I saved this for the Friday blog because it’s awesome, and I wanted you to have all weekend with it. This is an article I cadged out of my friend and fellow gamer Lloyd Brown, who among other things is responsible for much of the World of Kalamar campaign setting by Kenzer and Co. Enjoy!
Introduction to “Power Levels”, by Lloyd Brown :
I’ve been playing RPGs since 7th grade. That means 1980. A friend tried to run us through The Isle of Dread, and he kept reading the non-boxed text to us, so another friend told him he was screwing up and took over.
Like many other players, I was hooked on it.
Unlike many other players, I immediately started creating my own adventure and ran my next session. I was far more interested in that side of the screen. I liked the GM’s ability to inspire awe, wonder, and thrill in the players.
I had no idea what I was doing. I made up the “to hit” numbers and the hit points, since I hadn’t even seen a rulebook yet. I had vampires with 16 hit points and a dungeon half full of Lawful monsters. The place was littered with high-level magic items. It was a disaster.
Or, it would have been if my gaming standards had been higher.
I ended up running it for a single player, because my venue was a school bus on the way to a field trip, and my competition for my players was the Truth-or-Dare game going on in the back seat with Joan Porter and her amazing, uh, features. That one player had a good enough time, though, so I was happy. He was also the one who snatched the published adventure from the other guy, so he would certainly have let me know if my stuff wasn’t up to par.
I got better over time. Buying books helped. Even if each one helped only a little bit, I built a huge gaming collection, even before I bought a game store. The accumulation of gaming material was excellent. If I needed a map, I could search my collection of Dungeon magazines. Needed an NPC? I had plenty of stat blocks and backgrounds.
Then I started writing. I went straight to the top for my first article—Dragon Magazine. I sold my first article in issue 229 and then promptly sold almost 20 more. I was, for a while, Dragon’s most prolific contributor. They even broke their “one article per author per month” policy for me. They had to, or they wouldn’t have ever caught up the backlog. Sixty articles or so and 6 books later, I’ve written on just about every topic I can imagine.
Writing really helped me focus. I had to know my topic well enough to sell it to the pros. It also helped me gather information. I had to know what was on the market if I wanted to sell. I couldn’t exactly sell an article on something that contradicted something TSR had just published. Likewise, I had a better chance of selling something if it complemented recent material.
Experience helped more. I ran often, because I usually had to recruit my own players. My actual play time was pretty slim for many years. I ran games for friends, family, co-workers…people caught in elevators if I had the chance. I had more game material than I could ever run.
If all my books and experience and articles helped me improve, then buying the game store was like finding a vorpal sword. I suddenly had one of the most enviable networks available. I had my pick of games; everybody wanted the “prestige” of having the game store owner in their game.I had a ton of new games I could play. I had literally hundreds of players and GMs who like nothing better than to share their experience with me for as long as I would listen.
I learned tips, tricks, techniques, and shortcuts as fast as I could hear them. Some of them were not helpful. Some were extraordinary. Many of them reinforced tricks I had already picked up. I played under some excellent game masters, learning what made them good and adding their skills to my toolbox.
Anyway, this allegedly brief intro leads to this: Kevin mentioned the idea of some gaming advice-related content for his site, and I’m always happy to share what’s worked for me with other players. I don’t have a monopoly on gaming skill or experience, but I do have a good combination of brains and practice. If a specific piece doesn’t help, I’ll try to at least make the reading interesting. With luck, you’ll get something out of the content and I’ll try not to let the delivery put you to sleep.
Character level is one measure of an adventuring group’s effectiveness. In fact, for some games, it’s the only measure mentioned in the books. When they recommend what monsters or traps you should use when creating encounters, they always compare the threats to the party’s level.
That’s kind of like determining someone’s academic knowledge only by their age. Age matters, but grade, school, background, and study habits matter, too.
It’s important to know what kind of threat your players and their characters are capable of putting together. If your encounters are too easy, you risk boring your players. If they’re too hard, you’ll frustrate them (or worse, kill them all off). To be an effective GM, you have to know how to create an encounter that has just the right threat for your needs.
Experience matters. Are your players first-timers, old veterans, or somewhere in between? Usually, the most effective players are those who are both familiar with the conventions and the rules of the game. Call of Cthulhu players, for example, know not to start reading strange texts out loud, while a D&D player who picks up CoC for the first time often makes the mistake of summoning something, only to find out later that summoning and controlling spells in CoC are two different things.
New players tend to be unaware of all of their options. Card-floppers quickly learn a simple mathematical formula that RPG players should know. It goes “options = power.” Limited options means limited effectiveness.
Gear matters. If you are stingy with the equipment, that can be okay, as long as you’re keeping the encounters appropriate. If you start to scale the encounters up with level faster than you let the characters scale their gear, they’ll have difficulty. They’ll be hit too often, they’ll take a lot of damage, and they’ll have difficulty dealing with terrain obstacles or other adventuring hazards.
If, on the other hand, you let players gain too powerful equipment, they might become too powerful in too short a time, making it difficult for you to judge how much power they’ve gained. Powerful equipment includes not only a magic item that grants high bonuses but one with open-ended strategic options.
A powerful gear selection might not be a girdle of giant strength on the fighter. When I’m min-maxing a character, I’d rather spend my money on a dozen small items than one big one. It’s often far more cost-efficient that way, allowing me to gain a large number of bonuses that I can leverage in different situations. It also allows me to fly under a GM’s radar, so to speak, gaining small edges in movement, attack, defense, and maneuverability, rather than a single gimmick that certain encounters might nerf entirely. Beware of similar strengths—or liabilities—among your players.
The party balance affects your group’s combat-effectiveness. If you have four D&D players, each one following one of the different roles, they’ll be more effective than if the same players were playing three strikers and a leader. They’ll have a good mix of damage, survivability and versatility that will enable them to survive and defeat the variety of challenges you’ll throw at them over the course of a campaign.
Similarly, cooperation matters. Players who work together make their party better. In D&D, the rogue’s sneak attack is a critical point. If the other players create opportunities for the rogue to make sneaky attacks, the party gains. If each player looks out for himself only, or if they actively work against each other, they won’t easily defeat the challenge at hand.
Character build options matter. If your players build for roleplaying reasons rather than looking at the numbers involved, they’re probably not going to be as optimized as they could be. If they use a calculator when making feat and paragon path choices, they might be pretty tough.
Player motivation matters. I know some players whose character background section says “Orphan. Angry.” and leaves the rest blank. Their power progression is already planned out to 30th level, though. If you have players who want to win, to beat you, then they’ll try very hard to out-build and out-play the monsters at every turn.
The trickiest factor to judge is player skill. People who want to play well tend to, but even hardcore character actors can make good decisions in combat (in fact, some of the deadliest players can be those who disguise their intense tactical skill and character building with a heavy layer of dramatic character background and in-character dialogue at the table). Do your players position their figures well on the battlefield? Do they look for situational bonuses to attacks? Do they avoid the simple mistakes? Do they utilize their options effectively? The difference between game play and great game play can be worth several levels.
Consider each of these factors and weigh your players’ ability. Are they average, below average, or above average? If they’re under-equipped for their level, mentally subtract a level when creating your encounters. If the characters are well-built, you might consider them to be a level higher than standard. Count one level up or down for player experience.
I’ve had groups who plowed through encounters scaled for characters four or five levels higher than them. I’ve seen players have trouble with “easy” encounters of their level. Don’t get too caught up in formulas that tell you what your players can handle without taking into consideration any of the factors that really determine how good they are. Level is just one factor among many. Knowing what your group can handle reduces your guesswork and helps you determine the right challenge for the most enjoyable encounters.