Game level and complexity

Over in his latest game column, Monte asks Should complexity equate to PC level? Excellent question!

There is a very good argument for binding game complexity to game level, though it does present a simplistic view of how the game is played. Your heroes begin at Level 1 where the world is simple and the players are inexperienced role-players. As the levels advance the players’ gaming skills also improve so more complex rules game can be introduced to stretch them further. It’s a good argument – after all, higher-level foes bring with them higher-level challenges, and that includes Vulnerabilities, Immunities and a whole slew of powers and special movement abilities.At the same time, the PCs gain new powers and abilities for the players to master, and new situational modifiers arise.

The game gets more complex by design. Introducing core rules at level appropriate junctures makes sense, right? The example Monte gives is playing at 1st level without using Opportunity Attacks, then introducing them a few levels down the line. Treating such corner rules like this is appealing because it keeps the lowest levels simple and fast to play, while higher level gaming is a more situational affair where these corner rules (OAs, resistances, vulnerabilities, etc) are more likely to appear each round.

That’s a good argument, but flawed. Player skill isn’t tied to PC level at all. A group of gamers with 20-odd years of experience is just as likely as a group of newcomers to begin a fresh campaign at 1st level. The typical gaming group (if such a thing exists at all) will most likely contain gamers with a whole range of play experience; from the lapsed old school  D&D’er to the hardcore 4e D&D fan, from the newbie who just turned up to the guy with an entire wall filled with a bookcase full of gaming books.

At the same time, different campaigns demand different levels of complexity. A gritty urban D&D campaign full of layered plots is a different beast to a beer-and-pretzels delve-based game on a Sunday night. 4e D&D is flexible enough to support a whole range of playing styles – from role-playing intensive sessions where combat is a rare and climactic event, to games where the whole session is round-by-round and it’s played around a huge battlemat.

Ultimately, the DM is in full control of game complexity (taking into account their players’ preferences, of course). It’s up to them whether they use complex foes (hand-crafted with loving care and attention to detail) or pick out the simple dudes from the Monster Manual. It should be possible to run a complex 1st level game (experienced players need apply!) or a simple 25th level one through the right tweaking of dials and cunning choice of foes.

Over at the players’ side of the table, the campaign setting dictates the available player Race and Classes (or if it didn’t, it should). A game where the setting dictates “start at 1st level, Essentials Races and Classes only” is a very different one to “start at 2nd level, any Race  except Tielfing, use Background and Themes, multi-classing recommended”. Neither setting particularly dictates game complexity, but the game-style they imply does.

One of the strengths of 4e D&D is that players can choose their own game complexity based upon the Character Class (and to a lesser extent, Race) that they select.  Essentials classes are simpler by design, but still remain level-equivalent with their other brethren. I’ve run sessions where a newcomer to D&D played an Essentials Thief alongside mechanically complex Warlock, Wizard and Fighters PCs. Even though he joined the game at 6th level, none of the rules overwhelmed him, and (I’m glad to say) a great time was had by all. If I’d given James the Warlock character (a monster of a build!) I doubt he’d have turned up the following week.

Should game complexity be tied to game level, or should it be a set of switches and options under control of the DM (and player, through their class selection)?

What do you think?


4 Comments on “Game level and complexity”

  1. I vote for switches! I suppose you could take some of the more complex elements and make them feats, but I don’t get the idea that limiting, say, OA’s to those who take the feat would be very popular. It would make sense, but stuff like that is too much a part of the game.

  2. I’m kinda in the yes no category here.

    First, increasing game complexity isn’t just complexity. Its also adding something new to do. (Therefore it adds interest to the game in the form of ‘new shiny’ effect.)

    Remember how you felt the first time you did something?

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