Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Are We Not Gods?

It's a problem that every RPG DM or developer has to grapple with eventually: what do you do when the players in your campaign (or game) become too powerful? 

I'm not talking "famous" or "powerful" or "admired", but POWERFUL.

As in "demon lord slaying on home plane" powerful.

Or "defeating Death" powerful.

Or "Godslayer" powerful.

Or... You get the idea.

That was a problem I grappled with back when I first played D&D, as my first characters to survive to L20 or higher were so powerful that I had to do something with them. They steamrolled Orcus and Demogorgon, for pete's sake, and while that was also back in the days of dungeons containing rooms filled with "five red dragons!", I at least understood enough that I ought to retire my characters. So, I rolled a die and adjusted my characters' stats upward, anointed them as gods*, and retired them. Having the original Deities and Demigods book by TSR around didn't exactly hurt in that regard.

But still, what to do with overly powerful characters is a problem that people wrestle with all the time, whether it be in a pencil-and-paper RPG campaign or a video game.

Baldur's Gate 2 confronts that problem in the course of the main storyline, and without invoking spoilers, let's say that I totally understand Bioware's solution to the conundrum. I'd like to think that I could handle that situation as good as they did, but I do realize that I never really had the chance. That solitary situation in my youth was the only time I've ever been a part of a campaign where my characters' levels reached crazy powerful territory. I mean, the Cleric in the recently concluded 20+ year D&D 3.0 campaign never reached above 9th Level. It was just the nature of that game to not progress fast, and while that lack of progression didn't bother me, the lack of progress on the overall story did.

None of the games I cited above had the baked in issues that are confronted by online games, such as MMOs, however.


MMOs --especially those who have a progression based model-- will eventually confront the problem of "the characters are too powerful". And I don't mean "too powerful for low level zones" either, because that's a separate (although related**) issue. This is more along the lines of when a main character in a novel becomes so powerful that they venture into Mary Sue/Marty Stu territory, such as Pug and Tomas in Raymond E. Feist's first Riftwar series.

Or, say, the problems confronted by Saitama, the One Punch Man.

Yeah, pretty much.

Part of the problem is the scale of the enemies a player faces; because of the scaling up in power, the enemies have to scale up as well. So you may have started from humble beginnings, but by the end you're hobnobbing with the rich and powerful.

Every video game RPG ever.
From Reddit.

Do this a couple of times over the course of a few expansions, and the next thing you know you're consorting with godlike beings. 

"Here goes nothing."


Now, this trajectory doesn't have to happen --at least to at this much a degree as it has in some MMOs-- but eventually all online RPGs that hang around long enough will hit this wall. 

But is it a wall?

Well, once you get past a certain point, the scope of the game changes. You're no longer in "Kill Small Creatures" questing scope but "Kill Big Ol' Demons" territory.

Or you progress beyond that into "Slay an Old God" territory.

The people you interact with in game changes --either slowly or quickly depending on the game involved-- and you're far beyond those salad days of digging up turnips for a farmer in The Shire.


He looked all round him and it was only then that he recognized the place as his own cell.

'Yes,' said he, 'there's the stone I used to sit on! There are the marks where my shoulders rubbed their shape on to the stone! There's the stain left by the blood from my forehead the day I tried to batter my brains out against the wall! Oh, and these numbers . . . I remember . . .
--From The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Unabridged Edition, pp 1048.

Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo --D'Artagnan from The Three Musketeers is another-- comes into power and consequently the story changes around him. The stakes are higher, because the people Edmond seeks revenge upon have maneuvered themselves into positions of power and prestige, but they remained fundamentally the same lowborn conspirators who betrayed him all those years ago.

Or in Baldur's Gate, you're introduced to the Big Bad (in game) in the intro, only you don't realize what the context is until you've played the entirety of the game. By the end of the game your position in life has changed, but the Big Bad has not. 

Both, however, are works with a defined beginning, middle, and end. MMOs don't really have that luxury, so the stakes constantly change with each expansion. And the easy way out for MMOs is to raise the stakes with each successive expansion. Unfortunately, that can back developers into a corner, content-wise. 

A Legion thing I presume.
From Know Your Meme.

That meme aside, when you get successively more earth shaking and more powerful end bosses in each new expansion whose plots to do "whatever" are even more outlandish than the one before it, you get past a breaking point. 

LOTRO had it easy, relatively speaking, because that MMO followed the books, right up until the end when the Ringbearer completed his quest and Sauron was destroyed. Now the MMO becomes, "What do we do next to top that?" And there's no easy answer.

But other MMOs, such as WoW, have a harder time of it when you have to raise the stakes with each successive expansion without falling into any one of the following traps:
  • "I'm not bad, I'm defending us from the NEXT Big Bad!"
  • Meet the new Big Bad, same as the old Big Bad.
  • Bait with one plotline and Switch to a repeat of an old plotline.
  • An "I was Good (or at least Neutral) but now I'm Bad" Big Bad.
  • Changing the backstory to create a new Big Bad out of whole cloth plotline.
Even if the plotline of an expansion covers one of these traps, you can still find an MMO story/expansion that doesn't necessarily have a corresponding escalation in power to match the players' own arms' race. It's not a given by any stretch. However, it takes a rare MMO to avoid falling into the "more bigger better MORE" design. 

More gear.

More shinies.

More powers.

More everything.

And then you wake up one day and wonder just how you started out as this:

And then you find yourself looking like this:

And this is before the current
expac in WoW Classic.

And you are hanging around with people like this:

You bet your ass she's bowing.

Or this:

I'm running out of screen space.

How the hell do you describe this to people back home without them wondering what has become of you? And what do you do when a suitably lofty opinion of yourself creeps into your psyche? When beings of this amount of power and prestige call you friend and invite you to sit at the table, it can't help but influence your opinions of yourself, and just how far away from your beginnings you have come. 

"More" indeed.

There's no easy answer to the power creep per se, since to a lot of people there is no problem at all. There's always another hill to climb, another challenge to overcome. But I guess getting on toward middle age has taught me a bit about that spiral; how there always is an upper barrier on what can be achieved, and eventually we all have to live with our limitations, our regrets, and our failures. 

Of course, a game that provided such an outlook wouldn't have a lot of players, because it's more fun to win than be reminded of our mortality. (Dark Souls notwithstanding.) Even changing the overall trajectory of the power creep just a little bit, whether it be by level squish or moving the focus away from a world shattering in-game story, can engender more than its share of angst. Think of Dragonflight, and how there were more than its share of detractors when the expac was announced. I, for one, applauded the movement away from "the world is ending" vibe that tends to permeate the WoW ecosystem, but I wasn't so foolish as to think that WoW was going to stop being on a gear treadmill once the Dragonflight released. That treadmill is still there, and the surest sign that WoW is still WoW is that you get to help choose the next leader of the Black Dragonflight.***

Think about that for a moment: why would the two rivals for leadership of the Black Dragonflight, a Flight (in)famous for their haughty attitudes toward all "lesser beings"****, be wanting your support? They only respect people more powerful than their own. That I've yet to see a post saying "Hey, waitaminute" from my blog feed pretty much shows that people simply accept that you can make the choice. Not necessarily that you may want to, but that you are in the right to do so. In effect you are the Cardinal Richelieu of Azeroth.

"Who are you for, King Wrathion or Cardinal Sabellius?"
--D'Artagnan, probably


I guess that this is the nature of the beast, that power creep is inevitable and you either accept it or jump off the train. Okay, there's a third option, to simply ignore it and...

I hear Silvermoon is nice this
time of  year.

Or maybe just hang around The Pig and Whistle and roleplay? Or maybe The Lion's Pride?

From Reddit.

Or create a twink for BGs and just do that?

Or run one of those places in FFXIV?

Or form a band and play in Bree on Fridays?

Or maybe be a roadie for that band.
(FWIW, this band still plays on Friday
afternoons on the Gladden-US server.)

There are things to do, but they are decidedly against the spirit of MMOs.

Or are they?

Nothing says that you can't simply ignore what the developers want you to play and just do your own thing. Crafting your own resolution to The Hero's Journey isn't necessarily a bad thing to do, after all. You're in effect doing what I did all those years ago: retire your character from active adventuring.

And again, nothing says that you can't spend your days playing a D&D campaign that consists of minding a tavern as adventurers pass through.

Just gonna put this here.
I was so happy to give my 
local bookstore my money for this.

Of course you're not obligated to buy any new MMO expansion --or in the case of LOTRO or SWTOR or some other MMOs you don't have to buy anything at all-- but that's up to you. If nothing else, you can control your own resolution to the power creep, which is a good thing. You have the option to say that you are not a god, you are a person. And even the heroic need a reality check from time to time.

*I think I "officially" called them demi-gods, because being a good Catholic kid I wasn't messing around with actual godhood itself.

**Some MMOs --Guild Wars 2, SWTOR, Elder Scrolls Online-- adjust your level downward if you're in a low level zone, and dole out rewards accordingly. This has varying levels of success based on the amount of tuning the devs have performed, but at least it's an attempt at a solution. Some MMOs don't even bother trying.

***I'd have called it spoilers, but you can't throw a stick in a Retail WoW blog without some mention of it in there.

****Admittedly, the Twilight Drake Vesperon says "You pose no threat, lesser beings! Give me your worst!" But come on, where do you think that Vesperon got that idea from?


  1. This is a problem - or perhaps I should say a phenomenon - that used to bother me but not so much any more. For one thing, as you say, it's an opt-in. No-one is making any of us follow the plot in any mmorpg and indeed the genre used to manage perfectly well without any kind of over-arching storyline. If you want to make up your own backstory and follow your own path, no-one's stopping you.

    Then there's merit. When I consider what my characters have done, it's hard to argue they don't deserve to be taken seriously by monarchs, potentates and powers. They have the experience, after all. And at least a couple of games I play regularly deal with that openly and well - GW2 and EQII both make considerable play of the player-character's previous adventures and reputation and I find it reasonably convincing, at least most of the time.

    Really, though, what is the alternative? These are mostly heroic adventure games at heart, not simulations. There are games where you can play the equivalent of a regular person in a low-fantasy or near-future setting but that's a different genre. If you're going to sell your game on the basis of high adventure, character progression and open-ended persistent environments, the PC is pretty much bound to get more and more powerful. In the end I think we just have to accept it in the way we accept that the heroes never get killed in action movies. Either that or play a different kind of game.

    1. I do agree that the MMO genre felt more manageable when there was no central storyline, because the narrative focus of a single player game doesn't fit very well in an MMO style format, despite decades of attempts by developers to make it work.

      Back when I was in high school, one of my history teachers said something that's stuck with me all through the years. He mentioned that the US has never had a coup, but we do have a history of rewarding our victorious military leaders with the Presidency. Furthermore, he added, they haven't done very well as a whole when switching from the military structure to a Presidential and political one.

      I mention this because I've wondered why more video games don't turn our victorious players into the very nobles that we still somehow have to curry favor with. Even MMOs somehow manage to have the Top Brass still stay just ahead of us in the power curve, despite everything else.

      I began wondering about this when I stumbled on some old RPG materials while I was moving stuff around a couple of weeks ago, and I considered how those campaigns would have ended if they had gone to a full conclusion. Then, when Dragonflight was released, I gave a strong consideration to picking up Retail WoW after being away for 8 years, but I simply can't reconcile with the narrative that I was some great hero when I haven't even been around for 8 years and 4-5 expansions' worth of playing. Maybe it's the limitation of the genre that story eventually falls down when you reach stupid levels of power, and if you want the story to work in a high adventure video game you're best off sticking with single player titles.

      But as far as action movies go, I used to think the hero not being killed was because we want to see a happy ending, but the cynic in me now believes that heroes live because the studios want to sell sequels.

  2. I think the Dragonflight story is very well done actually, and I feel you're doing it a disservice by judging based on comments you see on blogs. One of the first things you learn upon arriving at the Dragon Isles is that the dragons actually used to interact more with mortal races, and there's a sentiment that they need to be more humble and go back to that in order to rebuild properly.

    When Wrathion and Sabellian first butt heads, their first instinct is to head to Alexstrasza to "pick a winner" - specifically, Sabellian thinks that she'll obviously give him her blessing due to his seniority, however she counters that someone who aided Deathwing as much as he did is hardly an automatic shoo-in for the role in her eyes, and that this is something they need to sort out amongst themselves.

    The black dragonflight is pretty decimated at this point, meaning it's almost like a competition for an empty throne, so it makes sense that Wrathion and Sabellian turn towards currying favour with everyone else who wields any power at all to lend legitimacy to their respective claims. It's not like you're there personally picking the winner, you're one of many they court, and I think Blizzard hinted that the canon outcome will be decided based on who players decide to support more.

    I was actually really impressed by how well done it all was, as both "candidates" have genuine pros and cons and their motivations are very relatable.

    1. I'd counter that with that I preferred the OG dragons from WoW, where they were remote beings of incredible power whose designs were inscrutable (except for the Black Dragonflight, that is). Perhaps it's me rubbing up against the Flights in Wrath, and reducing dragons to "just another faction" and their drakes as mounts, that has colored my thinking. The entire rep design from Wrath onward has trivialized who dragons are, but given that in the last expansion you became the most well known person in the afterlife this is kind of small potatoes.

    2. Well, I previously agreed with you about the dragon mounts and "just another faction" thing, but I think you're overselling the vanilla dragons as well. They were powerful beings, yes, but they were nowhere near divine and we cut off their heads even back then. I also think that Dragonflight has gone some way towards increasing the player's respect for dragons again, as you see their old seat of power and it's absolutely magnificent even after thousands of years of neglect, not to mention the sheer scale of everything. As opposed to them just being big lizards skulking around in caves in the old days.

    3. I'll grant the big lizards part, which is a throwback to the old Hobbit and D&D style "dragon's lair", and I'll also grant the exposure of the culture of what the dragons once were. However, the entire Onyxia questline, beginning with the Defias in Northshire Abbey and all the way through to having to figure out just where to go to find someone who could explain how to fix the item that would allow you into Onyxia's Lair, was a masterclass in how to manipulate people into doing your bidding. Iago would have been proud of that. Even the small quests here and there, such as the escort quest in Razorfen Downs, have the dragons using the players for their own ends, and never revealing themselves until much later. If you stumble upon Itharius before you enter into Sunken Temple, he gives you a haughty "get away from me, Boy, yer bothering me!" response. The only dragon you meet who is most friendly and agreeable and up front about who they are is Chromie, which would be no real surprise if it weren't for that the Brood of Nozdormu in Silithus and Tanaris absolutely hate you (and everyone who looks like you!) and you have to do an incredibly long grind just to get to Neutral with them, never mind Exalted.

      So yes, I can agree that I may be overselling Vanilla dragons a bit, they also had the benefit of having the least known about them. Now, so many years and expansions removed from 2004, there's a ton known about dragons in game to the point where --just like time travel in Star Trek-- it's pretty much a trope. Just like if you ever see some random elves out in the middle of nowhere, odds are pretty good they're a dragon in disguise.

  3. The funny thing is that the "borrowed power" systems of each of the last three expansions kind did this, making your character powerful then removing that at the start of the prepatch for the next. Not sure if that was a huge part of the design decision, but it certainly had to be part of the impetus for it, if not a major factor in why it was adopted.

    1. From what it sounds like, given the description provided by Preach in his visit to Blizz HQ, the initial success of borrowed power meant that Blizz began incorporating it into Retail's design. And once that happened, it became difficult to pivot away from borrowed power because once complaints started appearing at the mid to end of Legion they were already close to being finished with BfA and were in the design stages for Shadowlands.

      I guess this highlights another long term problem with any piece of software, much less an MMO, that a company can't pivot on a dime to make major design decisions on long running software already in use by an active player base.

    2. I had a comment going way too long, especially for how late this is. Let me just say that I think most people were more irritated with the adjacent grinds and systems and not so much the borrowed power itself, if for no other reason than we have always "lost" power as we've leveled through a new expansion.

      Legion had legendary issues on top of alt and off-spec issues, BfA had grind, alt and space/off spec issues, and Shadowlands had grinds that felt pointless on top of less gear. At least the first two expansions had some level of choice and reward. Shadowlands felt like it had neither.