Thoughts on Parties of Mixed Capability Inspired by Joss Whedon’s film based on Marvel’s Avengers
Last week, thanks to early release dates in Asia, I watched the Avengers on a local screen in Daejeon, South Korea. As I was leaving the theatre I was struck by just how well Joss Whedon had managed to present an environment wherein the characters could stand together in a useful fashion despite the vast disparities in their capabilities, and even broader gulfs in their interpersonal relationships. This comes as no surprise as his years running Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel certainly gave him lots of practice sorting through all the permutations and problems which arise from mixed groups of heroes and side kicks tangling with weekly villains, recurring villains, and season-spanning major villains. From a certain point of view this skill, often likened to juggling, is more like being a master of scissors-rock-paper.
This entry will be dealing with the topic of running groups of mixed ability and temperament from the point of view of maintaining decent immersion in a reasonable simulation of realism, within the boundaries of context for your game and setting, while exploring, discovering, and creating the narrative in play. While some of what gets presented here might relate to stricter, pre-planned narrative structures, or to less ‘realistic’ contexts, much of it probably will not.
A god, a spy, and an inventor walk into a shawarma place…
In truly open settings, such as those afforded by certain Palladium game lines, games predicated on truly random chargen, parallel campaigns, or long-running campaigns with an expanded or changing roster of players, the experience levels of both the characters and those playing them may differ widely. At a certain age where you have access to a lot of time, a lot of games, and a lot of players of varying levels of investment, earnest GMs gather together in their secret meeting halls and once the special code words, signs, counter-signs, and secret handshakes have been dispensed with, immediately settle down to discussing game balance issues such as what to do when established characters are Big Damn Heroes and either a PC dies/gets written out, or a new player wants to join. It might not be uncommon for the number of answers to this question to be the same as the number of people in the discussion – complete with painstakingly detailed, “In my campaign…” stories to ostensibly back up the pearls of wisdom offered for consideration in the great debate. We old guys have gotten over all this debate and have circled the wagons as far away from everyone else’s wagons as we possibly can and practice feeling sorry for the losers in the other circles while all the while politely wearing our “There is no wrong way to play” t-shirts.
Ignoring issues of right and wrong, level playing-fields, and game design as being better suited to another post and probably a different blog, the question at hand is what do you do if you have the option to run a group of characters in the same session which are not remotely balanced with each other mechanically? More specifically, how do you approach running that party so that everyone is involved, has fun, and is not constantly dying or causing the insane boredom of the other players? I have a few thoughts on the matter which have grown from trial and error, those secret conversations mentioned above, and the example of those who have come before me, and have gamed around me. What follows is not the one true way, but most of the time this particular circle of wagons seems to generate good games – and here is the kicker – with little requirement for perfectly equal character builds. Okay, let’s start with a bang, shall we?
1. Do not adjust the risk to match the characters
One of the interesting criticisms of Joss Whedon’s work is that he is not afraid to kill characters. I would say he is absolutely guilty of that, and as he is a writer not a GM, I think he has every right to do so. He is telling a story, and frankly a story with no risk is mind-numbingly boring. We say that a lot around here, so let’s move on. In an RPG narrative that the GM is planning the arc for, I do see a problem with deciding that Character X will have his mortal coil shuffled off for him in Act 3 – particularly if that decision does not include Player X – but in a sandbox, the onus of deciding who lives and who dies is not the GM’s problem; it’s the players’. The onus of deciding if the threat is too great or to small is similarly on the players. It is not your problem. If the players, loaded up on Agency, talent, investment, and their growing experience with the game choose to do something, it is the GM’s job to simply adjudicate the outcomes according to the system, and then add a touch of personal panache. If the godlike character can convince the 0 level humans to hunt dinosaurs in a lost volcano and everyone is fine with that, then by rights they will be fine with their choice of death – be it feeding the saurians, or fueling the fires down below. Adjusting the risk to ensure the weaker characters survive, or to ensure the stronger characters are not bored takes skill, game mastery, time, and pre-planning, or a vast army of rules lawyers working in a stifling corporate atmosphere planning all encounter permutations in advance. It also indicates that the story is being intentionally shaped, not encouraged to emerge, and that removes both the burden and benefit of realistic player agency in the game world.
Give them information as befits their research and abilities, give them time to understand that information, and give them free rein to act upon it. When you make the rulings the scenes require of you, do so entertainingly, appropriately, with investment in each character, and above all, fairness. If they die, they die. If they triumph – celebrate with the players at the victory they just earned. Beating the odds is always, always, always better than performing as expected.
2. Keep relationships real, and in the forefront
No matter who is in your group, make damn sure that their characters are not in the group for meta-game reasons. For immersive and realistic play to occur, relationships between the characters, their NPC associates, and their setting need to stem from appropriate places. “We need a ranger,” is fine from a purely tactical point of view, but if that is the end of the chargen discussion, what chance at life does the resulting character have? A more effective question in the scenario presented by this post is, “Who do we need?”
Not what. Who.
The story as it plays out should be full of characters which will have very clear ideas about wanting or not wanting to associate with the characters. At certain points, outright hiring needs to occur, and ought to take place with an actual interview in-character. Characters may be thrown in with your group from results of the tale, or results of other relationships. Focusing on these relationships keeps the inclusion of less capable characters both in context and allows it to make sense. Fiction is full of these unbalanced match-ups, as is real life. A game – particularly an RPG – does not in and of itself require characters to be balanced with each other, and a strong method to insure that the imbalance does not cause problems is to remember that in this situation, character comes first.
Of all the suggestions in this post, when all is said and done if the GM can get this one working realistically with the group than the rest is just window dressing. In fiction and in real life, people stay together because of how the story of their lives connects, binds, compels, and persuades them. From the strongest friendships to the most dysfunctional servitude, people operate together not out of an optimal balance of skills, interests, talents, and proficiencies, but because who they are, what they have done, and what they will do unites them – for whatever reason, and whatever end.
3. Do not throw characters bones or provide spotlights to contrive a moment for them to be awesome
You read that right. The story and the fates of the characters can take care of themselves, it’s the players that need extra attention from the GM. The players need to feel challenged, they need to feel that the effort they invest in each aspect of the game is producing both entertainment and results. Where this basic advice tends to produce problems is that players start to compete, or lose track of who their character actually is in relation to the setting. Forgetting one’s relationships is the surest route to getting lost. Opportunities for greatness await all players who are paying attention and focusing on roleplaying their characters. If the scenario puts them way out of their depth, then it will be far easier to find ways to enjoy the spotlight that that provides, feel thrills and chills, and use their skills to stay out of the slavering jaws of starving death. No fear of boredom there. Conversely, if things are too easy it is time to enjoy the fruits of development, but it is also time for the players to seek out new challenges and push on in new directions. Again, in this sort of environment, the GM’s job is to flesh out the world. The players’ is to operate within it.
If you seek to engage the characters you get tied up in story, metagame concerns, and spend way too much time chasing them when they go off on tangents. A director or novelist has the time and mandate for this, a GM doesn’t. The GM shapes the story not by contriving events, but by bringing the world to life. Address the interests of the player in what you portray, and leave it up to them to engage with the world. They are there to play. By all means, let them play. Game on!
4. Enable the group to cooperate and utilize the strengths of each character, such as it is
Know thyself is wonderful life advice and it applies just as well to the tabletop as it does to the real world. If the group is still learning the way the game system and/or campaign world work it is a solid idea to allow a lot of discourse on options to prevent players feeling in hindsight that ‘the character would not have done that.’ No one likes to feel stupid, and some games have steeper learning curves than others. As they are all gathered together to have fun and roleplay their characters well, an investment in time and critical examination for future returns of greater investment in the character and setting is definitely worth it. Players who really understand their characters and the setting in which those characters are operating will tend to make better, and more realistic decisions than ones who are desperate, detached, or just dicking around. Once you have reached the state where they can operate at this higher level of play, then you can reap the rewards of more and more scenes flowing as they would if the characters were real.
What do I mean by that? I mean that sometimes people run away from minor threats, make inane decisions, or get caught up in things much larger than they are. The story of their lives is dealing with the consequences. I mean that sometimes people are in the right place at the right time and everything just works. The story of their lives is the stuff of legend. These times are precious, and it is a shame to dilute them with a formulaic magic bullet guiding them from novice to master with the assumption of their success welded to the tracks. I mean that most of the time, people wander in and out of grace and idiocy and the story of their lives is a patchwork quilt of surprise, success, disappointment, murder, revenge, chases, escapes… you get the drill. It is not about min/maxing and making optimal decisions. It is all about making the right choices… the ones that the character would if they were real.
5. Split the party while keeping the action moving
According to conventional wisdom, this one is almost always seen as a mistake (but not in great games like HEX!). By all means split the party, and keep them scrambling the whole time. Keep the characters in motion with time pressure, decisions, tasks and tests, and in so doing keep all the players busy getting their parts done in whatever it is they are attempting to do. Remember that you are not scripting their actions or limiting their choices, you are simply running how they get resolved. Keep the focus moving through the scenes and across all the characters unpredictably, and as a means to heighten tension, anticipation, and allow the sort of tailored zoom that lets everyone appreciate the degree of effort it may take to earn a success for the character involved. Will Cap save the girl? Will Tony Stark be able to repair his armour in time? Will Thor be able to get through to Loki? Will Agent Coleson be able to convince Stark to play along? Will Black Widow be able to glean a vital piece of information? Will Hawkeye *spoiler*? These events, happening all at the same time in rapid cross-cutting, can be enjoyed by everyone at the table because no matter where the characters are, the players are gathered together socially – even if only in a Google Hangout.
Oddly, by splitting the party, you can often bring the group of players much closer together as they have short moments to focus on the play of their friends, and cheer them on as they struggle for their piece of glory in tonight’s adventure. To do this takes skill, clarity, and a certain dramatic ruthlessness as you build each slice of the scene toward climax, only to cut to another and another before granting that all important release. Ahem.
6. Design for Difference
Even in a simulated reality where no scripted story reigns, the GM still presents information to the players, and this will – intentionally or unintentionally – take on aspects of a story as it flows from one side of the screen to the other, and back again. As a GM considers the world they are about to build, it is a solid idea to start with the characters, and to know who your initial players will be. That may change down the road, but the tone and movement of the campaign will be set then and it won’t matter so much. In the beginning, when there is still void, it is imperative to curtail impulses to set up World vs PC plots and hurdles, as these can evolve into massed attacks on the PCs as a group, and chances are that in a game with no levels and no creature threat ratings, you end up with a threat that is too tough for a certain segment of your group to handle. What makes this a problem is that these threats will exist, and be in motion because of GM fiat not player action, and as such are the sorts of attacks which piss everyone off and are called unfair, because they flat-out are.
From the outset, design a setting which can develop rather than one in which there are certain massive things already in motion which the PCs have to oppose. Build a world with potentials, and reserve the triggering of that potential until the group and the world they are in has a chance to meld and mature together a little bit. Design with the players in mind. If they all build con men, it is a waste of everyone’s time to build a campaign around battles that must be fought. Better a game where the word is the mightiest blade, and battles are fought by fools in the background. Design with no attachment to outcome and ending. Design for the characters to be different, to change, to do the unexpected, and to not be in the right place at the right time. Design a world where things are happening and people are operating, with the faith that some of these things will catch the players’ eyes and… behold! A campaign is born.
Is it possible to play a story wherein the characters are not balanced? Is it possible outside of comics and fiction?
Try it. Earnestly try it, and then you tell me~
Darken others' doors: