Friday, March 29, 2024

Levels, Structure, and Creativity

So some time back I was having a chat with my much younger cousin who had gotten into D&D in the 5E generation, and I was trying to explain to him why I preferred the relative simplicity of 13th Age's character design during level up.

Now, in 13th Age, each class has a list of a half dozen or so Talents, which are classic genre beats for that type of character (some also have Talents baked in - every Barbarian can Rage, for example, that's just part of being a Barbarian). You also have 8 points to divide as bonuses to player defined Backgrounds, which include within them flags and world building and generally have huge penumbras in play. You have 1 feat, or two if you're playing a human. Depending on the class you may have some additional bits such as spells accessible or fighter maneuvers. And you pick your 3 icon relationships. 

All skill checks and attacks add Level to them. Your basic attack damage is your level in weapon dice. So when you level up everything automatically gets better, no need to fiddle around with decisions for points spends, and your basic attack damage scales with level so it removes the linear fighter/logarithmic wizard problem. You get another feat, maybe a new options in your additional bits (more spells, a new maneuver, etc.), and you're done. 

He said he found this uncomfortably formulaic and a bad design, because he doesn't get all those decisions and design bits and levers to pull as he levels up. He was sure every 6th level fighter would therefore look like every other 6th level fighter while 5E lets everyone be different. 

This was flabbergasting to me, because it's the exact opposite of what I see happening. 

In 13th Age and other freeform games I get to make a unique character at the jump. No one else has my backgrounds because I defined them. The powers are genre classics that I get to mix and match from so there are some 30 possible talent builds per baseline class. The icon relationships are equally in the players hands. The rules are explicitly loose in a variety of places to make sure you're getting the character you want to play very quickly. The feat selection is so much an afterthought of "oh that might be neat" rather than "I need x to get to y" because the character. The characters also start at about the 3rd level of power in 5E terms. (Mind you, I'm not 100% on board with how much the rules assume you're maximizing attributes to class given the strength of the underlying math, but that's been a bugaboo of mine across a lot of non-random roll systems where attributes provide a lot of the bonus)

What I've seen in 5E is MUCH more structured, with 1st level PCs looking very close to one another and the differentiation not starting until 3rd level, and after that it's navigating a tree of decision points to make every character fit within a tree of branching, evenly powered options, so you can carry your character from game table to game table and know that you're balanced. He wanted that list of switches and options, the system mastery and the regular decision points. 

In short, when he looked at 13th Age he didn't see the structure to build the character over play. When I looked at 5E I saw all the characters the structure wouldn't let me play without someone official coming up with a design tree to "allow" it. I'm not saying I'm right and he's wrong, but it's amazing to me that we can be looking at the same two systems and see completely different outcomes on it. Especially as I do work again now on B/X and 3E, which are at other places on that spectrum.

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