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Thursday, 9 May 2013

Once again, with feeling: Low power level isn’t disempowering!!!

It was recently pointed out to me that many if not most of my games are gritty, relatively low-powered. That much is true.
However, I was also reminded that many players equate “low power level” with “loss of player agency”. All I can say* is that it’s patently untrue for my games.
Sure, you can’t play a superhero in my games. They don’t exist in the setting, period. Find another GM if you want that – I find them boring, and only use superhero games after reskinning them for other genres. Most GMs I know take the same approach, but if I come across someone who wants to run that, I’m going to give them your contacts.
However, that doesn’t mean the PCs aren’t important enough, can’t make a difference, and so on. Far from it, they can do that. It’s just that their influence is going to be on a more local** scale, up to a nation-state or international organization. Of course, if they manipulate their local scale smartly and get to the upper end of it, they can influence the whole world. (What else are Company rules for?) But, as they say, this would need player skill as well.
And no, they couldn’t do that by kicking the ass of all the world’s armies. A SWAT team or a single detachment is more than likely to be the end of them if they get into a conflict where a SWAT team is called.
However, I don’t see that as a bug. It’s actually a feature. Violence can’t solve long-term problems, but it excels at solving short-term ones (like surviving an assault – although you could conceivably play a whole campaign without getting in such a situation, if your PC has good avoidance and de-escalation skills). And I DON’T WANT violence to be even a possible answer to all problems. So, if you want a large group of people to listen to you, make them listen. Yeah, it’s that simple. It’s just that intimidation ain’t going to work.
Which brings us to social skills. They work on a lengthier scale, but are better at solving non-immediate problems. Anybody surprised? Again, feature and not bug. You might get a hefty bonus if you’re a war hero, but it’s a circumstancial one.
And last but not least, mental skills are needed for the lengthiest individual projects (finding a cure for a sickness, inventing a new machine that helps subsistence farmers, or inventing a new science – cue Sir Burton). They’re also needed, along with social skills, for the lengthier mass projects that could lead to improving the life of people (like reforming a country’s bureaucracy).
In short, you need different skills. If you insist on playing the brick, you’re not going to be much use for situations where bricks aren’t useful. If you insist on playing the face with no combat skill, don’t get into fights, but re-read the “6 ways to stop a fight” advice from Unknown Armies.
And, most importantly… the opposition doesn’t get super-powers either! Unless it’s a “deal with superior forces” situation. But from what I’ve heard, even some superheroes get to confront those. If that turns out to be the case… think outside the box, is all I can say!

*Of course that’s not all I can say! Sometimes, I wonder why this notion even exists. My conclusion, and talking with people who have been playing for far longer than me, is that this perception is due at least in part to the “killer DMs”, some of which kept the party at a low level. They also explained this with realism. “Realism my ass”, as many real life people could tell them – if they were looking for examples and not excuses, that is.
Granted, I’ve been called “killer GM” because I warn players that everybody can die, and PCs don’t get plot armour. That’s an accusation that amuses me, however, so I don’t plan on answering it. Yet.
**As someone who has a degree in International relations and holds a MD in International security, I can also attest that most gamers don’t really know what they need to change on a world scale to get the desired effect. So even global-level power would still be wasted, or worse, might easily lead to the opposite results of what they want to achieve. However, I’m not going to comment on that part, because I hate, Hate, HATE, HATE political arguments over Internet – especially with non-specialists. So, no, you’re not going to stop world hunger, unless you get most countries to follow you. But your PCs can do that. It’s just going to be the result of a whole campaign.
And if you think that's disempowering, you've never had another Exalt trample the nation you've been striving to build, out of boredom.

Many thanks to Benjamin Grant, author of Dream Factory, for reminding me of this topic!