All RPG campaigns have their problems. Some of these problems are difficult to solve, involve personality conflicts, bad GMing or other factors. After being involved in quite a few campaigns, I think I’ve pinned down one major problem that pretty much every campaign runs into eventually. And the solution is pretty simple.
The problem is two-fold: complexity creep and imbalance. Both aspects boil down to one thing, though — most RPGs suck at high levels. Characters end up with such a cornucopia of abilities and magic items that it becomes a huge hassle trying to keep track of it all. It gets to the point where you don’t even want new magic items because it becomes such a pain to manage them all.
“Do you guys search the evincar’s corpse after the battle?”
In a lot of systems, this is mostly confined to magic using classes. Playing a 1st, 2nd or 3rd edition wizard was incredibly irritating from level 15 and up. Every time the party took a rest, everyone else spends 30 seconds restoring hit points while you need ten minutes to decide which spells you might need that day. In 4E the problem is magnified a hundredfold. Every class has a blizzard of powers, feats, class and racial abilities, Paragon and Epic doodads and magic item abilities. It becomes literally impossible to remember it all. After years of playing him I could never consistently remember the myriad of effects that triggered when my barbarian killed or bloodied an opponent or scored a critical hit.
The imbalance issue is probably even worse. In 3rd edition, monster AC gets so ridiculous at high levels that only dedicated combat classes have any chance of hitting in combat. The system doesn’t offer non-combat classes much else to do in a fight. Magic users, supposedly at the apex of their power curve, are constantly stymied by magic resistance. Yeah, you can min-max to get around some of this, but that’s not fun for many players. Even systems that scale nicely with level (4E is better at this) give you the artificial “video game” feeling of enemies that are always perfectly balanced. At 20th level, the dragons are just as hard to hit as the kobolds at second level. What’s the difference, then?
A few months ago, I asked Twitter what the “sweet spot” was for fun and balance in 4E D&D. The overwhelming majority of responses said 5th level.
So the solution to all these problems? Stop leveling up!
I know, that’s a core element of the RPG. Maybe even a defining element. I think there are better ways to showcase character progression than arbitrary increases in abstract numbers and massive complexity creep. Here are some suggestions for alternate progression systems:
- Reputation — Your characters don’t get much more powerful, but they become better known. This opens doors and creates new opportunities for adventure. You could even create an elaborate rep system using different factions.
- Fugeddaboutit — Don’t worry about progression. Concentrate on story and role-playing character interaction.
- Money — Is your game world an entrenched plutocracy, like the real world? Then track progression by tracking net value. Mo’ money, mo’ awesome!
- Rank — Your campaign doesn’t have to be focused on warfare for this to work, although gaining military ranks works very well. The PCs could be special agents, commandos going on a variety of missions. They could be moving up in ranks through a religious hierarchy, a thieves’ guild, or an adventuring organization like the Pathfinder Society.