Monday, July 19, 2010

Power Creep: The Reckoning

In a persistent game setting players need a way to advance. Through magic or levels or story, a character must develop continuously throughout its life to keep the player interested. This advancement should terminate at the end of the characters intended life span and then transition gracefully into the start of a new character. Players should still be rewarded after the advancement of their first character has ended, this creates loyalty. There is a feeling amongst the players and owners or NERO that the so called "Arms race" of damage is a bad thing. To a degree it is a bad thing, it an be corrected in one of two ways; introduce a higher turnover rate into game, or create a situation in which higher level characters are sufficiently challenged without ruining the fun of new players.

Let us begin with an old example, there is game called IFGS. The International Fantasy Gaming Society, is a game that is based on modules. Repeatable modules run for specific levels of players with strict limits on the amount and type of treasure that can be put into game on any particular module. Items do not expire and the level cap is fairly low, which means that at some point beyond the level cap, all advancement occurs through item accumulation. Power creep is inevitable but because the modules are level specific, it becomes harder and harder to find modules that you can run your higher level characters through. Thus it becomes worthwhile to start a secondary so that you can play in more modules. This solution is very elegant, there is no unexplainable evaporation of your magic sword after two years, your magic list can continue to grow longer and longer until the character can no longer find games to play in. unfortunately a solution like this does not work for a game like NERO. To much of the NERO game is based around the concept of the persistent town, and it is difficult to restrict players from playing their high level characters on modules intended for lower level characters. There is no built in incentive to play a secondary. The NERO solution to the power creep issue is non existent, players play their primary until they get bored and then they either quit or switch to secondary. This is not an elegant solution.

First let us look at introducing a higher turnover rate, this can be done in one of two ways, through character death or through incentives to retire. Character death can be increased by making the game more challenging, the danger here is that a more challenging game for higher level characters becomes lethal to lower level characters. This challenge can be managed with well trained NPCs and Staff people. A well trained NPC will not engage a newer player with a higher level card, they will scare them off. This idea is included in the NERO 8th edition rulebook as an example of good sportsmanship( See page 122) It is important plot people to train your NPCs. The second option to increase turnover is to create incentives for playing secondaries. This can be as simple as creating new classes or races that can only be played by someone who has retired a character of a particular level. The classes or races must be special enough to tempt players of high level characters to switch to them but still weak enough to lower the power level of the game. This idea can be expanded still further by creating multiple tiers of such classes(credit goes to the Exiles game for this idea) With a system like this in place a player may retire his character in order to start a new character because they want something really new and special.

The second option is to create an environment in which both new and experienced players can be appropriately challenged. This is a tight rope walk, it requires precision and balance and the odds are you are eventually going to fall off one side or the other. Plot people, scaling to the APL does not work. Your high level characters will mow through things and your low level people will get mowed. Instead it is important to include high and low level challenges in every encounter and coach your NPCs on who their target is. High level mods should be hooked for small groups of high level players, this allows the scaling to be more precise. Mixed mods and field battles should be split or targeted as I mentioned above. Plots should be run down multiple points of presentation to both high and low level players. When you fall off this tight rope to the high end, the Resurrection count is high and only new players resurrect. When you fall off to the low end, high level players complain about how dull all the mods were. This is how most NERO events have to be run currently because there is no system in place to level the playing field.

As you can see from the examples above NERO has an issue with power differential. The slow response time for rules changes means that it is likely that we will not see a fix for this any time soon. Plot people, prepare carefully to walk the tight rope. Write multiple versions of mods that can be changed on the fly for different party's. Prepare high level, uber plot for your kick ass teams and remember the tight rope has two sides that you can fall off stay in the middle and hold on.


  1. I hear plot writers and event directors complaining about level scaling all the time. I've rarely had much of a problem on this account, even in open encounters or "wave battles." A lot of it comes down to NPC preparation and training, like you said. You might be surprised how easily you can convey the relative scaling of different NPC groups simple through costume and the NPCs' roleplaying. If you instruct your extremely powerful NPCs to walk straight-backed, talk intelligently, and otherwise convey their power through their acting, while likewise coaching the low-level NPCs to act cowardly with withdrawn. Costuming is also a big part of this, but one thing I would strongly caution new writers is to ALMOST NEVER make the "high level" challenge be a giant, restrictive costume. Giant costumes are great for theatrics, but any high-level player will tell you that the creature with a huge mask is always the least threatening challenge on the field. What really scares high levels is a squad of creatures in good quality makeup, wearing loose clothing and wielding light weapons. The towering, giant fire demon is a joke. He'll never land a hit on you, and he'll be frustrating to fight because he can't hear your packet calls or damage calls. His elite hitsquad of guards is what you have to worry about.

  2. True Story Noah, I love the big costumes in wave battles for one purpose, making it look cool. The high level challenge should be lightly but well costumed, with an optimal fighting style and scary skills.

  3. Some of the most inventive (and scary!) "end-bosses" I've seen in almost 15yrs of NERO-ing have been a mix of both approaches...

    At NERO Chicago a few years back, our PCs decided they wanted to drive a legendary monster called "The Creeper" from The Wastes leading into the old capitol ruins. Tales said that no-one ever came back from The Wastes, having been psychically devoured whole.. the few PCs that would venture there in the past decade ALWAYS rezzed.

    So, in '08, an expedition was led by one of the nobles to take the ENTIRE TOWN to finish this thing off once and for all. to 60-some odd PCs took the field at the end of October, just after dusk, to call out The Creeper... and the rep they faced scared the Holy Bejeebers out of them.

    The NPCs took the tractor used by the campsite, complete with tow trailer, and dressed it up to run as a gigantic 2 MPH amorphous blob with lights and over 2 dozen NPC "tentacles" at 50 body each swinging 10 paralyze. If a tentacle froze you, it would take a 3 second action to "grapple" you and carry you to the body, where you would be "swallowed" by the creature. In the stomach, you took 25 Acid every 5 seconds till dead. A dead tentacle fell back to the body and grew anew on a 60 second count.

    On the back of the body were two shields and a Monster Marshall. If you delivered 200 damage to each of the two shields, the "weak spot" in the Creeper's armor would be exploited, and allow you to CLIMB INSIDE THE STOMACH TO DELIVER THE 500 DAMAGE needed to kill it once and for all.

    It took almost an hour for the PCs to figure all this out; in the end, the whole town was tapped, 6 people rezzed, and the fighter who was swallowed whole (and delivered the coup de grace from inside at the SAME TIME the shields fell!) was permed (No buybacks, to his credit. "Hey, I went out slaying The Creeper! Helluva high note!").

    As a side note, I was always a proponent of a "bonus-out" structure to help induce retirement of high-level characters. If your character retired (or was permed), start your new character with a bonus one-time blanket equal to your old BP total in XP (maxable by Goblins) to your new starting PC. This way, they don't have to walk in at bare bones starting, and you drop the overall level Adjust for the campaign at the same time. Both sides win.

  4. That mod sounded awesome.

    As for character bonuses, that one doesn't sound too over-powered. I'm pretty sure we could write an entire article about character turnover and incentives.