As I write this I am sitting at work, noodling an issue with my L5R game. Now the issue isn't game breaking, but it is one of approach and how to handle it. It also is partially being prompted by some of the old school designs I'm trying to bring back and specifically running Shadowrun for. The issue? the concept of the bigger fish and how that pertains to games that are built to be more open world/sandbox type adventures. Today, let's talk about that.
MMO vs. RPG
Anyone who has played an MMO is familiar with the concept of an area level. Generally the game starts off all the players in a low level area, and as you grind and farm monsters you gain levels until you are venturing further and further out from the starting city and into the game world. If you go too far ahead of where your level is you quickly find yourself by monsters that are much more powerful than you, and not afraid to show it.
The other way of doing these worlds, less common in MMOs but quite popular in open world RPGs like Skyrim and Oblivion, is for the world to scale with the player. No matter where you go in the world, if you are only level 4 the world will scale as if level 4 was the best anyone could ever be.
Difference In Feel
The difference in feel here should be obvious. With a scaling design, whatever the challenge you are an appropriate level to face it. That doesn't mean it might not be easier if you were higher level (with levels comes options and build knowledge) but you should have a good chance at overcoming it. With the MMO version of the design, you can simply end up outclassed.
In other words, one of them lets you always feel like the hero or a bad ass able to take on all challenges, the other allows for their to be bigger fish out there that can gobble you up whole. However, the world where you can be gobbled up also has smaller fish you can gobble up. As you achieve power you outclass those earlier areas and monsters.
Why This Matters
So why am I talking about computer games in a thread about my L5R table top? Because it matters. As Game Masters we are supposed to keep our PCs challenged. There are scores of pages of GM advice saying to not club them over the head with a monster that'll murder them. There are books on challenge assessment and how to keep things nice and even. The challenges the GM presents to the player should be the challenges the players are capable of facing.
However, this isn't always desirable in a table top game. Sure, if you are doing a structured story game with a defined beginning, middle, and end, you can rate the challenges to what is going on. However, in a more traditional campaign, where the players are free to explore the world and get into adventures it can be different. Sure, you should only be presenting challenges and adventures that the players can handle, but sometimes the players fixate on things. Sometimes they pursue things to extreme ends. Sometimes they go off the adventure trail and run off looking for a dragon cave or a hell mouth. When that happens you, as the GM are faced with a difficult choice:
Do you scale the challenge to where the PCs are? Or do you let them find a bigger fish where maybe they have to withdraw, retreat, and wait to go after it?
Personally, I like the idea of the bigger fish. Especially in an open world game. Why? Because it gives the world a feel of a history. It also gives the players a sense of progression. There were people who were bad ass before them. These people become goals, markers ont he road, or just mentors. Eventually, maybe, the player will surpass these people. Sometimes, even if mechanically they have, the player wont. It also lets the player, as they grow stronger, take on mentors and become part of the world.
However, the problem with the bigger fish is that sometimes the players attack that fish. The bigger fish being defined as being bigger and more powerful will then often trounce the players. That's no fun for anyone, now is it?
So, which do you do?
If you're not aware of the AngryDM you should probably find him on twitter and follow him. He plays into the character of the Evil DM from the games of old, relishing in TPKs and running old school hard-core games. One of the things that me and him agree on (at least philosophically, I'm not sure I'm old school enough right now to run it that way all the time) is that when it comes to the bigger fish issue the DM/GM's job is simply to show the power difference and to let the player make the difference. If you put a dragon in a room, and the players run in to fight the dragon, it's not your fault that they get killed. If you force them to fight the dragon, yes. If it is their choice, then no.
Basically, sometimes the player needs to run away. Sometimes they need to recognize a bad fight. Sometimes, as the GM, you need to show that. Especially if you are allowing for the Bigger Fish. The question is. Which way should I go with this game? I am leaning towards Bigger Fish, but hteres something to be said about keeping it all even.