(This is the thirty-first installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
In the LARP rules for Vampire: The Masquerade, there’s a supplemental book called Dark Epics that talks about how to run a bigger campaign: more people, longer duration, or both. These pose particular challenges which the book seeks to address, and one of those is the accumulation of experience points.
You see, one of the howling flaws of the Mind’s Eye Theatre LARP system is that unlike almost every other game system out there, it doesn’t impose an escalating price on most of your stats. A high-level magic power costs more than a low-level one, but your tenth Physical Trait costs a whopping one XP. So does your fifth level of an ability. As a result, it’s very easy to max out the obvious things on your sheet, and find yourself wondering what to do with all the XP you’re still earning.
Dark Epics has an answer for this, which is to limit the XP. They suggest that as a character gets more experienced, the GM should impose a cap on how rapidly they can earn points, until eventually they reach a point where they stop gaining XP entirely. After all, even an immortal vampire can only be an expert at so many things, right? They recommend a scale where a ten-year chronicle (yes, LARPs can run that long and longer) wraps up with its oldest and most experienced characters having about 300 XP on their sheet.
Yyyyyyyeah. I have a friend who capped her Vampire character’s XP at 666 just for the hell of it. In that particular organization, there are PCs wandering around with more than a thousand points on their sheets.
(What do they spend it on? Generally on janky, obscure magical powers the game designers never intended that type of character to have. Yes, I may be prejudiced. Everyone and their cousin should not have Obtenebration, let alone Temporis.)
As I talked about last week, this can be a major issue for LARPs, because anybody bringing in a new character is so wildly outclassed by the multi-year whales that the GMs have to struggle to generate suitable plots. Villains that can challenge those thousand-point characters will obliterate newbies in the first thirty seconds; newbie-sized plots can be crushed in a heartbeat if somebody with all the skills and powers decides to get involved. But it’s also a problem for tabletop campaigns, not because of imbalance between the PCs, but simply because the GM has to figure out: how do you keep challenging the PCs as the game goes along?
I’ve had particular trouble with this because I tend to run arc-plot campaigns, with a central story whose general premise I know from the start. When you’re running a D&D campaign that’s just the ongoing adventures of our intrepid band of heroes, you can justify why the PCs only take on enemies their size; geography or the vagaries of the jobs they get offered mean they don’t wind up encountering an ancient red dragon when they’re only level four. But if there’s an evil conspiracy afoot, one the PCs are on a collision course with . . . why doesn’t the conspiracy bring its more powerful resources to bear when the PCs are still weak enough to be disposed of?
I noticed some time ago that this is close cousin to the narrative problem Joss Whedon continually deal with on the TV show Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Each season had a Big Bad; each season had to figure out a way to delay the confrontation with the Big Bad so that Buffy a) didn’t wipe it out three episodes in or b) get squished before she was ready for it. The seven seasons of that show demonstrate a variety of different methods for resolving this conundrum, some of which I’ve used myself when running games.
Even without the difficulties imposed by an arc plot, though, you still have to deal with the escalating power level of a long-term campaign, on every level from enemies down to dice. Early on in an L5R game, your PCs might struggle to succeed at a roll whose difficulty is 20. Two years later, they’re making dissatisfied faces at their dice because they rolled like crap and only got a 43. Do you increase the difficulty of the tasks they’ve been doing all along, just to keep the feeling of challenge? Do you skip the rolls for three-quarters of the stuff they do, on the grounds that they’ll succeed anyway? Do you engineer the plot such that the PCs will constantly be in situations that are innately harder? That latter is generally the best approach, from a fairness-and-challenge standpoint . . . but then you have to justify why every random schmoe they fight now is a master swordsman.
I like to look for ways to throw them curveballs. I do this as an author, too: when I wound up writing about a protagonist who had both superior physical abilities and magic, I decided her next challenge would involve riding herd on a bunch of adolescent girls. (Ain’t no magic can save you from that one.) If my PCs can crush any combat, then I set up a fight where winning might have some bad political fallout, and they have to either take steps to mitigate that or deal with the consequences. If they can talk anybody into anything, I make it difficult for them to sit down with the person they need to convince. The challenge becomes the contextual stuff, the things around what would have been the challenge in the early days.
But even then . . . there comes a point when they’re the thousand-point whales of their world, where even their weak points are strong enough to deal with most of the difficulties they might plausibly face.
When that happens, you basically have three choices. You can throw even! bigger! threats! at them, just to keep things challenging. (This is how PCs wind up defeating gods.) You can shrug and stop caring about whether anything is difficult. (This is how campaigns turn into pure, RP-driven soap operas.) Or . . .
Or you end the campaign.
It’s hard to do. The players love their PCs; they love the story. Nobody wants it to end. But there’s a point at which nothing can be a challenge anymore, or the only remaining challenges are so over the top that it’s impossible to really believe in them. And as much fun as it can be to curb-stomp a problem with your enormous sheet you’ve spent years building, it’s important to remember the fun that comes with being a low-level character just coming into their own. Bring the story to an end — and then start a new one.