Great on paper, shit in practice!
Human Slaves of An Insect Nation, Part five-Threat Scaling Or from Kobolds to the Planes
I’d just like to take a moment so I can state that the Epic Level Handbook was the single dumbest idea in the history of tabletop roleplaying.
|Outshining Savage Species’ stupidity the way an exploding sun outshines a firefly’s glow.|
With that in mind, allow me to move on to my argument:
As I stated in Part 4 of this article series (where I explained that players come to the game with the promise or riches, bitches and the venting of their sociopathic tendencies), tabletop roleplaying is based on the premise that overcoming a challenge begets reward.
Why the hell else would you bother dressing up as a dwarf?
Dungeons and Dragons became so stupidly famous because it was the game that sort of made this formula famous, by adding not only experience points, gold and bitchin’ magic powers in the equation, but also because the idea of constant, scaling challenge is an inextricable part of the system.
No matter how good of a Storyteller you are, there is a deeper, more insiduous reason why players come to the table and toss dice at each other in pretend battles to pretend death: and that’s so they can get stronger so they can fight more pretend battles to even more pretend death, while facing gradually more ridiculously dangerous circumstances.
They come to your table and listen to you talk and do funny voices, while making up an overarching plot line that leads to the near-collapse of the multiverse because they want you to make them akin to the heroes of yore.
tl;dr they start off like this
|and end up doing this.|
This effect, this scaling of power and threat is in more ways than one, the core of every game you will ever run, ever. Of course, power doesn’t need to be provided to the players in the form of magic armor or spells that can set fire to the sky, but you know what?
Most players won’t really care for much else. In fact, most players (at least the ones I’ve played with, no matter how good they were) will miss on the idea of subtler power like, say, political power and influence over the religious and diplomatic standing of an entire continent. No sir, your players are in this for the explosions, the gore and the dragon slaying and you best fucking buck up and provide said goods!
|Shut up and kiss me, you fool!|
But how do you manage the myriad intricacies of scaling threats? How do you deal with the grating, breackneck pacing of managing three to six manchildren, hungry for power? And, more importantly, where do you stop?
I cannot answer these questions, as they are a matter of personal experience and subjective approach to tabletop gaming. What I can do instead is give you this:
THE SHAPESCAPES GUIDE TO NOT LOSING YOUR SHIT WHILE MANAGING AN ENTIRE CAMPAIGN
|That’s you, before reading this article.|
Step One: Acknowledge that you are going to fuck up.
This is a fact that should be plain as day already. I’ve had friends of mine claim that they don’t like the pessimistic approach to gaming in these articles and that I should not constantly remind Storytellers that they are going to fuck up but you know what?
They’re fucking wrong.
Tabletop roleplaying is an exercise in basic social manipulation and narrative pacing, wrapped in memory exercises, with a touch of risk management. It’s the kind of hobby that makes you remember all kinds of trivial bullshit, while trying to pull off a tale and run a halfway convincing setting.
If I make it sound too hard, it’s because it is. Running a game with any sort of skill or success is a feat in and of itself and if you can pull it off, then you’re a fucking champ.
|“Thanks, lake reptile! I feel so much better now!”|
Most gaming articles, advice manuals and other horseshit material keep giving you feel-good advice about ‘story management’ and ‘challenge ratings’ or ‘experience tables’, automatically assuming that you’re going to pull these off with success, simply by virtue of following the word of the rules, but that’s the worst goddamn assumption they could ever make.
Not one of those goddamn tomes acknowledge the fact that you might mess up or might not get it right or even provide you with contingencies, because they don’t want to hurt your widdle feelings.
Well you know what dude? I ain’t scared to hurt your feelings. In fact, I am going to hurt you so goddamn bad that you will develop considerable scar tissue and you’ll have to grow around it. I’m gonna make you tear your Storyteller Muscles so you can be stronger every time until you’re an invincible story-machine, steamrolling over every challenge!
But to do that, I need you to accept that, along the way, you are going to mess up. You are going to make mistakes and your players will exploit them and you are going to learn from these mistakes and come up with increasingly better solutions until you’re the shadowy puppetmaster, pulling at your players’ heartstrings, making them dance to your every command!
|Their lives and sanity dangling at the edge of your malicious fingers.|
So get this through your cute little noggin first: threat scaling is tough to pull off. But you are going to do it, because you are going to turn boss battles into walks in the park and random strolls through the park into Total Party Kills until you get it right!
With that in mind, let’s move to…
Step Two: Set up the Pace
How fast do you want your players to move up the great food chain that is your setting’s power level? Do you want them to be mud-farmers for a good chunk of their adventuring career, or would you like to speed things up so you can get to the demigod phase by lunchtime?
|Fighting against extinction-level threats before dinner.|
This is a direct correlation to having a clear outline of your story in mind. If you want the focus of your story to be the gradual and painful rise of a group of cobbler’s apprentices to royalty, then you need to play this out carefully and above all, slowly. The characters must move in a pace that fits your story so they can pave their way to glory in the corpses of their enemies
|Every inch marinated in their own sweat-blood.|
If, on the other hand, you’re feeling slightly more Michael-Bayey, you can always just blast past through the starting phases of the game, so your players can get to the giant-killing without wasting your time.
Sometimes, some rulebooks or articles will urge you to start the players off at an advanced starting point, so you can save time and effort. This approach, while popular, is only partially correct.
Advancing players ahead of time by, say, 3 or 4 levels results in a manageable party with some considerable (but relatively ordinary) experience. However, starting the players in a much more advanced level of power means that their development and understanding of the limitations of their power occurred off-screen and that, above all, your players don’t actually know what to do with them and will in fact, drag your game down, as you also don’t know what to do with the mad gods you plagued yourself with.
That’s why you must move to…
Step Three: Make them fucking earn it.
“Experience is civilization, Julie. Without it, we're back in the LARP.”
Tabletop roleplaying differs from vidyagames in the sense that you can experience and play out the intricacies, trappings and understanding of your character and setting. In order to do this, however, you need to play him out and in order to play him out you need to be there, every step of the way.
There’s a reason why I consider starting the players off on an advanced stage is a bad idea. And that’s because the players cannot (and will not) understand or know how the magical sociopath they’ve just rolled into being works. Power, in tabletop roleplaying, isn’t just about tossing tupperwarefuls of dice at each other, or screaming obscenities at mindless results tables.
|“You horrible fucking bastard! You ruined my life! Yououou ruiiined myyy liiife!” *KRA-KA-THOOM!*|
Giving players power means putting yourself in the front seat of the rickety roller coaster you just made, knowing full well that this thing is about to collapse right under your feet the minute you begin your descent and still act all surprised about it.
If you still want to give them power, then do it sparingly and according to tour own narrative needs. Are your players war veterans? Level 3 sounds pretty good. Were they special force commandos in the same war, fighting behind enemy lines? Level 5 covers that. Were they the slayers of Nur’Combah, the Green Tyrant of the Gamboge forest?
No, they weren’t. And if they claim they were, then they’re fucking lying and they better pray to their gods that Nur’Combah doesn’t catch wind of the stupid fucks that go around saying they killed him like a bitch, unless they’re looking for a faceful of highly corrosive acids.
With that in mind, why don’t we talk about…
Step Four: Set a cap.
|“The realms of gods are not for man. Not yet.”|
How lofty are the heights your players can aspire to? Can global champions exist in your story? Has anyone ever built himself an empire by virtue of his magical prowess and the might of his steel? Can you punch a god in the balls?
These are the questions that you need to answer before you set your cap. Your characters, even if they are destined to be the champions of the U niverse, need to have a clearly defined limit to their abilities. Perhaps they were never meant to be more than champions of the realm. That means that by D&D standards, level 12 is the highest any man may aspire to. Do you want them to be multiversal badasses? 18 is your cap.
|Do you feel like you need to make your gaming life a living hell at some point in the future? Then try level 20.|
But above all and most importantly, you need to understand that these are the highest possible levels of power your players can aspire to. These are the rewards they will receive at the very end of a life of adventuring and struggle. Which means that there are going to be very few people in the entire world to even near their awesome power.
It is important to note, at this point, that when your players do reach their cap, or on their way toward it, you need to support the illusion that they are a team of badasses. Power, in roleplaying games is only as awesome as you can make it out to be. Yes, the players will always want more power, more numbers and cool shit. But if you can make them feel that this is the absolute fucking best it could get for everyone ever, then you’re covered.
Remember, kids: the illusion of power is much more effective than power itself!
Step Five: Manage the challange (I’m honestly sorry, I just couldn’t get it to rhyme any other way)
Du-du-duhm! Ah’m gonna be da vurry best! But first I’ll fuck up a looot! Ja-ja-junjun!
Step five lasts the entire campaign and can only be perfected by gradual and careful experimentation with your players’ capabilities, limitations and exploitation of the rules.
And in certain rare instances, teamwork.
Managing the challenge is a highly subjective matter that works topically, according to the rules and arbitration of each campaign on your part, so here are some basic guidelines.
-Fixed Challenge measuring systems (like, say, CRs) are garbage:
Once upon a time, Wizards of The Coast hired their finest machine game designers and tasked them with the quantification of each monster’s threat level, as a means to measure how dangerous it is. Thus, we got the Challenge Rating system
|Turning the undying personification of ultimate evil with eyes that suck out your soul into an 8.|
The CR system hurt roleplaying in two ways:
a) it turned the flair and character of monsters into numbers and the entire series of battles in the campaign into essentially a Street Fighter style tournament and
b) it was so goddamn stupid everyone thought it was smart.
I could go on and on about CRs and all that relevant shit, but that would defeat the purpose of the article, so here’s the gist of it:
Each monster should be placed and arbitrated according to the needs of your story and is there to challenge your players. Yes, this method is way harder to pull off and requires much more thought on your part, but it makes for a much better model of play. In fact, by doing this you realize that…
-You should not be afraid to experiment:
|Ach, ja! By zplizing ze abilities of the undying monstrocity vith ze regenerative capabiliez ov a monitor lizard, I am become as a God in mein own right!|
Monsters and threats are usually made by professionals who know what the hell they’re doing and know how to work with you. But sometimes, your monster, villain or threat needs that extra flair. So why not add shit to him or change some shit up?
Give your astral pupa that’s been plaguing your characters the ability to instantly track them across the Universe! Make your otherwise invincible shadow demon vulnerable in moonlight! Turn your boring ass elf nazi bad guy into a sniper!
|Caught in a pinch? Go cyborg on their ass!|
The possibilities are endless and no-one can stop you! No one but yourself, that is. Remember: you are the only one who knows what your party can handle. You know whether the brain-blasting eye attack you gave your orc scout will kill them or if it will just give them a hard time.
But if you’re boring and not into spicing up your monsters (or if you’re into tactical combat), then you can…
-Spruce up the battlefield:
Wait, so Iron Fist is interesting now? How come nobody told me?
Fight in zero-g. Get a shitload of lesser enemies to charge the team as they are orbital dropped from space. Shamelessly copy and remix an MK arena. Make the sky, the sea, even absolute darkness your field of battle!
Always make sure that your current threat faces your characters in a setting that is advantageous to it, thus giving it better ground to fight in. Also give the players hazards that they can master, forcing them to use their abilities in new and exciting way, but always know this:
The players will miss the subtler clues. Always add an environmental or morphological hazard that can be exploited both ways. If their enemy can use Dream Kung Fu, then make sure they get that they can use that against him as well.
Remember: your players like a challenge, when it is evenly balanced and thought out. Nobody wants a party pooper that flings Godzilla at them and goes:
|“It’s a twenty-storey lizard with fission breath and impenetrable skin” “I cast Magic Missile!” "Uhhh...kay"|
But, according to Step One, you could just always turn this into a TPK. Cue…
Step Six: Arrange for escape contingencies
|Fuck this, I’m out of here.|
Your threat might end up becoming too much. Maybe you miscalculated and now the dragon’s about to tear your party to shreds. Or perhaps the amorphous blob of matter with the hypnotizing song that can swallow and assimilate the party in five rounds made it to the sixth.
Either way, this is a fuck-up. There’s two ways you can deal with it.
-Deus Ex Machina:
The Deus Ex Machina is a classic ‘I messed up so I’m pussying out’ move that is aimed toward covering up your mistake while at the same time keeping everybody happy. A straightforward, in-your-face application of deus ex machina makes you look inept and above all, like a coward.
“Nobody’s gonna say my son was yellow.”
This method of bailing requires careful planning and, above all, subtlety. You cannot present an unkillable meat grinder of a monster and then have the torch-bearer come out with a gatling gun and kill the fucker. But what you can do is give the monster very particular dietary needs. Say, for example, that after incapacitating the party, the creature leaves their seemingly dead bodies to marinate in a cesspool for a couple hours so it can eat them. The torch-bearer finds them then and helps them escape and presto! You’re scot-free!
Only problem is, there’s only so many ways you can pull it off. They ain’t that many, but they’re enough for you to understand where you went wrong.
-Taking it like a goddamn man:
You clench your teeth and explain how you fucked up. You accept the consequences and above all, make it up to them. If everybody’s dead, you can at least try harder to not make this threat the meat-grinder it originally was. If everyone got away with the skin of their teeth, then control the damage.
It’s tough as shit and you’re going to get a lot of verbal abuse over it, but they’re going to appreciate you for it. As you all learn and grow together, so does their power, which brings us to…
Step Seven: Power Sucks
Explosive disintegration does sound like a much more viable alternative, after all.
As your players grow in power, they discover that they get more options that they can use in their favor and abilities that they can apply in combat or otherwise. This means that, as you progress in game, threats can be overcome in more than one ways.
That means that you need to up your game but to up your game, you need to have set up your cap and know your player’s modus operandi. In games like D&D, the system begins to break down past the 12th level, since at that point the character’s magical prowess gives them such range of possibility that it’s absolutely ridiculous to plan for every contingency.
This is also probably the point where everyone starts getting bored.
|“Oh wow, I blew up the Zataran homeworld…again…yay?”|
The rise to power and the illusion of power in a game is only worth as much as the challenge and the threat it represents. As long as that well of adversity runs out and your players have become unstoppable machines of change in their universe that is the point where the game needs to end.
It’s not so much a flaw in the game. Games are, after all, designed to cover the wide range of players who would like to play it, so it needs to cover as much ground as possible and provide as many options as possible. The point where power becomes a burden is the point where you, as a Storyteller and they, as your players start getting tired of it.
I’ve found, through my gaming experience, that I cannot handle high-powered games. I can manage the illusion of a high-powered game, by giving the players considerable abilities and influence, but the mechanics just elude me. Maybe you can do it and run a game up into the impossibly powerful levels and be able to juggle the numbers and the endless within factors that need to be taken into consideration.
But that means that you’re awesome.
I consider the Epic Level Handbook and the entire idea of Epic Levels to be utterly ridiculous, mostly because people have come to equate power with numbers and cool special effects, when in fact the nature of power in a story relates to pretty much how much of an impact you have in the world your characters inhabit.
You don’t need artifact swords that can split planets. There’s no necessity for you to beat the living shit out of the Eight Gods of Chaos and you don’t have to be at level 25 so you can explore the Eye Of Nothing at the very center of the Universe.
You need, however, to be able to cover all narrative threads and present situations in which those things could be possible. There’s a reason why people prefer Batman over Superman these days and that’s because Batman is a downright ludicrous character who constantly spawns contingencies that allow him to be in the same team with the people who can juggle suns.
Remember: you don’t need muscle to move the world. You just need a big enough lever and some ideal positioning.
Post a Comment