The numbers used in a role-playing game tell us nearly as much about the milieu we are playing in as does the story around the game world. Sometimes, in fact, they might tell us a slightly contradictory story. This really bears pondering when we go about designing games mean to reflect certain really broad realities, like superheroes, but the desire for a long progression for a long-term game can lead to compromise in the game’s interactions with what we consider to be realistic.
Justin Alexander talked about the way that D&D modeled their skills and abilities and what that meant for classes and levels. One of the most interesting conclusions he draws from his analysis is that D&D’s system of DCs and probable skill levels means Aragorn was a 5th level ranger. At 6th level, your PC is going to begin to leave maximum standard human capacity in the dust behind them. Pathfinder, in using the OGL, follows this model. It has replaced synergy bonuses with more feats and class abilities that give skill boosts, as well as improving the boost from feats: skill focus now gives a +3, and most of the skill-boosting feats double in value at 10th level. This is one of the frustrating elements for GMs who want to maintain some sort of mystery in their games. A knowledge skill rating of +15 means that, on average, a PC knows the hardest questions in their field. That’s a 5th level Wizard with Skill Focus. Identifying creatures works on a slightly different, if wonky, system, where the DC to identify a creature and its attributes is somewhere between 5-15, depending on its rarity, added to the Challenge Rating of the creature. Aside from producing some weird effects (A dragon being harder to identify than a Flumph), it also means that PCs focused on knowledge skills are going to ID all but the most obscure CR 20+ creatures about halfway through a standard 1-20 (or 17) level campaign. Like Alexander, I don’t say these things to critique the system, more to help us identify what PCs can be expected to accomplish in order to avoid frustration on either side of the table.
The number system becomes a bigger challenge when the statistics have to cover a larger array of possibilities. One of the great challenges in designing a superhero game is what I call the “Aunt May-Hulk” dilemma. Any game that wishes to simulate the universe of Marvel Comics must have a strength statistic that can model a range that runs from Peter Parker’s sweet old Aunt May, who might need help with an overnight bag, to the Incredible Hulk, who has lifted a 150 billion ton mountain. Such a scale is nearly impossible to encapsulate in a system that uses any random number generator you’d want to roll on a table. Mutants and Masterminds uses a d20-like system, simply doubling the rating each time you go up a point, as well as dipping a little into negative scores. This doesn’t fully cover the spread until a Strength score is well off of their standard table, and it raises some interesting questions about the other statistics (what is a character like who is as charismatic as the Thing is strong?), but it gets the job done for superheroics of a certain tier.
And that’s what gamemasters and players have to keep in mind – any number generator is going to set theoretical boundaries and being aware of those boundaries a bit like being aware of physics. Knowing your limits helps set expectations and prevent frustration, to say nothing of needless injury. Knowing that 10th level Pathfinder characters have spent about half of their adventuring careers doing things normal mortals are incapable of helps set a GM’s expectations, while knowing how far super-strength will carry you in a game helps players know whether they can play the Hulk, or need to settle for Spider-Man.