Because this topic isn’t well rooted in my mindspace, I’m going to just keep bouncing around. L5R combat – is it memorable to me? I remember fights, but do I remember them because of what I did or because of how they fit in the narrative. I generally believe the latter. Sure, the time I did more than 100 wounds in one round using a war fan against oni was memorable from a mechanical standpoint, but that’s because it should be. I don’t remember much in terms of how many enemies I slew or how much damage I generated in most L5R play. Kidai finished off a variety of things because he often guarded for a while until there was a reason to finish something off. But, that’s a general style of combat and not a measure of growing stronger. If anything, Kidai got weaker over time relative to the rest of the party and the challenges they faced because I didn’t create an advanced school that let me do two attacks a round with a yumi.
The point, perhaps, of this post is that powering up doesn’t seem to have a lot of payoff. Whether you just up the numbers for everything or just have sillier and sillier monsters to fight, the payoff of a good story so far outweighs the payoff of being more badass.
With Kidai, gaining 5 ranks of status was far less interesting than hanging out with a widow. With the vaguely courtierish Jun, losing a rank of status to run off to Unicorn Lands was far more interesting than having two oni consider him the greatest threat in a party with rank 4/5/6 bushi and shugenja. Ty captured some magic with a Shot In The Dark, while rarely having much murder-impact, except that one time the priest was behind a bunch of followers and really needed to fail a massive damage save.
I think this is where D&D style modules often lose me – the focus is on mechanical challenge. I like the ones the most that have a town of NPCs. I want to harp on this. Even Stormbringer adventures felt more like there was something going on rather than a series of “rooms”. L5R modules/adventures are much more about the plot than they are the mechanical challenges … in general. (OTOH, I have gotten into the problem of mechanics not really mattering, and I’m sure I’ll go into it again.)
Is it optimal to just hover around low levels all of the time? In L5R 3e/3r, I’d say absolutely. But, I can see a progression in other games. I just don’t see the progression in combat effectiveness mattering a whole lot. Far more important for Jun to pick up two ranks of Cooking and two ranks of Shogi than in “If I activate this kata and spend a VP, then spend a VP on my attack in the full attack stance, then Honor Roll after I call 11 raises and fail, I should be attacking at 10k10+42 with 5 free raises on damage …”
Unlocking abilities is a thing. Vampire has the huge problem that the most interesting abilities are insanely expensive, though it’s hardly the only game inflicted with such progressions. It’s obvious my lack of experience actually playing campaign Champions, as you can always come up with the weirdest abilities right off the bat if you want, though PC progression does seem to tend towards expanding skills since they are so expensive and don’t tend to increase your 8d6 EB’s effectiveness.
To avoid the L5R well and to give some love to Conan play, I did a lot of things with Ty to try to broaden his abilities rather than just hack … and slash … better. I felt like it had payoff, though I would have preferred not falling further and further behind on the kill-ometer by not just focusing on high yield abilities.
Anyway, does any of this matter? I have my doubts. The powergamers and buttkickers enjoy powering up, and I often play with their kind. I’m certainly pro “spend XP to gain XYZ” and not opposed to “I’ll take this Feat at this level”.