Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (Artist: Gustave Doré)
In roleplaying games, sometimes the characters who make up the adventuring party aren’t all at the same power level. In the olden days, that could be because a few characters died and had to start over at 1st level while the survivors were at 4th or higher, because one unlucky soul bore the brunt of the wight’s level draining, or because someone rolled a string of 18s during character creation. In newer editions, it tends to happen because a few players are experts at cramming every possible bit of destructive power into a character while others take a more casual approach, prefer to invest their points in something other than combat prowess, or simply don’t pay much attention to swords and arrows and other nasty things.

No matter what the cause, the result from the GM’s point of view is a group of characters that’s hard to challenge. While Grimjaw and Skullbuster are chopping monsters into coleslaw, Sunflower and Gigglebear are being pulled inside out and dropkicked back to the Bush administration.

What’s a GM to Do?

First, it’s important for players to recognize the situation. Generally that’s not a problem for those at the top of the scrum; they’re tough and they know it. Players who aren’t very tuned into the fine points of power levels, however, might not realize that their characters are punching below their weight. Find an opportunity to clue them in. Don’t accuse them of anything; they’re not bad players. Just set the stage for a solution, which might be any of the following.

Pull them up by the bootstraps. If the imbalance exists because of player choices instead of level disparity, then players with weaker characters might be happy to get some help boosting their power from the more mathematically inclined. Maybe their characters aren’t at the low end of the curve by design. People who want help don’t always ask for it but often will accept if it’s offered.

Move light infantry to the flanks. Armies traditionally deploy with heavy infantry in the center and light troops on their flanks, to protect the heavies from the light troops positioned on the enemy flanks. The same thing can be true in a scrimmage. Someone needs to keep enemy skirmishers occupied while the opposing heavyweights trade face punches. The trick here is threefold. First, when arranging bad guy teams, the GM needs to include some foes worthy of both power extremes among the PCs. Second, the players need to have enough tactical acumen to recognize the difference. Third, the fight needs to develop in a way that precludes the heavies from spending the first 2 rounds pile-driving all the enemy’s light troops before the main action begins. Given those qualifiers, the result will be greater challenge for the players and more dynamic, exciting combat scenes.

Rotate the bench. Instead of upping the power of weaker characters, you could lower the power of the stronger ones. That solution is guaranteed to not sit well with the affected players, but there is an alternative—have everyone create two characters. One should be a thick-necked killing machine, the other can be geared toward softer encounters. Divide them by type into two parties and bring out whichever one is most suited to the adventure in progress. If the emphasis for the next few sessions will be bloodletting, the A team takes the field. If the emphasis will be social interaction, stealth, and research, the B team steps up. If the villainous horde is awash with cave trolls, the high-level group rides in, but if the goblins are riled up, the 2nd-level heroes get some exercise. Both groups can advance at the same rate, regardless of who earned the XP, but that’s a team decision. Give them equal table time so no one feels their preferred mode of play is being neglected. This approach won’t work with all groups of players, but it’s great for those who like it. The GM’s task is simplified, adventures can have more variety, and players get to try new races, classes, and styles that they might never experiment with otherwise.

Characters with different power levels can coexist in the same campaign and even the same adventuring party—if the GM makes proper allowances. If you found a solution that worked for your group, what was it?

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