Heroic Scaling

A scene from a generic fighting game. The play...

Hey! Get some discription on you two!

Jian the Rogue looked at the narrow plank that spanned the street. It was better than a tightrope, true – but the occasional puff of wind and the three-story fall beneath didn’t attract her at all. Still, there was no choice; the City Guard was out in force tonight – but they rarely looked up, and she needed the cache of silver she was after to feed the youngsters she was responsible for.

She carefully hefted her enchanted staff and stepped out on the plank. If she fell, she’d surely attract the city guard – and she’d be hurt enough to be starting out at a considerable disadvantage.

That’s Balance Difficulty 20, Balance Skill 3d6+10 (+2 for using her +1 staff for balance), Hit Points 25, Falling Damage 3d6, City Guards do 1d8 damage with their attacks but are unlikely to connect with the agile rogue, and so are only a real problem if she has to fight a mob of them.

Riantharkos, Seventh Son of the Creeping Shadow, glanced at the strand of wire stretched across the flaming pits of the netherhells a thousand feet below. The raging storm whipped around him and the lightning momentarily flung his shadow across the nine worlds as he laughed against the thunder, spinning the Demon-Crushing Staff in his hands as he leapt lightly forward, dancing across the wire in defiance of the dictates of fate. Soon he would hold the enchanted gem that alone could lift the withering curse of famine from the northern lands!

Below, of course, the hungry Guardians of the Netherhells lay in wait, raging impotently – unless, of course, mighty Riantharkos should  somehow fall…

That’s… Balance Difficulty 20, Balance Skill 3d6+10 (+2 for using his mighty Demon Crushing Staff for balance), Hit Points 25, Falling Damage 3d6, Flaming Guardians of the Netherhells do 1d8 damage with their attacks, but are unlikely to connect thanks to Riaktharkos’ supernatural skills at evasion and so will only be a real problem if he has to fight a mob of them.

The first version is suitable for a grim-and-gritty game of survival. The second is suitable for a game of over-the-top super-beings – and yet exactly the same mechanics work for both versions; all you’re changing is the descriptive terms.

Mechanical Equivalence like that is a big tool. “I walk down the stairs” and “I spin in a circle, shooting continuously, and blow out a hole in the floor that I drop down through!” are both pretty much identical in terms of what they accomplish in the game; you arrive on the landing one floor down and have to deal with whatever is waiting there. The one is simply more dramatic than the other.

Drama, flash, and special effects have no actual effect on the game – and can therefore be free. All you need to do to run an over-the-top superheroic game with a basic set of rules is a few basic assumptions:

  1. Normal folks are about as threatening as rats. They’re dangerous in a swarm, but otherwise they can be pretty much disregarded or massacred. Any worthwhile opponent deserves a flashy, over-the-top, dramatic description. That “sleep” charm that deals with a couple of minor foes in a regular game? It will deal with a couple of hundred normal folks if you use it in an over-the-top game.
  2. Unimportant scenery is made of paper-mache. The characters can readily smash their way through that door, dig their mighty fingers into that stone wall to scale it, or tunnel through that small mountain. That castle is – mechanically – a cottage, or, perhaps, a modest split-level ranch house. If you want to describe a mighty castle, it’s forbidding walls are made of enchanted adamant (stone), it’s halls are lit by the drifting corpse-lights of bound spirits (torches) and filled with the wailing of damned souls trapped in eternal torment (servants complaining about the damp). It’s mystical powers fill the tables with exotic feasts that endanger your very soul if eaten incautiously (one of the kitchen staff is trying to poison someone), and it is guarded by a mighty legion of twelve-foot mechanical iron guardians (castle guards).
  3. Characters – and their major opponents – should be fairly durable to start with. For Classic d20 systems the old “constitution as base hit points” rule is a good one. For most “player characters start off weak” systems, presume they’ve had a little time to build themselves up – perhaps four or five successful sessions worth. They usually tend to progress relatively slowly after that though, so don’t hand out the experience points, character points, skill improvement checks, or whatever your game system of choice uses too generously.
  4. Logistics don’t matter much. They don’t matter much in normal games either of course, but people do forget that sometimes. Remember, in a game, distances boil down to “you can’t make it there quickly by normal means” and “you can be there quickly enough by normal means”. “Just in time” and “A little too late” are just bits of game-master drama, while “three challenging diversions along the way” can be anything from dealing with a friends divorce over the phone to a planetary invasion. As long as the players find them interesting and challenging the descriptions – as always – do not matter.
  5. Optionally, player characters may get some bonuses for good descriptions. Perhaps – in d20 terms – a +1 on a roll for a decent description of what they’re actually doing, a +2 when they provide a solidly entertaining description and bring in the other activities of the current setting (the classic “swinging on the chandeliers” bit is always fun), and +4 if their description is truly fabulous and adds to the game. I – like many game masters – tend to allow that sort of thing in less dramatic games anyway, but on a basis of “does this make sense?” rather than of “is this exciting and dramatic?”.

Why is all this important? It’s simply because, in game design, it’s a LOT easier to change the descriptions than it is to keep escalating the mechanics indefinitely. It also makes it a lot easier to introduce new characters since much of the games (inevitable when you allow any kind of character development) power-level creep will lie in the descriptions which apply to everyone rather than in individual characters. It makes it easy to balance abilities against each other, to keep attacks and defenses at levels where fights can be exciting without instant lethality, and to explain how characters can survive against mighty foes.

Go ahead. Give it a shot. Instead of picking up that communicator, engrave your message on a bullet and fire it in through the ventilation system to land on the captains desk in front of him. If there’s no difference in game terms, and you want a flashy game, what’s the difference?

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3 Responses

  1. […] Heroic Scaling: Changing the Descriptions, not the Mechanics. […]

  2. […] Heroic Scaling: Changing the Descriptions, not the Mechanics. […]

  3. […] Heroic Scaling: Changing the Descriptions, not the Mechanics. […]

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