Thursday, July 25, 2013

All the toys I never get to use: An argument against levels.

I have a love/hate relationship with level based systems. (Don't get me started on open ended d20 rolls vs the glorious bell curve). The central issue I have with level based mechanics is all the cool stuff, the REALLY cool stuff with characters is locked away in higher levels. Starting characters can spend months, if not years, of play before they really get into their own. I'm okay with the hero's story of the newbie turning into a pro, but the concept that a well trained fighter can't do anything more than bash things with his sword, especially if he's a 'well trained' fighter until some magical number of sessions later...well, it's silly.

I enjoy point based, or pip/talent/etc, character builds because I have a list of awesome tricks and abilities right out of the gate. WOD style powers with higher levels of master was more fun than D&D level unlocks. It's frustrating is a game only lasts short periods of time and you don't desire to artificially inflate the power level by having more skills and abilities.

What do I mean by inflate the power level? Well in supers games you have have a low power 'street' game with characters like Spiderman. He has wall claiming, web shooting, spider sense, and he's a great techy. A D&Ded (leveled) character with that wide range of skills and powers would be something like level 10 when the full range of character utility opens up. Some level based systems are better than others, but some like D&D 4E has 'utility' powers unlock at level 2. 2. Seriously? Ahem. As you go up the supers power spectrum what changes isn't utility of a character, it's the scope. Scope is a funny thing. In Supers games I have 3 types of 'maximums' represented by 3 characters. Superman = Maximum Strength, Batman = Maximum Skill, and Green Lantern = Maximum Scope. Because you can't get bigger in scope than the galaxy. That's what I mean. Sure, you can raise the power level of a character, or their skill. But in the end supers characters deal with bigger threats, larger more complicated issues. They advance in scope.

Leveled characters have this weirdly artificial handled scope. In OD&D/OSR there is the 'named levels'. They grant titles and duties to characters. A keep, followers, money, etc. The idea is you take your first 10 levels of adventuring and turn it into a career in maintaining your empire. You still go out on events here and there, but it's to support/defend your keeps. Okay. That is and can be loads of fun in a meta way. And some games like Adventure, Conquer, and King do a great job of fleshing that out. But somewhere in 2E D&D it went away. And what we were left with was characters getting more powerful but with no ability to change the scope of the game as time went on.

One of 4E's greatest sins wasn't it's it's radical departure from 3.X's mechanical model. It was the lost opportunity to allow characters once they hit Paragon level or higher to really explore a wider scope on a personal level. Sure the game assumed you would go world spanning or planner to find foes, but it gave you very little in game reasons to do so. The only time I ever see long term thinking show up in 4E is in the Epic tier of play but the game assumes you will sunset and retire you character after 5 levels of finally living up to your potential as a character. Seriously? That's when it gets GOOD.

Not all level based mechanics are bad, some handle the unlock of more potential for a character with a strong understanding of not restricting the fun toys early on. Most of these systems give the players a pool of powers early on and then grant them development points to unlock more down the road, ways to customize the powers they already have into more interesting unique tricks. They don't have level requirements for power XYor Z, but allows you to explore more themes WITH those powers. Funky mechanics aside, Anima Beyond Fantasy does a decent job of this. Giving the players enough toys early on, then allowing them to upgrade them to crazy levels of scope down the road.

In the end I still prefer point based, or point hybrid games. Star Wars Edge of the Empire and WEG d6 variants are more fun for me than the d20 or SAGA editions. All the editions had valid points, but two gave me more to work with while the others had me playing the waiting game.

The waiting game sucks.