Monday, December 7, 2020

Fun at Every Level - A Pipe Dream or Design Reality?

A recent comment on an older Starfinder post got me to thinking: the comment was that essentially the problem with higher level D&D 5E is the inverse of lower level Starfinder, that a high level D&D game  and a low level Starfinder game are painful in comparable ways. There is more than a little truth to it. With D&D 5E there's a good chance you've experienced some measure of fatigue with what happens when the game system, built around exploding hit points, gets to a certain point in play at higher level.* The problem with 5E is not particularly new to that edition; it actually plays much better at high level than 3rd edition versions before it, in fact. The problem is "new' to 5E in the sense that it fixed some underlying issues with prior editions (math complexity, juggling stackables, and too many iterative attacks and modifiers) with a new problem (simpler rules, but the hit point bloat just sucks). 

Starfinder has an entirely different issue: at low level it lets you play what essentially amount to pathetic miscreants. You can barely do anything, and you can afford gear that is one step up from a Laser Tag game. You don't get truly interesting class abilities until about level 4, and you don't start affording scifi weaponry that feels like something not handed to the short bus until around level 6-7. By the time you're level 10 you start to feel like a real adventurer. Starfinder is a victim of its own balancing act, carried too far. I'm running it right now, and my goal is to award heaps of XP tro make the first 4 levels just fly by.

I think Paizo realized this was a problem, too. Pathfinder 2E manages to succinctly balance out the merit of low level gaming against higher levels in ways neither of the other two systems are all that good at. Low level PF2E characters feel squishy, but they have bite. High level PF2E characters are interesting and complex, but fights somehow only last a little bit longer than low level battles do. It's a good design balance, and I love how smooth it is. 

Now, to contrast there are other games out there which handle this very differently, suggesting that the high level/low level problems of some games are more characteristic of D20 systems than they are of, say, Cypher System or Savage Worlds. Those games have their own issues, of course....but sometimes they also have their own built in fixes, too. For example, Cypher System deliberately makes a lot of tasks at lower level trivial and automatic as characters advance in power, but high level play in Cypher is functionally identical to low level play, just with a greater need for sacrifice from the resource mechanic which drives all actions. Meanwhile, Savage Worlds runs on very flat baseline stats, and all the edges and perks a character gains over time are designed mainly to make it easier to hit the target numbers than anything else; the number stay the same. 

Although I think, for purposes of D20, that Pathfinder 2E hits the mark very closely for me, I bet there are still better ways to design a D20-based system which manage to retain the rules simplicity of 5E with the tactical granularity of Starfinder or Pathfinder. These designs might even retain consistent feelings of fun and engagement at all levels of play. If you know of any systems out there that seem to do a better job of accomplishing this than the current era of D20 systems I'd be interested in hearing about them.


*This issue with high level 5E is more evident to first time gamers than those who survived 3rd edition D&D, as we all remember the gruesome high level gaming days that 5E "fixed" for our purposes at least!

Hah had a typo in the title. Pire. Shoulda been Pyre! Would be even more odd than Pipe.

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