Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Lord of the Rings, Power Creep, and Notes Toward a Manifesto

There's been a minor surfeit of blog posts about Middle-Earth lately (a couple of days ago, something like four different posts happened within a few hours, and it seems that none of the bloggers had been communicating with each other over it). It's interesting to me because I've been re-reading the Tolkien books since the beginning of the year, and re-watching the extended Lord of the Rings films (Jackson really should have stopped there). I continued on that cinematic retrospective by re-watching a bunch of '80s-era "barbarian fantasy" films, but that's another story. In any case, I am not sure why there's been such a surge of Tolkien in the gaming blog community lately, but I have to say that I'm happy to see it.

It's interesting to me that Tolkien expresses one of the themes that I've been pursuing in gaming (a theme, sadly, which the industry as a whole has apparently not only abandoned but seemingly repudiated): the theme of the heroism of the small. By that, I don't necessarily mean small in size, though that is how it sometimes manifests in the literature, but the heroism of those who are not granted extraordinary powers (or those whose supposedly extraordinary powers are of such a nature that keeps them still within the realms of ordinary people).

I want to remember that a mere 4th level Fighting Man was given the title of "Hero", and that it only takes 8th level to be a "Superhero". These crazy ideas of 15th or 20th level (or more!) should be limited to actual gods, or at least demigods. The antics of the characters in The Order of the Stick should be remembered as those of outlandishly powerful ones, not assumed as the baseline for what player-characters are able to do.

I think that I first noticed this was happening when GURPS 4th edition increased the recommended baseline of character power (starting points value) by 50% over the previous edition, from 100 points to 150 points. Later, they decided that their attempt to return to the traditional "dungeon crawl" style of play, which was therefore based in large part on D&D and similar games, would recommend that characters start at the amazing level of 250 points, 2 and a half times that of "heroic" characters from the previous edition. When I would express disapproval of this in the forums or to GURPS bloggers, I would be dismissed lightly with variations of "it's fun!", and nevermind that I was sitting there telling them that it wasn't fun for me.

Of course, we're all quite aware that the 5th edition of D&D has steeply deprecated the low levels, getting characters to 4th level in about the same number of experience points that used to bring them their first level increase in pre-WotC editions. Previously, those first three levels were considered important, being, as the apparently apocryphal quote attributed to Gary Gygax has it, the characters' backstory (the earliest version of the quote found on the internet by people attempting to source it actually specifies the first six levels). Even if apocryphal, however, it remains true that it was at 4th level that the Fighting Man was first called a Hero. Now, though, those first three levels are just something to race through to get to "the good stuff".

As a brief aside, this is all related to one of the most obnoxious types of gaming story that can be inflicted on others: the "Natural 20". Somehow, the 5% chance has risen to some sort of magical power in gaming, probably due to critical hit rules being blown out of proportion. Clueless gamers have perpetrated countless boring stories about how this or that improbable thing happened in their game because they rolled a "natural 20", or sometimes a 1, and the Referee ruled that meant that something otherwise impossible occurred. The fact that one or two of these stories are actually funny only makes the rest of them that much worse, as the aforementioned clueless gamers are unable to discriminate between the good and the bad, which may be the very reason that they are clueless in the first place.

Anyway, this tendency in published gaming to move toward higher starting power levels, or quickly getting to them, has caused me to move back toward games that don't make those high-powered assumptions. Traveller, in its various incarnations, tends in that direction, so it's been very attractive to me. Well, in the original and MegaTraveller versions, at least. Marc Miller's Traveller (T4), too, and maybe T5. And GURPS Traveller was written before the game that powers it started to creep toward greater baseline assumed power levels. There are other games I've been moving back toward, too: Flashing Blades, Lace & Steel, CORPS, various D&D retroclones like Stars Without Number and Swords & Wizardry: White Box, or more variant versions like Dungeon Crawl Classics (which ranges widely in power across its 11 levels, but definitely hits the right notes for me before 5th level or so), not to mention actual pre-WotC editions of (A)D&D and its variants like The Arcanum. It doesn't mean simpler rules, either, since games like Hârnmaster are definitely in the low-power category.

Over on social media, I wrote, "I'm more interested in the sort of heroics that are performed by kids with six months of training in what end of the rifle a bullet comes out and then are thrown into the fray than in specialists who have constant elite training for years and then go on a tightly scheduled and planned mission once every couple of years. As it were." I think that sort of summarizes the issue. Special forces are interesting because their circumstances are extraordinary by design, but it's the common soldier in extraordinary circumstances who is more interesting than the circumstances. Frodo and Sam's, Merry's, or Pippin's stories were more interesting to me than Gandalf's or even Aragorn's. It was more remarkable for Eowyn to kill the Witch-King than it would have been if Galadriel had.

Now, sure, it won't be every low-powered game that has some kind of amazing result, but that's sort of the point. If every game is "remarkable", then they start to get lost in the forest of remark. See above about the "Natural 20" type of story, where any 5% chance becomes the one in a million longshot. That doesn't elevate the once-in-twenty, it devalues the one-in-a-million.

I don't expect that this will get rid of the high-power style of gaming, and I don't think that it should. I just want there to be a place for more human scales of game.


  1. I suspect this is why I've gravitated towards ACKS - level 14 tops. Good thoughtful post.

  2. Good post. I will be facing some of these issues as well..