Sunday, July 12, 2009

Character Levels and the Sweet Spot

It seems that most role playing games have a sweet spot - that magical range of levels (or points in point buy games) where the game plays best. In D&D, I always considered the sweet spot to be around levels 4-9. Before this range, characters can be cut down by goblins, and every little thing is simply a struggle. Past this range, players just seem to get more powerful rather than more cool. As a GM, it's tough as hell to run a challenging, interesting, and fair game for characters that can cast wish, teleport anywhere, and shoot instant death rays from their pinky fingers.

But somewhere in this range, something wonderful seems to happen. The power levels of the magic users and fighters seem to cross. Everybody gets equal screen time. Characters get a variety of new abilities that are simply cool - I was playing Osric today, an old school D&D clone, and I noted that my druid character would get shapeshift 3/day at level 7. Imagine a party in need of recon. The druid turns into a small bird and flies. Wow, look at all that shiny stuff down below the trees! Wait, what's that coming through the clouds. Wyverns. Crap. A chase ensues, straight back through the trees and to the party. Magically powered chaos. Now, that's cool.

So, let's say that you buy my argument that games do have sweet spots. Once we've identified the sweet spot, what are we to do about it?

Should we work our way up to it, bit by bit, so we get that (ahem, plodding) thrill of character advancement through blood, sweat, and tears? Should the GM just fudge XP so that characters get to that sweet spot faster?

Neither, I say. The reality is that most of us don't play in a single campaign for longer than 10 sessions, and that's really pushing it. My buddies and I just counted how many different games we've played over the last 3 years, and the answer was somewhere around 12. A 4-5 session arc is the norm (at least, for us), and then we're off to a new game. I know most gamers out there don't have solid enough of a group to even play this much.

So, I say start the game in the sweet spot. Play the game where it's at its coolest.

(For what it's worth, these thoughts are in response to some of the games - both very high powered and low powered - that I've been playing lately. And the grief that Pat's been giving me about always wanting my characters to succeed. It's not that I always want them to succeed - I just want them to have the opportunity to do something cool. Playing in a game that's set at the sweet spot seems to be a key to this).


Gary Jackson said...

The whole point of 4e is to expand the sweet spot to cover the gamut of character levels. I've been playing for a year at all levels, and my experience is consistent with that. However, that "aiming for the sweet spot" seems to be precisely the thing that irritates people most about 4e.

Anonymous said...

I often wonder, how many folks run short 'flings' like you describe, compared to long-term campaigners? Ours has been running weekly since 1996, and I know of other long-runners out there. Is 4-5 sessions before people get 'itchy feet' really the norm? Just curious.

Mike Leger said...

My group has come to a conclusion that the 4e sweet spot seem to be 5-10 because things move at a nice fast paste, at 11th, there is a slow down due to the shier number of options, every round players have to read all their powers over and over again.

Supah said...

@ Gary and Mike: I've only played 4e once, so I can't testify about its sweet spot. I did get the impression that classes are generally more equal at first level. I'm more of a sucker for older games and newer indie games, but it's nice to hear that some game designers are explicitly aiming for this kind of play (even though it's tough to always be successful).

@ Herkin: I can't say I have any empirical evidence about how many gamers run flings v. campaigns. I do get the impression that most gamers don't have a steady enough group to run long campaigns over the course of years. I also know that I'm devoted more to gaming as a hobby than a particular game. I enjoy lots of genres, and different systems interest me for the different types of play they facilitate. I'm definitely of the itchy feet variety, and it's largely dependent on what I'm reading and thinking about at the time.