Have you ever thought to yourself “man my character has gotten too powerful”? Have you ever wanted to play a game full of social intrigue but felt like no class in Dungeons and Dragons was giving you the powers you wanted? Have you ever come up with an awesome idea of how to use a spell in a unique way only to discover you can’t because it isn’t in the spell description? If any of these scenarios sound like you or your group then it might be that you are playing the wrong game for the tone you desire.
Part of the design process of creating a tabletop role playing game is considering the tone of the game as it is being played. I was once told that the player will focus on anything that you put on the character sheet. The ability scores of a character (if they have them) can speak volumes about the tone of the game by showing you what the designer has prioritized. In D&D three of the six ability scores are used in combat, while two are used for problem solving and arithmetic, and only one is used for social interaction. In contrast, White Wolf games like Werewolf or Vampire have three physical stats used in combat, three mental stats, and three social stats. This difference is because D&D has its roots in tabletop strategy games and social interactions were added later. On the other hand in a game like Vampire you are equally as likely to solve an encounter by hitting it, out-thinking it, or talking it to death.
A D&D character with a few levels under their belt won’t simply be struck down by a sword, because they are a hero able to take a hit and keep going. While in Shadowrun even the most experienced Runner has a chance to be struck down with a single bullet to the brain. Hit points as a concept are more complex than how many pokes your character can take before they get sleepy, and how a game approaches them can play a big part in their tone. When a single unblocked thrust of a spear or a stray gunshot is potentially the end of your character, you approach encounters very differently than if you are confident that a burst of all consuming fire won’t down you.
Hit points aren’t where a games granularity ends. The number of skills, ability scores, or abilities are only a few ways that a game can affect its tone and feel. A game with a bevy of skills to choose from means that there will be a greater specialization. Not only the number of different options, but also the scale they are at will change the feel. For instance, if your stealth skill ranges from 0 to 30+ going up one point is going to be a much less significant change than if your stealth skill goes up by five.
The power level of the type of character can also have a big influence on the type of game you want to play. D&D was designed to make you feel like Conan the Barbarian, Gandolf the White or Aragorn the Ranger. That is to say, you play a hero who can take on a mob of enemies or challenge an enemy that has enough power to destroy cities. This is in stark contrast to Blades in the Dark, a game in which the amount that you are carrying can drastically affect your ability to run, jump, or even stay alive. This is a game where you will have to decide if you are going to keep that golden statue or your weapon, because you can’t carry both.
All of this is to say that just because a game doesn’t do what you want it to doesn’t mean it is bad or poorly designed but rather it is simply the wrong tone. The mechanics of the game have a profound effect on the tone of the game, whether it is what is included on the character sheet, like hit points or number of skills and abilities, to the power level of the characters as they compare to the other things living in that world. As a parting thought, I would like to point out that if you don’t like leveling systems that’s ok, there are games that don’t have levels or classes. And if you do like levels and classes that’s ok too. Play the games that you find fun.