Perfect Characters Vs. Game Balance

PRECONCEIVED CHARACTERS ARE BOTH blessing and a curse. When generating a new character, I tend to always go three d6 in order. I don’t do this because I’m some elitist slime or because I don’t care, it is simply that I’ve played ever class there is out there, and if I’m allowed to custom build my own character then I’ll always build the same one. It’s like going to my favorite expensive restaurants, I love going, but I always order the same thing.

Not to say that it isn’t bad to play a favorite character, but as a role-player, it isn’t just rules crunching that makes a game fantastic, but exploring the character that has been put out in front of me. Besides, the fact is that when it comes time to game, a character’s stats really don’t become that much of a factor. A player who knows how to use his head is always going to waste any super-character out there if the player relies solely on his ability scores to keep him alive.

SUPER CHARACTERS

People think that I’m full of it when I say that ability scores don’t matter. This isn’t a video game, just because you aren’t strong enough to lift the castle gate doesn’t mean that there isn’t another way inside. Hell, the goal of the game is to get inside. Yes, using your 18/00 STR is an easy way inside of the castle, but the key word is EASY, and if we really wanted it to be easy would we be playing the game?

There are more then just ability scores that can make a super character, there is also magic items that can contribute to the problem. You know, I’m a player too, and I want to have fun and it is really fun to add super magical items to a campaign! We do want people talking about our stuff, who doesn’t? We have access to some really cool stuff and so what if we sometimes get a wild hair up our butts and allow a player to find something so cool that it blows everybody’s minds (and usually the challenges as well), but once we commit to exploring something of this nature, then we have to be man enough to deal with the consequences, either by increasing the games difficulty, or by devising some method of keeping the object in check.

In the long run, it really isn’t Super Characters that are the problem, but a lack of balance. If we allow one character to possess to much power, then what does he need his fellow players for? We have to distribute the wealth, that is more important then curbing perfect characters. If a game isn’t balanced, then somebody is going to get upset, and rightfully so! D&D isn’t a spectator sport, we need to look at our party before we add treasure, and figure out who needs help and who doesn’t. If somebody is struggling to keep up, then we need to balance the game. BALANCE!!! That is one of the hardest jobs of a Dungeon Master’s, because this balance will be differently defined each and every time. Newer editions have tried to figure this one out on some mass scale, and you just can’t! It is impossible! There is no magic formula to aid you but your own judgment.

A Super Character is one that disrupts the balance. Players will always try to make them. They will fake die rolls, attempt to trick you, or even resort to down-right bullying to get their way. Many of the gamers who try to do this are either stuck. They have some preconceived notion of what their character is suppose to be, such as a Ranger or a Paladin, or they only want to play a specific class or a race. Others swear to god that you simply can’t play a character unless it has at least two scores above a fifteen. Still others don’t play the game to Role Play, but to crunch monsters. All of these are legitimate excuses! And we’ll have to have to meet halfway on some things, but I stress HALFWAY! This does not mean that we simply cater to their every demand. If we do that then we’ll just lose the respect of the players, and that should always be avoided for everybody’s sake.

UNPLAYABLE CHARACTERS

I’m not going to tell you that all characters are playable, because obviously that isn’t the case. A character has to have at least one ability score of 9 to qualify for a class. If this isn’t the case then we can either quickly reroll all of the stats again.

A new role-player may also want to try a playing a specific class that he hasn’t gotten to play yet. This is cool! We can either move numbers around to fulfill the class or race, or we can just write in the bare requirements, it is up to you and your game. In the long run, STATS really don’t mean all that much, and as a DM we will be testing abilities from time to time, we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t intend for the player to fail from time to time.

If a player is really bitching about having low stats, and it is effecting his game, then we should compromise with him. We aren’t going to give him everything that he wants, but if he isn’t having a good time because he’s a crunch master then there isn’t anything wrong with compromise, just keep in mind that we need the game to be balanced. Try to get the player involved in his “underpowered” character, give him some ideas that might help him with figuring the role-playing out. Say we get a Min-Maxer who always has to play a Paladin, well, instead of just giving him the min-requirements of the class, we’ll just tell him that maybe this character wants to be a Paladin, and strives to live up to the code. Heck, he might actually believe that he IS a paladin! Always try to encourage role-playing in experienced gamers, and when you do “fix” a stat, never go above a 15. That should be a hard limit! We will make an exception only for a player who wants to try playing a specialty class for the first time, specialty classes are suppose to be rare, that is one way of making a natural paladin or illusionist more exciting.

Threes in a stat can be a bad thing! But it does give us some fun things to roleplay. Imperfect characters are fun to play! I had a character with a CON of 3, he was a chicken, and always believed that he was going to contract some crazy illness that would kill him. I always had a backup character, for the day that he did die (which he never did) but I enjoyed playing him. I was always amazed at his survival right along with everybody else!

Players who are all about the crunch have videogames, and it is up to us to encourage the art of Role-Playing and creativity. We can do this with crunch experts, most of the time they just need a gentle tap to get them to leave their comfort zone and explore different aspects of the game. This is a social game, and chances are, the cruncher is still playing just to get out of the house and visit with friends, we shouldn’t punish him for it. If he thinks that he needs 2 stats that are 15 then so be it, after all, it is just a game, and games are meant to be fun for everybody involved.

IDENTIFYING PERFECT CHARACTERS

As I said above, this is all about balance. We need to look at Role-playing as well as Crunch. If a character is struggling with either, then he may need some tips. This is a hobby! True role-players are always striving to become better roleplayers! We honestly don’t need any one-man armies running around who aren’t villains. Look at how your party is behaving, how fast they are going through monsters, and who is doing the killing. If it is just one person, then we need to target this individual. A game can be unbalanced from high stats, magical items, or levels, which all of these things, thankfully, are easy to fix.

In our arsenal we have monsters and magic that can drain stats, destroy items, and consume levels; the trick is to take only what you want, we are looking to achieve balance, not change the nature of the balance. If by attacking a specific character with an ability eating monster, we are only turning other characters into stronger characters then we committed an error. Balance isn’t all of the characters being the same! The party has to identify their strengths and weaknesses within the ranks, we may not be dealing with a super character, but instead, with a player who is just a better gamer.

With this in mind, maybe the problem isn’t that a character is too strong, but that the others are to weak? We need to identify a characters strengths and weaknesses as well, and design elements which capitalize on a specific characters strength, as well as taking advantage of weaknesses within the characters themselves.

We can’t just assume that if one player is chopping threw monsters, that the problem is lays with him because it could be that the problem can be identified with the DM himself! We need to cater to ALL of the players at the table, not just one or two.

BRINGING OLD CHARACTERS INTO NEW GAMES

I enjoy a variety when I write my games, however there is always an ongoing theme or trend. Sometimes I want to explore different aspects of the game and I want to ignore basic rules. For instance, my current game involves world travel and I really don’t want to have to worry if my players can afford it or not, thus they are all loaded! And we are talking filthy rich. Money is not a motivator in this game, and it serves only one purpose, and that is to purchase supplies which aren’t a big deal.

I am prepared to live with this, DURING THIS GAME! Now, say a player wants to take this character and play it again, either under a new DM or even under myself when I have a different story to tell, the size of their wallets is definitely going to be a problem. ALL of my players are loaded at this point, thus what is balanced in this game, may not be balanced in a different one.

Playing an old character isn’t a new idea, and as long as it is of the appropriate level, it isn’t an unreasonable request! I have played several favorite characters under many different DM’s. The key word is BALANCE! What can be a strong character in one game, can be fatally weak under another, and vice-versa. Before allowing a character from another DM or game to enter a current campaign, we first must sit down with the player and talk about this character. What do they hope to get out of it, look over their equipment and question any items that you aren’t sure about. How rich is this person? What is his favorite weapon or spell? If you judge a character as too strong for the campaign, then you’ll need to discuss with the player about limiting it. Maybe, at one time, it was okay to have a +5 Battle Axe of 10d4 Magic Missiles; before he begins play you must make him aware that he must leave this insane tool at home!

If he is underpowered, run a quick one-on-one game where he can earn experience and an appropriate magical item. This will help you get a feel for the character so that you are ready on game-day, rather then be surprised with he suddenly summons Mr. Peepers, his pet Dragon. Let him know up front, what he can and cannot take with him into the new game, that way you can both avoid arguments in the future, which, while fun for other players to watch, does get tedious if not limited to more then a few minutes.

Stats can also be limited by invention, perhaps he has been cursed by some NPC or has a run in with a ghost. This must be taken seriously though. As a general rule, if the PC in question has 18’s straight across the board, turn him down out of shear principal because he IS making fun of you, trust me.

WISHES AND GAME BALANCE

Wishes are both fun, and a pain in the butt. Thank god they are rare! A DM will never allow a player to CHEAT THE GAME! However there is a little dance going on, as you, the DM, are giving the player a chance to outsmart you.

Players who outsmart the DM should be awarded, fore this is one of the goals of the game. However the rules themselves must NEVER be out smarted. When granting wishes, we must take things literally, and I do mean just that! We should also twist the wish in some way, bend it to the laws of magic. Magic is not a science! It is a very mystifying thing. If one wishes for great riches, these riches have to come from someplace.

A player is sometimes tempted to wish for greater ability scores. This is easily handled: Players cannot cast wishes for the characters, they must cast wishes AS the character, no exceptions. Thus they can’t say I wish I had Strength of 25, this doesn’t mean anything at all! Now if they say that they wish that THEY physically were stronger, then, as long as their STR isn’t 18 (or 18/00 if a fighter) then you can go ahead and give them 1 point of STR, however we cannot cheat the rules, humans aren’t allowed to have over 18 STR, thus we only give them ¼ of a point, thus it will take 4 wishes to reach STR of 19, and THAT is a lot of wishes. If they are still intent on this dumb idea, then keep doubling the amount of wishes that it takes to achieve a full point. We can also play a dirty trick, especially if the caster of this wish is a dirty little trickster. A player can wish for great strength, and the wish will be granted, however at the cost of burning up 2 or 3 points from another ability score, such as CON or DEX.

Players should be terrified of wishes, especially ones in which they area dealing with creatures of evil. Yes, the Devil will play the game, however he is ALWAYS going to come out ahead in the long run.

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