Tuesday, May 19, 2009


The next tier

This is from an argument I got into over the most common RPG gamer divide - systems with mechanically-enforced character levels, versus systems that do not have these.

* * * * * 

Hold on hombres. Whether you classify Savage Worlds as level-based or skill-based, powers-based, turkey-basted, is really not the point. Let's say it IS level-based, for the sake of argument. I can't defensibly say what definition most gamers use for any particular term is held by the majority. I also don't think there are terribly good arguments for saying SW is broken because it is level-based. I'm more interested in pulling specific issues out into the light and figuring out what causes them. 

The argument I was making above was that the criticisms leveled against traditional level-based systems (almost every game published before 1990, let's face it) mostly don't apply to Savage Worlds.

Some specific ones that come up a lot on RPG boards, and these are all distinct issues that we can all see as being problems in certain games (games of any type, in some cases, not just RPGs):

Accessibility - A 2nd level Crazy walking into a RIFTS campaign where the party is all 8th level and above is essentially dead weight. This is true of AD&D 2e, D20, etc. None of his abilities can affect any of the foes at the tier that the party is operating. I walked into this campaign two ranks below every other PC, and was making significant contributions from the word go; at least I think so.

Skill/Feat/Power Bloat - In Savage Worlds, I like that the Blast I bring to a fight is the same Blast that anyone else brings. More advanced creatures will be tougher, or have more powers, but this streamlines combat a lot. If you have 34 levels of character progression in your game, you better have a LOT of choices to justify each of those tiers. Players have to be rewarded for passing a threshold, in some way, or it is empty. The easy, lazy way to do this is (I think) to add variables to powers that increase in some way with level. As in: 

Your Wizard casts (3 x your level) of Magic Missiles.
Your Cleric turns (5 x your level) in zombies.
Your Warrior does (3.14159265 x your level) each time she Smites Evil.
Your Cow Wrangler owns (23 x your level) in bull testes.
At level 17 you gain access to Super Improved Afghani Pelvis Wrestling.
This leads to another problem.

Rule Bloat - Players explore all these options and find combinations that work well together. This is not my idea of fun, but I respect that a lot of players enjoy this and that it is a real talent to explore a system and find abilities that work well together. The pressure to generate more and more powers means more and more rules to prevent overlapping, preserve the game balance the writers intend, and handle places where mechanics become contradictory. This makes a huge barrier that keeps people out of the hobby, and discourages players from experimenting with other systems when they've invested so much time and energy into learning one. Just watch the Youtube video where a copy of the Hero System 6th Edition stops a bullet with its 650+ pages of charts. Savage Worlds Explorer's Ed: bloated it ain't. I am going to do an experiment with my sister this weekend. She's never gamed, even once, and I'm going to take her through a Savage Worlds story, soup-to-nuts, from character generation to finale, and see how long it takes. There's only a couple of systems I would try this with.

I could go on - a lot more things come up again and again, especially the isolation of setting from rules. In fact, I've gone on too long. Anyone who's been a gamer long enough has been in these conversations. 

For myself, I know that no system can really handle every setting - people who say otherwise are trying to sell you something. The idea of GM fiat itself, that a separate person defines everything in a campaign and has an unrestricted veto power over story paths and solutions to problems, seems uninteresting, silly, and flawed. is not perfect, I have one or two specific problems with it, but it does a good job of compromising crunch, character choices and ease of play, and there are a lot of settings where this system would be a good fit.

I am enjoying the campaign thoroughly, and I haven't yet seen any foes that are insurmountable. If we do try a new system, I would only host or play in something radically different, with cooperative storytelling and narrative control meta-mechanics: Mouse Guard, Dogs in the Vineyard, Polaris, or Grey Ranks.

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