Isn’t That a Bit Too Much Power?

I’m not going to try to claim that the power fantasy isn’t an integral part of the RPG experience. The illusion of competence, lots of shiny effects with which one can attempt to butter-knife through one’s foes—that’s always been a part of it. But there are always those who get the shinies on their first time in a new system, and want to try it at high power, with all the best that it can offer. Put simply, from both a GM and a player standpoint, this is almost never a good idea.

First, there’s the issue of powers. I’ll grant, this isn’t always a problem for game systems, particularly the class-based ones that keep you going in one line. But every mechanical effect has its own learning curve, and there’s a distance between starting out with, and figuring out how to use, two or three, and starting out with and figuring out how to use several dozen. I’ve done abrupt jumps to high levels in various systems with which I was neither familiar nor entirely comfortable, and none of them have ended well at all—I’d usually end up with one or two fallbacks and a whole lot of useless potential. There’s a reason why video games don’t give you all your equipment at once and usually space out what they’re trying to teach you.

Second, this power jump is on top of picking up the new mechanics. There exist systems that are easy to pick up; there exist people who can pick them up quickly. Most, though, have a learning curve, and even the people who don’t have too many powers are still going to have to figure out what to do with the dice when.

Third, any power jump in the protagonists needs to be balanced by a power jump in the antagonists. Along with creating additional prep time for the GM—which, if you’ve got a busy GM, means that much longer until game actually starts—it will often lead to one of two situations. If the GM and the players are of equal experience, everyone’s fumbling around, and that makes everything even longer than it already has to be. If the GM is more experienced than the players, on the other hand, or the players learn faster than the GM, then you have a classic situation of people with equal resources and unequal ability to manage them, which is bad enough early on when there isn’t too much power to play with, but gets exponentially more unbalanced the more resources are thrown into the mix. Either it ends up too easy, far, far too hard, or somebody holds back and ends up frustrated.

Yes, it’s fun to see what a new and shiny system has to offer, but seriously, don’t take it all on in the very beginning unless you know what you’re doing and you know you’re never coming back. In general, slow mastery will cause you much less trouble than an early jolt of shiny new mechanics.

Leave a Reply