Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Levels and Pacing

Last night we played the 3rd session of our super-hero playtest. This is the game where we randomly assigned power-categories to the players (and NPCs) leading to the taking of powers most of us would never have gone for given our general preferences.

This is an astonishingly good playtest ... considering (a) that I have what should be considered the "final document" (proofed, mostly type-set, etc.) and (b) I've made like 40 major changes to sections as a result of trying this thing out.

The three episodes thus far were like this:

  1. Play as non-powered normals for a session. At the end we get powers through the Origination Machine (it gives you a super-origin back-in-time). It turns out that power grant can be taken from you if you can be "beat up" and reprocessed before the time-wave settles (or something).
  2. We fought the more junior team (approx. 1/4th our points). We beat them easily--but they were colorful and fairly nasty.
  3. We fought the more-even (but not quite) "adults" who were a much closer match--but one we slated to beat.
We went up "a level" (8 APs) after two sessions of combat!

Huh? Levels?
Back when we played mostly Hero and GURPS we were pretty much not just down on the "idea" of levels but, I would say, actively anti-level. Thankfully we were not rabid about it ("Look at those fools playing with levels!? Ha! I'm so much more sophisticated ...") but for my part I saw levels as a wholly artificial part of the meta-game that just served to get between me the "fiction." After all, characters in most good fiction don't exactly Level Up--and while they might, yes, "Take A Level In Bad Ass" you rarely see a lengthy progression of minor steps. 

It happens--but it doesn't drive most fiction--at least not most fiction I think of myself as really liking. 

When we started looking at JAGS as an 'infinitely expandable game' where you could play things like skyscraper eating Kaiju we also started looking at "levels." When we played our epic 2-year Have-Not game it focused on levels and used them as part of the in-game story (our characters thought of people as having levels just like we could collect chaotic-attractor probability-manipulating Success Points that looked like video-game spinning coins).

There was one thing we all agreed on though: Leveling up had driven both the action and the story--our characters knew if we cleaned out a dungeon level we'd get somewhat more powerful. We endeavored to do that ... repeatedly ... in order to gain parity and then superiority over our foes who, for the very large part, were not running missions in the massive, world-spanning underground complex.

As a game designer I could also see how leveling created a beneficial pacing mechanism.

What do I mean by that?

Levels and Pacing
Back in the GURPS/Hero day we allocated experience points more or less the way the book said to: 1-4 points per game session (sometimes zero if nothing really concluded) and the GM did kind of try to dish them out at a rate congruent with "the fiction" (so the characters didn't change unrecognizably over the course of a day or two of game-time).

The GM-handling (and as often as not I was the GM) of the XP pacing worked well for two reasons. The first was that in a point-buy game there was no specific required direction on what you bought with the points. In AD&D each level came with specific stuff. In GURPS XP could make you a better fighter or a better scientist ... or some of both.

The second was that people expected advancement--but at different paces. We never knew how long games would last (some we played for one session before deciding to do something else). We had all kinds of time so there wasn't the same urgency we have today to get things right.

We also didn't have the concept of "best practices" as well articulated as we do today. Today, before a game starts, there's already a good deal of time for prep (we play 1x a week instead of daily). We also have firmed up some ideas about how to structure games so that things tend to go well. As such, when we make characters today we are pretty sure we'll get some mileage out of them.

But prior to that--in the more free-form model (which we still use for some games: we did it in the Ghost Game we just played) one player might make a character with a strong intention that s/he go up in effectiveness quickly while another might work on their conception so that the initial character was "more or less finished." In other words, Player A might build a beginning karate guy with the idea that he'll go through an arc and become a seasoned master and Player B might build his Kung Fu fighter as, already, a "master."

This isn't really a problem in theory (guy A would have a lot more raw stats, guy B higher skill rolls)--but if the players are doing that because of the length of the game they're expecting that could be a huge disconnect.

It also made a strong point: there was nothing you 'did' to get XP.

We rejected "good role-playing" awards. We believed in equal advancement for everyone. We didn't see giving XP for a "big battle" as especially interesting (we did tend to give XP for the death of a PC ... for reasons I can only kind of articulate--mostly because it was rare and impressive to us when it happened). In short the game-mechanics itself had no direct influence on the pace or nature of advancement.

Levels and JAGS
The major purpose of the re-write of the JAGS rules system was driven by the idea that using the Java Simulator to run millions of test-combats we could "get things right." A big secondary driver, however, was the idea that we could move, almost completely, to an open-ended buy system. That is, instead of there being a Trait 'Built' 8 AP (big, tough, muscular) that you could buy or not buy we could have multiple (infinite) levels of it and so Hercules could have like Built Level 8 (64 APs).

This might sound simple--but it was a hugely complex endeavor--especially as we didn't want to just break things all over the place.

Once we had this though, we wanted to use it. We knew that JAGS Have-Not would be the place to try that out. It lent itself to Level-based gaming.

The GM came up with the idea that every time we "went in a dungeon" (about a month of play usually--4 sessions) we went up a level--nothing else (almost) did it. It was, after all, part of the world (going into the General Continuity Complex changed you).

By the end of the run almost everything about the game was deemed wildly successful. We especially liked the pacing (from 8 AP to 128 AP or so). It seemed to drive the game and work well with our expectations.

When we followed it up with the Ghost Hunters game we didn't use levels at all. We did get a handful of AP at one point--but mostly we just got Character Points using the old method. We also got Success Points as a reward--which was interesting as different play styles (save 'em for the big battle at the end vs. use 'em ruthlessly) were able to be tracked and examined.

We noticed, though, that the number of "Ghost Investigations" was roughly analogous to the number of dungeons in the Have-Not game. The Ghost game was around half the length--but we could see there was a pacing methodology at work there: the blocks of content for a successful game had similarities.

This isn't to say we ought to have used a leveling mechanic for the Ghost Hunters game--it would not have been served by us becoming nearly superheroic--but there were pacing elements at work even if we weren't aware of them.

Should Super Heroes Get Levels?
A question we did--and still are--batting around is whether or not superheroes ought to get levels at all. After all, Spiderman doesn't change a whole lot (or, well, if he does, he changes back). Superman might unveil a new power once in a while or something ... but not in the better written stuff. Do superheroes change?

I think so--at least to a degree. For one thing gaming is a different model of fiction than comic books or movies (and Spiderman is also underwear and lunchboxes as much as a fictional character). We like being able to upgrade characters to a degree.

We are also different levels of "finished." I think that each of us might have different ideas of what an 'end-state' of our characters might look like. Mine? Pretty much done (not that I can't find stuff to spend the points on, though). The guy who is the champion of the gods of cars with their black gloves and chrome teeth--to whom more blood has been sacrificed that to the Aztec nightmare deities? 

I bet he can find some places to spend the points (Armor).

But there's a third reason: in our game world--this specific one--there's some specific stuff going on. The world we're playing in uses the Supers are Jerks model that some (more recent) comics have adopted. They are like badly behaving celebrities--often untouchable to the local authorities. They are not murderous badguys (for the most part) but in this world, even the more shiny heroes are pretty petty and often flawed.

Our characters are not so much upholding the status quo (which is a big part of Marvel and DC as the world still has to be pretty recognizable and, at the end of the day, the title characters still need to sell a lunchbox)--as they may be changing the world--or at least finding their ways in it. The characters may well have arcs that exist outside of the general realm of "traditional super characters."

Having a way of upgrading them is valuable in facilitating that.

So how do you do it?

One Level Per Big Fight Or Something
I had discussed with the GM how we might have characters go up in level--and we didn't have a good idea. What, in this game, was a "dungeon" (or a ghost investigation?). What was the general unit of play that the game would be built around? I came back with something that seemed pretty obvious: it's a big fight!

Our characters are various breeds of combat machine--when we fight a number of APs "equal" to us, might we go up a level? We used that for these first three play-sessions--but I think that might be too fast. Maybe 2x our points (and remember: our points go up)? That seems like it might be a bit better.

In any event--two sessions of interesting, involved combat (5 hrs of play or so) to get a level doesn't seem absurd. It appears we might have a really big battle (say 1-3 play sessions) about as often as we went in dungeons or moved between investigations. That pacing-element seems "about right."

The Importance of Pacing Elements
We were going to do a big space game and we never quite got it off the ground (maybe next?). One of the reasons was that we wanted levels--but weren't sure what the leveling mechanic was (maybe sector-jumps?). We weren't quite thinking about things like this--but now that we are, we might come back to it from another direction: what is the basic element of story in this game?

Is it going from planet to planet? Buying a new ship? Completing a sector's missions? A planet's missions? Could each "mission" have an XP count? Something like that?

It's gotta be something like that.

I think it's interesting to think of the game play--absent of specific mechanics--and ask what the innate demarcation points are for its basic narrative. I think that tells us something about the nature of it beyond what we get from the high-level overview. 

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