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Author Topic: The System's Role in Exhaustion Escalation  (Read 1114 times)
jdagna
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« on: August 17, 2003, 08:08:02 AM »

I've been lurking on http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=7561">Exhaustion Escalation in Illusionist Play but I've never been a part of enough illusionist play to contribute much there.  However, system got only a small mention during the discussion, given the focus on illusionism, and system is something I want to focus on specifically.  

You see, it's been my experience that system drives exhaustion escalation more than play style does.  

For example, my brother and I played seven years worth of Palladium using the same character without feeling this kind of problem.  The character had new challenges to face (and with the player control over the plot, illusionism wasn't happening), but even as the character advanced and challenges grew, it never got to the point where the character's exploits seemed meaningless.  If the GM had re-run some early adventures late into play, the character would have found them easier but still challenging.

During this time, a friend and I picked up AD&D (2E).  Within six months of playing, I was already feeling the exhaustion escalation.  It was quickly becoming obvious that the challenges the character faced at the beginning (challenges he felt were important at the time) were really trivial compared to what he could do at 8th level - with plenty more levels left to advance.  If I'd run the 8th level character through some of the earlier adventures, he would be all but invulnerable to those challenges.  Both the player and I seemed painfully aware that anything he did at this point would be equally trivial compared to what he might do at 16th level.  This realization completely stripped any sense of accomplishment or investment in the game.

In the case of the Palladium character, his 12th level self was noticeably better than his 1st level self and would probably have won a fight between the two about 80% of the time, after suffering some real damage.  In the case of the D&D character, his 8th level self was far beyond his first-level self.  Not only would he win 100% of the time, he could probably take on dozens of his 1st level at the same time without any significant danger.  The increase in character effectiveness seems to follow a square root curve in the Palladium system and something closer to an exponential (or at least linear) curve in D&D.

In a system with a D&D-scale advancement scheme, isn't exhaustion escalation inevitable, regardless of what you do?  I know many people have maintained long term D&D campaigns, so I'm assuming something must keep things fresh - I just don't see it.  The question also applies more generally to systems of all sorts.  And, does a slower scale of character improvement actually help avoid the escalation problem?
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Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis
http://www.paxdraconis.com
Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #1 on: August 17, 2003, 09:51:00 AM »

Hey, Justin

I really don't know what you mean by this. I really don't know how Palladium compares to AD&D 2nd ed or what. I do know that this exhaustion escalation thing happens. It no doubt relates to the "GM burnout" phenomenom that is more traditionally talked about.

I believe Ron talked about AD&D's advancement as being three stages: wuss, competent, unstoppable. Unstopable may be boring in a sense, but it appeals to someone, otherwise the Munchkins wouldn't be trying so hard.

I suppose that the character advancement can lead to exhaustion escalation in the sense that now they have to fight major demons because minor ones are no longer a challange. But I think that this, and the escalation part in general, it merely a symptom rather than a cause. I mean that the game may escalate either based on character progression or the GM trying to keep the players interested, and the GM is a player, but this is mostly smoke obscuring the real problem which is the players are not interested in what is going on in the game.

So I think the escalation may come from the system, but the exhaustion is something entirely separate. I had never, nor know anyone who had the same feelings about the advancement of D&D as you had. I don't quite get it, actually, so I'll leave it to those that do,
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jdagna
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« Reply #2 on: August 17, 2003, 12:35:05 PM »

Quote from: Jack Spencer Jr
So I think the escalation may come from the system, but the exhaustion is something entirely separate. I had never, nor know anyone who had the same feelings about the advancement of D&D as you had. I don't quite get it, actually, so I'll leave it to those that do,


Well... that's part of why I'm asking, since so many other people don't seem bothered by it.  I've never experienced the escalation phenomon outside of problems that seemed to be system-based... but I've never played in a particularly illutionist style either.  

If exhaustion escalation is strictly an illustionist phenomena, that would explain why it seems to be just me.  Perhaps I'm really experiencing something different but similar.  But I'm interested in seeing if other people have had similar problems or interesting insights (and not just with the two systems I mentioned as examples).
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Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis
http://www.paxdraconis.com
M. J. Young
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« Reply #3 on: August 17, 2003, 03:25:19 PM »

Justin, I think the solution to the problem in AD&D is that the players have to understand that their characters start small and work up. When Luke Skywalker was targeting wamprats in his speeder on Tatooine, every hit was a victory; after he destroyed the Death Star, shooting at Wamprats would hardly have been interesting.

I've run D&D campaigns that lasted for years. They always started with a group of guys seeking their fortunes on a simple adventure. Eventually one thing led to another, and they saved a town, a city, a province, a country, the world--sure, that's escalation, but it was never exhaustion. The difference is that the challenges were fresh and the players were interested.

As to D&D progression, it's more like school: it gets harder and harder to get better, and the return on the investment is less and less. The difference between a level one and a level two character is huge; but the same advancement from a level eight character would require reaching level sixteen, and the progression in sheer points is incredible. Granted, you're getting points faster, and you haven't really slowed down much in levels; but how much different is eleventh grade from tenth, or three years of college than two? You need bigger steps to make the difference.

Sure, the guy who becomes editor of the New York Times laughs at when he was editor of the high school paper, and could do that job as a momentary diversion in his day. He still remembers that it was challenging then, even though it wouldn't be challenging now; he also knows that had he not done that then, he could not so easily do this now.

I think the problem you faced probably lay in a failure to provide that kind of perspective, and to raise the stakes appropriately with the character's ability and the challenge. I mean, if you save a fair maiden from an ogre at the beginning and then later you save a fair maiden from a rakshasa or a fire giant, the difference is only in the scale of the challenge. You've got to feel like what you're doing is greater in the scale of its importance as well. Save a village, save a city, save a planet--do something more important.

It's only boring if there's nothing interesting at stake, and it seems like the same problem supercharged.

Anyway, that's what I think.

--M. J. Young
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Rob MacDougall
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« Reply #4 on: August 17, 2003, 04:21:39 PM »

I think system does have a role in this.  It's been a long time since I played D&D, so newer editions may have altered things, but my memory is that playing a 16th level D&D character is very different than playing a 1st or even a 3rd level character, even if your opposition has scaled accordingly. For one thing, randomness plays a much smaller factor at the higher level; the dice really matter less and less in absolute terms. On the other hand, the higher level character has many more tactical options available. (I think Ron talks about this some in either the Gamism essay or the D&D Retrospective, using the terms Crunch and Gamble.) System, and specifically the way it scales, absolutely does change the experience of risk and conflict in a game, and this, I imagine, could easily contribute to exhaustion.

Rob
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Windthin
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Posts: 51


« Reply #5 on: August 20, 2003, 09:45:48 AM »

I can understand this dilemma all too well, having played a character for eight years in a game where progression was fairly slow and tedious often, and probably leant more toward D&D than Palladium.  Yeah, competent probably should be able to handle green, and I debate about whether green should have a shot.  Part of me says yes... and then part of me says "isn't being competent partly about being able to handle with fair alacrity lesser threats and dangers efficiently?".

Personally, now, I despise levels.  Alas, all systems have levels after some fashion, some hiding them better than others, but I still do hate them.... the most blatant level-based games seem to be too herky-jerky for me, straining for the next level, some sudden leap in prowess and ability that comes almost arbitrarily rather than more smoothly, constantly, steadily... Palladium is a classic example (though I am more familiar with the Rifts portion of that publisher), where learning new skills isn't something you can work toward, but something that happens at given levels.  As much as I feel it is the duty of storyeller and party alike to make the world breathe, live, stay interesting... there are ways in which a system can stunt this, make it rather difficult.  This, for me, I feel, is part of the essence of this "Exhaustion Escalation"; over time, you lose the illusion, because you lose any semblence of reality as well.  Which isn't entirely bad in a much more surreal setting, I suppose... but in most games, this wears on people.

Some might say it's impatience, the inability to see farther down the road to higher levels and more tricks and abilities and so on, but I don't feel so again, for I planned well ahead, and still faced this problem in my old game, where advancement was entirely too slow and the loss of a character could set you back to square one in a very limited system after years of hard work (certain other facets of the rules for this game didn't help matters much, but are another topic entirely).  I do feel it is easier to strive for a goal when you see small, steady advances rather than exeedingly rare leaps, however, and this may be some of what you are feeling as well.
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