by Ken St. Andre – January 29th, 2000
Do you remember your first fantasy role-playing experience? Do you remember struggling to understand unfamiliar rules, the effort to fit your character into that of someone not yourself? Do you remember the dread with which you faced your first monstrous foe?
There has never been anything else quite like it, has there?
As you continued to play, you learned what to expect, and how to turn the tables on your Game Master. You learned how to balance a party of delvers to deal with all emergencies, how to anticipate traps, and trick monsters. You learned when to fight and when to talk. And as you learned all these things, your character found artifacts of power and grew ever more potent and dangerous.
And now that you are a 20th level wizard-warrior with a pet dragon capable of dishing out 6421 points of hit damage, spells capable of halting time or destroying a mountain, armor that can protect you from a nuclear explosion – now that you have achieved all your desires, don’t you find yourself looking around wondering where the next challenge will come from, and not finding any?
Wasn’t it better when you were just a first level wizard, agonizing over whether to throw a TTYF for 16 whole points of damage on that charging monster, and then hope the party can protect you until the combat is over, or whether to vorpal the blade of the best warrior and possibly strike a few blows of your own with the quarterstaff?
The truth is that we as human beings gain just as much pleasure from making small decisions and gaining small victories as we do from making earth-shattering decisions and saving the world. We are each our own world, and when you manage to elude that horde of MR-5 rats and scramble to safety, it is as good or better than causing the earth to open and swallow 20,000 attacking Ores. The first is just a personal triumph; the second example is history. But what do you as a person relate to more – personal triumphs or history?
There is no doubt that the longer you continue to role-play, the better a role-player you will become, and the more effective your character will be during the game. But when you can effortlessly wave your hand and destroy that hulking troll, the satisfaction is gone from the game. When you had to think fast, dodge, rig a landslide, lure it into a pit, the challenge and thus the fun was greater.
Which brings me to my point – low level games are more fun than high level games. Being powerless and fighting for your life is more of a thrill than being godlike and annihilating the opponent. High level games turn into bragging contests, where players and Game Masters try to top each other with one super feat after another. Low level adventures are more the kind of thing you could see yourself actually participating in.
And that is why, in over 25 years of role-playing, I have never actually developed a character higher than 9th level. High level characters are like gods, and if I need a god, I’ll make one up (Gristlegrim, Lerotra’hh) when I’m the Game Master. Or. I’ll ask the current G.M. to do a divine intervention.
Then again, if a beginning character dies, you can always roll up a new one – no great loss! But if a high level character gets toasted, then you lose months or years of role-playing labor. No wonder AD&D allows practically unlimited resurrection of dead characters. It’s a power trip, and once you accumulate a fair amount of power, you really hate to lose it.
The solution to having the most fun, of course, is to retire those high level monstrosities – turn them into NPCs. Perhaps someone will encounter old Drax the Demon Dodger and get his help on a particularly difficult mission that all those first to third level types had no chance with, but your emotional investment is not tied up in Drax. Instead, it’s with Itchy the Kid who’s just finding his first magic kazoo.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. High level games can be awesome, but low level games are a lot more fun! (Unless, of course, you’re some kind of sicko, who really gets off on the power trip of being able to squash mere mortal characters and NPCs like some kind of bugs. That can be fun, too – but it isn’t healthy!)
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