Over the years I’ve written quite a few short articles about Tunnels and Trolls. I think this is probably my favorite one, and I think it deserves to be reprinted from time to time. If you have read it before, and don’t want to read it again, feel free to move along, dear Reader. It won’t hurt my feelings a bit.
That Frisson of Disgust, That Tingle of Fear (3rd Iteration)
Do you remember your first fantasy role-playing experience? Do you remember struggling to understand unfamiliar rules, the effort to fit your character into someone not yourself? Do you remember the dread with which you faced your first monstrous foe?
There has never been anything else quite like it, has there?
As you continued to play, you learned what to expect, and how to turn the tables on your Game Master. You learned how to balance a party of delvers to deal with all emergencies, how to anticipate traps, and trick monsters. You learned when to fight and when to talk (At least I hope you learned all these things.) And as you learned all these things, your character found artifacts of power, and grew ever more potent and dangerous.
And now that you are a 20th level wizard-warrior with a pet dragon capable of dishng out 6421 points of hit damage, spells capable of halting time or destroying a mountain, armor that can protect you from a nuclear explosion—now that you have achieved all your desires, don’t you find yourself looking around wondering where the next challenge will come from, and not finding any?
Wasn’t it better when you were just a first level wizard, agonizing whether to throw a TTYF for 16 whole points of damage on that charging monster, and then hope your party can protect you until the combat is over, or whether to vorpal the blade of the best warrior, and possibly strike a few blows of your own with the quarterstaff?
The truth is that we as human beings gain just as much pleasure from making small decisions and gaining small victories as we do from making earth-shattering decisions and saving the world. We are each our own world, and when you manage to elude that horde of MR-5 rats and scramble to safety, it is as good or better than causing the earth to open and swallow 20,000 attacking uruks. The first example is just a personal triumph; the second is epic-making history. But what do you as a person relate to more—personal triumphs or history?
There is no doubt that the longer you continue to roleplay, the better a roleplayer you will become, and the more effective your character will be during the game. But when you can effortlessly wave your hand and destroy that hulking troll, the satisfaction is gone from the game. When you had to think fast, dodge, rig a landslide, lure it into a pit, the challenge and thus the fun was greater.
Which brings me to my point—low level games are more fun than high level games. Being powerless and fighting for your life is more of a thrill than being godlike and annihilating the opponent. High level games turn into bragging contests, where players and Game Masters try to top each other with one super feat after another. Low level adventures are more the kind of thing you could see yourself actually participating in.
And that is why, in over 37 years of roleplaying, I have never actually developed a character higher than 9th level. (That isn’t strictly true—in Runescape the computer mmorpg, my character Khenn Arrth is level 132. So yes, I can hang in there long enough to produce a high level if I want to. But mmorpgs aren’t face to face and don’t have the same emotional rewards—at least not for me.) High level characters are like gods, and if I need a god, I’ll make one up (Gristlegrim, Lerotra’hh) when I’m the Game Master. Or, I’ll ask the current G.M. to do a Divine Intervention.
Then again, if a beginning character dies, you can always roll up a new one—no great loss! But, if a high level character gets toasted, then you lose months or years of roleplaying labor. No wonder That Other Game allows practically unlimited resurrection of dead characters. It’s a power trip, and once you accumulate a fair amount of power, you really hate to lose it.
The solution to having the most fun, of course, is to retire those high level monstrosities—turn them into NPCs. Perhaps someone will encounter old Drax the Demon Dodger and get his help on a particularly difficult mission that all those first to third level types will have no chance with, but your emotional investment will not tied up in Drax. Instead, it will be with Itchy the Kid who’d just finding his first magic kazoo.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—we old farts love to repeat ourselves. High level games can be awesome, but low level games are a lot more fun!
Ken St. Andre
April 29, 2012