The Ten Level Solution

By | July 27, 2013

Hello once again!

When we were still firmly entrenched in the d20 model for the Infinite Earths roleplaying game, characters gained the fullness of their power over the course of 20 levels.  We spent a lot of time in spreadsheets making sure numbers were balanced and warriors could go toe-to-toe with wizards.  We had an experience system which meant reaching level 20 took exactly 209 experience points, and boy did we ever love that.


Over time, the problem with 20 levels became clear.  If the best guy at something gets a total +20 to his rolls (for example), and the middle guy gets +15 and the worst guy gets +10, that ultimately means that the guy who’s worst at a thing probably shouldn’t even try it.  The likelihood of him being able to overcome that 10-point deficit in ability is very small, especially when it hinges on something so precarious as “rolling well.”

This power problem is something that 3e and its derivatives have constantly struggled with.  And eventually, with these systems, the bonuses and the DCs become an arms race.  Oh, that Big Bad Evil Guy has an AC of 52. . .but that’s okay, I have a bonus of +48 on my first attack in a round, so I just need to roll a 4 or higher.

By the time characters reach their max levels in these systems, the die itself no longer matters.  The bonuses to the roll so completely overshadow what comes up on the die that the die might as well not even be cast except to see the guaranteed 5% chances for failure or success/critical success (or the possibility of a crit, if you’re confirming).

So one of our goals was the flatten the numbers and make them lower and more consistent.  But one of the things we discovered is that even removing the “superfluous bonuses” such as Weapon Focus, Weapon Specialization, and magical +5 Swords of Numerical Badassery, there was still that enormous distance between the best guy and the worst guy at something.  It was a distance that we didn’t really care for; we wanted it smaller.

And as we wrestled with this and also wrestled with avoiding “dead levels” (where you don’t get any new powers or abilities for leveling up, just some new numerical benefit), Sarah posed a very interesting question:  “How long have the campaigns you’ve run lasted?”

And that made us stop and think for a bit.  Because we usually started a new campaign – in 2e, in 3e, in Pathfinder – at about level 3 or 4.  Because that’s when things got interesting, when characters felt like they had a distinctiveness and power that they were missing at the lower levels.  And they usually lasted until the early to mid-teens.  They lasted about this long for a couple of reasons:

  • The campaigns Ray and I tend to run are complete story arcs.  There are side-plots and metaplots, and these generally take about 20 to 30 sessions to resolve completely.
  • Pushing too much farther into the higher levels generally made storytelling very difficult if magic was not arbitrarily restricted (“no teleport” and “no commune” were common house rules), because the most direct solution of asking God what needed fixing, teleporting to the fixee’s house and “fixing” him tended to make the game rather samey.

With 20-30 sessions, that often resulted in players leveling every session or two. Which was cool and all, in a way, but in another way, they were leveling so fast they never really got to enjoy or settle into their powers.  By the time they figured out how to use one ability, they were getting two more.  But we weren’t comfortable extending the stories out further, because there’s a limit to how big a story can comfortably get before it becomes overpadded and bloated.

Now, let me be clear: we are well aware that some people like campaigns of a shorter duration and others like campaigns of a longer duration.  But here’s the thing: we’re building a system built around the way we play, in a way that mechanizes what is in essence the Fiat we use when we GM.

And with that in mind, as Sarah’s words started to sink in, the implication of them felt right.  We’d been trying to build a 20-level system because that’s what you do when you use the OGL, not because it actually fit what we were trying to accomplish.  What we were trying to accomplish, really, was create a system that mimicked that feeling of starting at level 3-4 and going up through level 12 or so, without having any dead levels and without an excessive amount of “racing” between levels.

This was part of our revelation that spun Infinite Earths away from being what in essence was “another d20 heartbreaker.”  Ten levels would do us well, thank-you-very-much.  It would allow us to have a “light leveling” system, one in which characters can grow in power (but not to ridiculous, quadratic extremes) and one in which they can begin not as trip-and-you-die greenhorns but as entities with skillsets that clearly identified them as different and unique.

Of course, we decided to keep the levels (even though in many ways a character point-based system would be closer to the typical expectation of what we’re trying to do), for reasons previously explained in Rejiggering.  In essence, levels are there to constrain player behaviors and prevent “Johnny One-Spell,” the guy who’s good at one thing and one thing only.  It helps reinforce the idea that characters in Infinite Earths are whole creatures with a breadth of ability beyond only-combat or only-talking or only-skills.

This has presented some of its own challenges, though. The numbers used are not only lower, but they’re also flatter.  The dice are much more important, which means that everything is much swingier.  You may mathematically be able to expect a result, but fate and your low rolls might have something very different to say.  Flattening the difficulties being rolled against helps mitigate this, but not entirely.

Nor should it!  The dice should be important, otherwise why have them?

Another issue we’d been running into is Ability Fatigue.  One of the things that makes 20-level systems work is “Adder Feats”:  those feats which just provide some numerical bonus to other abilities, rather than any new features of their own.  We avoided such feats in our initial design, but without them, players were feeling stuck with a glut of options and it was like living in a place with money to burn and too many good restaurants: they couldn’t decide what was the particular flavor of delicious they wanted.  Reducing the number of levels also reduced the number of choices Players had to make which, astonishing to us, has been the greatest desire of playtesters so far.

The Ten Level Solution also helps keep combat moving quick.  Our most recent playtest involved 12 encounters, 5 of which were combats, in a complete 4-hour adventure. Combats generally took about 10-20 minutes, tops, no more than a similarly appropriate social encounter.  This lets us pack more action into sessions and reduces often-tedious number-crunching.  Combat is feeling good, skills are feeling good, social is feeling good.

The only thing left to see is if, at only 10 levels, Infinite Earths feels like it has no “meat and potatoes.”  There are ways to adjust that, but this is still a real concern and we’ll have to see through future playtests.

Thanks for listening!