November 19th, 2002


Where to begin?

One of the most commonly-accepted truisms in gaming is that player characters should have to work their way up to higher power levels. Even games that challenge the notion of Beginning PC = Normal or Slightly-Above Average Human haven't done much to change this. I know plenty of Exalted GM's who don't allow characters to start with the backgrounds Artifact or Manse at all, for example, much less high levels of either. Despite how many people accept an overall higher power level in a game, there's still an underlying, unspoken current of belief that anyone who starts with a character above the most basic level of what you can achieve at chargen is a power-gamer. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that even people who accept the overall power level of a game like Exalted will call you a power-gamer if you do anything other than spread your points perfectly evenly, regardless what your reasons are for doing it.

It seems to me there's two very different ideas at work behind the assumption about beginning PC's' power levels. The first is the very Gamist notion of earning XP and treasure being one of the ends of a game. If this is why you like playing, great, but it's not a good reason to assume that all games should have that as a focus, or even, quite frankly, include it at all. Really, if I want to play a game where the point is to get the cool stuff and grow more powerful, I can almost guarantee you I'll be playing on a computer or a console. It's not why I roleplay.

The second reason is altogether different, though the first reason may be rooted in the second. It seems to me that a lot of games want characters to start off as untried youths who, through their many exciting adventures, eventually grow to become the Heroes of the Realm. In short, the games are designed to run as the mythic journey (er, in overarching terms - most games utterly lack the structure of the journey). D&D always strikes me as the most obvious example of this. Despite the various bad ass concepts people come up with, first level characters, while better than Average Joe, are not impressive people in the least.

That said, I see nothing wrong with wanting to play that out, either. In fact, I frequently enjoy starting off with an Untried Youth and roleplaying his way to Hero of the Realm. But it's not always what I want to play. Sometimes, I just want to start the game playing a Competent Adult. Other times, I do want to play someone powerful and cool and I'm not terribly interested in spending weeks to months roleplaying out how he got there. If I decide I want to play Grimnar the Puissant Necromancer, why should I have to go through the process of playing Grimnar the Remarkably Fragile Apprentice first?

Sadly, not a lot of games have chargen rules designed to support anything other than the Untried Youth. Worse, in some of these games, most characters will come up with Competent Adult concepts, not Untried Youths. 7th Sea is the most obvious example. When I think "swashbuckling," I have to admit that I want to start off playing Robin Hood or Zorro, but that game's basic chargen doesn't give you enough points to make a Competent Adult, much less a Minor Hero. Dark Ages: Mage is another one, though in a different way. You can play a Competent Adult in mundane terms, but as far as magic goes, you're playing an apprentice. You have to spend a lot of Freebie Points and specialize a lot to be able to do anything remotely cool. Maybe this is some power-gaming rationalizaion, but I don't see what's wrong with the fact that I want to play a character who can do more with his magic than expand his senses and create match-sized flames with his mind.

Now, given that I don't roleplay to "gain levels" and I don't always want to play a mythic journey game, what reason do I have left to accept the assumption that power should be earned throughout the course of a game? If the power level of my character is relevant only to his concept and personality rather than some urge to "win" the game, upon what basis can anyone call me "power-gamer" except for the fact that I'm playing a powerful character?

Another thing I find interesting about this phenomenon is that, a lot of the time, it relates solely to the mechanics of character generation. There are cheesy and non-cheesy characters in both relatively low-powered games like GURPS and high-powered games like Exalted. It's all a matter of how you use the chargen rules.

It's odd, though, how few people are willing to mess with power level when it comes to character generation. I hear time and time again that players and groups should just change or ignore any rules they don't like. But it seems people aren't willing to extend this privilege to chargen. GM's who allow characters built above the normal chargen limitations are assumed either to be caving in to their players or running a "deadly" campaign.

Anyway, I realize I'm sort of all over the board in this post. There's about three related issues threaded throughout the post that could probably all be explored individually. Maybe I'll organize my thoughts and do that later, but for now I wanted to point out and challenge a few more of the assumptions people have about gaming.
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