For at least a decade now I've been reading discussions about power creep. The majority of respondents tend to fall into one of two camps:
- Power creep is deliberate and is the fault of the suits trying to make money.
- Power creep isn't going anywhere, so here is how I handle it in my group.
The second camp also leads to fun discussions and they are helpful. It will always be useful for the veteran gamers to pass wisdom onto newer gamers. But getting really good at managing a chronic illness is not the same as finding a cure. Again, I doubt we will ever entirely do away with power creep, but that isn't a great rationale to ignore it or not try. So this article is largely to argue for why power creep is an issue even for the folks who have grown adroit at managing it.
Power creep is a big threat for two reasons and is a bigger threat today than it was when the hobby was first introduced. The first reason has to do with how games are produced and the second has to do with how game are played.
(1) Modern game design is different than older game design because the RPG industry has become more of an industry. This isn’t to say that RPG sales weren’t substantial and that a lot of money wasn’t made back in the day, but a lot of sales were driven by it being new and unique. Today, there is substantially more competition which leads to monetization strategies being built into the game. Sometimes that strategy is just a great game that people will want to buy, sometimes it is embedding accessories like miniatures, sometimes it is transferring to a subscription model, or whatever. Any of those can be good or bad (well, I guess the “great game” one can’t be bad).
Now, not surprisingly, profitability is an important aim of the industry and profitability is linked pretty heavily to people buying your stuff. As argued, an easy way to encourage that is by making your new stuff better than the old stuff. This leads to obsolescence and rules bloat which eventually bulk up the system until a clean slate feels required. If you look at the progression from 3e to 3.5 to 4e to Essentials (of which I enjoyed each step) I think it is fair to claim that they did just that: wiped the slate clean to bring the game back to a simpler foundation and then commenced to build upon it once again.
This isn’t necessarily bad, the game needs that from time to time, but each slate-wiping tends to leave some people behind. Since each iteration of the game is great, the chunk of folks that linger back is not insignificant. As a result, even if the hobby as a whole is growing, the installed base for any iteration of the game might not be growing as fast or may even be declining.
Simultaneous to all of this, the increase in competition has necessitated an increase in production values in order to be able to compete. Paizo is a great example of a company that has steadily increased its production values and, while I have no personal knowledge, I imagine that didn’t come cheap. Unless I’m mistaken, they’ve hired a few new people in the last couple years and I doubt they are cheap either. Higher production values equate to higher upfront costs which requires more volume for the same profitability. The easiest way to get more volume is to make sure people find the content attractive and we are back to power creep. Since most costs are fixed (rent, salaries, etc) profitability can also be achieved through more books which leads to more creep. It is a variant of the death spiral.
[Quick caveat—yes, there is a tipping point at which a company is just publishing too much and they actually hurt their overall profitability, but I think the major competitors are aware of the point and are careful to ensure they don’t cross it.]
(2) RPGs are a game and people are typically rewarded for excelling at games. Power creep is really only a problem because of player excellence in character creation. If players were just bad at it, we wouldn’t have to worry about creep. The most common way to handle creep, then, is for a group to just agree on what content is in and what content is out. This type of cooperation is a good fix, but it is unlikely that it didn't still introduce problems. Someone probably feels like they got the short end of the stick (whether they did or not) and also feels like someone else got too much (whether they did or not). This is just humans laying their own biases over their experiences and it'll never go away, but sitting down and carving up a rule set is just begging for people to introduce their biases to the game.
Even if a group just decides to not power game, all it takes is for one person to skirt to the edge of the line before the issue comes back up. It is sort of like when you were a kid walking with a friend to get somewhere and you each walked a little bit faster and faster until you both were in a dead sprint. No one wanted to break the truce, but it inevitably got broken. Again, I’m not saying that power creep cannot be managed at the group level, I’m saying that it shouldn’t have to be managed as much as it is.
Games, in my opinion, are more fun when people are allowed to go out and do their absolute best. It is fun to sit down and look at a rule set and try to figure out how to make the best character possible. For many folks, that is the main draw of D&D. Forcing people to follow that process up with a second question of, "But wait, did I just power game? Should I tone it back?" doesn't add to the fun and, for some people, probably ruins it. Power creep makes it so that we can’t let people do their best without the risk of the game breaking. Now, the best reason to have a DM instead of a CPU is that a DM can handle those types of issues more dynamically than a CPU, but that isn’t a strong argument for why he or she should have to.