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Author Topic: Unbalanced PC groups - is this okay?  (Read 2040 times)
Daniel B
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Posts: 196

Co-inventor of the Normal Engine


« on: April 28, 2009, 03:32:27 PM »

Hello again,

(I'm beginning to feel like a haunt with all my posts, but I must admit I appreciate the Forge's rules to prevent threads from devolving into meaningless noise..)

I'll start with the relevant actual play experiences to give this post a base. My experience says that this is, in general, NOT possible because with power comes options, and if one player is given fewer options "from the start", they feel cheated.

I recently played a wizard with a familiar raven named Veran. This was in D&D v3.5, so the familiars are intelligent and self-aware, and furthermore, ravens in particular are granted the ability to speak in Common from the beginning of play. Now, this wasn't a problem when the game started because Veran was my outlet for the occasional snide comment or prank, but he was mostly a background character.

However, I had always intended to have my wizard doing a lot of item creation, which of course requires a lot of study, which of course takes my wizard out of active duty. The hack-n-slashy type guys I was playing with weren't content to say "and a month passes and ... ACTION" Their reasoning was, well, it was my choice to choose a wizard class, I should instead sit and wait while they played the month through with their characters.

I wasn't content with this either, so I decided that yes, I had indeed chosen to play a wizard and all that entails. Since my familiar wasn't needed during the item creation process (and I figured he would probably be in the way anyway), this enterprising young bird flew the coop and started hanging out with the rogue PC in our party (who, incidentally, agreed with me anyway that it was pointless to have me sit and wait while everyone played out the month .. or maybe he just saw the opportunities afforded by having an intelligent raven aid in his escapades).

Anyway, long story short, Veran and the thief got into some interesting hijinks and, while the fighters of the group also got an equal amount of game time, they felt cheated. My point is that I believe these feelings of being cheated (on both sides) came up from a sense of inequality. I didn't get enough play time so I felt cheated. They felt I was leveraging my character into more power than they were getting, so they felt cheated. To avoid this, D&D actively promotes the idea of keeping the PCs balanced with respect to each other and the challenges they face (plus balance helps to avoid a TPK !!)

Now, for most of my roleplaying career, I have agreed with this point of view. However ..

The game that my friends and I are building has taken an interesting turn. It occurred to us that there was no reason a player should have to run one fully-developed PC all the time, always. If your 10th level Paladin dies unrecoverably, why not allow his player to run two 5th-level druid twins? Or a pack of 1st-level goblins? Or, heck, when a player passes epic level, instead of increasing that one character beyond godly levels of power, that player could instead start a veritable army of low level characters.

Incidentally, you may argue at this point that it's impossible to run a game with an army of PCs active at a single moment, and you're right, but I'm not talking about PCs in the traditional sense. In our game, all characters, regardless of their status as "monster", NPC, or PC, can go down four layers of definition. (Well, technically a forked tree with three layers.) The layers are:
  • (A1)- Meat Puppet: the nameless goblin you're about to dispatch, or the "red shirt" Star Trek away-team guy who's inevitably the first to bite alien laser;
  • (A2)- Social Backdrop: the gal who'll buy your gems for gold. You don't know her name and you don't really care to;
  • (B)- Minor Character: an NPC who was once had one of the two layers above and naturally developed the 2nd layer; for example, a goblin that the PCs have taken prisoner and have started developing a relationship with, or the NPC bar-wench from whom the PC have requested combat aid;
  • (C)- Major Character: a PC or a very significant NPC (or monster, though these are synonymous terms in our game), fully defined;

We saw no reason to force PCs to be in the "Major Character" category. If my PCs are all meat-puppets, so be it. (In fact, excellent! If one player is a PC general and the other is a PC army, what options this opens up!)

This does, however, leave open the very real possibility that any given group of player-run characters will be wildly mismatched in terms of power. Is it possible to run such a game, but still have all the players comfortable with it? Is it even possible to run such a game and not have the lowest-power character vulnerable to a quick and painful death?

Any and all thoughts appreciated,

Daniel
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Ford: "Why? What did she tell you?"
Arthur: "I don't know. I didn't listen."
Lance D. Allen
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« Reply #1 on: April 29, 2009, 02:35:02 AM »

First off, the guys you were playing with were dicks. "He wants to utilize an option for his character, so he should miss out on a month of action" is pretty stupid, especially when there's an easy workaround (time passes...) If they're still pissy when you come up with a novel solution that allows them to have their way, and you still get to play, then they're just dicks.

That said, as it was completely unproductive, I'll try something a bit more productive.

PC group balance is necessary only to the extent that it's desirable. Some games allow you to play character options that seriously unbalance the PC group, such as allowing Sorcerer PCs in the Riddle of Steel. There are no doubts as to relative power level between a sorcerous PC and a non-sorcerous PC, though there are other factors that make actual play a little bit more balanced. Other times, it's simply a matter of the player group style. I ended up running two roughly equal-"level" PCs in a WEG Star Wars game, and no one ever batted an eyelash. I had a bit more screen and had a bit more personal effectiveness in combat than other players, but it worked for us. Bottom line, if you're up front that using certain options may completely unbalance a group, and the group is fine with that, then you're golden.

Of course, your specific suggestion doesn't have to be unbalanced, if balance is desirable. I imagine that it can get a little complicated to balance and test.. But whenever you're striving for balance, that's pretty much always the case. You also have to take into account different kinds of balance; Player effectiveness, screen time, etc. 20 meat-puppets, played entertainingly, can end up taking up more screen time than a single level 20 PC, or vice versa.

For what it's worth, I think the idea is very interesting.
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~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls
greyorm
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My name is Raven.


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« Reply #2 on: April 29, 2009, 05:48:41 AM »

Interestingly, the base Dark Sun setting for AD&D included a rule for a "character tree": you rolled up (as I recall) three characters at the start of play. You could swap them out at any reasonable time (mid-adventure not usually being reasonable, but it depended on the circumstances), and if one of your characters died, one of the characters from the tree would come in to replace them (and you would narrate however that occurred: "oh, you're exploring these ruins too?" "I see you've also landed in Hammanu's dungeons." "The Alliance hired you as well?" "Our caravan was attacked and I've been wandering lost for days!") and you would roll up another character for the tree so you always had three. Additionally, when the character you were playing went up a level, you increased the level of one of the other characters on the tree, representing their 'off-screen' adventures and escapades.

Now, that's slightly different than what you are talking about, but if your game can handle describing a collection of individuals as a single "being" of an equal or near-equal level, then I see no reason why playing a collection of individuals as a single individual would not work. Or even a combination of the above: it might be interesting to add a "5th level orc horde" to the tree early and then, when you're 20th-level, start playing your horde, which you have described as (up until now) rampaging and raiding in the northlands. Or whenever.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio
Jasper Flick
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« Reply #3 on: April 29, 2009, 06:28:40 AM »

In a game like D&D it's probably tough to pull off, because everything is built around a party of roughly equal-level PCs. I don't think it's very fun to control a dozen CR 1/3 goblins in a fight alongside level 10+ PCs. You'll roll like crazy and accomplish absolutely nothing. All you'll do is miss and die over and over again. The best you can be is a temporary living wall. Two level 5 PCs are also vastly inferior to a single level 10 PC. Notice that the wealth rules are also quite different for two level 5s versus one level 10.
In short, it'll require quite some tweaking to keep it "balanced". By "balanced" I mean that combat is still fun, so not too easy, and not too tough.

There's actually some kind of support for it in 3.5, through the Leadership feat. It's in the DMG, not the PHB. The followers aren't meant to be controlled directly, but the cohort can be - for all practical purposes - a secondary character. It's a frail addition to the party, but can be useful as a nice mount.

I think D&D 4e has the same problems but is easier to manage.

Notice that my entire train of thought runs on the rails of combat, because I assume that's why one plays D&D. I know this is not always the case. If combat isn't a big factor in your play, then most of the D&D rules don't matter anyway, so go nuts!

In contrast, for a game like Capes it's trivial. You can play multiple separate characters, or group several characters into one atomic character, no problem. Capes is a whole different game than D&D though.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: April 29, 2009, 06:34:22 AM »

Hey folks,

Here's an old thread which is very helpful for establishing a baseline for talking about this topic:
Game balance

I also want to stress that early role-playing made no assumption about playing only one character at a time. That seems to have become concretized by the early 1980s for no real reason, and then the unnecessary stricture called for patch-rules or procedures to make it playable. All of which is to say, a mess.

Best, Ron
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LandonSuffered
Member

Posts: 99


« Reply #5 on: April 29, 2009, 09:34:39 AM »


Quote
This does, however, leave open the very real possibility that any given group of player-run characters will be wildly mismatched in terms of power. Is it possible to run such a game, but still have all the players comfortable with it? Is it even possible to run such a game and not have the lowest-power character vulnerable to a quick and painful death?


Is it possible? Sure.  But it’s UNUSUAL, by which I mean it’s a type of game-play (for D&D) not directly supported by the rules as written.

Not impossible for the rules as written, just not supported.

Whether or not all the players are “comfortable” will depend on players’ expectations of game play, and how disruptive to those expectations your game play is.  If Robin and his “band of Merry Men” are hogging all the spot light with their interactions, this might get on the nerves of fellow players (especially if you detail individual personalities and quirks for each of Sleepy, Sneeezy, Dopey, etc.).  On the other hand, if you treat “the band” as one big personality, (“the men are hungry,” or “the men are grumbling they aren’t getting hazard pay”) it may simply add some interesting color to the game.

Running the game without “quick and painful death,” is possible with support from an amicable DM, but will require a bit of extra work on his or her part. Especially if your Merry Men (or whatever) are intended as “meat shields” there’s no way they won’t occasionally eat a bullet (or orcish arrow).  Instead of 10th level fighter with 60-some hit points, you’ll have a handful of warriors with 8-10 hit points apiece…in effect, they ARE your hit points (of course, while other party members heal HPs, your guys may not necessarily come back from the dead).

But depending on YOUR ROLE in an adventuring party, your DM will be forced to scale challenges for you. For example: if you replace a 10th level rogue with a 3rd level Rogue and his apprentice foot pads, your DM won’t be able to set traps with Challenge Ratings too high for your rogue to find.  If you’ve got two 5th level druids, encounters will need to be structured to include MORE but LESSER STRENGTH plant/animal menaces to overcome. Likewise with fighter-types…more orcs and goblins, less ogres and trolls.

Now if your multiple characters intrude on the niche of another player, then it’s possible you’ll have more problems.  If one player has a 10th level cleric, he’s going to want (and need) challenging encounters that test his abilities (higher level undead, need for more potent healing spells, etc.). If you’re running three or four low-level clerics, they’re going to be out-classed by encounters…either because they can have no effect (they’re too weenie) or because the high level cleric can accomplish all they can and more with less effort (blowing up zombies, curing more wounds, etc.).  It’s still possible to have mixed encounters (say a troll for the high level fighter and orcs for the low level Merry Men), but not every encounter can be scaled that way…or it could, but it might get boring.  And it will require cooperation between player characters (“I’ll handle the vampire, you two get the wights,” for example).

So, yeah, it’s possible. Don’t make it too disruptive for the other players (hogging more spot light than any other major PC would). Try to find a niche (for your DM’s ease and so as not to be out-classed by similar party members). And don’t get too attached to little guys that get killed off by big scaries!
: )
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Jonathan
Daniel B
Member

Posts: 196

Co-inventor of the Normal Engine


« Reply #6 on: April 30, 2009, 10:47:09 PM »

First off, the guys you were playing with were dicks.

LOL, no argument. I have since stopped playing with one. The other guy, I still play with because he's actually a pretty good gamer as long as the bad influence isn't around. (They seem to get into this "I know the rules better than you" mode, which just irritates me .. even for gamists, it's not sportsmanlike)

Raven, thanks for reminding me of the old Dark Sun .. I *can't* believe I'd forgotten. That used to be my all-time favourite setting.



Having read people's responses, the general answer seems to be "Why not? As long as your combat system isn't too much like one such as D&D's" In fact, I'm beginning to think my initial concerns are a throwback to that mode of thinking. However, y'all make good points and I agree with the consensus.

Thanks everyone for the replies (and sorry for lateness of my own reply, getting a bit busy with real life stuff.)

Daniel
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Arthur: "It's times like these that make me wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was little."
Ford: "Why? What did she tell you?"
Arthur: "I don't know. I didn't listen."
greyorm
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« Reply #7 on: May 01, 2009, 09:06:32 AM »

Raven, thanks for reminding me of the old Dark Sun .. I *can't* believe I'd forgotten. That used to be my all-time favourite setting.

Really? Awesome! Then let me, as the local ambassador of the Templarate, say: We'd love to have you over on the dedicated DS boards at Wizards and on the off-site Arena boards, Daniel, if you're still interested in the setting. The boards are not spastically busy, but do see at least daily posting and we have a good crew keeping the setting alive and interesting.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio
Cranewings
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Posts: 2


« Reply #8 on: May 03, 2009, 07:27:24 PM »

Balance isn't as important to my group as playtime and accomplishment. I've run a couple of games with really bad power balance, but as long as everyone was doing something important, it never turned into a problem.

It does take a lot of maturity on the part of the players, and the GM can't just throw the group to the wind or else it will never turn out right. It takes some work.
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Joshua A.C. Newman
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the glyphpress


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« Reply #9 on: May 12, 2009, 03:04:42 PM »

If you're finding yourself at the limits of the rules, start searching for something else, but it sounds like you've resolved the interpersonal issue and the technical issue since this episode. Your solutions certainly seem like good opportunities for all sorts of fun
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the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

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Brimshack
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Posts: 88


« Reply #10 on: May 12, 2009, 06:14:11 PM »

One of the things I liked about 1st edition D&D in comparison to 3.5 (I haven't tried 4th) is that you could start a 1st level character in an 8th level group. By the time the others made 9th, you'd be 8th. Still a little behind, but perfectly viable and capable of holding your own. That was much more difficult in 3.5, both because of the way x.p. worked and because players expected to start at comparable levels.

I like the experience of starting with a small a weak character that has to duck and dodge its way through a game or two, providing I have genuine hope of getting somewhere in time.

As a GM I also like to make deliberately unbalanced groups. For 3.5 I used to say things like; 2 Characters each with an ECL of 7 between them. Players could then decide for themselves; a 3rd and a 4th, perhaps a 2nd and a 5th? Maybe even a 1st and a 6th? In my current game it's point-buy system for all abilities, and I usually say 2 characters each with an extra 25 experience to spend as you like. Some players distribute it between the two, but most pack it all into one character. This way we still get some of the neophyte characters, but it also enables players to get some decent monsters made as well. Of course this wort of thing always works much better if the experience and leveling system facilitates 'catching up' so to speak.

So, I'm a big fan of diminishing returns. Whether its about newbie characters or those that fall behind, letting the little guy learn substantially more than the big one gives you the chance to enjoy the imbalance while indulging in the hope that one day your newbie will actually carry his own weight.

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Daniel B
Member

Posts: 196

Co-inventor of the Normal Engine


« Reply #11 on: May 14, 2009, 05:25:11 PM »

Here here Cranewings, Brimshack,

As a GM I also like to make deliberately unbalanced groups.
<snip>
Of course this wort of thing always works much better if the experience and leveling system facilitates 'catching up' so to speak.

So, I'm a big fan of diminishing returns. Whether its about newbie characters or those that fall behind, letting the little guy learn substantially more than the big one gives you the chance to enjoy the imbalance while indulging in the hope that one day your newbie will actually carry his own weight.

Right there with ya Brimshack. In fact I'd say I downright love mixed groups not just because of the tactical doors it opens, but because of the pure color. Also agree with you on the "diminishing returns", I've actually been working on a combat system to make it so the multiple numbers give a strong advantage, so that a bunch of little guys can reasonably compete with one big guy. I'm hoping this will make it very difficult to choose whether to one run big guy or several smaller ones. (And a decision that is difficult shows that the options are nearly equally valuable.)

Daniel
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Arthur: "It's times like these that make me wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was little."
Ford: "Why? What did she tell you?"
Arthur: "I don't know. I didn't listen."
Brimshack
Member

Posts: 88


« Reply #12 on: May 14, 2009, 06:12:21 PM »

It sounds like we are heading in similar directions, ST. Is your system available for perusal.?
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Daniel B
Member

Posts: 196

Co-inventor of the Normal Engine


« Reply #13 on: May 14, 2009, 07:36:09 PM »

For those reading, I've sent Brimshack a private message, but ONLY because the following discussion isn't really relevant to the thread. (So in other words, feel free to message me as well)

Daniel
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Arthur: "It's times like these that make me wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was little."
Ford: "Why? What did she tell you?"
Arthur: "I don't know. I didn't listen."
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