L&L: The Challenges of High Level Play
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    L&L: The Challenges of High Level Play

    In the latest installment of Legends & Lore Monte Cook talks about high level play, the game breaking down, and different story levels for different game levels.

    I'm really not sure where he wants to go with this. And calling the Codzilla effect "the game changes" is somewhat of an euphemism, IMHO.

    As for the poll, well, what do you want to make with the results, if they don't learn which edition the votes are based on?

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    Another week, another poorly-worded Legends & Lore poll.

    What I really wanted to get across (but the poll didn't allow for) was that I'd like to see the *option* of the game not fundamentally changing with level... but also the option of it doing so. It would be a campaign decision made up front by the GM.

    I also don't agree that planar travel is necessarily high level. Altering the fates of entire planes - yes. Going into another plane to do something - not necessarily. I mean, I'm not a huge fan of Planescape, but I don't see any reason why campaigns like that shouldn't be accomodated.

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    For the first time, I don't just get a feeling of "Meh" from Legends & Lore - Monte is absolutely and fundamentally wrong, IMO. From the top....

    In every single edition, when you start talking about high-level play, someone invariably says that the game breaks down after about 12th level. (Sometimes they say 10th, sometimes 8th, sometimes 15th, and so onŚthe point is the same.)
    Actually, I've never heard this said about 1st or 2nd Edition, and barely ever about 4e.

    There are a couple of reasons for this:

    In 1st and 2nd Edition, the maths of the game fundamentally changes at 'name' level - most characters stop gaining many hit points, non-spellcasters have more or less topped out in power, and monster ACs have maxed out at -10. It's only the spellcasters who continue to see big boosts in power, and while this leads to a "spellcasters rule!" mentality, they're rare enough that I haven't seen this translate into "the game breaks". (Although, maybe it should have.)

    In 4e the designers, to their immense credit, went through the game and "fixed the math". And they genuinely did a good job of it. So, aside from the errata that they had to apply and then re-apply, the game holds up surprisingly well. In fact, quite different from "the game breaks", the great criticism of 4e is that there is too little difference - at 1st level you fight Orcs and at 30th you fight Orcus, but you're doing fundamentally the same stuff each time. (And, yes, that's an exaggeration. I just like the Orcs/Orcus parallel.)

    As a fan of high-level play across the editions, I've never agreed fully with the idea that the game breaks down. I think, however, there's some validity to it, but only if you look at it a certain way. What people are recognizing is that, at a certain level, play changes. As I see it, there are three such break points in the gameŚlow level, mid level, and high level.
    He's right that the game changes.

    But, in 3e at least, he's wrong to assert that the game doesn't break. The problem is that 3e starts off as a hugely complex game (even Core Rules only), and with every supplement you add, and every level you go up, that complexity increases hugely. After a while, you get to a "sweet spot", where characters are nicely robust, where they have plenty of options, but where the complexity isn't overwhelming.

    But then, scant few levels later, the complexity really starts to bite. Polymorph kills you, summoned monsters can mean the Druids turn alone takes an hour, and woe betide you if someone drops a greater dispel!

    At the same time, the game purposefully negates the hard-won survivability of the characters as save-or-die effects proliferate. And so we get so-called "rocket tag", in which the spellcasters bounce magical effects back and forwards and the only real consideration is "who fails a save first?"

    And, of course, if it is your PC who dies, you're out of action for hours while the rest of the party completes the encounter, and then you return through the revolving door of death. Madness, on both counts.

    Fourth Edition does a nice job of recognizing these changes, I think, and the changes don't focus on how the characters become more powerful and how the challenges they face grow more difficult. Instead, the very game changes. The three tiers of the game, along with the commensurate change in character power, influence, and potential foes, makes a lot of sense.
    Agreed.

    (The people who say that the game breaks down at such-and-such a level are self-defining themselves as people who don't care for that style of high-level play, which is fine, of course!)
    Nope, wrong. I like high level play. It's just that it's easier to do in Savage Worlds or Exalted than D&D. 4e was a step forward in this regard, but it loses me for other regards. With 3e, having done high-level once, I'll not be doing it again... and that's my current edition of choice.

    Some players like low-level, gritty, "where am I going to get two more silver pieces to afford to eat today" kinds of games. Others want to fight basilisks and save the whole town from an invasion of troglodytes. And still others want to create their own plane of existence and lay waste to planets. (And plenty want to do two or all three of these things.) Recognizing these different desires and needs allows game designers to tailor gameplay to suit them.

    This means that, perhaps, certain activities, conditions, and effects could and should be level-based. Perhaps teleportation of any kind should be a mid- or high-level effect. Energy drain or ability damaging effects could be medium. Planar travel should be high-level. And so on.
    Yes. Gosh, I wish the 4e designers had considered that... /sarcasm

    What I am really getting at here is that the level of the game affects the complexity both of the story and the mechanics.
    NO. This is absolutely and completely wrong.

    For a first-time player, the model of "start simple, then increase complexity" is a good thing. Fair enough.

    But...

    A given player only plays that first campaign once, and most of us don't want to then revert back to "Dwarf Fighter" as the full extent of our customisation the second and subsequent time we play. Additionally, most of us reach of point at which the level of complexity is right for us, and don't want to go beyond that point.

    So, what that actually suggests is that the core game should be a nice, simple introduction to the game, with minimal complexity at the start, gradually increasing to a moderate level and then staying at that level for the rest of the level range. Then, add supplements that add complexity (but not power) at those low levels, and further supplements that allow groups to increase the level of complexity across the level range up to their preferred level (and no further).

    Remember that it is trivial for a supplement to add complexity; it is nigh-impossible for one to remove it. So, keep the core to the minimum complexity you require to make the game work.

    It's almost as if what's needed is some sort of, I don't know, modular system...

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    4E handled higher levels far far better than 3E, because math was better and casters didn't become gods while melee characters are stuck on the ground.

    Monte, if you are reading this, 3E high level was broken, unless you played a Wizard, Cleric, Druid, etc...

    Also, I ran some 3.5 high level games, and it's a heavy load to DMs...

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    I'm not sure if I liked the separate tiers of 4E or not, to be honest. I didn't like that suddenly there was a spike in character power, monster difficulty and XP gains, but magic items and choice of appropriate enemies for a combat proceeded smoothly. I would prefer smooth transition over spiky. That or the extreme spikiness of 'your characters achieve something incredible, time passes, we start Season 2 of the campaign with fundamental changes in gameplay'.

    Almost all of the Ritual magic from 4E should be kept - it did an excellent job of making significant effects like Raise Dead and Teleportation really matter, appear at the right levels and not get thrown out trivially. Overall though, I'd like to see a flattening of the numbers - the reason you don't fight a dragon isn't because you can't hit it, but because you can't power up fire resistance enough.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by delericho View Post
    For the first time, I don't just get a feeling of "Meh" from Legends & Lore - Monte is absolutely and fundamentally wrong, IMO. From the top....



    Actually, I've never heard this said about 1st or 2nd Edition, and barely ever about 4e.

    There are a couple of reasons for this:

    In 1st and 2nd Edition, the maths of the game fundamentally changes at 'name' level - most characters stop gaining many hit points, non-spellcasters have more or less topped out in power, and monster ACs have maxed out at -10. It's only the spellcasters who continue to see big boosts in power, and while this leads to a "spellcasters rule!" mentality, they're rare enough that I haven't seen this translate into "the game breaks". (Although, maybe it should have.)
    At least in my experience, in 1e, at higher levels fighters types were remarkably effective even compared to wizards.

    They were far more gear dependent, but a fighter with good armor and a weapon could do a lot of damage. And with a girdle of giant strength, they were downright nasty.

    Most higher level stuff had magic resistance, which often meant MUs had a 50/50 chance of even harming something.

    Thieves, not so much. They were probably the worst at high level.

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    For the first time in a while I'm actually okay with this article. It has a little whiff of that dodgy "Well, if you don't like this aspect of the game that's just because it wasn't designed for you." garbage but not much. Overall the point is true (though I more and more get the impression that Monte Cook has never so much as played a single session of 4e since he nicely nailed the levels at which other editions fall apart but missed that 4e falls apart as soon as the players meet epic tier monsters).

    But what does this poll even mean? I was able to answer it well enough but I'm not sure what anyone could take from it to make meaningful design choices.

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    I've got no issue with a lower bound of complexity--something like low-level BECMI--as some people will enjoy it, and it does serve as a good base for game options. But as others have said, any increase should be gradual and top out well shy of very complex. Then if you want to layer optional complexity on top of that, that's fine too.

    The upper bound is a simple test: If you make a game more complex than Hero System or GURPS, you'd better darn well be delivering something special in the flavor, feel, etc. Because those games alreadly, consciously, trade increased complexity up front for almost steady complexity thereafter--including smoother play. That is, the learning curve is steep, but then once you get over it, the systems run easily.

  9. #9
    I think this one's trying to get at an important issue, but doesn't really nail it.

    If you think "quadratic wizards vs. linear fighters" is a "problem" that needs to be "fixed", or that there was ever something fundamentally wrong with high-level play, you probably shouldn't be playing D&D.

    OTOH, if you enjoy making character sheets for high-level 3.X casters, you have way too much free time on your hands, and there are some legitimate balance issues with high-level characters.

    At least he's got it right by positing that high-level play should be a meaningfully different experience than low-level play.

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    Hey all!

    Interesting topic raised by Monte but I think he is complicating what really just needs a simple resolution.

    An epic tier needs:
    - To support different options (like mass combat, running a country, becoming immortal, etc.)
    - To have its own enemies that 'make sense' for that tier.

    I explained all this in far greater detail six months ago.

    Article: The Ten Commandments of Epic Eternity Publishing

    Quote Originally Posted by Monte Cook
    In every single edition, when you start talking about high-level play, someone invariably says that the game breaks down after about 12th level. (Sometimes they say 10th, sometimes 8th, sometimes 15th, and so onŚthe point is the same.) This "truism" of D&D is so ingrained that it doesn't matter what edition you are talking about. So, despite the fact that high-level 4th Edition play is quite different than high-level 1st Edition play, the general commentary about how high-level play breaks down remains the same.
    3rd Edition aguably does mathmatically break down at a certain point. 4th Edition doesn't break down, although the dynamic changes (the PCs approximately double in power at the epic tier while the monsters stagnate). Once a DM understands this change they can accomodate for it.

    As a fan of high-level play across the editions, I've never agreed fully with the idea that the game breaks down. I think, however, there's some validity to it, but only if you look at it a certain way. What people are recognizing is that, at a certain level, play changes. As I see it, there are three such break points in the gameŚlow level, mid level, and high level. Fourth Edition does a nice job of recognizing these changes, I think, and the changes don't focus on how the characters become more powerful and how the challenges they face grow more difficult. Instead, the very game changes. The three tiers of the game, along with the commensurate change in character power, influence, and potential foes, makes a lot of sense.
    Actually I disagree that player influence and the potential foes make a lot of sense at the epic tier.

    Firstly, player influence hasn't really been part of the system since BECMI. Running a stronghold, running a country, leading an army, becoming immortal. All of those things have been systematically stripped from the last few editions of the game. What remains is dungeon crawling. Therefore the tiers just mean the same thing with higher math for the epic tier.

    Secondly, the majority of the potential foes you fight in the epic tier are the same darn foes you fought the previous two tiers. But the worst thing about the epic tier is that far too many monsters were shoehorned into higher tiers to 'pad it out'. What this does is completely undermine any identity for that tier.

    A game where characters run around in a dungeon and hit things with swords is arguably a completely different game than one in which they teleport from place to place and disintegrate vast hordes of enemies with artifacts. In fact, they should be different games. I think that players who appreciate the different levels of play want them to be different.
    You have just described two dungeon crawl scenaros for different tiers.

    Different levels of play need to have distinct options of play. Epic tier groups may still want to do some 'dungeon crawling' but the game also needs to accomodate mass combat, running a country, becoming a deity etc.

    (The people who say that the game breaks down at such-and-such a level are self-defining themselves as people who don't care for that style of high-level play, which is fine, of course!)
    Its fine, except when those self-same people are WotC Designers responsible for epic tier material.

    Some players like low-level, gritty, "where am I going to get two more silver pieces to afford to eat today" kinds of games. Others want to fight basilisks and save the whole town from an invasion of troglodytes. And still others want to create their own plane of existence and lay waste to planets. (And plenty want to do two or all three of these things.) Recognizing these different desires and needs allows game designers to tailor gameplay to suit them.
    The latter hasn't been recognised by the official rules for about 30 years.

    This means that, perhaps, certain activities, conditions, and effects could and should be level-based. Perhaps teleportation of any kind should be a mid- or high-level effect. Energy drain or ability damaging effects could be medium. Planar travel should be high-level. And so on.
    Seems straightforward.

    What I am really getting at here is that the level of the game affects the complexity both of the story and the mechanics. (That's not to say that a low-level story can't be deep and meaningful, but it probably doesn't involve multiple levels of reality or the nature of deities.) The level drives expectations, and I think that it behooves a designer to meet those expectations.
    If the higher tiers deliver a different playing experience then gamers won't mind a bit more complexity. Its when the game is fundamentally the same dungeon crawl at Level 30 as it was at Level 1 that people are disillusioned by the same thing with more math.

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