This was touched on briefly in Coureton's comment to the Experiment Game - Greymoore post, and I was thinking of doing this one yesterday but decided to save it for today as I'm not going to be able to make the next post about Greymoore until tomorrow at the earliest. So today's rambling rant from me on Table Top is how do you control the feel of your game?
I'm somewhat addicted to the GM Advice columns you can find if you look around, whether it be Robin's Laws of Good GMing, the DXM Manual, or John Wick's Play Dirty (I'll admit I am a bit of a Wick fanboy, not that I like everything he does or says or how he says it, but he generally seems to have the same view point on gaming that I do). In all of those though, and in lots of questions to GM advice things you get things like "my players are getting too powerful too fast, how do I stop it?" or "How do I make my game more/less epic in feel despite the fact I only have low/high level characters?". There are several theories put out for this, probably including the one that I'm about to put out right now which honestly is a very basic concept. One of the best places to control this feel is the games combat mechanics. Why there? Because generally combat is the most regimented part of a system that will show you just how much power a party has managed to accumulate. No matter the system that's out there, with the exception of people deliberately combat cracking (and then, even them to a degree), combat will tell you really fast if you have a group of characters that are really strong, ones that are fairly weak, or somewhere in the middle. That being said, this advice isn't only applicable to combat, it just takes a little fiddling to make it work with any challenge in the game.
Step 1 - Throw Out Mechanical Relations
The first step is to throw out mechanical relations. I'm not saying to disregard mechanics, in fact you need to understand just what your PCs are capable of for any of this to work, so if anything you need to be more attentive of mechanics than ever. No, what I'm talking about here is do not give your players the relation the bad guy has to their own mechanics. Unless they take an 'Evaluate' action (which Players in my experience rarely do, but some do) don't tell them anything mechanical about the opponent. Instead just describe them, simply if possible. Obviously if the character/monster is a set piece more detail is good, but the simpler you can get across the description the more you let the PCs fill in the blanks on their own. If they're feeling weak they'll probably envision them a bit scarier, if they're feeling strong they'll probably envision them a bit weaker. The real trick to this is being consistent with it. A lot of times the only things that get detailed descriptions are the special people, creatures, and things. There's nothing wrong with on a first meeting keeping the description as basic as possible, and establishing the character as a threat before.
Consider this, "A tall knight in ornate plate mail with a two handed sword strapped to his back approaches you". That's not very detailed, and if the PCs are in an area where there is lots of ornate armor it won't even stand out. Now you know this knight is secretly Billy Badass, the best fighter this side of the Abyss and that what awaits any fools brave enough to challenge him is a humiliating defeat. The PCs though just see another clown in plate mail who thinks he can take on their awesome might. The defeat or very close fight that comes from Sir Billy of Badassia should be quite the shocker.
On the other hand, when you are looking to make the PCs feel stronger. Go into detail on things, play it up. Show how terrible and scary the thing is. If it's a monster, have them walk in on it just finishing off (seemingly without effort) a group of 10 soldiers that went ahead of them. Give the monster/opponent a little love with the details, and play it up as something important, then when the players defeat it without the harrowing hard fight they were expecting they'll feel good, great, even powerful.
In short, description is a powerful tool. Most GMs don't have the time to describe every intricate detail in an area. In fact, most players don't want to hear it. Give it a try sometime, go into great detail on every little thing in an area and shortly even the most into it player will probably start to have their attention wander. If they can multi-task, that's fine and well, but what about the ones that can't? The short cut almost every game I've been in over the last sixteen years or so has taken is to focus more on the important parts. The PCs then pick up on that, and generally equate detailed information as being the important stuff. Think about it, how many times have you started a fight with "You run into four goblins" when it is just a random/nothing encounter. Now how many times have you given sweeping descriptions of the big bad dragon? Or the ornate plot relevant music box? This isn't a bad thing, it's how we get games going. Human beings have wonderful imaginations, so letting them fill in the blanks is a good thing. However, by using description you can turn the tables on them. Bringing undue importance, and with it assumptions of power, to something that is not so. Or obfuscating the true relevance of something behind a mask of normalcy.
Give it a try for yourself, just don't play with it too much or it will lose its impact. If everything that doesn't get a description is actually super powerful, it'll be caught on to. The trick is to do it seemingly at random. Other times you want to keep things looking normal.
Step 2 - Control the Intelligence
Intelligent opponents are scary, they think, they plan, they prepare. Oh boy do they prepare. Look back over some of your favorite books and comics, how many of the truly scary people are dumb brutes? How many are closer to being someone like Batman? Plans within plans, back up plans for back up plans. They don't face an opponent before learning about them, they prepare. This same method works wonderfully for controlling the feel of your game through combat.
Want people to feel weaker? use smarter tactics against the PCs. If the NPCs are making strategically sound decisions against the PCs, it becomes harder for the PCs as they need to make strategically sound decisions back. Is that pesky healer keeping the fighters going? Take out the healer, generally they're squishy. The same goes for those pesky damage dealing mages and their back stabbing friend the rogue. Drop the support, then go after the people who can take a few hits. Make the PCs defend each other, or let them suffer the consequences. Hey, you don't have to help the healer that is precariously balanced on the edge of a cliff. However, if they fall...well, there goes your healing for the rest of the fight.
Conversely, if you want them to feel stronger, lower the tactics levels of the opponents. Let the PCs decide the match ups, have the enemies go nuts over the fact that the knight in plate mail stood up to one of their blows and fixate on them. By using simpler tactics for the enemy, and letting the players use the smarter ones, the fight becomes easier for them. Easier fights means a more powerful feeling in the end.
This step is important to keep in mind for all the future advice given. After all, it can help make an opponent who is accidentally too strong, suddenly a bit weaker.
Step 3A - I Want My Players To Feel Weak
There are two ways in combat to make your players feel weak, however, before you undertake any action that is deliberately intended to make your players feel weaker you need to ask yourself why. Why do you want them to feel weaker? Was the game intended to be the weak vs. the strong? Do you need the tension higher for something? Or do you just not want to deal with the actions PCs who feel strong will do? If your reason is that last one, this isn't going to help you. However, at the bottom of the rant I'll post a link to a John Wick Play Dirty video that you should watch and think about. Now, if your answer was one of the other ones, then this should help you.
The best way to make players feel weak is for every fight to be challenging. More important than that though is the kind of fight. If it takes everything every PC has, working together, to take down just one guy. Well, that doesn't feel very powerful at all now does it? It took 4-6 of you to take down one person. It's hard to find someone in the real world that 4-6 coordinated people couldn't drop with little effort, you'd have to have like normal folks vs. a fairly highly trained fighter. This is 4-6 trained combatants though, just how good do you have to be to do that? More importantly, just how weak do those 4-6 people have to be to allow that? The danger to this method though is that, in a lot of systems, the one powerful NPC that can take on 4-6 players is generally a death sentence for one of the players. If you are truly going for something like that, then this is fine. Otherwise, it is something to be aware of as a risk, not that it invalidates the option, you just need to be aware of the risk involved.
Generally speaking, the fewer the opponents in a challenging fight, the weaker the PCs will feel, at least in regards to that fight. Doing this consistently will in general lower the feelings of power in a campaign. If almost every fight is a hard-won battle against fewer opponents. Well, that makes it kind of hard to feel really powerful now doesn't it? The trick is to finding an opponent or opponents that are more powerful than the individual PCs, but whom the PCs working together can actually beat. For every system this is different, and you need to be careful not to become over reliant on things like D&D's 'challenge level', as while it is a good over all guide, I've seen a group of 5 level 10 PCs mop the floor with a Challenge Level 15 monster, only to then get wiped by a Challenge Level 12 one. The reason wasn't die rolls or fatigue, but simply the Challenge Level 12 monster was strong where the PCs were weak, and within two rounds the front liners were stunned and charmed against the PCs due to low will saves. So the point here is to be careful, nothing sucks worse than accidentally ending a campaign early because you messed up your threat assessment.
The other way to make your PCs feel weak only works for small spaces of time and needs careful planning. Done right however, it is a way for a group of weaker NPCs to school your big bad scary PCs in their own game. The trick is preparation. If the NPCs are prepared for the PCs in that way that generally only PCs are, the fight is going to go a lot better for the NPCs. Make the NPCs strong in the players weak areas, design the encounter to hit where the PCs are weak. So what if Conan the Fighter has 300 hit points, his will save is only a 12 and you have someone with mind control. This way also needs to be handled with care, but is also a great way to infuriate the characters (hopefully not the players though), and thus giving them a HUGE satisfaction based reward when they finally get to beat this group of baddies that has been handing them their ass for several encounters.
Step 3B - I Want My Players To Feel Powerful
In general making players feel powerful is the inverse of how you make them feel weak. That is to say, instead of having the PCs having to gang up 4-6 on 1 to win a fight, reverse those numbers. Have 4 bad guys for every PC, and then when the PCs win, hard fought fight or not, they'll feel powerful. Why? Because it's hard not to feel powerful when you just won against 4:1 odds. This concept is generally known as the "Mook Fight", and it's called that because that is what you do. You aren't having your PCs fight scary NPCs, they're fighting mooks. Look at all those guys in action movies who get dropped in one shot, those are the mooks. They show us how scary good the main character is. It actually is their job in life.
To re-illustrate this point take a moment and imagine. "You're standing on a field of battle, victorious, before you lays a dread Ogre." that feels pretty good doesn't it? You just dropped an ogre, good for you. What if it was four dread ogres though? Five? Twenty? As you increase the number, you increase the feel of epic power in the fight. Slaying an opponent a round while barely getting hit feels powerful. Something I realized I truly hit in a game I'm playing in when it came to my turn and my response was "So it's my turn, that means three more of them are dead." Now I know that I'm just fighting mooks, the GM knows I'm just fighting mooks, and that I know that I'm just fighting mooks. But that doesn't matter, because it feels powerful to drop three of them in a round.
The best part though is that mook fights are still dangerous. Instead of fighting one big bad, you are fighting a lot of little bads. However, the challenge level should still be the same for the fight. The difference is the big bad is going to hit you all the time, while the mooks may only hit you 1 out of every 5-20 tries. However, if there are 5-20 mooks on you, well, someone is going to be hitting you and fairly often. The hits may not hurt as much as the big bad, but they are still there. You are getting whittled down to size as you cleave through their numbers. In short, it turns into a game of hit points, each one of the mooks is 1 hit point on the Big Mob, and each of your hit points is one of yours. You are swinging back and forth at each other, their numerous low damage attacks against your fewer but higher damage ones. Eventually someone is going to win this fight. However, even in dying this way you still get to feel powerful. You weren't killed by one meezily little guy. You were pulled down by 20+ Goblins. You killed 15 of them, but one of them got a lucky hit in. Still, in your last stand killing 15 guys for your 1 little self. That is a hell of an accomplishment.
Another way to help make your PCs feel powerful is to put them against that lone big scary monster that they've been dreading. Only, and they don't know this starting off at least, it's already been injured. They stumble across a large dragon, and they fight it. The dragon goes down early, well crap, maybe they're stronger than they realized? They slew a dragon though. The fact the dragon was already injured will register as secondary, if at all, to the fact that they're group of nobodies just slew the big bad. This idea isn't as useful as the mook fight, however, it is a great way to balance a bigger set piece fight against a group of weaker PCs. The danger here though, like in all "few NPCs, Many PC" fights is that the monster is liable to be a death sentence for one of the PCs. As such, you should use this method cautiously. Done well though, it can be absolutely great.
Step 4 - Shake It Up, Talk It Up
This step goes hand in hand with step 1 about using description as a tool. Namely, you want to shake things up. Players have expectations when it comes to encounters, literature has a way of setting certain norms when it comes to things. Dragons are generally large and very scary, taking groups of people if not entire armies to take down. Goblins are generally a dime a dozen that will die as soon as you sneeze on them. You need to keep these things in mind when you are making your bids to control how the game feels. After all, if the big opponents you are using to make your characters feel weaker are dragons, well, Dragons are supposed to take 4-6 people at least to take down. So it's not all that weird that it is taking them all now is it? On the other hand, if that big bad is a Goblin Hero (don't let them know it's a hero until after, much like we did with Billy Badass above) well, they just got their asses handed to them by a goblin. That's not that strong now is it? The trick there is variance. Things that shouldn't necessarily take 4-6 bad-ass PCs to handle but do. This works for making people feel stronger as well. "I killed 2 goblins" doesn't sound as epic as "I killed 2 ogres" and mechanically there could be no difference when it comes to how easily the thing dies, but in feel it is there. In short, what I'm trying to say is that when you are controlling the feel of your game, presentation matters. So shake things up a little.
On the other hand, you want to make people feel more powerful, have the locals talking about them. PCs (generally) love to hear about themselves and their deeds from the populace. Next time they hit town, have the locals recognize them. Little comments and gossips, a "There goes Sir William, I hear he slew over ten ogres by himself!" as Sir William walks down the street. More respect from the townsfolk, all those things will help them to feel more powerful. While people NOT having heard of them, not talking about their deeds, or even lauding the actions of others over them, will help stop your PCs from feeling overly powerful.
When Do I Use These?
As a last thing, before the wrap up, I figure I may as well answer a "when would you want to use these?" type question. Simply put, what kind of games or situations do you want to control the feel to one end or the other.
Generally speaking, you want to control things to feel weak in any game where you want high tension. Games like 'Hunters' or any game where you want there to constantly be a feeling of tension, that someone could die at any moment, is the game you want to use this for. It's important to let the players know how powerful they are every now and then in these situations as a tension breaker. Look at a show like Supernatural. Generally speaking Sam and Dean are outclassed by what they hunt, they're weak by comparison, but in a few episodes we see them dealing with normal people. In those situations we see just how good they actually are.
For more epic feel games, things like D&D, L5R, or any game where you are trying to tell a more epic story, you should more heavily use things like mook fights. Talk up the actions, make the players feel like the heroes they are going to be. Just as in the "Weak" Game, you want to do the opposite every now and then to add tension, build things up for them. These games are generally much lower tension on the players, after all, they're highly competent people who drop opponents like flies.
Most importantly, use them when the group you are running for would have more fun with one situation or the other. Role Playing Gaming is Gaming, meaning you are playing a game. Games are meant to be fun. So have fun!
As was said above, presentation is the best way to control the feel. It doesn't matter as much what is being killed in the fights if you can sell the world view of the actions. That being said, controlling the fights will also help make the players feel that way a bit as well. This is something you want to undertake cautiously though. Feeling weak can not be very fun if the person isn't looking for it. I'd honestly recommend you switch the two up as the campaign goes along. Maybe not as the main serving, but just here and there. After making them feel weak for a little while, give the PCs a mook fight to show them that they ARE powerful they just are having big fights. It will serve as a good tension breaker while showing them how much they've grown. On the other hand, a big fight that reminds the PCs that for all their fame and power there still are bigger fish out there can help keep things from getting too out of hand.
As a final note on this, I just need to point out again that in making your PCs feel weaker you can be taking away enjoyment from the game. Many people role play to escape, and being reminded how weak you are isn't much of an escape for most of us. That being said, you should only try to make people feel weak when you have good for the game reasons for it, and not because you just don't want to deal with powerful PCs. If you don't want to deal with what PCs may or may not do, you shouldn't be running a game, and that is the important thing to remember, we are playing a GAME. That means the ultimate and true objective is to have fun. So do your best to make sure your players (and you) are having fun. If someone isn't, then maybe the group (or just that person) needs to re-evaluate what you guys do on your game night together.
As promised, the John Wick video for how to deal with "too powerful PCs". This is a good thing to keep in mind, even if you are going a different way on things, and also has good advice I didn't cover here.