Finite Worlds & the Escalation Mentality

I recently made the mistake of reading the Batman: Metal storyline. My review is straightforward; it was awful. But it got me further thinking about a problem that I have with storytelling in general. Mainly, I suppose, it would be fair to say – Serial Storytelling.

Look at D&D. From the time of BECMI, the game has been about this power progression to becoming literal gods. Later editions of AD&D put a bigger emphasis on planar adventures and the fact that your heroes “outgrow” the mortal world and need to fight stuff in the Shadowfell or the Nine Hells/Abyss.

It’s hard to tell simple, character-centric stories in these worlds because the threats always need to be bigger and better than what came before. Are gnolls too easy? Move on to ogres. Ogres too easy? Move on to Giants. Wizards starting to get powerful? Slap in those wacky Mind Flayers and Golems. And the big fight at the end – Demogorgon, or Tiamat.

Dude? Really?

Back to Metals for a minute. So, even though the Grant Morrison multiverse hasn’t really been a thing for years now, it is at the basis of the story… with this whole stupid, “but what about the back of the map(!)” thing. And even without my judgmental attitude toward all that… I’m still wondering – when you all decided that there were 52 versions of the DC Universe; why wasn’t 52 enough? Like, that was a decently cool idea. We got the multiverse back with a dash of marketing thrown in for good measure. Like, now we can tell different stories in our multiverse while always focusing on the “Prime” world as our backbone. I’m onboard.

But then that just wouldn’t be cool enough. Nope. Gotta have the evil underbelly of it all. The CW-based Arrowverse isn’t immune either. They said there were a certain number of worlds and then promptly changed that to up the ante with “the world that no one goes to.” Because it’s super-Nazi Earth! It really wouldn’t have hurt that story at all if the super-nazi world had just been one of the existing worlds  – it’s not like they’d been to them all. But that wouldn’t have been “cool” enough I suppose.

One of the reasons I always liked – and still like – the Birthright campaign setting introduced in 2e is that it really gave you a world where the concerns of the people living in it were at the forefront. This is something that I often look for in my stories and my television shows – and I like it in my game play as well. I want the sense that there is a living, interesting world that the players exist in. They don’t need to be the most important part of that world – or tell its biggest story – as long as what they are doing is important to them.

I’m not looking for an infinite frontier populated by ever higher CR monsters. I’m looking for an engaging experience that draws me into its problems and makes me want to solve them. Many mainstream games – and many fantasy games in general – aren’t good at this. But it generally shows in everything from the multiple monster manuals, the geometric uptick in power scaling, and the “new threats from beyond the dark dimension” metaplots.

As we have proven in the real world… humanity itself is full of all the glory and horror, good and evil, beauty and ugliness that we can ever handle. I don’t need to traipse off into the Astral Plane to face down a githyanki invasion for that… It’s just right here at home. (Leave aside that for the most part, those other planes are often full of races where the average member makes the average human look like a blood-filled balloon for them to come along and pop.)

So my quest continues. I’m still hunting for games that fit nicely into that niche. I’d love a strong fantasy game with a character-focused approach, slower advancement, with nice, simple rules and a world I get absorbed into. A game that doesn’t rely on escalation mechanics to make it stay fresh. I’m still hoping that there are other people who want that same thing. I have yet to find it. If you have any suggestions – I’m all ears. But I warn you… I read every fantasy game I can get my hands on so I’m going to be tough to surprise.

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