GAMER’S CORNER: Powercreep, When Awesome Gets Out of Hand

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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.

"BOOGITTY BOOGY! I AM A STARTING CHARACTER!"

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.