This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
Now and then I run across someone’s online essay about how to run high level RPGs, usually in reference to Dungeons & Dragons. These essays tend to focus on factors such as:
keeping the game challenging despite the high level of the PCs
keeping the PCs balanced so that all of them feel “useful”
keeping combat time down, since higher HP totals drag out combat
more bookkeeping on the part of the players for high level PCs
optimization paths to ensure characters are as powerful as possible
Mostly, this sort of thing seems to cater to a roll-playing style of game, rather than roleplaying. Almost everything’s about balance: enemies vs. PCs; PC vs. PC; combat time vs. familiar combat flow; et cetera. Even in cases where the suggestions offered in such essays aren’t intended to keep game play “balanced” in some way, they are oriented toward throwing things out of balance in some manner someone might deem beneficial. The only exception seems to be the bookkeeping angle.
I have a few thoughts to share that are more related to roleplaying than roll-playing, though. In brief, they are:
Keeping high level roleplaying campaigns challenging isn’t the same as keeping high level dungeon crawl campaigns challenging. “Challenge” doesn’t always have to mean “combat” — and even when it does, the challenge doesn’t have to be all the way, all the time. Mix up the types of challenges PCs face, and mix up how difficult they are, so that variety keeps the players on their toes and ensures they stay engaged.
Keeping the PCs balanced shouldn’t be measured along a single axis. Toe-to-toe combat prowess is not the be-all and end-all of character balance, you know. In fact, the really important factor isn’t balance — it’s value. You want all the players to feel like their characters are valuable somehow, that they contribute to the quality of the roleplaying experience in some indispensable manner.
Lengthy combat seems largely inevitable, except in cases of combats that look like “failures” (either because of TPK or a too-easy vanquishment of what was supposed to be a dangerous foe), in high level campaigns. Lengthy combats don’t have to be boring, or common, though. Mix in combats with lower level peons, along with other types of challenges, and the occasional lengthy combat will feel epic instead of merely long. It’s the boring sameness of lengthy combat after lengthy combat that really makes combat in high level campaigns dull, and that’s easily avoided by making sure that the game’s about a lot more than “challenging” combat.
The biggest problem of bookkeeping in a roleplaying oriented campaign isn’t on the player’s part, by any stretch of the imagination. The GM has a tremendous burden, dealing with high level NPCs and trying to manage the game in light of what the entire group of PCs can do at high levels, and this is only made worse in cases where the campaign is focused on roleplaying because of the greater numbers of NPCs required as well as the greater depth of NPC development that is needed. The only fix for this sort of thing seems to be inspiration plus elbow grease.
Optimization isn’t necessarily bad in a roleplaying oriented campaign, as long as it isn’t metagaming optimization. Make sure that any optimization going on in your campaign is oriented toward character development rather than merely character invincibility development.
I think that this is the sort of thing essays about running high level campaigns have always neglected in the past — the concerns of maintaining an interesting roleplaying oriented campaign at high levels. Since my preference in RPGs has been for a focus on roleplaying and character development almost from day one a quarter century or so ago, this has always seemed like a pretty grievous oversight, so I decided to take a stab at rectifying that lack.
I’ll develop some of the above points a little more in further SOB entries, and link to the new entries in the bullet point list.