Monday, July 2, 2012

Simplicity and the Gentle Power Curve

Disclaimer (for those who don't already know): I'm a Fighter man.

I've been ruminating the last few days on a couple of things. At first they didn't seem related, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw a connection. My frantic ADD swing has led me back to a few of my old favorites. These are games that I know well from repeated readings over the last number of years, or the fact that I've used them. If I were to try to use them now, though, I would have to teach my wife and kids these games. They already know old-school style D&D, but one of these other systems would be a from-the-ground-up proposition. Probably not a very fun one, either.

But isn't that why we game in the first place? Fun? Maybe in a different time, and with a different group of players, it was fun to learn and try new systems. In my here and now, though, that's not where it's at. However, it isn't a case of D&D being fun because it is the only game in my house. It's not fun due to a lack of choice. It's fun because it is fun. Even all the way back to the LBBs (I would argue especially in the LBBs), it is a very tight system. All the parts work well together, and it isn't until "improvements" were made that problems started to develop. In its most simple state, D&D is still an excellent engine for fantasy gaming.

That simplicity began to collapse as the power curve started going up. I have been guilty (in these very posts) of trying to make Fighters more powerful so they are more on par with other classes, Magic-users especially. What I should have been doing was lowering the M-U's power curve, not raising the Fighter's. (I do believe that, as a playable class, Fighters do need more than what is offered in the LBBs. The class offers little fun to the player. A Fighter in the LBBs gets a HD each level and gets 10% better at hitting opponents every 3 levels. Not a lot to get excited about. But, I digress.)

Monster HD go up in response to more powerful spells and class abilities. Monster abilities, even if it is just better damage, go up to keep the monsters a challenge. Our simple little power curve became a self-perpetuating spiral of one-upsmanship.

The sweet spot

I've been reading Adventurer Conqueror King again, and in light of power curves and simplicity, I have to say, it hits a sweet spot. The core engine is simple and elegant, because it doesn't stray too far from the founding principles. The characters are simple archetypes, but there are customization options to keep things interesting. They don't wreck the power curve, though. ACKS has an inherent interest in maintaining the power curve.

That interest is, of course, the endgame. For a fully realized endgame to work there has to be two things going on: a steady progression toward the goal, and relative power levels once the endgame is reached. Considering these points individually:

Steady progression is achieved by concise rules supporting henchmen so that players (not necessarily characters, because it is the players that are interfacing with the systems) can develop an understanding and experience with the building blocks of the domain systems. Learning to handle henchmen, hireling, and eventually mercenaries, are vital components of domain management. Simply waiting until the character reaches Name level and opening the doors to Castle Depo doesn't really work.

The above point is crucial to getting to the endgame. This point is paramount for operating in the endgame. The characters have to be somewhat balanced at the highest level. The game tops out at 14th level for all characters. If one 14th level character is clearly superior, then the endgame collapses under the weight of the imbalance. Either nobody will want to play through to the endgame, or everyone will want to play the unbalanced class so they can dominate the endgame.

Ok, that's another digression, but it was to make a point. The point is that ACKS attempts to have balanced classes from the outset and keep them balanced. That balance occurs along a fairly modest power curve. The modest power curve keeps things simple: player choices matter in the scheme of things, combats are shorter, creative solutions to problems are not only encouraged, they are necessary because there isn't some uber-feat/ability for dealing with the challenge. Simplicity is King.

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