In a previous post, I praised the flattened power curve that 5E seems to be groping towards. Jack (of Jack’s Toolbox), left the following comment:
I like the vast spread of potential power levels in D&D 3.X. I don’t think that it’s a game that reasonably can or should be played straight from Level 1 to Level 20 or beyond, but the system gives you the option of playing wherever you want
from gritty adventurers to wushu-style heroes to nigh-demigods. I don’t think that flattening that curve or ‘simplifying’ the system along that axis is going to be a benefit for people like me.
My own preference is towards more grounded play. As a DM, managing a low-power campaign is more tractable, and, as a player, a low-power campaign is more exciting (because the stakes are higher, the motivations more immediate, and the treasure is more special). I’ve never played in a satisfying high-level campaign. This is entirely a subjective preference, I readily admit.
That being said, I think Jack has a point regarding the potential of the 3E system (as elaborated in The Alexandrian post he links to). I suspect that the original authors did not have such a sophisticated intention, however, due to how challenges are scaled. In 3E, adventure design seems relatively constant (and is even more so in 4E); that is, the primary difference between a low-level and a high-level adventure is the cosmetic dressing (sewers in the beginning, planar travel at the end) and the tactical complexity of the combat (due to the increase in things like numbers of attacks and spell selection). I think it was designed to be played straight through from level 1 to level 20, and I also think this is the assumption of the vast majority of players.
However, assuming that supporting a vast spread of power levels is a good thing, doing it mechanically via difficulty levels doesn’t work very well, because it assumes a sameness to play, and I think that dooms any kind of lengthy campaign. It seems to me like much of the design of 3E and 4E involved embracing only a limited part of the full traditional D&D campaign arc, discarding the parts presumed to be not-fun, and extending the remaining part over the full level spectrum. In 3E we can see this in the generalized multiclassing, removal of level limits, and continuing accumulation of hit dice. In 4E we can see this in the extension of the 3E “sweet spot” (roughly levels 4 through 10) over the entire game experience.
I like the idea of bounded accuracy
, but I think there is a danger that the designers will try to fit the entire game into another limited box using this principle. There is actually an impartiality to difficulty class systems (generalized with 3E) which could in theory work well with wide-open sandbox games, exactly because such DC systems are not centered around character stats. This is in contrast to systems like “roll under” stat checks, which, while more traditionally old school, are also more solipsistic (even if you keep the math the same). One crafts bonuses or penalties around character abilities when using a roll under system, rather than just describing the external entities.
Here’s Zak on campaign evolution
(that is, how game play changes as a game progresses over multiple sessions). Along similar lines, there was a Save of Die interview with Frank Mentzer
where immortal level play is discussed. To paraphrase Frank, the focus of the game shifts from how to defeat (or circumvent) the monsters to preventing collateral damage to mundanes (the mortals that the characters presumably care about). He compares immortal play to Superman stories; it is assumed that Superman can triumph “mechanically” over his foes in most direct confrontations, but he must protect those he cares about (and avoid being tricked into succumbing to his weaknesses).
We can also see this in the traditional domain game that comes when a D&D character builds a stronghold and begins to attract followers. This was always present in the B/X and BECMI systems, was present in AD&D (though somewhat obscured by the popularity of high-level tournament-style modules), and then embraced again by recent revival systems like ACKS, the very name of which embeds the expectations of the campaign arc (fist adventurers, then conquerors, ending as kings).
I don’t think that high power campaigns are inherently bad or unsatisfying (I have a copy of Nobilis on my shelf), but I do think they need to be different in some meaningful way from the first level character experience. It’s not enough to have a higher attack bonus, more spells, and +N equipment. RPGs have more potential than that.