The last time I bloooged, I presented the first in an array of arcane implements available to wizards and other arcane spellcasters in Delve—wands. As promised, we will look at a type of implement that is nearly as iconic—staves. But not just yet. Before we get to staves, we will talk about a dirty little secret in TTRPG design.
Why am I bringing this up now? Well, well, it revolves around some of my thoughts on higher-level gameplay, which staves are traditionally a part of.
It could be argued that staves are just an extension of wands, at least as far as the history of imagery within mythology and cultural reference is concerned. After all, what is a staff, if not just a bigger stick? Through much of D&D’s history, this was the case. Both were spell batteries, exchanging charges for effect until the powerful stick drained into a normal one. Later on, mechanics were introduced, allowing you to recharge staves, which gave them more flexibility and power and firmly relegated staves to higher-level play, often with confusing and obscure mechanics.
This brings us to that dirty little secret.
Few people play in higher-level games.
I’ve seen various metrics for both D&D and Pathfinder throughout my career, and play drops off a cliff at 10th level in every measurement. Don’t believe me? Here are the measures presented by Wizards of the Coast in 2019 using D&D Beyond as their data source (with a reported 30 million characters in that set).
91% of play (according to these metrics and nearly every other such metrics I’ve seen in the past 20 years) play 10th-level and below. The grand majority of staves are built for characters 10th-level and higher. Hence, in actual play and use, staves become iconic in illustrations but nothing more.
I know, I know. Your wizard wields a quarterstaff, and it makes him look cool. And it might even be magical—as in a magic weapon—so in those increasingly rare occasions where you are forced to hit something with your stick, you don’t suck (never mind, you still suck, especially as the levels creep up). Maybe you have one of those rare lower-level (or rarity) staves. But wouldn’t it be cool if staves were an option from the very start? That they could be a thing in more than 9% or actual play?
Such a state would also be good for both designers and players of such games. One of the things that drives me nuts about tabletop roleplaying games (as opposed to our companions in the computer game sphere) is that we pay little attention to how the game is actually played and then design accordingly.
A computer game design team would only look at a part of the game that wasn’t even reaching over 10% play threshold unless they could absolutely zero in on the problems with that system and had cost-effective ways of generating solutions. But TTRPGs are different. They rarely take into account actual play patterns and zero in on issues. First, it’s hard to get good play data. The CPUs are people’s imagination, and they are spread out over vast areas without connection. And then, when you can get good play data (say because you have a handy tool like an organized play program or a portal like D&D Beyond), you’re often saddled with tradition, nostalgia, vain hopes, and the desire to push the game forward.
When D&D was released in 1974, you had three classes and rules for levels 1-10. There was a note that theoretically there is no limit to the number of levels you could gain, and there were even some notes on progression of Hits, combat ability, and spells (up to 5th level spells). The Greyhawk OD&D supplement provided better tools for the former classes progressing to 20th level (and the newer classes to 14th). AD&D had a hodge-podge of table-based level progression that still clung to the illusion that the sky was the limit—play D&D to whatever level you want. But, of course, in those turbulent times, I’m sure no one was actually asking what levels do folks actually play, and when they did, they had few methods to tabulate and assess. I do think they had a sense of the level disparity, though.
Queen of the Demonweb Pits was played to 14th level, and high-level play was rarely supported through published products. Isle of the Ape (a horrific adventure that should never have seen the light of day, in my opinion) was for characters 18+. Still, other high-level AD&D offerings were presented to be played in concert with the Battlesystem mass combat rules. On the other hand, D&D (without the Advanced) went up to 36th level and had more support, but by the end of its life cycle at TSR, it was geared more toward acquisition rather than retention, and that support went widely out of print.
Second Edition codified the 20-level progression with a later supplement for higher-level play (in 2nd Edition’s case Dungeon Master Option: High-Level Campaign, and in 3rd Edition the Epic-Level Handbook). I think the massive ramp-up of delivering and tabulating questionnaires for 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition, and 5th Edition likely gave the designers and the business team information that higher-level play was rare at best.
Putting aside the blip of 4th Edition that had progression from 1-30 (which was a mistake), 3.5 nor 5th have strayed into the 21+ territory within its offerings.
There are always calls for higher-level, especially on the internet or by the mouth or pen of passionate practitioners, but it’s a game of diminishing returns. While all of us might have the friend and acquaintance who has played to 20th level or beyond (I’ve played both because I’m a fucking nerd), the number of people who do is minuscule. No means proportional to the sweat and toil needed to create those rules for diminishing sales and scanty play. It’s all a dream of promise and younger late nights tearing through the possibility of playing amid such lofty levels.
And here I am talking about epic play. That way lies madness. We barely get people to play past 10th! Maybe 14th if you have the support of an adventure path or a hardback adventure. But I also know that the sales of Paizo adventure path volumes drop with each volume. The higher level you get, the more interest wanes.
So, why is this the case? Well, there are lots of reasons. The first and foremost probably has to deal with GM fatigue.
Most adventures are written for a relatively slow progression, even at 1st level. Currently, I’m steaming a game with my friends at Azmyth Busters. We are playing Pathfinder 2nd Edition, Fall of Plaguestone. Our sessions are roughly an hour each. We are on session 9 and still 1st level. Doing some back-of-the-envelope math, my guess is that we have a session or two before we ding 2nd level. That’s 10, maybe 11 or 12 hours of play, even more of for prep, and we are not a third of the way through the story. And I know that Pathfinder Second Edition has a flat progression, which means that each level takes roughly the amount of time to complete. Since this adventure takes us to the 4th level, with some give or take, I can expect 20 more sessions until we reach our conclusion. At this clip, and without the current weekly schedule, we’ll close out the stream in March or February of next year. Even if we were playing five-hour weekly sessions without interruptions, it would take us a month and a half to finish the adventure. And by then, we are 4th level. That’s a lot of gaming to cover for players, but it’s even more so for the GM. Even if they are running prepared adventures, you’re looking at least a quarter of the time prepping a game than actually playing a game. A five-hour session is nearly an entire workday of preparing a game for the GM.
Player fatigue and group dissolution is also an issue. If we take a look at those D&D Beyond numbers again, half of gameplay is done in the first five levels of play. After that, the decline is sharp. If we take that into account, half of us quit a campaign around 5th level. Why? We can only speculate. Maybe it’s just the way of life and busy schedules. Perhaps the game gets too complicated to be fun for most players. It’s also possible that the current iteration of D&D does too much frontloading of choice at character creation that this is about the time players get an itch to play something new. Who knows? But there is definitely something to these numbers, and I don’t think the full answer when it comes to game design is to keep on designing the game as if this doesn’t happen or that we are somehow powerless and must allow it to happen.
On the design side, it seems silly to me to backload iconic bits of the game, like staves and other fun bits, to areas of actual play wasteland. Crazy artifacts and gonzo items, sure. If you are going to do higher-level play, that’s the place for it. But staves? Fuck that.
So that’s a bit of my rationale as to why staves have a different design in Delve, as well as some of my design principles for the game in general. You’ll see a bit more of what I mean in the next two installments.
Until then, I would say may all your rolls be a 20, but we all know that’s so improbable it might as well be impossible. So, instead, I’ll say, be safe, be kind, and play some games, and have some fun when you can.