Examining High Level Play: Part One

A couple weeks back, I was reflecting on the D&D Immortals campaign I’ve been working with, and I got to thinking about “high level play” as a whole concept. I scribbled some notes, and then later that day I brought it up to our friend Jeff Uurtamo of the RPG Circus podcast. Jeff spoke to his co-hosts Zach and Mark, and the guys decided to dedicate an entire episode of their podcast to examining not just high level play, but low and mid level as well. Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about high level play specifically. I’d like to add my thoughts to the discussion.

I came up with four general areas of interest when dealing with this topic. The first area is the different types of high level play that exist: what are they? Second is how play at high power levels contrasts with lower levels or settings. Third is the purpose of playing at high levels (or high power levels): why would people want to do such a thing? Finally are obstacles to playing at high power levels, including player objections, and how some of these can these be addressed. In this post I’ll look at the first two areas, leaving the latter two for tomorrow’s conclusion.

To begin, let’s examine the different possible types of high level play. “High level” is not restricted to D&D; it does not always mean “level 19 fighter”. High level play can exist in many different games and genres — but it does exist within D&D as well, in an archetypal way.

Probably the most common type of high level play is the expansion of lower level characters and their capabilities: increase of level, as in D&D; point total, such as in systems like GURPS and HERO; or defining power trait, such as high Essence characters in Exalted. Here, the character can often be defined simply as being able to do more of what the character could do at earlier points in time, such as previous levels. Decisions made about the character can define the character’s path later in life, and the character’s accepted role can stay the same.

Contrasted with this are characters who undergo a kind of transformation into a different state of being. Often times this new state can be described as “godlike”, putting the character into a whole new realm of abilities and responsibilities. Classic D&D offered such a transformation when characters became Immortals. Nobilis is a much more recent example, as characters go from being ordinary people into representing aspects of the cosmos. Exalted characters can experience something similar at the moment of Exaltation, especially Solars, Abyssals and Infernals.

Finally, there are characters who have access to large amounts of temporal, worldly power outside themselves. Noble and royal characters who can command realms, such as in the Birthright campaign of AD&D, may not be personally powerful but can still be forces on the world stage because of what they can bring to bear against others. On the other hand they may have assumed the mantle of leadership because of their personal power, adding another dimension to their might, such as classic D&D characters who have founded keeps, towers and guilds, or conquering Exalted heroes.

Each of these types of characters can face similar problems. It is possible for them to use their power as a hammer, striking out with force at anything that opposes them, but such use of force almost always has repercussions that can come back to haunt the characters later. A character who draws steel in a barroom brawl and kills a man can face trial and imprisonment. A character who unleashes an army to crush a neighbor over a perceived insult, however, risks the slaughter of thousands and, should things go awry, damage to his or her own power base. A mighty superhero or godling who is not careful about throwing down with a villain of equal power can lay waste to a city, inflicting horrible collateral damage. A president who makes the wrong call could inadvertantly trigger the end of the world, or at least ruin the nation’s reputation. These are different problems, but share a similarity of scale and responsibility that lower level characters do not often need to consider.

This, then, illustrates some of the contrasts of high level play with low and mid level play. High level characters have more power and often more responsibility, both to use their powers for and in care of the use of their powers with or around other people. Those who do not use their might in service to others risk being branded as villainous, if the public at large are aware of the characters and there are other characters who are serving the greater good. Selfishness and heedlessness are both very good ways for powerful characters to get on the public’s bad side in a hurry.

High level characters also have more possibilities to explore. They can go to more places, do more things and experience more than characters who do not share the same power level. They can face a broader range of foes, who often become more esoteric as they become mightier themselves. Epic monsters in D&D 3.x and 4e can be both weird, in the Lovecraftian sense, and absurdly dangerous in a multitude of ways, more than any orc or thug. Cosmic type superheroes defend whole solar systems or even regions of galaxies. Exalts plunge into the Wyld, forcing their own vision of order on the primal chaos.

The concerns of these characters are often a completely different set of ideas. Mundane worries, such as lunch money, become almost inconceivably petty. A normal person needs to remember where the car keys are; these characters could have to find a lost pocket dimension before breakfast. A normal person might check up on the local news while having coffee; a president receives detailed briefings from all over the world. High level characters can either make or utterly transcend mortal human law. When the mortal authorities can’t touch you, do their laws matter? That question itself sheds light on the concept, even.

Tomorrow I will look at reasons for playing at high level, and some common objections to high level gaming. Stay tuned!