d20 Failure Modes VIII – The Apollo Mission and the Old School

English: Different levels of magnification of ...

What do you mean “you don’t need this level of detail? Everyone LOVES detail!

One of the big rewards for many gamers is seeing advancement. In Monopoly they get more houses and hotels built. In Chess they promote pawns. And in role-playing games they see their character improve. That may mean becoming more skilled, upgrading combat abilities, stealing mighty devices, learning more potent magic, acquiring new psychic powers, gaining wealth, growing in fame, becoming influential, having more epic tales of heroism to tell, or even having more sexual partners, children and grandchildren. The players want SOMETHING about their characters to improve all the time.

Early efforts were not so far removed from the little table of “fantasy units” in the back of the Chainmail miniatures rules. “Advancement” was not yet a big thing – but it turned out that people liked it. So in first edition there were more tables, and levels, and those tables and levels went far FAR beyond where most games did. After all, at that time the “goal” was more-or-less “name level” – around level nine to eleven – and just getting THERE took a rather long time. Even worse from a modern viewpoint, a lot of levels were even less exciting than the “dead levels” of d20 fame. In the absence of a skill system there were plenty of levels at which many characters got a few more hit points, a higher number under “experience total”, more money – and nothing else that showed on the character sheet at all.

Now money is nice, but since magic items were rarely for sale in first edition (and magic that was actually useful being up for sale was even rarer), accumulating wealth meant that you either gathered a hoard like a dragon or you built up lands, castles, temples, and armies because there simply was nothing else to spend it on. You wound up running a kingdom, or magical academy, or becoming the grand high priest of your faith, pretty much by default. That made some sense though; characters with the potential to go beyond “level zero” were supposed to be one in a thousand – and less than one it ten of those ever even STARTED adventuring and gaining levels. Among those intrepid souls who did become adventurers… for every one that made it to tenth level, many MANY more died, retired with enough money to live comfortably, or took up safer professions, before getting past level four or five. Tenth level characters were – once again, by default – roughly one in a million. An eighteenth level character… might be the only one on the continent.

For “stuff on the character sheet” a little dabbling with “nonweapon proficiencies” and character backgrounds (“kits”) got tossed in along the way – but a sizable fraction of the players weren’t content with a few increasing numbers, some tales of adventure, and the occasional random magical item. They wanted more stuff to put on their sheet – stuff that they could assign measurable values to, rather than reputation, political influence, and tales of adventure which were mostly in the game masters head. That was one of the things that made the original Monk class fairly popular; it got something to put on the sheet almost every level. Who cared that it had an upper limit? Odds were that you were never going to reach it anyway.

Enter d20 / Third Edition – and the authors put in a LOT more stuff to put on the sheet. Feats, class abilities, a detailed formal skill system, and more.

The trouble with a lot more stuff to put on the sheet is that – again, by default – a character can do pretty much everything a normal person can. The things that go on the sheet… are things that a normal person can’t do or won’t have.

So characters went from “fairly normal human beings with a few special skills” to “apprentice godlings” as they could do ever more things that were beyond the capacity of any normal person. All those special powers had to have SOME kind of control mechanism – and what D&D had was level. So it all wound up being tied to d20 character levels. In the same way, magic items were made FAR easier to make – allowing more to go on the sheet and (perhaps unfortunately) justifying “magic marts” rather than just a certain amount of high-level exchange of unique items.

Of course with enough magic items you could go from Tony Stark to Iron Man – and that could be a nightmare for the game master who already had to deal with characters who had a bucketload of powers that put many superheroes to shame. So Wealth had to be controlled – which mean that it had to be guarded and couldn’t be the source of “experience points” as it had been; otherwise the players would get even more focused on getting gold without fighting than they had been. Thus “Wealth by Level” made it’s pernicious appearance, castles, lands, and social position lost all their attractions as money sinks, and “fighting” became the primary way to gain experience. As a consequence, other ways of getting money had to be quashed, combat effectiveness suddenly became THE primary way of judging a character’s abilities, “balance” (and part II and III) – mostly judged by the number of useful superhuman abilities on the character sheet – became a serious concern, and (once again) everything else had to be linked to level lest a character be able to easily bypass some situation and become rich without fighting enough to level up. Even more annoyingly, now that you weren’t basically dependent on the game master for magic items, there had to be some way to limit how many you could use – and rules for stacking, bonus types, and body slots made their appearance.

The era of letting each character find one or two really GOOD items written so that they would grow with him or her, and of having those items be defining features of that character for the rest of his or her career, was over.

Complexity does have it’s advantages though; characters could now be a lot more individual and unique without having to spend a lot of time building a personality, backstory, and in-game history.

The trouble was, now that there was a lot more stuff to put on their sheets, players wanted to go ahead and put it there – and it was all tied to level. That meant going up in level quickly and regularly. Once putting stuff on your sheet became one of the major goals, not getting to put stuff on your sheet for months at a time was BORING.

Even letting almost everyone have levels and stretching out the most common range of play from 1-10 to 1-20 wasn’t enough to satisfy the new search for levels – even if it did mean that the spellcasters got another big bump over and above the incredible boost that going to a turn-by-turn initiative system, a “standard action” casting time, and throwing in the “concentration” skill, had already provided. Now characters could go from level one to epic levels within a couple of months of game time. Take 13.5 encounters per level gain, nineteen levels to be gained, and (presuming competent players) about 4.5 encounters per day… and you get 57 days. Just under two months. Characters often acquired abilities and saw them become obsolete before they’d gotten a chance to actually use them. If they took a week off their competitors and enemies might pick up two or even three levels on them in that time!

OK, the need for “balanced encounters” might keep them from doing so, but that REALLY undermined the role-playing part; for that you wanted to feel like the world was NOT specifically set up for the benefit of the player characters even though it really was.

Sure, you could spread out the encounters more – but cutting down the number per day led to the characters with limited-use abilities dominating everything. You could put in time between each set of 4-5 encounters, but that meant either repeatedly forcing the characters to wait (a tactic that gets old VERY fast) or giving up on any plot complicated enough that it couldn’t be resolved in a day or two of adventuring. You could hand out less XP per encounter, but then wealth-by-level tended to get out of whack and the players got annoyed. Now that the goal was to get XP from the encounter, rather than to avoid encounters while you searched for loot, encounters that didn’t get you anything were just annoying time-wasters, not some of the complications to be avoided.

Or… you could go along with the majority and just ignore it, assuming that – for everyone else in the world – events proceeded at a rational pace; kingdoms were founded centuries before, elder evils rose once per eon instead of four times per year, and a child could reach age ten without having seen forty different sets of epic level demigods rearranging the world on a quarterly basis.

Sadly, that meant that your world made no sense.

If epic level characters are rising from nowhere like bubbles in a boiling pot (and a “lasting impact” is therefore something that still has effects two months later), your worlds history is going to be insane, gods won’t survive long enough to explain their doctrines, and all the low-level inhabitants ought to be extinct. If epic characters somehow rise like that without disturbing the world, your world makes even less sense – and your players will be pretty cross; they like to have an impact.

If the rules of the setting are different for the player characters just because they ARE player-characters – then we’re back to the “loss of immersion because the world revolves around US” problem.

Besides… a lot of players like to have their characters have and raise kids, do research, create items, and otherwise do long-term stuff. “Two months to Epic!” pretty much spoils that sort of ambition. Where older editions took leisurely cruises, and characters might go months or years between major adventures, d20 strapped itself to a rocket and struck out for lunar orbit.

And thus 3.0 painted itself into a corner before it really even got started. 3.5 didn’t fix it either – and, for that matter, neither have the vast majority of the successor games.

Eclipse – bound by the terms of the d20 license to not discuss attribute generation or leveling as such – couldn’t do much about this set of problems directly.

That’s why I put the stuff on how to revise the level system into the OGL Web Supplement – although I did try to make the basics obvious enough in Eclipse to make it easy to figure out.

Levels have their place; they’re good milestones, and they serve as an excellent game master shortcut; when the party is labeled “level six” and the monster or item is labeled “level eighteen” you knew that you’ll probably have serious problems if you try to mix them.

So what you want to do is to keep the characters advancing – so that people get to update and tweak their character sheets regularly – without handing out whole levels full of extra abilities so often. Back in the old days of first edition, I found that about eight to twelve sessions per level worked well – so Eclipse uses a base of twenty-four character points per level. All you need to do is to forget the experience point table entirely and start handing out character points directly. Two per session means one level every twelve sessions. Three means eight, four means six, six means four, eight means three, and so on. There are some complications of course, but that’s one of the reasons that there IS a web supplement.

That way the characters can get a few skill points, or make slight improvements on their other abilities somewhere, every session – or save up several sessions worth of points for a brand new power or feat. More subtly, they aren’t likely to put too many points into abilities that they haven’t been using, and so will almost always use their abilities several times before upgrading them. Levels still bring some free benefits, and still act as milestones – but they no longer control most of the sub-aspects of a character and you’re free of the restrictions of d20 Classes. Your character can grow as you think he or she should at any given moment.

If you want to decouple Wealth and Level, you can do that too; Eclipse characters can be set up so as to get along without magic items – or to use the Wealth Level templates and the Charms and Talismans I put into The Practical Enchanter to replace tracking money and conventional magical items. With those… characters can gain wealth, or go broke, without it grotesquely changing their power level.

Eclipse: The Codex Persona is available in a Freeware PDF Version, in Print, and in a Paid PDF Version
that includes Eclipse II (245 pages of Eclipse races, character and
power builds, items, relics, martial arts, and other material) and the

web expansion. If you want, there are some reviews.

The Practical Enchanter can be found in a Print Edition (Lulu), an Electronic Edition (RPGNow), and a Shareware Edition (RPGNow).  There’s an RPGNow Staff Review too.

2 Responses

  1. […] d20 Failure Modes VIII – The Apollo Mission and the Old School (ruscumag.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] point strikes will not. There’s a series of articles on that over here that you might want to look at, but Action Hero (Stunts Variant), Reflex Training (Extra Actions Variant), and Luck are all […]

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