For a while, I have been kicking an idea around in my head about campaign stages and game balance. I'm not the only one; other game designers have created mechanics around the idea. For example, the D&D world introduced the epic tier level starting with 3ed, and 4ed put it into the Player Handbook. 13th Age expanded on the idea, creating adventurer, champion and epic tiers that add different abilities and modifiers at each stage.
My instincts say there's something behind these campaign mechanics. In the past I have mused that a campaign can progress through stages like characters, with each stage offering different types of challenges. I'm now starting to believe that the PCs also experience changes as they progress through campaign stages, but these changes are based on their knowledge of the campaign itself.
A campaign can be divided into three stages: Low Power, Mid Power and High Power. Bear in mind that we're talking about the characters' knowledge and integration into the setting here, not mechanical issues like CR or the relative power of various threats.
Let’s discuss how these stages might reflect on players, play, and setting.
The Three Stages
Low Power (Beginners) Stage: This stage is a single campaign of 1-6 adventures lasting just one or two sessions each. These adventures will involve a lot of information-seeking and dissemination of lore, as the PCs get accustomed to the setting. The PCs may be puppets of more powerful figures, or absolute beginners, ignorant of many details. “Coming of Age” stories fit easily into this category.
Mid Power Stage: This stage consists of 1-5 campaigns, each containing various lengths of adventures. The PCs are goal-oriented people with some detailed knowledge and practical experience. The party should be well-informed and integrated into the setting.
High Power Stage: This stage may include multi-adventures that may even turn solo as the players carry out their characters' dreams. PCs by this point are problem solvers, directors, information generators or trendsetters.
As I thought on these differences and considered the tropes surrounding these stages I realized something: We are almost always playing at the “Mid Power Stage”. This is especially true when using published modules―even those supposed to be low or high level games! Why is this? I think it’s because midlevel play is the type of game that excites us, giving us a lot of agency without too much responsibility. We often forget the stage where we had too little power to act―this stage is mostly forgotten, as are our memories of high school. At the same time, relatively few of us reach the point in life we have enough agency to literally create goals, trends and information for people with less agency to respond to.
This approach was good enough to govern most of our games for 40 years! Given these arguments, why should I even bother with the other two stages? Well, because everyone knows these differences exist, and laments the failure of the system to provide verisimilitude and game balance! But let's face it: any attempt to balance game mechanics will always fail when our campaigns are all essentially midlevel, no matter what the balancing mechanics say. You know the drill: regardless of carefully balanced CR, weapons and mooks, etc., Low Power characters are always in over their head and High Power characters are always blowing the crap out of things.
The Three Stages in Play
Let’s look at some ways we could play with this structure to achieve a more varied and realistic type of campaign balance.
Low Power (Beginners) Stage: Coming of Age, Training, Your First Job, Making a Name, Becoming a ‘Made Man”. These adventures should focus on getting familiar with the people, locations, objects and events in the setting, and allowing the players to get to know their own characters' places within that setting. While the adventures should be achievable, the players should also be exposed to the grandness and powers of the setting, perhaps from a safe distance. This is the time to establish the power structures of your setting. Let your players see the huge warships or large dragons—from afar. They should meet the movers and shakers, but not be able to challenge them. All of these details should help set the boundaries of the sandbox, allowing them to think about what their own objectives and goals might be for the next stage.
Mid Power Stage: Now that the players are familiar with the setting, they can start setting goals of their own. At this stage players will often have some people trusting them with important missions, or else they'll be spreading their wings and looking for their own opportunities and successes. Maybe they learned about a bunch of Deep Ones in the Beginners Stage, and they know how the power of the Tomb of Poison Water can stop them. Instead of waiting to be hired, they simply go off to find it themselves. By the end of this stage the PCs should be totally self-motivated. Maybe it’s time to leave the sandbox (or maybe the sandbox needs cleaning, and they're just the ones to do it!)
High Power Stage: Your characters have probably saved the setting at least once by this time. With solid reputations, they're able to impose their will as kings, kingpins and heroes of the setting (or infamous movers and shakers), and things have changed significantly. Self-motivated characters are now hiring others to solve problems. Instead of going out to meet the enemy, the enemy often comes to them. Instead of hiking out on long missions, they spend much of their time planning and seeking ways to quickly put out the flames of trouble. That wish you've been hoarding? It just might turn back the pirate fleet.
So, there some of the key differences between game balance and campaign balance. The former only balances mechanical aspects of the game, and often does more harm than good. The later creates campaigns that advance at the rate of your PCs' integration into the world. The adventures are more organic, less focused on encounters chosen by the GM, and more on the path chosen by the players.
Playing Out the Three Stages
How should the characters interact in such a campaign setting?
Low Power (Beginners) Stage: Regardless of your skill level after character creation you are still a beginning adventurer in the setting, so be sure to keep your eyes open. Be inquisitive while adventuring, make friends along the way, and apply your creativity to help the GM build the setting. This is your time to build the foundation of your role in the newly-forming campaign.
Mid Power Stage: With the foundation laid, this is your time to shine and enjoy the world created by everyone at the table. Help it come alive as you go on your adventures. At this point you should be creating and achieving your character goals; liberally apply the resources you acquired or created in the first stage, or create some new ones. You don’t go on the adventure because the GM says so. The GM makes the adventure because your character wants it.
High Power Stage:Your characters are now at the heights of their power; they may be great heroes and rulers in the setting. At this stage, you will find that power attracts power, and trouble comes to you. Your plots will be about maintaining your status, staying alive and keeping your reputations intact. It is at this point that you may start to consider retiring a character, leaving the game while they're still on top.
If you recognize that campaigns can evolve just as much as characters do, you can see that each of these three stages requires different approaches. Start early. Remember as you enter the Beginner’s Stage, you have tons of opportunities to help create the world that you want to game in.