Thursday, September 3, 2015

Playtest Findings: High-Level Character Creation

All right, after a week off from playtesting (we moved - I'm writing this from our new apartment, where all the boxes of books and whiteboards are waiting to move into their new homes!), we're back with new notes! The Canadian playtesting group is breaking some new ground with higher-level characters, so they have some interesting things to talk about that the lower-level groups also running right now may not.

Playtesting Issue: Characters initially created at a higher tier may not be comparable to characters that progressed up to that tier from the beginning.

Honestly, this is kind of a no-brainer - a character created as an Immortal doesn't look like one that was created as a Mortal and grew upward through play. We expected that this would be true, and that expectation was amply fulfilled. But how different, and in what way, is still important to examine.

This test group created characters who were a little ways into their Immortal career, using our written rules for character creation at higher levels; that means that these are characters who have already had multiple adventures and experiences in their backstories, and are already firmly entrenched in their powers and roles prior to even starting. They had several issues related to the fact that this came with a lot of extra moving parts - they weren't worried about figuring out what their Heroes had done in their previous adventures, since creative stories about cool things they'd done came easily, but they did hit some snags when it came to starting their new careers smoothly.

A repeated concern was that the players felt that they had an overwhelming number of powers to begin the game with. Although they thought the powers were cool and wanted to have neat magic spells and super feats to wield against enemies and challenges, they had difficulty trying to memorize so many possibilities off the bat, and some ended up having to take more notes about their powers and costs than they would have liked, or had to slow down play when they paused to look things up. This didn't cause them to try to take fewer powers - they were at an average just as likely to pick up extra Blessings as other playtesters - but did make them less confident in using the ones that they had at the right moment.

We also heard some concern over the Archetype system; although the players ended up agreeing that it made sense mathematically, starting at a higher level meant that the players were faced off the bat with gaining Archetype dots more slowly (without going into it too much, Archetype progression becomes slower as you increase in "level" - so Heroes who start as Mortals are moving comparatively much more quickly than Immortal or Divine ones). This is something that might not have been overly noticeable if they'd begun at the bottom, since the progression would have been likely to slow more gradually over time, but some players were nonplussed by the fact that, starting in the middle of the scale, they weren't likely to see it move very often going forward.

There was of course the question of numbers to be dealt with, too, which was one of the major things we wanted to see when this particular test game started. Are our guidelines for what stats to give starting Immortals useful and comparable to those of Heroes who would have progressed to that point from Mortals? Are new Immortals appropriately powerful, and are these guidelines useful for both players who want to start a new game at Immortal level and players who have a character die or be taken out of play, and have to replace them mid-stream? This is pretty subjective data, since the "right" level depends on a lot of factors and different players have different ideas of the power level they feel is appropriate there, but we're collecting information on it to compare to the lower-level tests that are growing toward this level, and doing some tweaking on the fly.

Finally, the testing GM let us know that there was something of a curve for running a game that started with Immortal as well. Without having grown upward with these characters, crafting enemies and challenges with appropriate difficulties was much more of a theoretical exercise, and with so many powers being slung around, there was also some trouble with knowing when to call for power use, when to call for rolls, and how to guess on the fly whether something a Hero was attempting would have been possible at lower levels and how it might have been done differently then versus now.

Possible Solutions:

A lot of these issues are problems inherent in essentially "starting in the middle" of the game, and we weren't super surprised to hear about all of them. While the core rulebook does provide guidelines for creating higher-level characters, it also recommends against doing so unless your play group is either really invested in the idea of starting at a higher power level, or has played through that territory before and won't be running into the new demands of Immortal and Divine games for the first time. That's not because we hate people playing at higher levels, but rather because when players get to spend time with their characters all the way through the game, many of these problems diminish or even disappear: players who buy their powers gradually over time instead of getting them all in a huge dump at once have much less trouble remembering what they do or what options are available to them, Archetypes don't feel like endless never-gaining time dumps since they've had a chance to experience the faster progression of Mortal Archetypes, and GMs have had a lot more time to observe their players in action and know where their skillsets and difficulty levels lie.

Of course, "don't do it" isn't a solution, though, and there are plenty of times that there might be great reasons to start Heroes at higher tiers of power - for example, a Hero on an Immortal or Divine team died and their player needs to replace them with a new character that can hit the ground running with the others, or a group might want to continue to progress upward in power level but try out new characters as they do, or the GM wants to tell a story that by nature doesn't touch on the mortal realm all that much. And as designers, it's our job to try to minimize difficulty in those cases - so what could we do?

The multiplicity of powers may be something we can't directly solve, since it's more a learning curve issue than anything else - some players will have trouble with it, others won't, and power options and choices is a major factor of the core game system that isn't going anywhere. It is nice, however, that the Web of Fate allows players to choose where their points go and what paths they take, so that players who don't want to start with a daunting array of powers can in many cases choose to take bonuses to rolls or stats instead. We're considering whether a quick note of advice reminding players of this would be worth the extra page space.

Our biggest challenge is ensuring that the guidelines for points, stats, and starting levels of various things are appropriate. While of course some GMs will be able to tweak numbers on the fly to make sure that new characters are where they want to be, others will want guidance from the book, and let's be real, it's not just nice for us to provide that, it's a basic necessity. We're still doing some mock character trials and tests to try to get more information on it, but this new live test game was definitely directly helpful for that.

So while there will always be some disparity between characters that went through the organic leveling process and characters that started as full-fledged Immortal or Divine Heroes, we'll be doing as much as we can to minimize it, and to provide GM and player advice in the appropriate places to help ease any remaining growing pains that might linger on.


  1. If this is the set of problems for the Immortal Tier, I hate to think of the ambitious go-getter who decides "Screw it, let's play as newborn deities"

    1. Ha, right? You know that group's out there! Players who have played at Divine before could probably create characters at that level and be able to get into things without too much difficulty, but we are concerned for those who want to start there without ever having played before.

      We aren't sure, timeline-wise, if we'll be able to run a full "start at Divine and run for a while" playtest, but we're doing a bunch of mock character creation runs and one-shot tests on it right now.

  2. If you haven't played D&D or Pathfinder before, you probably would be completely buried if you tried to start at 12th level, let alone 20th. Players who have experience with the system will do better with the abilities, and newcomers won't, which is inevitable. As long as the character creation rules are working, that's what really matters here. And it sounds like they are. :-)

    1. I can attest to this. I have never played D&D or Pathfinder before and recently we attempted joining a Pathfinder game in which all of the characters started at Level 7. We were overwhelmed only at Level 7, but all of the other players who had been playing for years seemed relieved they could get all their cool powers right away. So having the option there for Immortal and Divine right from the start works well for experienced characters, but all you can really do is recommend 'newbies might find this difficult to adjust to, just so you know.'