Player Inequality, or Darwinism in the Gaming Table

Posted: October 13, 2011 by pointyman2000 in Articles, Roleplaying Games

As a GM, nothing tends to make me worry more than having to manage a party where there is a great inequality with regards to Player Characters in terms of survivability.  It presents a sort of conundrum that really grates on me.  On one hand, I’m supposed to be fair, and challenges I throw are ideally scaled to a point wherein all the characters will experience a certain amount of challenge.  However, if one or more players prove to be lagging behind the average in terms of combat ability, what ends up happening is that they’re put at severe risk fighting things that would have been moderate or lesser threats to those who really know how to game the system and create combat monsters.

To this situation, certain players I know mention that it’s just another form of Darwinism.  Adapt or die.  Players who don’t build characters who are up to spec are then forced to improve.  However, some players don’t derive any form of fun in the idea that they’re laggards.  I understand their point of view, as I’m one of those people.  Sit me down in front of a character sheet with a pencil in my hand and a stack of Exalted 2e books and I’ll somehow manage to come up with an incredibly incompetent Solar… as compared to the ones that some of my gaming group can produce.

Sometimes it really falls to what certain people enjoy.  Some players like dominating in combat, the fact that combat has extensive rules means that players in general have greater control over how things happen.  These are also the same players that tend to dislike GM fiat or social challenges where they can’t just roll a declare a maneuver and roll a die, because social challenges and non-combat tend to be more in favor of the GM.

But I think I’m digressing here.  Managing this sort of situation is a matter of knowing your players.  Some GMs, like me for example, prefer to present players with different challenges that play to their strengths.  While I occasionally do throw a combat encounter to non-combat focused player characters, and combat characters also occasionally find themselves in a sticky social situation, I prefer to give players means to tackle the challenges that they’re confident in facing.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s a real right or wrong way to handle this, as it relies heavily on how each group feels about it, and on the amount of communication in the team.  If the other teammates are okay with making sure that their less able companion is safe and taking on the extra load, then great.  If they want to help him optimize?  Even better.  Sometimes, helping each other out is far more interesting rather than just leaving a fellow player character in the dust until the Player finally “gets” it.

How do you GMs handle this?  Do you discuss this with your players outside of the game?  Or do you tailor fit your encounters like I do?

  1. Joshua says:

    I dislike game systems where character building is a mini-game that confers overwhelming advantage or disadvantage during actual play. If one player is much better at tactics than the other players, the less able players can just pick up the tactics on the fly by imitation, or even just make that player the brains of the operation when it comes to combat…in such cases, the tactician doesn’t even have to be the ablest fighter. If one player is much better at building combat-optimized characters…unless everyone agrees that combat is the be-all and end-all of the game, you’ve got a problem that even delegating all character building to that player won’t solve.

    • Hey Joshua!

      I agree. Many systems tend to have that mini-game aspect though… I suddenly remember Jon Chung of when he talks about Exalted mechanics having “Traps” which are essentially defined as poor choices in character creation when the objective is to survive and thrive in the game. Still, some people enjoy this sort of thing.

  2. I can handle a small disparity in power. Certain games don’t handle specialists very well.
    For ex: D&D 3rd edition. I ran an epic game where one PC was a combat monster. In order to challenge him, the monsters would wipe out the rest of the parrty. If I challenged the rest of the party, he would walk straight through without breaking a sweat.

    Certain games handle disparty well.
    For ex: We are playing a game set in the Witcher universe (books) using the Unisystem. Up to date, the system does provide tools to make the disparity of specializations work.

  3. fictivite says:

    I recently had some fun with players making characters for my templates for Old School Hack. One was concerned that necromancers were too powerful, as they could create lots of undead. Another was concerned that the primordial ape was too powerful, able to plow through mighty combat. Another was concerned that mechanics were too powerful, with their mastery of machines and inventions and explosives. One figured it MUST be a typo that the cosmic channeler could fly.

    These independent conversations were great for me because they highlighted how people who liked different play styles felt really empowered to be super-cool in those play styles. The fun for me is turning it into a big rock-scissor-paper-plus game where different strengths could compliment (or counter, in the case of the bad guys) other strengths and weaknesses.

    Wow, your necromancer can make piles of undead! But the primordial ape can knock them all down. But, you can send them on errands and the primordial ape can only be in one place at a time. Those little trade-offs. For all his power, when it comes down to a one-on-one throwdown, that necromancer is toast. And the primordial ape cannot fill the crypt with defenses. To each his own.

    Just to be on the safe side, I introduced blackpowder firearms, too. So if your scholar is not a very good fighter, you can hunch behind a rock and snap off the occasional devastating hit, then really shine when the combat is over and they need to talk to the survivors…

  4. morrisonmp says:

    I also tend to dislike the “minigame” aspect of character creation. Character building should not be equivalent to deck-building in a CCG. RPGs are much broader in scope. I do agree that there is no one way to do it “right.”

    My solution has always been to present games where “what is going on in game” is the direct result of choices made by the PCs. If most PCs are focused on tools and social interaction and one guy made a combat monster? Well, then we probably won’t have as much combat, so if he wails on opponents when we do? Okay. And it’s not impossible to create an opponent for him that feels like a serious challenge. Would that opponent wreck the rest of the party? Yes. But then that’s the point isn’t it? They aren’t combat characters.

    My best answer is that it’s about balance. Play with your players and don’t worry about combat lag — just make it a part of that group’s experience of the game.

  5. EverKang says:

    The two guys I currently GM for, well, I’ve gamed with them on and off for ten years or so, so I already kind of know (admittedly, through painful experience and idiocy on my part) their expectations as players. If I was starting with new players, I’d probably quiz them ahead of time about what they want from the game. Of course, the larger the number of players, the greater the variety of expectations. I guess it’s important to realize (and to admit up front to your players) that you can’t please everyone, though you’ll certainly try.

    I do have to say that your comments totally resonate with me.

    The very notion of an RPG immediately throws you into a variety of tensions. To “play”, of course, can mean to play tactically, to roleplay, or to play-well-with-others. They don’t always go together, so you’re constantly having to make some frustrating, sometimes over-compensating, trade-offs. I felt this as a player in a 4E campaign last year. I built my character with a view to what would be interesting and/or cool – which sometimes (read “usually”) just didn’t mesh with effectiveness in combat. The play leaned heavily in the wargaming direction, so my ranger’s inadequacies shone through – to the great annoyance of everybody at the table. So I sighed, went to the Compendium, and did a search for ranger powers that lasted “until the end of the encounter” or “until the target is no longer your quarry”, multi-classed into fighter, and strategically chose certain feats. They stopped complaining. Except for the DM, who, as we progressed in levels, I think grew to hate me deeply. A good rule of thumb: don’t build a character for a dragon-themed campaign that can consistently shut down the big solo by the end of the third round. It’s fun for a couple of sessions, but but you’re supposed to beat the monster, not the game.

  6. anarkeith says:

    My gut sense is that the balance movement came about as a reaction to players with magic-wielding pcs that dominated the game at higher levels. I believe that’s more of a flaw with fantasy gaming in general, as opposed to individual games. Magic is powerful stuff. Like technology today. And yeah, a typical modern soldier would waste a sword-wielding centurion of the past. The “future” of fantasy worlds seems destined to be magical.

    Given that, what can you do as a GM to balance it? Or, what can you do as a GM to balance any out-of-balance power? You control the world. Like fictivite said above, maybe you introduce blackpowder? Or maybe magic-use has horrendous environmental consequences? Or maybe a rust monster eats the over-optimized barbarian’s sword?

    As a GM I feel like it’s my job to provide entertaining options for my players. Challenging options. If I’ve got a combat-optimized player, then some of those challenges will be combat-oriented. But, if the majority of my players have crafted a band of savvy diplomats, then we’ll have more social encounters. Ultimately though, the combat character will need to find a way to participate in the social encounter, just like the diplomats may need to find a way to participate in the combat. Keep in mind that such participation need not be limited to what the rules specify, but rather what the players imagine and apply as creative solutions.

  7. Philo Pharynx says:

    I play in a Scion game, which is very similar to Exalted. White Wolf, the publisher of both games, has never been big on putting balance into their games. Our GM talked with us about this issue. He basically said he was going to design different levels on monsters to challenge different players and try to give clues as to who should be fighting who. On our part we agreed to try and fight our nemeses. It’s a bit of a metgame solution and it has a bit of the comic book feel where the two super-strong alien guys duke it out while the rich guy with toys faces off against the madman with deadly gadgets.

    The funny part is that it’s less of a problem in Mutants and Masterminds. While it’s a superhero game, it has a good mechanic that keeps everybody relatively balanced against each other.

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