Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Three sources of power creep

Power creep is a serious threat in modern RPG game design. [Edit. I received valid criticism that the original lead in was overly sensational and it tended to derail subsequent discussion into whether or not power creep is an issue. Lead in has been edited in the hopes that it gives the rest of the article a chance to shine.]

RPGs have to continuously develop (and sell) new content in order to remain financially profitable. Now, the folks that publish this power creep love the game at least as much as you do and see little, if any, of that pecuniary gain. Power creep is not a corporate plan to leach away money but rather a natural outgrowth of basic game design decisions interacting with basic human motivations.

There are three reasons power creep enters a system, none of which carry any maliciousness. The first source is unforeseen combinations, the second is ambitious game design, and the third is self-selection. Each is discussed in turn.

Unforeseen combinations
Most power creep sneaks into the game via creative combinations that game designers did not foresee at the time of publication. We want some player creativity and we want to reward that creativity with incremental power. We do not, however, want to reward it with as much incremental power as we often do. This excessive allocation shall be known as “Type I power creep.”

Type one power creep was most prevalent in 3e. This is because 3e strived so hard to ensure that all powers were available to all characters at all levels. In other words, at any moment, any character could multi-class into (almost) any other class and gain access to a myriad of powers. Simultaneously, feats carried a great deal of 3e power which were sufficiently decoupled from classes that every character was eligible for most feats at most levels. The result was an incredible combination of unforeseen consequences that routinely resulted in an overabundance of power.

Ambitious game design
Game designers are human beings and human beings desire their creations to be desired. Similarly, employers desire their employee’s creations to be desired, bought, and paid for. Hence, new content must be attractive. Now, content can be attractive because it is genuinely ingenious, brilliant, and fun or else because it ups the power level. It is far easier to introduce “powerful” content than “brilliant” content. Naturally, then, most new content is more powerful than old content. This is Type II power creep.

This is most evident in 4e. Fourth edition brilliantly compartmentalized powers and abilities so that they could be linked to character level. This way, your players could always be presented with a range of powers and they could select from them freely forcing interesting tradeoffs. This is distinct from the 3e methodology described above that allowed most powers to be available to most characters at most levels.

The downside of this strategy is that it is easy to compare new powers to the entire domain set of other possibilities. When a new power is introduced, it is compared against 5-10 other powers total. Whereas 3e had millions of combinations, the balance of 4e made gauging balance easy. As a result, to make new content attractive, it had to be more attractive than the other options. Since there was so little comparable content, this meant that every new entry was another step in a steady march towards power creep.

The final tributary to power creep is self-selection. Game design often presumes that a +1 bonus in Category A is adequately offset by a -1 penalty in Category B. This simply is not true. Consider a simple thought experiment: A player in a 4e campaign approaches the DM and asks to introduce a new human subrace. They are identical to humans, except instead of +2 to any stat they are +2 to Con only because they are “a hearty people.” The player wants to know what the DM would be willing to add to the subrace for this loss of power. The DM is intrigued but offhand asks which stat the player intended to assign his +2 to any stat towards. “Constitution,” the player responds.

“So you actually lose nothing?” the DM inquires.

“No, I lose the ability to assign my +2 to Constitution. Now I have to assign it there.”

Clearly, the player didn’t actually lose anything since he intended to assign the ability to Constitution all along and therefore doesn’t deserve to be compensated. This is self-selection. In the same way, a -1 penalty to melee attacks doesn’t justify a +1 bonus to range attacks since the character will just focus on the areas where he excels. Since players control the character’s actions, they are able to focus actions towards areas of excellence and away from areas of ineptitude. As a result, bonuses are worth more than commensurate penalties. This is Type III power creep. Unlike the other type of power creep, Type III is entirely the consequence of poor game design.

Games have historically ignored this fact, assuming that GMs would present a range of challenges sufficient to ensure penalties were appropriately penalizing. But this is unrealistic and actually goes against the modern trend of empowering players to partake in cooperative story telling. As a result, penalties must be more penalizing than benefits are beneficial or else you’ve, once again, introduced another source of power creep.

So what are other sources of power creep? Do you agree? Disagree? Think some nuanced was overlooked? Feedback and push back are appreciated.


  1. Expansion material, usually doesn't appear to have been playtested to the same degree as core material. Poor playtesting doesn't catch many of the factors that contribute to power creep.

  2. I absolutely agree but I'd argue that the lack of play testing is more the symptom than the disease. The lack of play testing increases the likelihood that Type I or Type II creep isn't caught.