Power Curves

After writing about dwarves and elves and orcs, I started musing about halflings. Since I don’t treat them as a race and can’t comment on halfling “culture,” I thought I would explain my process for character generation, and how the player might be a twin and get to play two characters at once, or he might be a halfling and get the benefits of two races at once, or maybe I can find a way to incorporate mutations into the process…

When it occurred to me that we might be looking at the player power curve the wrong way.

That’s a massive leap there, I realize, so please bear with me.

In 1st and 2nd Edition, there was a tradition of hirelings and followers. 2nd Edition had rules for acquiring loyal followers (upon reaching “name” level (9th)); 1st might have rules in a supplement or variant book, I don’t know the specifics. But when 3rd Edition came along, they basically killed the idea. Hirelings were still around, but followers (and henchmen) were codified in a sub-system (accessible through a feat and maybe a few class features). It wasn’t a bad system, in-and-of itself. I used it more than once to make some very effective characters, relying heavily on the fact that I had my own private army of informants and laborers. But it never seemed to catch on with any of my fellow players and what I gathered from the online community seemed to corroborate my impressions.

I never really understood why until just the other day when I made a connection between managing a “stable” (as it were) of characters and navigating the encounter building system presented with 3rd Edition.

Ostensibly, this system came about to help DMs balance fights for the players. One of the main rules was that encounters of a given level (either too high or too low) should not result in an experience award for the players. Basically, as you go up in level, there are creatures and NPCs who are simply “beneath you,” offering no real challenge and therefore offering no real reward. I suspect this came about because the experience tables were standardized and reduced from a doubling progression to a linear progression. At the other end of the spectrum, encounters that were too powerful shouldn’t award experience because there was no reasonable way that the players should survive ~ and it seemed that 999 out of 1,000, that would be the case, but I suspect ~ again, without proof ~ that the designers recognized that a stray natural 20 could swing an encounter wildly, or that a DM would let the players survive because she didn’t want to go through a TPK, and then what sort of reward should they get?

Regardless of the motivation, the impact was that encounters outside a four-level window (four levels above or below the party’s average level) should not count for experience. This meant that the DM was encouraged to design encounters that fell within that window ~ which meant that having hirelings and followers around provided no advantage to the PCs. They were low-level cannon fodder that couldn’t reliably hit the enemy and would either die in the first two rounds or be ignored as not presenting a real threat. So why should the player want to keep them around?

One more piece of influence in this tangled web was the proliferation of power in PC classes. 3rd Edition heavily implied that a character class should receive some power or ability (other than additional hit points, base attack progression, saving throw progression or additional skill points). This notion was carried forward into 4th and (I think) 5th Editions, and it was emphasized as a core principle in Pathfinder. Again, I don’t know the reason for this change, but I suspect it had to do with the classic “linear fighters, quadratic wizards” argument.

The side effect of these three developments ~ making followers and henchmen an optional feature, creating a window for optimal encounter design and placing a greater emphasis on the acquisition of individual character abilities ~ shifted the focus of gameplay from a broad power spectrum to a narrow one.

Consider this (highly abstract) diagram:

Power Spike

where the bottom of the line on the left is a player at first level and the top is a higher level (10, 15, 20 ~ whatever your concept of high level is). As the character goes up in level, his power expands, the V growing wider as it goes higher. This shape is representative of the player’s power or influence on the game; specifically, this is representative of a PC in a 3rd Edition (and beyond) game. The inputs that define the player’s power/influence include things like base attack, saving throws, hit points, skills, special abilities, treasure, magic items, and so on. All things that are closely associated with a single individual in the game world: the player character.

If we give the player access to a range of characters, however, we get a power chart that looks more like this:

Power Pyramid

This V is wider at a relatively lower level. This isn’t because the player character is more powerful, it’s because the player is more powerful (here, power being synonymous with influence over the game world). The player’s power in this is measured as everything the player can do during the game. Having hirelings means the player has additional actions during an encounter; it means having additional resources; it means being able to gather more information, acquire and move more goods, influence more NPCs; it means the player can govern a community, build an army, run a guild; scheme and plot and maneuver through the world; and so many other things because he has reliableloyal NPCs at his beck and call.

In other words, while the publisher (and the “community” supporting it) was spending time “fixing” the game by balancing player characters, creating systems for designing encounters and treasure rewards, and encouraging the mentalities that go with those systems, they cut off a resource that had a far greater impact on the game than anyone realized.


4 thoughts on “Power Curves

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    1. As stated in the second-to-last paragraph.

      I wonder if it’s worth exploring in greater detail, exactly what you can accomplish with a host of characters under your control…

      1. Woops, sorry. I seem to have worded myself badly.

        It might be worth taking a look at, it can bring a lot of versatility. Though it can also be challenging with followers, especially if the system has very disparate power levels. It’s interesting in either case.

  1. For a while, I was surprised that a lot of my players never think to hire retainers or mercenaries of any kind, even when they have the money and they know they’re going into a dangerous situation. But then I remembered that, as a player, I actively avoid what I think of as “pets” (henchmen, familiars, mounts, etc.) for my own characters whenever possible; getting forced into such situations annoys me, whether it’s in an RPG, a video game, or real life. I wonder how many of my fellow gamers are thinking along the same lines.

    Don’t get me wrong, I realize that there are enormous potential benefits to having additional “bodies”, whether for combat or social purposes. It’s just that most of my characters are even more asocial than I am, especially when they see their new job as babysitting – and I’ve played in games where retainers and magical animals are even needier than real-world dogs.

    I also wonder how much of the de-emphasizing of followers in 3e and onward was a result of applying video-game assumptions to the tabletop. After all, NPC followers in most modern CRPGs are notorious for getting themselves killed due to their own stupidity, while having an overeager pet in Nethack can actually result in the player character starving to death.

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