Limiting Player Power

It seems inevitable:  even if any game system starts out as being playable, logical, balanced, and fun, it gets destroyed in time, usually through the addition of badly thought out supplementary material, either supplementary rulebooks, patches, or expansion packs.  It’s true that such supplementary material can be beneficial to any game system, not to mention the prospect of continuing revenue from one’s player base, but inevitably a horrible thing happens.  Everything gets bigger.

It happens all the time in pen and paper systems.  The saving grace of a paper system is that as the referee controls the game (hopefully), he has the option to change and ignore bad rules whenever they inevitably appear.  Examples:

  • AD&D 1st edition was a nice little game, completely arbitrary, yet it worked.  There were a couple of little problems with it (look, elves speak 18 million languages, get combat bonuses, infravision, sword and bow bonuses, and live forever), but it still worked.  Why?  A group of AD&D players, using the rules well and accurately, might possibly get to an all-time high level of 15 or so if they were very lucky.  Most of their adventuring was done around the 5-7 range.  Then came supplements with overpowered classes (Cavalier/Barbarian in particular), Deities & Demigods with rules for how to turn your character into a divine being, and eventually the 2nd edition, where the power level was raised for everyone.  The process continued forever, and D&D no longer works.  Charts and probabilities that are designed to be functional and fun around the 15 and under range have no bearing on a game full of behemoth godlings.
  • GURPS is an excellent generic system, with a good eye toward realism and logic.  It is also designed for characters of 100 points (hero material).  During a long campaign, maybe you could push to about 150 points with earned experience.  Try to go beyond a relatively low technology 100-point setting, and GURPS no longer works.  GURPS Supers, with a base character value of 500 points, allows for more cheesy numbercrunches and bad mechanical failures than any other system specifically designed to handle superhumans.  Try an Ultra-Tech campaign, and it becomes tragically comedic:  you still have about 10 health, but now attacks are doing something on the order of 15d6 explosive damage.  In either case, if you are attacked in a high-point value adaptation, either your armor protects you fully, or you are instantly vaporized.  Now that’s epic.
  • Street Fighter, my personal favorite for beer and pretzels combat-heavy RPG systems, is fantastically balanced, and works incredibly well.  That is, until supplements are considered.  Ever eager to make something "just a little more powerful," more and more bad rules for uber characters started to appear, adding more and more arbitrary and stupid super tactics and maneuvers, until the system becomes a complete joke.  Grand Master Ryu has no chance against some choad who bought all the supplements.

As usual, the crime of making things more powerful becomes even worse in the world of the MMORPG.  Once again citing Asheron’s Call:  It’s an incredibly good game, the best of the big three.  It also works really well and functions perfectly in regards to balance… up until level 35 or so.  After that things become absurd.  This is largely because early beta testing and in-house playtesting never went much past this point in a realistic fashion.  It’s been publically stated that only one of the development team actually played past this breaking point.  Very quickly, players got way past this level, and the implementors are faced with a quandry:  how do you provide content for superpeople?  The answer was in raising the difficulty of seemingly simple actions like dyeing a piece of wool, adding supermonsters to camp, and almost monthly adding new kinds of gear that are just flat-out better than anything ever seen in the game up until that point.  Naturally, because of this violation of the "zero sum" law, these pieces of supergear became the only thing to use, and the supermonsters became the only thing to hunt (as long as they gave out some phat xp).  At this point, the 35 and under levels are more or less irrelevant, and content is being catered specifically to a class of supercharacter that the game was never really properly able to handle in the first place.  Naturally, this just skews the game more and more.

The only MMORPG of the big three that has made a semi-successful effort to limit player power is, oddly enough, Ultima Online.  Once you hit 225 stats and 700 base skill, that’s it (unless you abuse a bug).  You can shift those points around if you like, but you cannot go any higher.  You will always have problems fighting things like dragons unless you cheese somehow.  This is a blessing for UO, as it has so many other horrible problems with it related to code and people management that unlimited player power would have destroyed it within the first 4 months of retail.

The bottom line is that no game system can accurately and satisfactorily handle the concept of player characters too far outside of its rules focus.  There is a logical reason for this not based in game theory:  there is no real-life analogue for these people.  You can only become so formidable as a person through training, practice, and mental exercise.  With some luck you might become a Leonardo Da Vinci, or a Musashi Miyamoto, or a Yang Chengfu, or a Temuchin.  You cannot realistically go from 5 hit points to 200 hit points with a similar increase in your physique and mental acuity, which is exactly what happens when player potential is not capped.  These superbeings are far enough outside the scope of possibility that they too must be considered "black boxes" along with off-the-cuff magic systems.

The presence of superbeings with unlimited growth potential presents a neverending problem for developers.  Players becoming godlike?  Better get in some tougher, crazier stuff for them to try to fight, and some handheld tactical nuclear devices to fight them with.  Got a lot of multimillionaires in your world?  Better make stuff more expensive.  The ogre chieftains and the evil warlock overlord you set up to be your boss monsters are little more than a joke, and so now you need to supplant them with something else, no matter how much it screws up your storyline.  As the bar goes up, all your players must rise with it, until your entire world-design that you so carefully crafted to keep everyone interested and happy is little more than a footnote, ignored by players as they rush off to superman status to defeat your newest hastily thrown-together enemies, forcing you to repeat the entire process.

It seems clear that a hard cap on the ultimate potential of your players is necessary in a system that allows for rapid development (in a pen and paper game, you could just give out less experience).  Once a character hits this mark, he may be able to change his identity around a little, maybe he stops tilting at the lists so much to spend more time in the alchemy lab, but he cannot aspire to have so many hit points that he could casually charge the town guard when they come to arrest him with crossbows, or jump into a canyon because he’s bored and live to tell about it.  This becomes easier if you don’t let the players see where the cap is (see "The No Numbers Concept" below).  The content team will now have to be more diligent to make sure that players who feel they have maxed out already have something to keep them interested, but the inevitable path you take to do this (better storylines and immersive plots) lends far, far more to a gameworld than the prospect of improving your spreadsheet-characters.

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