When Powerful PCs Adventure With Weak PCs

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0134

A Brief Word From Johnn

More GM Burnout Tips

Heather Grove over at the Twilight Time newsletter has posted a great article covering GM burnout advice. As issues #130 & #131 dealt with the topic I thought you might also find this article valuable: http://two.pairlist.net/pipermail/twilighttime/2002/000007.html

HackMaster Contest Update

Thanks to everyone who entered last week’s contest. I’ll be emailing the winners as soon as Kenzer selects them. Noah, at Kenzer, let me know on Friday that all the modules won from the first contest have been shipped.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

When Powerful PCs Adventure With Weak PCs

Create A New Campaign Paradigm

Typical campaigns that I’ve run in the past involve a peer- to-peer paradigm. The PCs are the same level and treat each other as equals. If you also game the same way and have powerful and weak PCs in the same party, consider throwing this paradigm out the window.

In the new paradigm, powerful PCs should be leaders and weak PCs should be followers. Ideally, this should occur naturally during game play.

For example, after a hard battle where wights decimated the party, the surviving PCs in my campaign put up notices in the nearest town advertising they were looking for hirelings. They held interviews at the inn where they were staying and interviewed each of the new newbie, 1st level PCs. Fortunately, the players were good sports and all the PCs were hired (I wonder what would have happened if a player didn’t get hired?).

The leader/follower set-up implies certain responsibilities. The followers must agree to obey their leaders. Some players might have issues with obeying other players in their group, but most players will accept this situation. Position it to the follower PCs as a great chance to relax and roleplay. All the tough decisions are out of their hands and they need to simply follow orders and have fun.

The leaders must look out for their weaker followers, henchmen, and hirelings. Their job is to protect, train, and help the rest of the party. A stronger and wiser party means a greater chance of survival or success.

Leaders should consider supplying weaker PCs with whatever equipment, and goodies they can spare or afford to buy to bolster the group. If the leader PCs are greedy, some form of loan documentation can be signed.

If this set-up is followed, various checks and balances come into effect which I feel add greater depth and realism to games. If the leaders are poor then their followers should abandon them. If the followers are lazy and rebellious, then the leaders should find new hirelings. If the players all want to respect each other and each other’s characters, then they should try to roleplay so that the leaders lead and the followers follow.

Sitting in the GM’s chair, I watched the players wrestle with this for a couple of sessions, but then it started working out. At first, the players played as if their PCs were all on equal footing (i.e. acting chaotically and/or independently). A few battles and challenges made everyone realize the party needed to support each other though, else new PCs would start filling mass graves fast. So, followers started following, and leaders started leading.

The group stabilized but never became a well-oiled machine. This added to the campaign though, as leadership decisions were being questioned on ethical and alignment issues, which added party tension (the good kind) and some memorable roleplaying moments.

In a nutshell, the in-game social structure has changed (mixed PC power levels), so why shouldn’t the game table social structure change as well?

Side note: this approach has worked well in my campaigns over the years. It’s not ideal in all circumstances though. For example, if the powerful PCs are non-leader types (i.e. rogues), then it’s not going to work.

Establish Player Expectations

The more I GM and plan adventures around mixed groups the more I enjoy the situation. It feels realistic to me that groups of different power levels would experience stories together. Maybe not every time, but your game world isn’t homogeneous, so why should the PCs always be that way?I also like campaigns where the PCs could face any level of threat at any time. Weak PCs could brush up against powerful foes, and vice versa. Not every encounter is going to be perfectly balanced against the capabilities of the party. Some victories will be easy, others will require avoidance or flight.

However, it’s important to communicate this stuff to your players before the game starts if you’re going to GM this way. Many players have been conditioned to expect that most, if not all, encounters can always be potentially “won” by the PCs. If you run games where PCs and encounters are always evenly matched that’s OK! This is purely a style issue and not a right vs. wrong issue. If you’re going to change things up though, tell the players before you start.

Communication like this will thwart player meta-game thinking that goes: “the GM would never give us an encounter we couldn’t handle so let’s charge in”. This kind of attitude is dangerous because the PCs will get blasted to smithereens and they’ll be upset or frustrated afterwards. Making sure the players know encounters could be way out of their league beforehand will clear you of any wrong-doing when you do run a powerful challenge that the party won’t be able to handle and should roleplay their way out of, or avoid.

Therefore, give your players a heads-up that some encounters could be too difficult at this time and should be avoided because the party is of mixed-power levels.

Encourage Scouting

If the players never know when an encounter could be suicidal or not they’ll lose confidence, hesitate, and stop taking action. They’ll wait for some clue from you before breathing a sigh of relief and proceeding. This isn’t good because you want the players being decisive and taking action.One solution is to encourage scouting and information gathering. Armed with good info, PCs can make confident decisions.

Weak PCs are perfect for these tasks! It gives them experience, something to do that’s important, and casts the spotlight on them when they deliver their reports.To encourage scouting, give broad hints at first. Let them know the situation is extremely dangerous and requires scouting and information gathering. Even tell them outright if you like. Your goal is to get them to try it out a few times until they start thinking of it by themselves.

Next, let them be successful. Fudge rolls if necessary (unless the PCs are using really bad tactics or making awful mistakes, like bickering loudly). If the players fail then they won’t feel being cautious and checking things out first will ever be beneficial. They’ll stop doing it, they’ll go back to charging in again, and you’ll be faced with the difficult decision of scaling back the encounter or letting the dice fall where they may.

Make scouting a fast process. Chances are, the info gathering activities are going to split the party up. So, resolve each mission quickly and get the party back together again for debriefing ASAP and let the game continue.

During important encounters though, it’s ok to take your time GMing scouting actions. For example, if the PCs are checking out the villain’s base and there are patrols, sensors, etc., all around, then it’s OK to roleplay each PC’s scouting mission and build up the tension. Otherwise, carry on and get things moving.

A great way to speed up scouting is to get a detailed explanation of what each PC is doing and boil it down to a single die roll. Give good explanations and plans bonus modifiers, and then make a single die roll for the whole scouting mission for each player. Players will soon learn to provide wonderfully detailed descriptions and explanations to qualify for bonuses (keep your note pad handy to write their ideas down for future use) which will enrich the game.

You can also skip the die roll. Congratulate the player on a well conceived and well described scouting plan and tell them they were successful. Let poor plans and description fail, though not fatally so.

Next, give them something to report. If you simply say “yeah, it looks like you can take these guys on” then that will be a let down for all the planning, describing, success, and anticipation.

Please also consider the many forms of information gathering and scouting. PCs can physically sneak around and find stuff out by directly observing the foe/challenge. They can also go to the library, ask an expert, listen for gossip and rumours, use divine magic and occult methods, and make skill/lore/knowledge checks.

For example, the PCs are merrily tramping along when they spot a family of beholders hovering in the distance, happily chewing on an animal carcass. The characters have no idea what these creatures are but decide to be cautious (wise choice, as these D&D monsters are powerful). They send the rogue up close to make a sketch.

Sketch complete, the party returns to town and shows the drawing to various experts until they get a hit. They learn a little about beholders and their abilities from a grizzled veteran. He explains that magic rays shoot out of the creatures’ eye stalks and these rays can petrify, disintegrate, and mind-control victims. He also says that the eye stalks can’t aim their rays directly beneath the creatures’ airborne bodies–a safe zone.

The characters are not told anything in definite terms (i.e. “these creatures are too powerful for you”), so it’s up to them to decide if they can handle disintegration, petrification, and mind control.

All of this research, from first sighting to expert advice, could take as little as five minutes of real time. You might fear the game will suffer because you’re making things too easy or glossing over stuff. That’s your call, but the true adventure should be in figuring out how to handle the eye stalks and getting underneath the creatures rather than in blind combat and PC decimation.

Debrief Players Who Have Powerful PCs

Regardless of whether the group enters a leader/follower situation or if everyone stays at the same peer level, it would be wise to counsel the powerful PCs in the party away from the other players, GM to player.

Advise them to:

  • Be considerate of the weaker PCs.
  • Avoid walking into dangerous situations unprepared.
  • Protect the weaker PCs when possible.
  • Be generous with treasure, magic items, technology, and equipment to help bolster the weaker PCs.
  • Look for ways the weaker PCs can be important and useful.

Let them know that the new characters will be watching, learning, and possibly mimicking the powerful PCs’ actions. If the experienced characters engage in chaotic behaviour, hack ‘n slash, torture, rudeness, and so on, then they have only themselves to blame if “the little ones” do the same.

For example, in a mixed group, the powerful PCs are three warriors who wish the party had more spell casters and brains, so the players with new PCs make up these types of characters. But then the warriors start looking for dungeons, kicking down doors, and hacking everything in sight. To survive in this environment, the new PCs are compelled to take more fighting skills and abilities. Soon, the whole party ends up consisting of fighters from converted spell casters or replacement PCs whose players know only fighter PCs will survive.

If weak PC players don’t enjoy game sessions you’ll get pressure from them to do something about it. The experienced PCs’ players might be forced to retire their characters and join a new group of PCs, so it’s in their best interest to nurture and share the glory as much as possible as well.

You might also get good results if you position the situation as an opportunity for the powerful PCs to shape the party the way they want. These characters might have contacts and resources they can use to train the weak PCs and develop the skills, classes, and abilities the powerful players desire for the party. The powerful PCs can somewhat control who the weak PCs meet, what missions and adventures are pursued, and how various situations are dealt with. Some players might enjoy this opportunity and roleplay or strategize their influence to the hilt.

Stratify The Foes

Present multiple foes who differ in power levels. This gives each PC an opportunity to match themselves up against an opponent they can handle.

  • A villain’s servant gathers up a few troops of mixed power levels and heads to the village to cause trouble.
  • A roleplaying encounter with merchants also involves the Merchant Guild’s leader.
  • A rival band of NPCs that has weak and powerful members.
  • A squad of goblins lead by a giant.

Make it easy to identify who is strongest and hopefully the powerful PCs in the party will take on those foes first, leaving the weaker minions for the weaker PCs.

For example, the PCs are hired to investigate rumours of corruption at the market. The powerful PCs would have little trouble using their high perception and social skills to root out the evil vendors, so you add in the Merchant Guild leader who notices the PCs investigating and decides to accompany them and run interference (possibly because the leader is corrupt too, or possibly because he always takes the merchant’s side).

Employ Single, Powerful Foes, But Watch The Area Effects

PCs can gang-up on single foes, letting the powerful PCs go hand-to-hand while the weak PCs provide support or take advantage of weak spots, making this a good GM tactic for mixed groups.Be careful of area effect capabilities though, because weak PCs will just get mowed down. Spend a minute before the game and calculate the potential damage of the foe’s breath weapon, bazooka, or area of effect attack. Don’t count on resistance rolls or saving throws being successful if your game system allows them.

Assume weak PCs will fail such rolls. Do they all die? If so, consider switching monsters or warning the PCs ahead of time so the party can plan for it.Make sure the weak PCs can contribute in some way as well. A well-protected foe who is immune to most weapons will just frustrate weak PCs who can only stand by and watch.

Hand Out More One-Off Magic Items

“Bah! It’s just a potion of growth,” growled the mage, throwing the vial over his shoulder. The new members of the party dive after the discarded magic item, knowing the temporary growth will increase their strength, damage, and survivability during the next combat.One-sht items like potions, grenades, single use cred chips, scrolls, and so on help weak PCs survive or compete in mixed level campaigns.

Sprinkle them throughout your adventures generously so that the items get used and not hoarded. Have the PCs’ foes use them as well so that the party is encouraged to act fast or plan carefully, lest the NPCs use up all the booty.

Have Players Make Up A Bench Of PCs

Simon Moore first introduced me to the concept of a PC bench. Putting my own spin on the idea, it’s like having second and third string players on a sports time who sit on the bench until a first string player gets injured and a replacement is needed.You might decide to match campaign power levels to the average level of the party regardless of the presence of weak PCs. The players are expected to fight tooth and nail and bring up new characters from their bench to replace incapacitated ones.

This might suit your group’s style and it’s worth discussing it with them before you start.Creating back-up characters also helps set player expectations. :)One upside to this style is that players will feel like they’ve accomplished something great if their character makes it. Ironically, if PCs always survive, life becomes cheaper than in high-mortality campaigns.

Modify The Experience Points Curve

Feel free to give weak PCs more experience points in mixed- level parties than you would if all the PCs were weak. This can reflect the benefits from hanging around experienced party members. It certainly helps weak PCs survive in the long run.

Add In Mid-Level NPCs To Act As Buffers

Another good tactics for mixed parties is to add moderately powerful NPCs to the group. These NPCs can be sergeants, guides, or guest stars, and their role is to act as a buffer between the weaker PCs and the powerful ones.For example, if the powerful PCs refuse to get organized and constantly put their weaker party members in mortal danger, the mid-level NPCs can take control of organizing the lower ranks and providing support, healing, and advice.

They can also confront the powerful PCs about their bad tactics and life-endangering behaviour. This all makes for good roleplaying and lets you intervene in-game on the weak PCs’ behalf when necessary.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Cliche Is OK

From Ted O.

DON’T fall into the trap of thinking “cliche is bad.” Cliche allows people to form a mental image of what’s going on, an “icon” in their mind, and gives them a framework for forming ideas. Completely off the wall things leave players (and GMs) thinking “ok, *NOW* what the heck are we supposed to do?!”

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Oriental Adventures Campaign Hooks

From Serdar Aldanmazlar

No folks, it’s not the samurai or shugenja battling Oriental Adventures. No katanas, no daimyos, and no geishas. It’s the Arabian, Saracen, Turkish and Mongol “Oriental Adventures”.

These cultures contain detailed, exciting adventures, and great mythology perfect for roleplaying. Forget the blue djinn in Aladdin. These cultures have serious, kick-ass heroes, and uglier-than-Darth-Vader villains, strange magics, fantastic creatures, and riches beyond imagination.

Below are some campaign and adventure ideas inspired from the mythology of old and fantastic civilizations.

From: “Atlas of Misty Continents” by Ihsan Oktay Anar (not translated into English yet. Its original name is: Puslu Kitalar Atlasi).

Bunyamin, son of a famed philosopher and nephew of the great pirate, Black Abdullah, lives in mid 1600’s Istanbul. His father vanished from Istanbul one day and left only one clue: the book named “The Atlas of Misty Continents”.

When he follows the prophecies in the book he finds:

  • A secret organization dedicated to stopping an apocalypse by killing the messiah when he arrives in Istanbul.
  • A thieves’ guild operating since the Byzantine Empire.
  • A “little emperor” named Ebrehe.
  • A collection of bizarre people (a beggar who draws thunderstorms where he travels, a gambler who traded his soul for the ultimate gambling skill, and a cursed kid who becomes the little ‘Efresiyab’–the legendary hero of Saracens).

At the very end of the book, Bunyamin finds that everything in the whole world has been created by the dreams of his father.

RPG Ideas:

  • The party finds a book named The Atlas of Misty Continents. When a PC opens the pages, the PC can read a diary of their current actions and a prophecy about their future actions. How can you deny the prophecies of a book that “knows” your past and present?
  • A secret cult controls the wealth of an entire nation by forging fake documents from the Emperor, sending armies to war with a single order, etc. The supreme goal of the cult is “killing” the prophet before he starts the destruction of world. However, an unlucky player matches exactly description of the prophet and now the cult seeks to destroy him or her.
  • An important book contains the operation times, thief and beggar names, disguises, and tricks of their guild. It is worth thousands of gold to the local guards. Even if the PCs manage to steal it, they must hide from the all-knowing eyes of the cutthroat guild’s members.
  • The PCs find a mysterious token made from unknown material. Once they try to figure out the properties of the token, the bad guys (the cult, remember) rushes in and tries to steal the token. The token is really the key to a strange artifact that can travel through time, through the planes, and through dimensions. The guild leader wants a way to escape in case the world does end.
  • After a great war (or adventure), the group finds a kid who claims he or she is the creator of the world. If the child stops dreaming, everything in the world disappears, forgotten in memory. When asked, he reveals the secrets of PCs, long forgotten knowledge, etc. After the players become convinced that the fate of whole world does stand before them, the boy starts to abuse this, jumping from canyons, provoking the dragons, trying to swim in pools of lava, etc. (be creative :).
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Using Online Translators To Add Flavor To Campaigns

From Ebanon

Recently, I came across a line from the poem, “Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard,” by Thomas Gray that seemed to fit with my current horror campaign. I had already decided that I would have a death cult involved in the mix of intrigue that my players were facing, and the line “The paths of glory lead but to the grave” seemed very much to fit with this theme. However, I wanted to broaden the scope a bit. I browsed over to the translator function of Alta Vista [ http://babelfish.altavista.com/ ] and did a little translating.

Now I have an identifying motto for my global death quote in a variety of languages:

  • I percorsi di glory conducono ma alla tomba ? Italian
  • Die Wege des Ruhmes f?hren aber zu das Grab ? German
  • Les chemins de la gloire m?nent mais ? la tombe ? French
  • Las trayectorias de la gloria conducen pero al sepulcro ? Spanish
  • Os trajetos do glory conduzem mas ? sepulture ? Portuguese

Now I can have my characters run across these groups in a variety of places. I’m looking forward to seeing their faces when they first make the connection as to the far reaches of this cult!

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City Names Resources

From Keith M.

This is a good site for city/place names and I have also found it useful for PC/NPC names. It is a directory of 2880532 of the world’s cities and towns, sorted by country and linked to a map for each town.


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An Interesting Plot Line

From Greg S.

I originally sent this rather untraditional story idea to the dmadvice list http://groups.yahoo.com/group/dmadvice/ and and thought I’d share it with RPTW too.

The characters, who report to the 1st Duke of Thorin, are given a mission: without knowing why, they must get 4 bolts of sage green cloth.

The background story is that the Duke’s eldest son is engaged but it has not been announced yet. In an effort to relieve some of her stress related to wedding planning, the son agrees to “help out” and is given the task of finding the material for the bridesmaid dresses.

The interesting elements:

  • Who are good cloth suppliers?
  • What KIND of cloth are they supposed to get?
  • How do they get it dyed the right color? (And what IS the right color? Light sage? Dark? More blue or gray or brown?)
  • They don’t know why they are doing it…though they could try to guess.
  • Because of the secrecy, they couldn’t know more details without a little investigation and roleplaying.

Anyway, it was silly and fun. It took the whole night with all their brainpower to pull it off.

And while this was very specific to my campaign, I thought it was an interesting story that didn’t involve saving the world, finding the artifact, negotiating the settlement, or any of the other standard story lines.

Hope you all enjoy.