This week has been a brain-frying but intellectually stimulating delve into the question of campaign power levels. Utilising the Hero System 6E rules, and discussing matters relating to my Serene Dawn campaign setting, I've been trying to figure out how best to set up the various elements that make a setting feel right.
Most RPGs come with "power levels" already defined. There is a kind of default set of parameters which tells you what to expect... and we rarely think about it unless it ends up feeling wrong.
What's this "power level" thingy, though, I hear you ask. As it's not normally very clearly discussed in most game systems, and tends to be a feature of generic systems which try to be flexible enough to model any setting you desire, most of us are oblivious to the kinds of things we are talking about.
Here's a good starting point:
- What amount of damage does the average weapon do?
- How much armour resistance to that damage does the average hero have?
- How many times can the average hero get whacked by that weapon and still be walking?
Most games set up this kind of stuff for you: swords do X damage, handguns do Y damage. You don't spend much time thinking about it.
But with a generic system, like Hero, these questions are paramount. Get it wrong and you set up the wrong feel for your game.
Does It Matter?
If you're happy with the power level in your game then the short answer is, "No". It won't matter to you.
If, however, like me you are persistently uncomfy with the way in which the game system "feels" for your campaign then it's massively important.
For example, although I am enjoying running my Mykovnia setting using Pathfinder RPG, a system with predefined power levels, I am not comfy with the feel. For now this doesn't really matter because the guys are having fun and I don't care enough about the off "feel" to change it. Except that if I run a future campaign... well, I would be tempted to change system.
These questions sit at the root of why I have spent so much time, money and effort on seeking the "perfect" gaming system. It's not just about the "core mechanic" of the game, or this or that rule. Overall, the system has to set the right tone... or it ruins the feel of your campaign.
Does it matter? Well, given that "wrong feel" is responsible for spoiling several campaigns, for me the answer is a resounding, "YES!"
Setting It Right
Is your game gritty, heroic or super-powered?
Do heroes go down with one high-caliber rifle shot, or can they shrug off bullets like Superman?
These questions lie at the heart of why, despite it requiring legendary amounts of effort to set up a campaign, the Hero System is growing on me.
In my Dark Reich gritty World War II alternative campaign I could set the power levels dialed low, with heroes falling to two or three wounds; in Serene Dawn they are a bit more resilient but still mortal, having mid-range power levels.
The trick is that I get to make the decision, not some faceless and distant Game Designer who I've never met. On top of that, with a system like Hero, I get to tweak it as we play. If something feels off, we simply adjust the baseline power level. Simple.
What About You?
Does you game feel just right? Well, then, you've got a cool campaign and the right system.
If not, however, consider how your chosen RPG reflects the tone and feel, the power level, that you'd like for the setting.
This was at the root of why D&D4e, whilst initially a lot of fun, ran out of steam for me. Power levels are set high but the balance of power never seemed to develop; as each hero levelled up, so did the bad guys... and those cool powers really didn't feel very cool. In fact, they all felt the same... whether a Wizard, a Fighter or a Rogue we all had similar powers and effects. Yawn. In my idea of fantasy, Wizards sling spells and Fighters swing weapons. These are different effects and should feel different.
Looking at my Hero System choices, I've been setting the dials to a conservative balance between "adventuring realism" and "cool powers". Heroes have some cool guns and neat armour... and some have some cool Psi powers too. Overall, though, all the heroes are working within a "power level framework", a range of parameters, which makes sense for that setting.
And the really cool thing is that, if I change setting, I get to change the power level to suit myself.