Salutations, readers! Dan here with another one of our hard-hitting and ever-insightful weekly blog posts! This time, we’ll be tackling the issue of how to properly GM a game when your PC’s are very powerful. Hint: the answer is ‘with an iron fist’.
Now, there are some people both on the player side (Billy, I’m looking at you) and on the GM side (nope, still looking at Billy here) that tend to prefer to play weaker, more limited characters. If there’s possibly an option to make a character that is weaker than average, they’ll take it. They view the ‘Flaws and Weaknesses’ section of character generation as a virtual smorgasbord of delicious maladies to inflict on their PC’s. And there’s nothing wrong with that! As you may have seen in many of our games, playing characters who are not particularly powerful or who are limited in some way can make for a very exciting challenge and truly impressive role-play! But there are folks like myself that, if given the chance to grab some powers or abilities beyond the human norm, will absolutely jump at the chance. And if I get to play something on the power-scale of a minor godling? Well, I consider that to be a Saturday very well spent indeed.
The problem with such top-heavy games, though, is that they can easily become unbalanced, unwieldy, and difficult to both run and play in, this is one of the main reasons why people opt to play with the Slots Baby games instead. Too much power and freedom given to players can result in decision-paralysis, where it’s almost impossible to choose between the nearly unlimited options you have, or, almost worse, can lead to the PC’s simply steamrolling over any challenge with the near-unlimited power at their disposal. As a GM, it can be quite difficult to keep powerful PC’s (and their players) properly motivated and challenged, which can lead to the worst enemy of any gaming group: boredom.
What to do, then? Well, option 1, of course, would be to simply avoid playing games with such high levels of PC power. Lower-powered games have their own sets of considerations, but they do avoid a lot of the potential problems that the higher-powered games can bring. For those of us who’ve always wanted to be the Silver Surfer or Superman for a little while, though, there are a few other options that don’t involve swearing off the genre altogether. Let’s take them one by one.
Scale up your challenges
Now, this can mean simply giving your bad guys more hit points, tougher attacks, and bumping up their armor, which I have to admit is a tried and true method of challenging powerful characters. But if it’s the only trick in your arsenal, you’re just being lazy (or playing D&D! I’m looking at you, Tarrasque). While a deadly and powerful combat challenge that forces even your higher-level characters to break a sweat can make for some great memories, there’s only so many Evil Demon Lords, Undying Lich-Mages, or Immortal Machine Gods that a gaming group can murder before facing off against the primal evils of reality itself becomes commonplace. And commonplace is boring. So while this is a valid trick, it’s one that the smart GM will apply only sparingly.
Role-player, know thyself (and thy PC’s)
The approach I find far more rewarding, both as a GM and as a player, is one I like to refer to as ‘Keep your NPC’s close, but keep your PC’s closer’. It’s all well and good for you to know every last stat and ability for your NPC’s and monsters, for you to have mapped out a family tree for Nameless Mook #3, to have a set of written motivations and unique character tics prepared for that elderly old informant NPC that your players never even met because their PC’s just researched the answer on Google on their celphones, but I think it’s far more important for you to know the PC’s: know exactly what they’re capable of, what powers they can bring to bear on a given situation, what their weaknesses and limits are. Do your best to know them as well, or even better, than your players do. You see, the PC’s are the stars of this story: you as the GM set the tone, the setting, the action, but it’s the PC’s that are the protagonists and move the story forward. It’s a poor author that doesn’t know his lead characters well. Now, this is in my opinion useful advice for any level of game, but why do I believe that it’s particularly useful for higher-powered games? Read on!
Shine on, you crazy diamonds
When it comes to higher-powered games, my approach to storytelling is to present the players with a situation, a problem, a challenge, and then let them shine. Higher-powered characters are the larger-than-life heroes of a story, they are meant to do epic things, to achieve things beyond what mere mortals could, to go further, higher, faster, harder. But that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to just easily triumph over every problem. How boring would that be? Think of a character like Superman: no one can deny that this character is incredibly, almost ridiculously, powerful. And this means that when he’s just going up against the Bank Robber of the Week, shrugging off bullets and bending steel bars while stifling a yawn, there’s really nothing to that story. That’s not epic. Sure, it’s showing off some of his powers, such as invulnerability and super-strength, he can’t say he didn’t get to use his incredible superpowers, but I don’t think anyone was particularly invested in that story. No, the good Superman stories are the ones where even his considerable power can’t turn the tide on its own, at least not without some serious effort spent. The best are the ones in which his powers are enough to qualify him as capable of dealing with the problem, but not capable of overcoming it without thinking and fighting above and beyond his usual limits or approaches. That’s when he shines. The same applies to your higher-powered PC’s. If they can simply walk over every challenge with their powers, they’ll get bored quickly. This is where knowing the PC’s capabilities well comes in handy: it allows you to think of how they would be able to approach or solve many of the challenges you might throw at them, and that allows you to make the challenges just strong enough that they will still have to work at it, to take risks even with their powers, to succeed.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you have one of your PC’s that has an automatic ability that allows her to have a person utterly believe anything she says. This is, of course, a very powerful ability, and its use would make many situations that might be challenging to other people, completely easy for her. And you know what? That’s ok! In fact, you should give that PC multiple opportunities to use that power to achieve things that would have taken others far more effort. Let her get used to the power, let her get to use the cool toy she spent the points in character generation to buy! But, knowing that she has this ability, and how she can use it, allows you to then design challenges that she won’t be able to overcome through that power alone. Normally, entering buildings is easy for her, just lie to the guard at the door and they let her in. But now she needs to get into the main bad-guy’s secret hideout. Maybe there’s no guard she can sweet talk- or maybe there is, but it’s not enough to sweet talk the guard, she still needs a special ID: one that is coded to the user’s DNA, so simply sweet-talking to someone else with an ID won’t work. She’s going to have to figure out how to fake one of those ID’s. Oh, she’ll still have to sweet-talk the guard, which means she gets to use her power to solve part of the challenge, but she still needs something extra to complete it. She still gets to be special and awesome, but the effort also makes us (and her player) more invested in the story.
Kryptonite is boring
Now, it’s easy to over-simplify this. This is sort of a flip-side to the ‘raise the monster’s stats’ school: instead of making the enemies stronger, you make the heroes weaker by finding ways to either shut down, take away, or otherwise deny the PC’s special powerful abilities. Now, limited application of this can have serious effects and can make or break a story, but overdoing it leads to, first, boredom once more as you use the same tired trope over and over, and, just as importantly, to player frustration. After all, what’s the point of creating a super-hero with fire-control abilities if the GM will just make every enemy and every challenge non-flammable? Why make a teleporting character if every bad guy has anti-teleport dampers in their secret lair? Going back to Superman, how old and tired is the usual ‘Superman could solve this in a millionth of a second, but oh no he’s been rendered powerless by kryptonite!’ plot? Especially when most of those revolve not around how Superman might face the enemy of the week without his usual array of powers, but rather him finding a way to get rid of the kryptonite so he can get his powers back. Boring.
Remember: let your PC’s shine. Give them opportunities to use those marvelous powers. Give them times when things really are just easy because the are so powerful, let them show that they are capable and ready… and then up the ante. You know what they can do. And you know what they can’t do. What will be difficult for them even with their great powers. Use that knowledge. Let them use their powers to come close, and then force them to push themselves, to think more, to reach further, and prove that they aren’t the protagonists just because they’re powerful, but because they’re interesting. It’s a chance for both the players and for the GM to reach higher. Rather than taking their powers away and then presenting them with the same old challenges, present them with new, more interesting, more clever challenges that still require their power to solve, but aren’t simply solvable through their power.
This is not easy. This is a challenge for you as a GM, and for this reason, I recommend not going with such high-level games until you have a strong grasp of the game, of your capabilities as a GM, and the capabilities of your players and their PC’s. But if you’re up for the challenge, then I think my advice above will serve you quite well, and your players will thank you for it.
How about you? Do you have any tips for how to run higher-powered games without getting bored (or losing your mind in frustration)? Or do you have any questions about how to create advanced challenges without simply upping the difficulty on a regular challenge and calling it a day? Let us know below!
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