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#RPGTheoryJuly – 30th – Asymmetric Power

As I understand asymmetric power it is a reference to player character classes, professions and races where one may be more or less powerful than another or a game mechanic that can aid or hamper one player over another. A really basic example is rolling 3d6 for your Characteristics. If you roll middling or slightly below average you may not have any particular penalties but, especially in older version of D&D and its derivatives you could be excluded from particular races and character classes. A character that rolled a set of high rolls not only gets bonuses to many actions, they get access to all the professions and races and could get +10% experience for high primary characteristics. So not only is the character capable of achieving more because of bonuses to rolls, better to hit and more damage which could all mean more experience but when the experience is earned they get 10% extra. This will level them up faster and so the cycle repeats and gets worse at each cycle. The solution to this particular problem was to give an array of numbers and the player assigns them to the stats they want. No one is excluded from any race or profession and no one gets any particular advantage.

With character classes there has long been a fallacy that wizards are especially weak at low levels but are compensated for that by being incredibly powerful at high level. This is of course a fallacy. In games with simple char gen if your wizard dies in the first level or two you just make another one and eventually one will survive and as soon as you get to fifth level you get fireball and everything is fine.

In games that have detailed char gen that takes hours you tend to find things like fortune points or fate points that help keep characters alive when they should have died. You also frequently find the GM doesn’t want to ruin his game session by calling a halt while you spend three hours creating a new first level wizard so you may find a bit of plot armour creeping in.

Either way what tends to happen is that wizards survive to be high level 100% of the time if the player wants to play a wizard and the GM wants to run and extended campaign. I ran a game where I explained that magic was extremely rare and every single player immediately rolled up a magic user. If magic is rare then having magic would give you a huge advantage. I play in a game and the GM said that his home brew world is extremely magical, to the point where most families will have at least one person who could use cantrips and every village would have a genuine spell caster. Every player rolled up a magic user. If everyone has magic and you didn’t then you would be at a serious disadvantage.

In both cases the perception was that without magic you would be weak and it is the GM’s task to balance adventures so the challenge should be something that five magic users can cope with. Also that the first few levels were the training wheels levels and the GM isn’t out to kill you (yet). After 5th level you were more than capable of looking after yourself especially if they all worked together.

The only systems I have played where I can say there was not this asymmetry between magic and non-magic characters was Hero System and my own 3Deep. I will also confess to the fact that the magic system in 3Deep was inspired by playing Champions back in the 1980s. There may be others but it always remains that fighters can hit one person at once and a wizard can blast dozens of bring down castle walls or any number of other mass effects. Things that a warrior cannot do.

So many games look back to D&D for their tropes that they fall into this same asymmetric flaw.

Yesterday I think I wrote about my healer character. In Rolemaster you buy spells by the list. A list has group of spells organised by level. You could know the entire list but you can only cast the spells of your level or lower (there are optional rules for casting higher than your level spells with big penalties – called over casting). The problem with this system is that spell casters power snowballs. If at first level you know one or two lists, which is typical you will have one or two spells. At second level you may learn a new list so you know the 1st and 2nd level spells on that list and the first two you learned so you now have 6 spells (3x1st and 3x2nd). At 3rd level you gain another list and now you have four lists and know the first three spells on all the list so you have 12 spells.

By the time you are 5th level you would have stopped spending skill points on combat skills and you start learning two lists per level. It is easy to have eight lists giving you a range of 40 spells to cast from. You cannot cast them all as you have a limited amount of power points with which to charge your spells but it is the range and breadth of magic available.

Even a Lay Healer would have a three attacking spells available by 5th level and many more defensive spells. By that level there is no real fear of being caught up in a combat. Lay Healers also have no restrictions on armour barring helmets. So when I get to 5th level I can be wearing heavy-ish armour, protect myself further with magic, carry a shield and even attack at range using magic. As long as I keep enough power back to keep people alive after the battle I can create the impression of being the complete all rounder. The reality is of course that the fighters will be more fighty than me and the wizards will be more wizardy than me. But I still get to play a full and active role because of this built in profusion of magic. The wizards have the same volume of spells but their sphere of magic isn’t as broad ranging as the lay healer. They have a great number of attacking spells for example, they can fly faster and teleport further but they will never be able to heal and they have less defensive magic. The other realm of magic is your clericy/druidy magic and they don’t get to wear the heavy armour and they are even more lacking in attacking spells. The only thing they can do that I cannot is bring people back to life. I can stop you dying and put you back together but I cannot restore life if you actually died.

Depending on who you listen to some role master players think Clerics are the most powerful profession as they do have some offensive spells, they can wear some armour and they can heal and restore life.

Some thinking that your typical wizard type is the most powerful as lightning bolt is the most dangerous direct attack in the game and a death cloud the most powerful area of effect spell in the game.

I think lay healers are the most powerful profession in the game because they have strong defenses, incredibly wide ranging magic for attack, defence and just about everything utilitarian in between, they are healers and their core skills relate to social interaction and mental skills. There is nothing this profession cannot do once they get past the first few levels.

Absolutely no one thinks any of the arms or skills based characters our outstanding.

If that isn’t asymmetrical I don’t know what is!

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