Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Player Characters, not so cute and cuddly anymore

Killing vampires... not as exciting as it used to be.

Running a long-term D&D campaign feels analogous to raising a St. Bernard, or perhaps a bear cub. When I started my current game, almost three years ago, my players’ characters were level 3 -robust enough to have a chance against a pack of wolves, but still be anxious about a toe-to-toe incident with the town militia or a group of bandits. They were rambunctious and cuddly, like a puppy or bear cub.

Cut to today, my game’s PCs are level 10. In terms of their power level, they are now like young adult bears, able to tear their way into cars and campsites and afraid of very little aside from bigger bears. As a real-world human comparison, they are now similar to a group of Navy SEALs. In short, it’s getting harder and harder to provide a reasonable challenge, especially when it comes to encounters with other in-game characters (as opposed to monsters).

According to the stat blocks laid out in various D&D rulebooks, most civilized organizations, whether they are law enforcement or criminal in nature, wouldn’t stand a chance against my PCs. The average city guard is between level 1 and level 4, essentially similar to a rent-a-cop, and even a watch captain, or head of a theive’s guild has to stretch to meet the PCs’ power level.

I have been wrestling with the challenge of keeping human encounters interesting and challenging for my players, while maintaining a degree of realism to the power dynamics in my world. So far, I have identified a couple of approaches I can take:

  • Boost the power levels of NPC organizations to make them a challenge. While this can keep fights and interactions statistically interesting, it has a number of issues. If the king and his guards are so badass, why don’t they do their own dirty work? Why is an uber-powerful thiefmaster running a smuggling ring in some out of the way backwater?
  • Leave the power levels alone and just pile on the numbers. How many level 1 soldiers does it take to reach a level 10 sorceress hurling fireballs in their face? Would they even try?
  • Avoid human encounters where possible in favor of more powerful and exotic monster antagonists. Why have these super powerful monsters been hiding away until now instead of claiming their dominion over the weaklings of the region?
  • Take the Spider-Man approach -With great power comes great responsibility. On the surface, this sounds like the best option, let the players be Navy SEALs, and face consequences if they open up with fireballs in the middle of a bar fight. Of course, if the authorities are two weak to actually enforce those consequences, this doesn’t really solve the problem.

Any thoughts, tried and true techniques or other advice on the subject from my gaming friends?


  1. There's a lot of options available to you, you're just not thinking laterally.
    -Reskin. Use Ogre Magis or Illithids for "human wizards." Use Umber Hulks (sized down to Medium) for "fighters" and describe their Confusion gaze attack as 'kicking sand in the face.' No one can tell you didn't actually stat them out, and as long as the CR's match, you're cool.
    -"Movie Fight" it. Have huge battles between mortal forces on each side occur in the background, and it's the party (elite group) vs an opposing elite group instead of party vs. mooks.
    -Screw credulity. It's entirely possible for humanoid antagonists to simply be powerful enough. Maybe the Thief's Guildmaster is indeed a CR 10 challenge, but he promised his dying mother he'd watch over this backwater guild instead of personally leading a guild expansion into the capitol. If players bitch, explain that there's a perfectly good story reason why, but they drew iron on the thiefmaster instead of talking to him.

  2. Yeah, most of my hemming and hawing stems from my own issues with verisimilitude. To be honest, I don't think my players really notice as long as they are having fun.

  3. And, remember, there is always a faster gun. They start pushing around the locals and they appeal to higher and higher authorities until the 18th level 'Heroes of the Kingdom' ride in to clean up the town of trouble makers.

  4. If nothing else you could simply 'let' your PCs act that way. In my campaigns I have played such that when a major threat to the area comes up specialists (high-level troubleshooters -- and "high-level trouble" shooters, come to that) are called in to deal with it.

    Yes, in most civilized areas the common folk are pretty low level. Commoners are common, both in frequency of appearance and relative power. However, someone or something is keeping the Bad Stuff away, and whether that means fighting dragons or beating down sociopaths, there will be *someone* able to look into this 'somebody fireballed the tavern again' problem.

    I once had a party figure it out when they started seeing reward posters with their descriptions on it. They paid bloodgelt and made good as quickly as possible after that, they didn't even wait until the bounty hunters came.

    I had another group that didn't Get It so quickly and ended up running into increasingly powerful problem solvers until justice was served.

    Anti-social behavior in-game can often be solved in-game. Just because *most* of the city guard consists of commoners who are proficient with more weapons doesn't mean that bigger, badder protectors aren't there. They're busy doing other things unless and until a real problem makes itself higher priority than what they were doing.

    I have on occasion made this clear to the group early on by hiring (or 'assigning', I like having groups in service to someone) the group to go solve a problem. "Find this guy who has been fireballing taverns and bring him to me. It would be slightly more convenient to me to have the whole thing in living condition, but if needed I can get by with just his head." [incidentally laying groundwork for the "our boss is a *what*?" revelation later...]

  5. There is also the option of simply telling your players, as players, that they are heroes and this sort of action isn't fun for you to run, and please don't kill innocent villagers.

  6. Perhaps I should clarify how the specific situation works. My PCs are all a bunch of goodie-goodies, so throwing innocents into the mix is actually a good way for me to force them out of the fireball box. However, when throwing them against bad guys, I feel like just about every crime is considered a capital offense and there is still the issue-for which several of you have presented very viable solutions- of throwing a challenging NPC against them without begging the question, why is this badass in this situation.


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