It has been a while, but I wanted to get back to doing random articles on here. Today we begin doing just that and I am going to talk about a topic that has crossed my mind a number of times recently: high powered games. There are a number of directions I have been tempted to take this article, but I think it will be best if we just talk about how to gauge a high powered game. Fair warning I am a bit biased towards the high powered game, though I haven’t brought players through the highest levels I would like yet. I try to cover what makes them a bit different and how high level D&D campaigns are all about that high power feel. Fourth Edition is a great outlier in this conversation, but sadly we will have to wait for a follow-up article and keep this as a foundation.
Okay, so when we are talking about a high powered game there are probably a number of examples that come to mind immediately. Games like RIFTS and 4th Edition D&D are made for the players to be (or become) god-like beings. Even in times when they are not kicking ass and taking names, those characters are not benchmarks for the world. They are clear examples of being outside the norm. The higher the level, the more power they hold and the more influence they could potentially have over a town, city, or kingdom. To me, though, any game can play as high powered. All you really need to do is make sure that the PCs have a good amount of weight to throw around. There are games which specifically try to avoid this and those probably shouldn’t be pushed into a high powered campaign. You could, of course, do that but you might just be working against yourself for no reason. Instead you would be better off to create your campaign using a different ruleset. One that is a little more flexible in its grittiness.
Something we also need to distinguish about high powered games is that they do not have to be games that some would call “too easy” or “without consequence”. Such ideas really miss the point of what a high powered campaign could be like. Just take comic books for example. These are high powered stories through and through, but those who appreciate them understand that there are consequences, there are good stories, and things are very tough for heroes. Sure, death may not be permanent in the major comic book universes but other catastrophes are. What high powered represents is a game that involves massive power and capabilities on the characters’ parts. They can do things that very few others can, and they tend not to leverage them in the ways a normal person might. You do not see supers creating tyrannies, not those who would be main characters anyways. Instead they tend to deal with high powered problems: alien invasions, villains who would destroy, giant monsters, and colliding universes. When you make your game high powered you have to change the enemies and obstacles, which actually brings me to one of my thoughts about high powered games.
High Level Play Is High Powered Play
We have to narrow down what we’re focused on here. Personally I am using Dungeons & Dragons as the prime example. Though other games might fit, they tend not to have the dichotomy of D&D. Savage Worlds, Cypher System, Star Wars, and more all have leveling in some way. Some have actual levels, others have effective levels with XP benchmarks granting advancement, and some allow you to spend XP on advancements. What they all have in common with D&D is that the longer you play a character and the more XP you earn, the more capable you character becomes. The thing that prevents them from falling into D&D’s power creep troubles is that these advancements are not defined by level to the extent that D&D is. Each of my examples have character statistics that remain fairly similar throughout the PC’s life. Probabilities of success change by smaller degrees, rather than a great magnitude. Each ability you get is not going to be better than another by virtue of when you get it. You may have worked towards something like that, but many of your options will simply expand a character’s repertoire. In D&D, however, your old stuff gets better, your new stuff is inherently better, AND you can do more things. Not only that but mechanics like combat are scaled in D&D by level which mean a character’s stats like HP are as well. It all works together to create the power creep.
Inevitably, usually around level 10, a Dungeons & Dragons game goes from being a fantasy about powerful heroes to a high powered clash of titans. Some do not like this. The answers to the PCs’ power might just feel contrived and boring. Others may get sick of just increasing the number of enemies, number of swords hitting PCs, and number of HP monsters have. Some may get angry that their PCs cannot fail at certain tasks. This is the fault of both the mechanics and the way the game is being played. The book doesn’t truly warn you about the switch that will flip at level 10. It is the point when a villain will have elaborate plots against players and deadly traps. It is the point when giants come at you in numbers and evil witches take away your powers. At least, if you want to make things challenging. Of course, the problem is that making it challenging needs to make sense, it needs to more than numbers, and it needs to not make the PCs feel like you’re just taking their toys away. Which brings me back to other games. They remain similar over the course of their lives because you don’t need to do these for those games. A dragon will feel like a dragon whether you’re at 0 xp or 100 xp (in say Savage Worlds). Yes you might be better equipped, but that fire breath is just as deadly and your lightning bolt does the same damage. Similarly a goblin may be easier to deal with later on, you have more resources and options, but if 5 of them sneak up on you things are likely to be rough. For these games there isn’t a specific line of low level vs high level play. Instead the stories play themselves out and almost anything can happen. Built in is the idea that you cannot deal with a problem yet because you don’t have the experience not because you don’t have the things that XP grants you.
High Powered Gaming
You probably already know whether or not you like that high level of play in D&D. Maybe I have properly described that the game changes at a certain point and you may need to adjust if you find you just aren’t enjoying it at that point. Or, maybe you want to play one of the other games that has a nice steady challenge system. Maybe even in a way that exemplifies a high powered setting. Let’s talk about that, starting with whether or not you are going to. I urge you to keep my comic book analogy in mind. This doesn’t have to be a super hero game, but it is analogous. Playing a game on high power can be done in a lot of ways, but there are two aspects we will need to address. The first is making the players feel high powered and the second is making sure the game is still dynamic, fun, and challenging enough. Of course the final meter on how far is too far with anything is whether you’re having fun and you will always have the option to say, “You know what, nah, level 1-10 in D&D is enough for us. Roll new characters!”
Making player’s feel high powered can be very easy. The easiest way would be to start them at higher levels. For D&D this might be level 5 or even level 10. For Savage Worlds you may start them off as a Veteran or even higher. If you are playing Star Wars, you could give them extra XP to spend during creation. Here we meet Batman when he is already Batman, rather than opening up with a tragic backstory and working through the training to get him there. Which ever game you play, this method will take a little longer for the character creation. Another way to do it would be through stats and attributes. Allow them to increase them beyond standard rules. Allow an extra point in that portion of Savage Worlds or Star Wars. Allow them to use a higher budget for D&D point buy. When it comes to something like D&D HP, just let them have the maximum value at each level. These are simple ways that will make any player feel more powerful at level one. Resources are also a good way. Maybe this comes in more money and items, more powers for a Savage Worlds character, or magic items at level 1 in D&D. Regardless, one thing powerful characters have in abundance is resources. Just look at Bruce Wayne.
As the GM you must keep in mind what your are doing and what you will be doing. Some games have these options built in and it would benefit you to use them. By my thought process, D&D will already be higher powered beyond level 10. There is no need to do things like grant extra spells early on, those will come. However, granting a bonus feat for no reason is a little easier and less of a snowball later. An important part to keep in mind, both in designing your high powered adventures and in making players powerful, is what you will need to do to create a balance between that and how to challenge them. Comics can remain a great point of inspiration for challenges, as long as you can make them feel organic rather than contrived. Not all the villains should know or be able to counter the PCs. At least not right away. Henchmen or the villains themselves should have escape plans and be ready later. More than that, they should have the power or find the power to negate the groups last big trick. Keep in mind, though, if they can counter every trick, than you are just taking away what makes the players’ characters amazing. For example, Superman is invulnerable (usually). Kryptonite and magic both negate this, but Superman uses other abilities and pure determination to get by. To make Superman human might make a decent story for a while, but at a table with a player behind that character it would be no fun. Having a villain return, learn, try new schemes, and challenge different aspects of the characters is how things stay challenging for players without taking anything (or at least much) away. Of course, you also want to keep in mind that another way is to have them fight outlandish things like demi-gods and ancient evils. These are the things that only heroes of that caliber can handle!
Finally a short note about death. This is one of the biggest consequences of playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Part of running a high powered game (as such) is the inevitability that a character won’t die or that when they do they are readily brought back from the dead. Comics hold lots of contrived ways to do that, but we can look at some really good examples for our games. The best, in my opinion, is probably the time Kingpin hired an assassin to kill Aunt May. The TL;DR is that Peter came out as Spider-Man during Civil War, Kingpin was in jail but with tons of connections, sniper kills Aunt May, Peter goes dark and nearly kills Kingpin, and Mephistopheles offers Peter a deal. This is a classic D&D answer to character death, especially without some high level clerics around. Good old Mephistopheles gave him back Aunt May and the added protection of taking away the knowledge that Peter is Spider-Man from the world. In return, Peter would lose the relationship he had with Mary Jane. There can be consequences to a high powered game. You save the city but half of it is destroyed. You come back but are bound to something evil. You save one person and another dies. The list goes on. The key is that there are consequences and in a high powered campaign characters don’t stay dead, so death is a good lynchpin for some of those dilemmas to show up.
A couple of notes here at the end. First off, these ideas all work well in concept, but when you have enough players at the table they will be able to do truly anything. Even in comics when there were too many heroes to make a villain seem viable the writers do crazy things. Sometimes this means world destroying. Other times it means villain team-ups. But often, what happens is the heroes are pitted against each other and the group falls apart. Because this defeats the purpose of games like D&D, it is hard to use it. Another aspect that got a bit ignored here is the power creep on skills. There are two ways I like to handle this. One is to simply increase difficulty for skill checks based on level. Hard at level 3 is not the same DC as hard at level 13. This isn’t just because the players can roll higher, though that’s part of it. No matter how many times you have climbed, an icy surface does not stop being slippery so there are times when you need to set that DC higher 10 levels later (especially when they don’t spend every adventure climbing ice sheets). Players will have methods of solving this beyond bonuses that break the limits. Second, is to pit them against harder obstacles. You can out talk almost anyone, but can you out talk the most stubborn King? Or extra-planar entities? Not as likely. Give these creatures bonuses to their checks to challenge the players, even if the raw rule isn’t that high.
When it comes down to it you have to tweak some things and be prepared for things to bend and break all over the place. The key is to have fun, as it always is. High powered isn’t about no challenge its about different challenges and epic scales. I wanted to cover more, especially talk about 4th Edition D&D, but that will have to wait for a second article. This one has gone on enough. If there is anything I missed or any examples of high powered game play, please let me know! Do you love high powered play? Hate it? Let us know why and watch for a follow up article later!