Examining High Level Play: Part Two

Yesterday I opened the topic of high level play by looking at different types of “high level” characters and how high level play contrasts with lower power levels. Today I’ll examine why people would want to play at high power levels and some common objections.

Now we come to the meat of the issue: why would anyone want to play at high levels? This can be a difficult question to answer, and is related to some other questions that I will address later. There are a few solid responses that can be offered, though. For one, high level characters can affect the campaign world in ways that low level characters cannot. The things they do matter. They cause ripples that can fundamentally alter the world. The decisions of a president or a king affect a nation, and can touch other nations around them; if the nation is powerful enough the ripple can cover the entire world. Cosmic superheroes play on a stage that can span universes. Nobles from Nobilis can tweak reality itself with a thought, much like powerful characters in Mage: the Ascension. Chaos lords and Amberites in the Amber Diceless RPG can locate entire worlds that fit their desires at a whim. The actions of Immortals in classic D&D can change the balance of fundamental forces. That kind of power can be thrilling, especially to players fed up with their actions not making a difference.

The greater responsibilities of high level characters can offer players the ability to experience ideas, such as domain management or fundamental philosophical concepts, that they have not touched with other characters or in their own lives. Being able to run a country is fun, as evidenced by the plethora of such sims online. The mix of power and responsibility can be a heady one. Doing these things in an RPG can allow a player to cut through the grind and weight around such power, focusing on the “fun bits” and doubling the entertainment value, or they can allow the player to find unexpected enjoyment in such management. Players (and GMs) could discover a whole new aspect of fun.

Concurrent with that, players and GMs can indulge in desires and ideas that they can’t touch with other characters, such as alternate methods of government, the ability to make masses of mortals bow down in terror, or destroying entire universes. Whether they should indulge or not can become a central question of the game. Exploration of the effects can take on countless permutations.

There’s also something visceral in being able to just cut loose. Giant fireballs that can wipe out armies are fun. Beating a foe to a pulp can be cathartic, but being able to lay out a smackdown on the level of an epic D&D mage or a superhero like Superman can forge a memory that will last a lifetime, if all you’re used to is fighting for your life against goblins or street punks.

Finally, there are a number of common objections to high level play. Some of these can be addressed, while others are personal preferences that cannot be “wrong” in any real sense. One of the most common is the objection that high level characters can have a confusing and daunting array of abilities. In the cases of characters such as experienced Exalts or high level spellcasters in older editions of D&D, this objection holds real weight. The sheer number of Charms or spells such a character has access to, the permutations of possible effects and the combinations possible can drag a player, and a game, down into a hell of book checking, second guessing and computation. Even nonmagical characters can be buried under sheer bookkeeping, especially in domain or national management or in leading large forces. It is possible to address this concern by narrowing or condensing what a character can do without reducing overall effectiveness or strength. Streamlining powers or abilities while making them more open ended allows a player to utilize creativity in applying a less overwhelming number of options.

Players and GMs unused to characters with such power can find the idea confusing. Even with years of experience in freeform roleplaying with characters of similar power levels, I initially found the idea of running an Immortals campaign to be daunting. Being willing to forgive mistakes on my own part as well as that of my players helped a lot. Saying, “Oops, we forgot Timestop doesn’t work against other Immortals. We’ll remember next time!” and then moving on, not stressing over getting it perfect the first time, took a lot of the anxiety away. Having a good social contract with my players whereby they can also forgive and accept such things helped even more. If you’re new to high level play, talk with the others at the table and voice your concerns. Don’t worry, it’s just a game.

Another common objection is that high level play is or should be the result of the investiture of many hours of play in a campaign. This often comes from people who enjoy the “Zero to Hero” style of play. It is possible to start a game with high level characters, but doing so can involve a lot of work at character creation, and many people do not feel comfortable starting with such a powerful character that they have not watched “grow up”. This is a personal preference, and it is not “wrong”. To those who feel this way, I would ask only for the willingness to try. There are many things I don’t like to do in RPGs, like lifepaths and dungeon crawls, but I’m not so hardline that I couldn’t be convinced to give them a shot once in a while.

The topic of high level play is one I feel deserves a lot more examination. I’m having a blast with my Immortals game, and we haven’t even started on a quest of any kind. The characters are getting introduced to their new status and capabilities, and just exploring their Home Planes and the Immortal city has been such fun that they players have jokingly threatened each other in their personal quest to get their schedules to line up. I can’t wait for NaNoWriMo to be over so we can get back to the game. It’s been a real eye-opener for me. I’ve been curious about high level play for years, but never thought I’d get to indulge. Now I think I know how to get other people to at least give it a try.