L&L: The Challenges of High Level Play
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  1. #1

    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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    Thaumaturgist (Lvl 9)

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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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    Greater Elemental (Lvl 23)

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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.

    (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.


    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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    Guide (Lvl 11)

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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...

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Jan van Leyden View Post
    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.
    I think CODzilla is a different issue than what Monte is talking about. Both were (possibly) a part of 3e, but they aren't necessarily tied to each other.

    What Monte seems to ask is whether high level play should change: death as final -> death as minor speed bump; travel and terrain as significant -> teleport or windwalk all over; individual orcs are challenging -> a horde of orcs is challenging; etc.

    It doesn't have to mean (divine) casters rule the game. Assuming it can be balanced, should these changes happen?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jan van Leyden View Post
    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?
    And what about the results from last week... Weren't there two polls? Are those for core or options?

  6. #6
    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.

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    Minor Trickster (Lvl 4)

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    I'm still confused with those polls.

    If WotC already has D&D Next in alpha stage (as they are making some playtests), what is the point of asking players what they want for 5th edition ??

    Just let us try the alpha version and listen to what we like/dislike about it !!

    Sometimes I have the feeling that these L&L articles are more written to push our expectations in one direction than to really listen our opinions.

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    Lama (Lvl 13)

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    Orcus was rewritten before Essentials came out. The game designers don't play enough at higher levels to 'gork' the math fully in 4th or 3rd. Or if they do, they're playing some very 'wussified' style characters that can't do the basics that most internet combo shots will gather in a week.

    The math in 4e was so broke that they had to rescale monster damage almost completely. And monster hit points for that matter.

    With a massive lack of support, and what's worse, advancement to higher levels moving through exactly the same mechanics as it did before, the game play will proceded exactly as it did before because that's how the characters are going to advance in level.

    Another problem is that it has a huge assumption on magic being fairly common. If you're playing in the all martial campaign, well, a lot of those assumptions about movement and information gathering, among other bits, is probably going bye bye. While you can't build to one power source, to think that with rogues, rangers, and fighters being some of the most popular classes that it's not happening and that might cause its own issues seems odd. Mind you Monte is the maker of numerous books of magic so I can't blame him for thinking who the hell would run an all martial campaign or that it sucks to be them.

    Until we see a lot more published support and a lot more sense in the threats and means of advancement, epic or high level play is, and will remain 'different'.

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    A 1e title so awesome it's not in the book (Lvl 21)

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    Personally I never really managed to run a campaign up to high level (let's say beyond 15 in 3ed).

    Complexity becoming too much and dragging the game down is one issue, although I believe it can be avoided or mitigated if players and DM design PC/NPC accordingly. At least I know that when I had to run high-level spellcasting NPC I often didn't bother selecting all their spells perfectly but rather pick some key spells and prepare them multiple times, at the same time avoiding feats and magic items that need activation and stick to "flat bonus/always active" types.

    Anyway, my biggest disappointment with high-level play was almost complete lack of support to the DM in published books...

    I don't want high-level play to be only "big numbers & high tactical complexity (i.e. lots of character weapons)", but I understand that this could be one way of intending it, and this should be supported by the rules (which is) but also the books should give instructions and tools to the DM on how to handle it properly (which isn't).

    The other type of high level play, which is the one I would be more interested in, is about taking the campaign to a whole new level by expanding the geographical and historical scope (space + time), and once again I think 3ed books have not delivered any support for that.


    To clarify what I mean with that... I've just gotten hold on some of the BECMI books (unfortunately not all of them) which I wanted to read since a long time. So far I've only read the first player's book, but it seems to me that the idea of the BECMI series was that of separating different gaming experiences, by taking the scope to a new level every time, adding not only character material but also new rules.

    So with the Basic rules your PC are concerned with dungeon adventures. The typical geographyical scope is local (one dungeon), and the typical historical scope is one day. Survival, treasure, experience are the focus.

    Move to Expert, and the scope increases: adventures move to the wilderness (forests, mountains, deserts, swamps...) so the typical space stretches in size to an area that is going to be handled differently (navigation is not room-by-room but more vague), and the timeframe includes handling rests, travels, food & water.

    In the Companion tier, your PC's concerns turn towards your role in society: your reference space is your country or continent, your reference time is years, and you're now dealing with wars, rulership, and gaining power that is not measured much with your personal ability in a fight but rather in how you can get the rest of the world adapt around you to get what you want.

    Next is Master ruleset where your aim is to make history and become subject for tales and folklore: the "space" you refer to ss the whole world, and the time is beyond your life.

    Finally there's the Immortal set, about ascending to godhood or similar things. Space is all. Time is all. If you go far enough, you may actually create or alter space and time itself, creating new worlds for example.

    I don't mean that the game should definitely work like that, or that these are all necessary to cover. But if I understand right (although I still have to read those books, so I might be wrong...) the BECMI approach was to really conceive different games at different tiers. 3ed and 4ed didn't really do that... maybe 4ed works better, but from what I hear, the game at higher tiers is still pretty much "kill the monsters and take their stuff".

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    Grandmaster of Flowers (Lvl 18)

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    The main problem with high level is the lack of support.
    I'd say a good 75% percent of the design focus of all the previous editions are on the levels between the time a PC leaves their master/trainer/teacher and when the sort of resemble the iconic character they represent.

    There is no clear image of what a high level fighter or wizard would be able to do and act like. If there was, games wouldn't get broken by flight, teleports, and pumped up skills.

    The challenges don't address higher level abilities. Adult dragons don't assume they have to deal with powerful spell casters and surround their liasr with antimagic defenses automatically. Demonic warlord can't banish the soul of one of those pesky adventurers he just killed for a month forcing them to give all of January to conquer freely. An assassin isn't assumed to have paid a wizard contact to make him scryproof. A fighter who saved the whole kingdom never uses his wish from the king for a winged breastplate.

    No, the PCs just get stronger and everyone else in the universe gets a case of the derps unless the DM fixes them.

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