Power Creep
  • Power Creep


    I was reading about the level cap increasing from 60 to 70 in an online game, with many new possibilities/abilities. "How do people keep track of so many abilities at such high levels?" I thought. Then I realized yet another reason why I prefer simple games: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Another version, about Japanese gardening, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."


    Games are sets of artificial (separated from the real world) constraints, even games as "loosey-goosey" in rules as RPGs. Players agree to use and abide by these constraints. The best players are usually those who cope best with those constraints.

    "Power Creep virtually always leads to a Broken Base, with the most ‘conservative’ players stating that the new unbalanced content is an insult to the original game (which might be true or not, depending on the case)." --TV Tropes

    Good play comes not from having lots of things you can do, many of them really “OP” (overpowered), but from making good use of what you've got. Another case of creativity benefitting from constraints.

    Power creep is a common online (video) game problem that we can see in tabletop RPGs. The cause isn't online play, it's the frequent changes and additions to rules and to "content". New "stuff" is more attractive when it's better than the old stuff (duh!), so that's what the makers produce, and over time the entire game sees an increase in power, in what the players can do. (See “The Dilemma of the Simple RPG.”) This must be matched by an increase in the power of the opposition (more dangerous monsters) or the game becomes too easy. Some games handle the escalation better than others, but if the game was well-designed to begin with, power creep is likely to hurt the design.

    Make no mistake, I like blowing things up with tac nukes - well, fireballs anyway - and megawatt lasers (lightning bolts). But when you get up into Timestops and other Immense Godlike Powers, I think the GAME suffers in favor of the POWER TRIP. And at the same time it becomes less skillful, less clever, and harder to GM.

    I’ve often said, about 1e D&D, that the “sweet spot” for play was 3rd-9th level. Early on players were too fragile (not a problem in recent editions), and later on the game couldn’t cope well with double-figure levels. It got to the point that (as in WW II armored battles) whoever fired first usually won, because the attack capabilities were so strong. This is especially obvious where surprise is involved. If a game then “power creeps” to where 9th levels are as strong as 11th used to be, the situation worsens.

    Of course, many players and GMs don't care about skill or cleverness, they care about other things (among them, power trips). What I’ve said is descriptive, not prescriptive. I don't care how you run or play your game (unless I'm involved!).

    contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 108 Comments
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by CapnZapp View Post
      Can't you just use classes and monsters from AD&D?
      I wasn't replying to you. I know (from reading earlier posts/threads of yours) that you want a system for pricing/buying/building magic items that is balanced from the point of view of PC build mechanics.

      But that didn't seem to be what @Jay Verkuilen was asking for.

      It's quite conceivable that there is no mechanic that will meet your requirements. But Jay Verkuilen pointed to AD&D as providng an example of what he might want - and the AD&D rules manifestly are not a balanced system of PC-build rules. Rather, they're guidelines for how the GM should handle the item-creation process, which includes injecting balance at whatever point s/he wants to in whatever way s/he wants to.

      It's nothing like what 3E or 4e provided. (And it seems to be widely recognised that 3E fails in what you're asking for, and 4e largely achieves it by making magic items "boring".)

      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      To some degree I could, but it would require a good bit of calibrating to get right. I won't say that the 1E system was perfect, just that it's there. I shouldn't have to. That's what I pay game designers to do. It's not some kind of weird monster that only appeared in 2E, it's fairly core functionality.
      The AD&D system has rules for costing potions - gp = to XP value, which are so cheap (once you get to the 7th level needed to make them) that it is not a balance constraint at all. (The time required is, and perhaps the need for an alchemist.)

      The rules for making scrolls don't provide any cost guidelines (the cost of parchment is trivial; the ink costs what the GM thinks appropriate, though the Write spell offers some ideas - 200 to 500 gp - which is also pretty trivial at 7th level). The constraint is time, which is 1 day per spell level.

      If you were happy with these guidelines in AD&D (as in, they didn't break your game by generating too-ready access to potions and scrolls) then I would expect them to work fine in 5e.

      The rules for making permanent items in AD&D are even sketchier than the potion and scroll rules. They are pure GM fiat - in terms of ingredients required, cost of said ingredients, etc. This "system" is pretty trivially transferable to any other edition if desired.

      I guess my point is that comparing the AD&D system to the 3E or 4e systems is fundamentally misleading. AD&D didn't purport to present a mechanical system for allowing item construction or purchase/resale as a balanced part of the game. Those later editions did - but only 4e really succeeded at it, with the side-effect of watering down the significance of items pretty heavily.

      Items in 5e seem more AD&D-like than 4e-like in their functionality. That means that a 4e-style system for making them is probably not feasible. But if it's going to be AD&D-like - ie punt everything to the GM to maintain balance by injecting suitably challenging requirements for ingredients, processes etc - then the AD&D system is there for you to adapt.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      4E made it kind of crass with the wish list I think.
      It doesn't seem crass to me. From the point of view of fiction creation, t's a fairly simple form of shared content introduction. From the point of view of mechanical balance, it makes sure that items play a useful role in PC build (by letting the players build the PCs they want to play).

      If a player wants the GM to surprise him/her, s/he can always say so!

      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      I think the Dark Sun book came out first, actually, but I'm not sure. Either way. You're right, the math isn't difficult, but for some players, including a number of people I play with, if it's not published by WotC it's not real. Without fully sharing it, I understand the sentiment. With something like monsters it's not a huge deal to have third party content, but with core functionality it's more worrisome. Their aversion to non-WotC content comes from having been burned during the D20 era.
      DMG 2 - Sep, 2009. DSCG - Aug, 2010.

      In any event, the idea that I can't replace item drops on a DMG-specified timetable with a metaphorical "drop" of the same bonuses (but inherent) and on the same timetable is bizarre.

      The first magic items acquired in my 4e game (early 2009) were gifts to the PCs from NPCs they helped, not items looted from monsters. I don't think that WotC has ever published such advice about how to supply PCs with items, except in the 3E Oriental Adventures book. I don't think I was breaking any rules in doing it, though.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      Still there are times when an economy would be nice. For example, if you need to get another Bag of Holding (an Uncommon item, so presumably not that difficult to get) for some reason, the DM needs to have the serendipitous drop happen, force casters into creating it during "downtime" (that never seems to happen in most games), or wing it on prices. Vice versa if you found a cool new sword with an interesting property and want to move your old +1 sword, you can hang it on the mantlepiece, give it away, dump it in a ditch, etc., but there won't be any buyers! Not only is there a reasonable pragmatic need, but IMO it kind of messes up the secondary reality of the game.
      I feel like this reinforced my point.

      What is the "balanced" amount of gold that players should have to relinquish to gain a bag of holding? Or that they are entitled to for relinquishing a magic sword?

      There is no answer to this question, I think. 3E pretended that there was, but it seems widely recognised that that system was broken. AD&D assigned notional gp values to items, but that was in the context of gp for XP, and in the context of treasure charts correlated (roughly) to dungeon levels and treasure types - so there was some basis, at least, for setting those values.

      Those values on the AD&D charts had no correlation, though, to the rules for creation of items (and hence had nothing to do with the secondary reality of the game; they were all about the advancement rules). Eg what 16th level MU (minimum level necessary to cast Permanency) would conceivably risk the permanent loss of a point of Constitution for the 2,000 gp the rules say s/he can get for selling a +1 sword?

      When it comes to a bag of holding, obviously the price has to be greater than the price of a sack. But should it be 1,000 gp? 10,000 gp? Is a bag of holding more or less valuable - in the context of D&D game play - than a suit of plate armour? I just don't think there's any way of offering a general answer to that question. (4e answered it by fiat, but that sort of stipulaton of what tier various traditional game elements should correlate to was one of the things 4e was widely criticised for - "there's only one way to play guitar".)
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by CapnZapp View Post
      The truth is that the DMG gives you heaps of gold you can't use without downtime, and then all the official adventure modules don't give you any downtime. But they do give you heaps of magic items.
      There are a number of newer ideas in 5E that aren't particularly well-integrated: Inspiration (confusingly named the same thing as Bardic Inspiration!) and the personality mechanics, downtime, all being good examples. These all exist in other games and have been ported into D&D, which never really had them. For instance The One Ring (and now Adventures in Middle Earth) have the "fellowship phase", which is explicitly a downtime mechanic built into the game. The design/marketing team (they seem to do less designing and more marketing) keeps trying to sell the sketchiness as a feature---"see, we left things open for the DM!". Ehh. There's a lot of space between 4E level DM-proofing and nothing.


      The game absolutely needs an "uptime" outlet for gold (something to spend gold on that doesn't involve downtime), it absolutely needs a magic item economy, and it absolutely needs to take all this into account for balance. It is perfectly reasonable to expect the design team to assume balancing responsibility for them!
      Agree, this would be very helpful and I'm with you on the point that these are things that would be reasonable to expect from the design team.

      Gamely trying to bring this back to power creep so as not totally, utterly threadjack, one thing that WotC is clearly trying to avoid is having high level characters get too potent and to prevent really broken builds, especially book-legal ones for organized play. You can see that from many (though not all) of the high level spells. IMO the action economy is a very well-functioning balancer. They did a pretty good job with that and it'll do a good job going forward preventing power creep with new material as long as they don't put in ways of breaking that.

      Having interesting temporary ways to beat it or break it would actually be pretty cool ways to make a magic item interesting, especially a consumable one. Example of something I just came up with:

      Nova Elixir (Legendary, consumable)

      Consuming this potion is highly dangerous but also incredibly potent. In the following three turns, the consumer loses 33% of their maximum hit points at the start of their turn. This loss cannot be prevented in any way short of a Wish spell. However, they gain an extra Action in each of those turns. This action can be used to do anything, including casting multiple spells requiring concentration.


      You're gonna have a heck of a three rounds....
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      I guess my point is that comparing the AD&D system to the 3E or 4e systems is fundamentally misleading. AD&D didn't purport to present a mechanical system for allowing item construction or purchase/resale as a balanced part of the game. Those later editions did - but only 4e really succeeded at it, with the side-effect of watering down the significance of items pretty heavily.
      I don't recall comparing it directly to 3E or 4E, just noting that it is not the case that prior editions utterly lacked a creation system. They had one, though it was sketchy. I guess 2E's was less than 1E now that I think about it, and thus closest to the way things were done in 5E.


      Items in 5e seem more AD&D-like than 4e-like in their functionality. That means that a 4e-style system for making them is probably not feasible. But if it's going to be AD&D-like - ie punt everything to the GM to maintain balance by injecting suitably challenging requirements for ingredients, processes etc - then the AD&D system is there for you to adapt.
      It is, and I'm not at all holding it up as a paragon of good design. 4E had a way of making magic items incredibly boring, especially in the early 4E as opposed to the later moves back towards the way the classic game ran. The AD&D system is far, far from perfect or really even workable. It's got a lot of choices I wouldn't make, such as making it essentially impossible for PCs to manufacture anything but temporary items. The 3.X item creation system, as nuts as things got, was there for a reason. IMO something like it that's been fixed up and made more functional would be happy for me. I am fairly sure I could do it but it would be a pretty heavy load and I'd sure like to see some work done so I could model/extend it myself. I mean, that's presumably what we pay designers to do.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      I feel like this reinforced my point. What is the "balanced" amount of gold that players should have to relinquish to gain a bag of holding? Or that they are entitled to for relinquishing a magic sword?
      I have no perfect idea. Prices IRL float for a reason, but we shouldn't let the best be the enemy of the good.

      When it comes to a bag of holding, obviously the price has to be greater than the price of a sack. But should it be 1,000 gp? 10,000 gp? Is a bag of holding more or less valuable - in the context of D&D game play - than a suit of plate armour? I just don't think there's any way of offering a general answer to that question. (4e answered it by fiat, but that sort of stipulaton of what tier various traditional game elements should correlate to was one of the things 4e was widely criticised for - "there's only one way to play guitar".)
      IMO coming up with a solid, workable (though ultimately arbitrary) price list isn't fundamentally different than coming up with tradeoff costs for powers vs powers, feats, spells, or what have you, which the game has clearly already done. In some cases this is even indexed to gold: They figured out a way to charge for scribing spells in a wizard's spellbook (though they didn't bother giving some notion of how available spells are). They also priced many mundane items, some of which are pretty far up the quality chain compared to others.

      There are some basic principles that can be adopted to make the job easier and give a verisimilitude of reality, which is all that we can realistically ask out of a game. An example would be diminishing returns. A +1 magic sword should be more than a regular sword (obviously). A +2 sword should be more than double the cost of a +1 sword. Choosing what the cost curve is in many respects sets the expectations for treasure accumulation. So, let's say, just as a wild guess, the cost of a +1 sword is set at 2000 gold. Then the +2 sword should be larger than 4000 gold. Let's say it's 5000 gold but maybe it's higher, like 8000 gold.

      (In 1E/2E because of the need for +X to hit there were qualitative differences between blade plusses. This isn't in 5E.)

      None of these prices are perfect, or not arbitrary, but the book could have some nifty options in it reflecting commonality of magic items, say "common", "rare" and "essentially nonexistent".

      -Common would have Ye Olde Magic Shoppe and essentially work like most CRPGs.
      -Rare would have some level of items be manufacturable or purchasable, with magic shops requiring a fair degree of effort, such as travel to places like Waterdeep. This is more or less like many D&D campaigns have worked for a long time.
      -Essentially Nonexistent would have the manufacture of most things be lost arts except in the most exotic of locales like the City of Brass or Sigil or found in legendary hordes. This is very much like, say, LotR, where items from the First Age or from the Numenoreans are still around to be found but very few people can make them anymore. Even still, it wasn't but a few hundred years before the timeline of the novels where elf princes were getting mithril coats commissioned from the dwarves!

      Prices could be tailored for these three levels and at some levels, no price would exist at all, saying "this item only exists as a DM drop".

      (And no, I'm not going to do all this work and post it to DM's Guild for nobody to read. It should be in the book....)
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      The 3.X item creation system, as nuts as things got, was there for a reason. IMO something like it that's been fixed up and made more functional would be happy for me. I am fairly sure I could do it but it would be a pretty heavy load and I'd sure like to see some work done so I could model/extend it myself. I mean, that's presumably what we pay designers to do.
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      IMO coming up with a solid, workable (though ultimately arbitrary) price list isn't fundamentally different than coming up with tradeoff costs for powers vs powers, feats, spells, or what have you, which the game has clearly already done. In some cases this is even indexed to gold: They figured out a way to charge for scribing spells in a wizard's spellbook (though they didn't bother giving some notion of how available spells are). They also priced many mundane items, some of which are pretty far up the quality chain compared to others.
      I think the comparison to the cost of spell scribing helps illustrate the challenge, though - D&D wizards (except in 4e) have always been a class whose potency depends in part on GM fiat, because the extent of their spellbooks depends (at least in part) upon treasure found, and that is something under GM control.

      A magic item economy generalises that feature of wizards across the game. I'm simply not persuaded that it can be "fixed up and made more functional". At a minimum, there would need to be some sort of rule/guideline pegging gold to XP earned, so that items were parcelled out in a level-appropriate fashion. But that seems contrary to the 5e ethos.

      There are other challenges too - eg there may be some sorts of items which are appropriate for low as well as high levels, but that one wants nevertheless to keep fairly rare even as levels go up. (Say, some utility items like Feather Tokens or the patches on a Robe of Useful Items; or some attack items that take an enemy out of the combat for a round or two.) This is easy to achieve in PC build (because there are a finite number of "slots" for feats etc). But hard to do in a magic item economy.
    1. Tony Vargas -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      You're right, the math isn't difficult, but for some players, including a number of people I play with, if it's not published by WotC it's not real.
      Hey, it (inherent bonuses) was published, heck, it was check-box in the CB. Official & easy.

      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Jay Verkuilen pointed to AD&D as providng an example of what he might want - and the AD&D rules manifestly are not a balanced system of PC-build rules.... Rather, they're guidelines for how the GM should handle the item-creation process, which includes injecting balance at whatever point s/he wants to in whatever way s/he wants to.
      It's nothing like what 3E or 4e provided.
      The system, such as it is, in the 5e DMG seems comparable to the AD&D system that way. It should be an adequate starting point for those purposes.

      For a 3e-style system, there would be two key requirements. One, wealth/level guidelines. Two, re-balanced challenge guidelines taking those into account. Once you have those, you could have an item-creation system that worked within both. It'd necessarily be limited to creating items that add to character abilities in a predictable way: + n/level enhancement bonuses to various things; items that re-produce spells the creator can already cast.
      More 'interesting'/exciting classic items would have to be left to the DM and/or the 5e/AD&D style creation rules.
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