If you are like me, you are usually happy to see a new supplement come out for your favorite role playing game, new powers, new options, new directions. But what happens when the new options are strictly better than the ones in the core book?

What is powercreep?

If you listen to either of our podcasts, you have probably heard me mention powercreep before. As game lines progress and the developers get a better feel for the game, there tends to be a steady increase in the effectiveness (or power-level) of character options printed in each subsequent supplement. That is to say, as new supplements come out each one has better, more appealing options than the last. There are a lot of reasons for this, here are just a few:

Sometimes it is purposefully done to balance some option that was underpowered (like Toughness Vs. Improved Toughness in D&D third edition) without rewriting the rules.
Sometimes it happens because of creative reasons, for example Martial Arts in Exalted have more charms written for them than any other combat ability, primarily because they allow for more creativity on the part of the writers.
Most of the time, it happens accidentally, as some bit of exploitable ‘code’ goes untested and makes it to print.


This gradual (and sometimes not so gradual) increase in power can cause difficulties at the gaming table and frequently puts players and game masters at odds with each other. Players will want to take the new option, and the game master will be reluctant to allow a potentially problematic ability into his or her game. So what can you, as a game master do about powercreep?

Option 1: Embrace

One thing you can do is to let the new option in. Especially if its impact on the game is relatively small. Let’s use D&D fourth edition as an example: I consider the races from the Player’s Handbook III to be powercreeptastic, since they get an option of where to put one of their ability bumps without any other obvious drawbacks. This makes them, in my opinion, better than the races presented in the first two Player’s Handbooks. However, once the character is made, this instance of powercreep no longer affects the game, thus there’s no real harm in letting a player make a minotaur character.

Of course, you can always choose to embrace a new option, even if it is a big, sweeping, unbalancing issue. In that case you just have to make sure that you are compensating somehow, both for the NPCs that may oppose the characters, and for the other players who may be lagging behind if they don’t have access to a similarly powerful option.

Option 2: Reject

The easiest option (at least at first) is to reject the new ability or power, forbidding players from taking it. This is likely to cause conflicts between you and your players, so it is important that you follow at least some of these steps.

  1. Figure out why you are banning the new option, make sure you can articulate the problem with it.
  2. Make sure you can defend your decision.
  3. When you bring up the subject make sure to let them know that you have already made your decision.

But Rodrigo, if its not up for debate, why do I have to be able to articulate the problem?
Glad you asked, hypothetical reader, people tend to respond better when there is a reason behind a decision, it makes you look less like a screaming dictator and more like city council, who has no choice but to tear down the rec center, Boogaloo Shrimp.
As an added note to the ‘reject’ path, be aware that the developers of the game may eventually realize that the option is disruptive and do something about it. Unfortunately this often means that, rather than correcting it with errata, they will attempt to bring everything else up to the level of the powercreepy option, in that case you may have to allow the original offender back in… or, you know, switch to another game when the arms race gets too crazy.

Good or bad?

Well, bad. But what are you gonna do? Stop playing RPGs? Get a haircut and a job? Move to Poughkeepsie and open a bait shop? It’s important to keep in mind that game designers and developers are people too, and they are trying to generate a new and exciting product, and sometimes they’re going to do things you don’t like. Fortunately unlike, say video games, you can always choose to omit, redact and change whatever you don’t like in your RPG experience.

The Author



Nobody really knows what Rodrigo's deal is. He is a perpetual enigma, an unknown quantity, the X factor. He's the new kid in school, the unlisted number, the person all your friends talk about, but you've never met. How can one person be so mysterious, you ask? THAT IS ALSO TOTALLY A MYSTERY! You can try to keep tabs on him on twitter by following @fearsomecritter, but that probably won't help.

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  1. litanyofthieves
    June 9, 2010 at 10:54 am — Reply

    Great article, it really sums up power creep. I’m glad to see it re-posted.

    I try not to deny my players options they’re excited about, because I think one of the key things in any joint narrative is to avoid saying “no” as much as possible. Normally I can tell if I’m underestimating the party’s strength immdeiately and add some new elements to the encounter or challenge they are facing. However, it can be difficult when you’ve got one power gamer(or munchkin) who knows how to optimum build his dual-wieldian half elf ranger to deal max damage at first level and the rest of your group are either noobs or more interested in the roles vs. the rolls, and their characters are left behind, then you are stuck in this place where you have to either throw stuff at the party that will be one-hit TKO’ed by Mr. +16 to hit, OR you end up putting them into an encounter that is much too difficult for the others. Sometimes there are times when the best thing to do is, like you said, say “No, I can’t allow that, here’s why.”

    Generally my rule is: if players want to bring in a new supplement, first I want to know what it is and approve it.

  2. Roosterj
    June 9, 2010 at 10:57 am — Reply

    Before anyone asks, I believe this is a ‘lost to the crash’ articles.

    That being said, I’m one of those that fall into the embrace, for the most part. Rodrigo’s examples of the variable stats don’t really trouble me, as they allow for character diversity and DM control.

    What concerns me about D&D power creep is when powers and feats become undesirable or obsolete. Compare Versatile Expertise to the previous incarnations(weapon/ implement expertise.) There is litte/no reason consider these older feats.

    In the case of powers, look at Winged Horde vs Scorching Burst. For the sacrifice of +int damage, you get a vs. will psychic burst damage that targets only enemies and elimiates attacks of opportunity (allowing easier positioning and more damage from other players.) I’d have a hard time ‘ever’ selecting scorching burst.

    I want the books I spent $20-35 to remain releant w/o DM fiat.

    • Alvarlux
      June 9, 2010 at 3:20 pm — Reply

      Thanks for confirming the repost.. It was driving me mental trying to figure out where I’d read this before..

  3. Bryan
    June 10, 2010 at 8:25 am — Reply

    I completely agree with Rodrigo’s description of what to do when banning an option open to players. I was playing a game last year where I had spent 3 days building a character (my first character ever, which is why it took so long) and then I start to tell my DM about it and he’s like “oh you can’t play that race.” he had some wacky in-game storyline related reason but to me it sounded like “because I said so, nya-nya”. But what made me so mad is that it felt like I had just wasted 3 days. If he told me no up front and explained why (even the story related reason) I probably would have accepted it and moved on.

  4. Andrew
    August 30, 2010 at 9:59 pm — Reply

    I have to agree, especialy with the “have a reason” for saying no, I would like to change this though to “have a GOOD reason.” I was in one campaign where I was going to play a summoning based wizard in a 3.5 game. I was told by the DM that I could do that, But would never be able to summon more then one monster because “I dont feel like rolling up 3 extra monsters an encounter.” If your not willing to do the legg word, dont bother DMing. I later parted ways with this perticular group after the DM informed me that “its not my job to make this game fun for you, its my job to tell a story.”

    Personaly when I DM I try to leave as many thing open for my players as posible. I am currently Running a 3.5 campaign with 6 gestalt charecters, two of which are infected with the weretiger version of lycanthropy. needles to say, there is some serious powercreep going on, but everyone is haveing fun, which is the hole idea.

  5. Damascus
    September 30, 2010 at 12:16 am — Reply

    For the PHB #3, the choice of where to place your ability bumps could also be settled with a dice roll if you so choose. You could have them assign an ability to a number and another to a different number and roll to see where it lands, if you see the choice of where you place it as an advantage over the other players who might be playing characters from the other PHB’s. Whatever you want, you’re the DM. That’s also how I play the game, when I’m fortunate enough to find a group to play with. I ask the DM if the group needs any particular skill set or if something’s missing so that I can fill a need for the whole party and then I’ll figure out what type of character I want to play. Then again, every party would do well to have a Halfling Monk on the team.

  6. Bill
    November 4, 2010 at 11:58 pm — Reply

    My answer to most of these problems has been simple. As the GM I have to be ‘up’ on all these rules. Therefore I need to have thoroughly read the rulebook and be SURE that I always have access to it when I need it. In other words I only allow rules from books that I own. I do not have a 200,000.00 dollar a year job so my access to various rulebooks is limited. Often the “I want to use this…” comes down to “I don’t own the rulebook so unless it’s worth buying me the rulebook in question it ain’t gonna happen.” I tell my Players this up front and occasionally make exceptions but for the most part I stand by that decision.

    I have played 5 version of D&D (counting Basic/Expert as the one rule set it really is)six if you count the board game version. Personally I get more joy from using existing rules and options than from new mega classes that feel, to me, like the fighter/Mage/Thief muticlass elves I used to run into in first edition. Feels very similar to when you use the cheatcodes in video games to make yourself invincible.. fun for a little while but eventually I get bored. Personally I have seen well run games where the low level party fighting off a hoarde of Kobolds was as exciting as the time our High Level Party kicked Tiamat’s butt.

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