Choosing What to Do With the Power You’re Given

Lying tangent to the idea of Earning Your Legend is the idea of becoming the Legend and learning what to do with it.  There’s a point in every heroic progression where the character has the ability to succeed at most mundane things that he sets his mind to.  For a lot of gamemasters, this is the point in the game where the characters should just be retired and a new campaign gets rolled out, as the focus of a lot of systems covers the lower range of experience, when the characters have to struggle to accomplish specific goals.  Or maybe it’s just my experience to have GM’s declare that a Pathfinder game is over once the characters hit 12th level or so.

With skill based games, the line is a little harder to delineate, but there’s still a point when the challenges become that much easier to overcome, and the campaign either has to shift the focus or be put on a shelf.

Over the years, I’ve found that the easiest way to handle this sort of predicament is to offer radically different sorts of challenges for the characters to overcome, specifically ones that take the power back out of their hands and away from the narrow band of things that the characters are unbeatable at.

A lot of this stems from my years with WEG’s D6 Star Wars.  In the system, there’s a fairly well known breaking point that the dice system hits, at which point only equivalently powerful NPC’s pose any sort of threat.  When a character is able to throw 9D on any given skill, the threshold of a 30 Difficulty Number (noted in the rules as Heroic, after which there are only magnitudes of specific impossibility for tasks) is almost always within reach on an average roll.  Combined with the ludicrous power levels that a competent player can pull from a Jedi character, there’s a hard limit on the game’s challenge.  Once this has been hit, there’s very little that will offer any real significant obstacle to the characters’ goals.

This is commonly when I would push the narrative toward the idea of moral choices and the consequences that these choices would offer.  The game is already built with moral boundaries, as represented with the Dark Side of the Force and all that implies, and the smallest amount of tweaks move the normally black and white morality of the galaxy into varying shades of grey.  Once these have been established for the player characters, all that remains is to follow the obvious consequences to the choices that the characters are forced to make.  For a lot of games, Stormtroopers are simple cannon fodder, so simply exploring the lives of those that were casually snuffed out in a pitched combat is enough to drive the point home.

Another easy example would be White Wolf’s Exalted RPG, where the characters are expected to become gods in their own right over the course of the game.  Unlike Star Wars, where it takes a relative amount of time and effort to be able to accomplish truly impressive and game breaking feats of skill, Exalted moves the characters in that direction almost immediately.  It’s expected that the characters are going to be dealing with threats relative to their power level, but even so, it’s not difficult to kit a character out so that such threats are minimal anyway.

In both of these games, I’ve made it a point to allow the characters their own lead on what sort of direction the game takes, so as to not invalidate the choices the player has made in their skills and powers.  If one of the characters has gone out of their way to become the greatest warrior that has ever been, I’m not going to take that away from them.  By all means, if they need to take on a bar room full of heavily armed thugs on a regular basis to maintain their image and reputation, I’ll make it a point to set these sorts of conflicts up.

In the mean time, I’m not going to assume that these are anything more than a diversion, given their skill level.  What I will do, however, is give them challenges as whether this fight is the right thing to do.  One of my players noted that at a certain point in the game’s timeline, the characters could pretty much do whatever thing that they set a course toward.  Whether it was a good idea or not was the actual question that had to be asked.  In Star Wars, it might come down to a moral choice.  In Exalted, it could come down to a decision on whether or not their current scheme was going to come back to bite them in the ass somewhere down the line.

In some ways, this gave them an unrestricted amount of freedom in where they were to take their characters.  In others, it set a very specific line for them that could not be easily crossed, mainly because their awareness of this limit caused them to draw the line for themselves.  They were given to understand the ramifications of their various decisions as characters, how these decisions shaped their overall world and what they would have to do once the dust settled in the aftermath.

I suppose, reduced to its simplest terms, that the implications of consequence were what ended up driving all of these games, once they passed a certain point of competence.  Being that most of the time, they’d followed a standard progression from that of incompetence to the makings of true legends, they’d had plenty of time to consider what direction they were heading in.  They had willingly taken on the sacrifices that were required for the power they sought, and when they finally achieved it, they had to determine whether or not any of it was worth the cost they had paid along the way.  Some games I ran made it more evident, as the mental or spiritual compromises were spelled out at the time they made the choice.  In others, it only became obvious in hindsight.

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Posted on May 20, 2014, in Gaming Philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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