When you are making a game system, or the expansions for a game system, there is always pressure to make everything worth it. The game/book needs to have a certain impact of cool factor. Has to have some awesome toys or cool new abilities. These abilities then need to be good, and useful, in order to stand out and be noticed, and when not carefully handled can lead to a phenomenon called Power Creep. That's what I want to talk about today.
What Is Power Creep
Anyone who has played any game that has, over time, had regular updates to it is probably familiar with the concept of power creep, even if they didn't know its name at the time. Power Creep is the tendency for the power level of a game - shows, comics, books as well - to slowly creep up as new releases come along. Eventually the new stuff is so powerful that the old stuff is almost not even worth it to use anymore, and people start to get frustrated as the game they're playing now isn't the game they fell in love with a few years back.
As I said though, this isn't confined to just games. Many shows and serialized stories have this tendency as well. The best example is probably from the world of battle anime and shows like Dragon Ball Z where by the end of the show the characters were so powerful that they could probably wipe out all opponents from the beginning of the show by sneezing in the opponent's general direction.
Why Is It Bad?
Everyone likes being stronger though right, so why is Power Creep bad? Well, it is bad because it can invalidate the feel of a game, as well as make light of things that PCs worked very hard to achieve. It kind of sucks when a few weeks after your epic 2 year quest to get a +5 sword of Bad Assery someone else just buys a +6 Sword of Bad Assery in the local market for $30. Power Creep can also make it hard on GMs who have to constantly find new ways to challenge their PCs without going so completely over the top that it is ridiculous. Finally, there is also the PvP concerns to see where a character made with newer rules will almost always tend to be stronger than one made earlier because the new mechanics are just that much stronger.
What Causes Power Creep
In my opinion there are two things that cause power creep. The first is what I mentioned above, the need for new things to be worth getting and having that cool factor. This leads to the mentality that you have to "out do" your previous work, and things just keep getting stronger. The other factor is that as time goes on the developers - and players/GMs - get more comfortable with the system and learn how to do things better/more eloquently. Ideas that were had that they didn't know how to implement before are suddenly plausible to do. Mechanics that couldn't be explained succinctly can now be doled out over several books.
These two combine into some nasty packages though, as you then get rules that people know how to use - and use well - combined with mechanics that are trying to shine as brightly as possible. The end result is a game that slowly goes higher and higher in power curve. Sometimes more than the GM wanted.
How To Prevent It
Preventing Power Creep as a GM is a choice depending on the feel of a game. As a Game Designer I think it is a good goal to have and there are two ways to address it.
The first is to keep things up to date. As you add new mechanics and make things more powerful - especially if you do it to help capture what you want the feel to be - then go back and update the old stuff as well. Keep the whole game alive and balanced against each other for the feel that you want. This is one area where feed back from your community can be amazing in finding where trouble areas may be.
The second is to hold on to the feel you want for your game, and that you wanted in the initial release. Games can grow and change - that is fine - but you want to make sure it is growing and changing in the direction you want, and for the right reasons. This also involves balancing against old mechanics, but this time to try and keep on par with them, not to rework everything all the time.
Of course, the third option is to simply let it happen. This can be good or bad depending on your fan base and each group's individual style. Just make sure that when you take the third option that it is a choice, and not simple ignorance.