Leveling The Playing Field

In a some games, not all characters are created equal. This can be a source of variety, giving the players the ability to play high power campaigns at times and low power campaigns at others. Each one can have it’s specific appeal. I find that when starting a new game players often like to try out the high power characters first and then slowly migrate to the more nuanced low power characters.

That works if the players pick all of one kind, either high or low. Sometimes it can even work if the group is split 50/50 between them. You can have the characters work as two teams, one defending the group and the other running the soft skills that are needed to solve a puzzle. Or the high power guys punch through a barrier to deliver the soft skill guys to carry out the main goal. But what happens when the group is truly not balanced? This usually happens when a very small fraction of the players (maybe only one) picks low power characters. Even if you do segment the plot to spotlight the characters, the small portion of low power characters will feel marginalized because they are ineffective throughout most of the game.

I have this problem at the moment. We made a group of PCs that were heavy hitters of a Raider, a Tank Pilot and a Train Operator. One player does have a Field Scientist which is a low power character, but none of the other characters cover the scientist’s skills so she can still be useful. Then another player joined the group with a preexisting character, a Scout. The problem is, a Scout is not very useful to this group. In a low power campaign a scout on a motorcycle is fast and is very useful for tracking. In this situation, the combination of the Raiders Delta and the Train make the scout’s motorcycle almost laughable.

The low power characters have to have a place throughout the game, not just a spotlight where they make one critical roll and then their purpose is complete. In the last game, I was able to get everyone out of their vehicles (willingly) because there was no direct danger to them, they were engaged in a puzzle. This works occasionally, but if all the games are like this, the high power characters will start to question why they have all this firepower if none of it will be useful. Characters have to be used in the way the players are expecting them to be used or they will get disgruntled.

The Protection Principle

One way of handling this is the protection principal as was mentioned before. One group of characters protects the other, but the protected group needs to be free to finish a job. This can work in either direction though, the low powered characters may have to protect the high powered characters so that they can stay high powered. In The Artifact, this could come in the form of vehicles having their computers hacked by an outside source with a Comm Officer protecting the vehicles.

In my case, the scout character is free to work while the others are busy piloting. By putting the characters that are busy in danger in a way that the Scout can help out with makes the player feel that their character is valuable. In this case the Train Operator’s train is the opening for the Scout to act. The inside of the train is large enough for the Scout to be able to use his skills and be valuable.

To have the protection principle work, there has to be a task which will take time to carry out. A group of characters can work through the task while the others defend them from distraction.

The Separate Paths Principle

Another way of handling a power disparity is to have two or more tasks that need to be accomplished each task is best handled by a skill set that is only available to some of the characters. This can be difficult to set up properly and can become boringly formulaic if not handled well. It also can make the player group feel less like a team if they don’t see their efforts as playing off each other. Lastly it can be a major disappointment if one group fails and blocks the other from succeeding.

That’s not to say this principle should never be tried. It can be exciting and a nuanced way of structuring a game. If the player’s separate paths reinforce each other, perhaps even allowing one group to occasionally bail the other out with a success, it can keep the group feeling like a team.

The Unprepared Principal

This is probably my signature method for challenging the player characters. I’ve often overused this principle to challenge the players so I need to back off from it a little.

This principle puts the PCs in a situation where the skills that they have are not well suited for the task at hand and they have to work around the problem. When done properly the challenge looks like the player’s skills and abilities will carry them through but at a certain point they become less or totally ineffective and a different set of skills that the characters do not have (or are not very good at) are needed to finish the task. This makes a situation that looked like a cakewalk suddenly much more challenging.

The reason I like this method (too much) is because it allows the players to be effective at what they are good at but then challenges them in ways they are not effective. Players can feel unstoppable one moment and hard pressed to complete a challenge the next. This often leads my players to generalize their characters and not specialize. This may be a good thing or a bad thing, dependent on your point of view. The main strength is it also allows everyone to contribute because no one is especially good at the task at hand, making the plot open to anyone to be the hero of the day.

Those are what I have in my bag of tricks, what do you use? What have you had a GM use on you?

Leave a Comment

Filed under GM Advice

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.