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Howling Tower: Power Fluctuations

Howling Tower: Power Fluctuations

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?

7 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Power Fluctuations”

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for the article.
    I also find it important that all players contribute to the party.
    I usually change encounters so that the monsters are more vulnerable to the weaker character(s).
    For example: a weak cleric gets more undead to fight, a weak rogue gets more opportunities for sneak attacks, etc.
    Or I make sure the skills of the weaker characters are more useful.

  2. Charles Lee Carrier

    Indeed, not every player wants to take a course in statistical analysis before designing their character. This is one of the drawbacks of the current 3E/PF fighter compared to earlier editions: Back in “ye olden days” to roll up a formidable fighter all you had to do was put your three highest scores on Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity, and you were done! Nowadays it’s a bit more complicated, and not all of my players like that. They want to spend their time playing, not designing.

    It can be a bit of a challenge to make combat encounters for a group where one of the players is a dedicated min/max artist, and another just wants get out there as quickly as possible so Mr. Thuddy Beefcakes can go hit things.

  3. I actually think that the problem is a game that only focuses on combat. Sure the metagaming heavy hitters will shine in combat but the charismatic bard will have the spotlight during a “roleplay” skill challenge, the skillful thief will come to life during a chase scene, the enigmatic mage will spring to action during a “foil the ritual” skill challenge and the cleric will rise to the top of an “investigating an undead uprising” skill challenge. If the game is balanced for play type (combat, roleplay, skill challenge or any combination of those) every character will have their time to shine and every skill will have it’s time for use.


  4. This can be a much greater issue in superhero games (or other games on that scale). We play Scion in one of my groups – being a White Wolf game, there’s not a lot in the rules to help balance characters. It’s very possible for a bad guy to kill one character with a blow that another character would not feel. The GM started the game with the warning that sometimes he’d put out monsters in multiple weight classes. He encourages the combat monsters to go up against the combat monsters and the lighter weight characters to go up agaisnt the lighter weight characters. It’s a bit artificial in some cases, but it works for the most part.

    The hardest part is that the heavy hitters often want to help out the other characters or spend some time cleaning up the lighter monsters.

    On the “A-Team/B-Team” divide, one issue is that the player who plays Choppy McSmashSmash will often end up playing the guy who gets a +28 stealth check at first level.

    The Second Focus Solution. One solution I often work out is to try and work with the player to develop another interest for the character so they don’t focus on one thing so much. One example is that I gave a barbarian a sword made of wood that was connected to nature. It was potentially a powerful artifact but only a true champion of the wilds could unlock it’s full power. How this worked mechanically wasn’t explained. The player started acting with a new focus, including making some choices that were based on this rather than just combat. Eventually he took a couple of druid levels. Even with unlocking the sword’s benefits, he was more in line with the other characters.

    @Newcomer, one issue with this is that usually all of the characters are active in the combat encounters, but not everybody is involved in the non-combat encounters. Also, combat encounters often take longer than many non-combat activites.

    @Charles Lee Carrier, As an ethical rules lawyer, part of my job is to help the players that want help navigating through the complex choices that these games have. It doesn’t matter if I’m a player or a GM. If your group doesn’t have a guy like me, then the GM should offer to help the players that want it.

  5. I completely sympathize with Newcomer. Combat is the obvious and easy path for an rpg session and it easily takes over. Even if the GM wants to steer away from combat it can be difficult to get your players out of a blood-letting mindset.

    I think it is often difficult for players to make a decision for a noncombat skill or ability when it is at the expense of a combat one. They know they’ll pay for it when combat rolls around. The best way to deal with this may be to focus game design (talking about the rule set here) around eliminating the either-or dilemma. In one of the Project Eternity updates on Kickstarter they talked about plans to separate the two, for example.

    That said, my gaming group’s current GM has been implementing what you call the “rotating the bench” method–in part. It is too early to say how effective it has been, but I think there is a lot of potential there.

  6. John The Philosopher

    Newcomer and Hyathin are on the right track.

    Gamers often forget that experience can be awarded for succeeding at noncombat challenges.

    In cases of lower level characters (say level 2) in a party with higher level characters (say level 8), the DM can set up noncombat challenges that will appeal to the low characters, giving them extra chances to earn experience.

    For example, a party with a level 8 fighter and a level 4 wizard could encounter a treasure protected by enchantments. The wizard would have to counterspell the enchantments, something the fighter cannot do, in order for the party to get the treasure. The party would get the treasure and the wizard would get extra experience to help close the gap.

    Personally when DMing, I prefer to set vague story based goals for the party that could have any number of possible solutions. This appeals to characters of equal level but disparate strength.

  7. This is definitely something that the GM can influence. Provide an adventure (or world) that rewards well rounded characters. I remember long ago playing rolemaster and creating an archer who excelled at combat but was repeatedly confounded by things like walking up a hill. Rolemaster was a rule heavy system at the time and I was not used to the concept of skills for something so simple. In a Pathfinder world, you can make things difficult for the one trick ponies. This encourages more well rounded play and character design.

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