Today’s guest article by Gnome Stew reader Craig Dedrick might look D&D-specific at first, but Craig winds up asking some questions that are relevant to many RPGs — D&D is the lens here, not the real topic. Thanks, Craig! –Martin
Dungeons & Dragons has always been my first love in gaming. My mother brought home a copy of Basic D&D when I was eight years old. I had no idea how to play, but it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. It would be two more years before I would actually figure out how the game worked. Over the years, I have run many, many campaigns. I have run what I would consider to be successful, satisfying campaigns using Vampire: The Masquerade, Kult, Mechwarrior, Unknown Armies, All Flesh Must Be Eaten (yes, I like horror games), and others. I have also run many D&D (or Pathfinder) campaigns.
Many of them have started out well, but they always seemed to get away from me. At some point, the characters got so powerful that the combat encounters I designed were either very easy, waaaay too hard (ahem, TPK), or very long and boring. What was I doing wrong? Why couldn’t I get this right? How is it that I can run a Kult game for two years, but D&D always blows up in my face?
A few years ago, a friend suggested that I run an E6 game of Pathfinder. E6 stands for Epic 6. It means that characters cannot progress above sixth level (though they can get epic level feats, which are some of the ordinary feats that would otherwise be blocked to them because of level restrictions). The rules for this variant of your standard D&D game can be can be found on EN World, and the principles can be applied to any game that involves levels. Given that my past D&D games have broken somewhere around level 7-9, I decided to give it a try.
At first it was easy. It was just like any other game of D&D at level 1. I soon came to see the hidden restrictions:
1) Big monsters are a big deal. You can’t just throw rumours of a dragon or a giant around. These are epic level monsters, and they would have a big impact on the world! I now have to be more considered in my choice of monsters. I really have to dig into the ecologies and variations of things like kobolds, goblins and gnolls. Luckily, this often results in more interesting encounters, with more thought put into terrain and the construction of the monster group.
2) My choices for treasure are very limited. The item either has to be something that can be created by a wizard of level 6 or lower, or I have to have a good reason for it to be there. This makes me put a lot more thought into the origins of many of my magic items. I need to have a history, which means that there is a story, which results in more interesting items for the characters.
3) My NPCs are all level 6 or less as well. This seems obvious, but the impacts are huge! I can’t just have an evil wizard teleport away to fight another day. I can’t even let him dimension door away! Since levitating away isn’t particularly effective, I have to get more creative with my NPCs. I have to create networks of allies and enemies. I have to think through the strategies of my villainous characters. If I do choose to have a higher level NPC, I need a really good reason for it. All of this forces me away from the crutches that I normally use for my NPC villains, and results in more interesting NPCs.
I have seen many interviews with filmmakers who mention the fact that their limited budget forces them to be more creative with how they tell their story. The fact that the shark in Jaws did not work properly for Steven Spielberg forced him to conceal the shark for longer than he had originally planned, which resulted in a more suspenseful movie. Similarly, my E6 restrictions forced me to run a better game by removing some of my crutches; I could not be lazy about things like encounter design or villains’ resources.
I chose to run E6 because I wanted to limit the power levels of my players, but maybe what I really needed to do was limit my own choices, which forces me to tell a better story. This is something that the horror genre does by default, which is perhaps one of the reasons that I am drawn to it for my RPG games.
I know that issues such as these arise in many, many games, regardless of the genre. Is power creep for the PCs at the heart of the issue? Do you find that limiting yourself as a GM forces you to tell better stories, or design better encounters? What other games do you think that this philosophy would apply to?