Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Powerful PCs

With the semester wearing down, I've actually had some time to play video games and catch up on some old games I love playing. This coincides beautifully with the new release for City of Heroes which unveils the new Incarnate System. The Incarnate System is, at least now, the first step towards letting players get a taste of real power and finally progress beyond the big name NPCs in the game. Its got me to thinking about power, giving it to PCs, and what happens when the PCs become truly powerful.

Now, I've talked about things like this a number of times before. Enough so that I hope my general view of "Don't worry about what the PCs can do, worry about what they will do" should be well known to regular readers. Yes, I got the line from John Wick, but that doesn't make it a bad view to have, nor am I too proud to admit when someone else coins my belief better than I can. Now, the example John Wick uses to explain this a lot is Batman. No matter what system you use, Batman takes a whole hell of a lot of points. He is simply a ridiculously powerful character, and yet his stories are very interesting. Is it because they take away his gear? No. because they take away his skills? No. It's because they attack Bruce Wayne at the foundation that makes him interesting, the moral dilemmas he faces, being constantly faced with what he will do, and what he won't do. That creates tension, tension creates drama, and drama creates a good story.

So, now that we know there is nothing to fear in letting the players be, and feel, powerful, how do you go about creating that feeling?

Change up the challenges
The first place where so many games fail at letting people feel powerful is the challenges that they present them with. I've also talked about this before, but the key to letting people feel powerful essentially boils down to letting them take things out easily. This is, conversely, where a lot of games fail. See, what most games do is progress the standard enemies along with the characters. So as the PC becomes more powerful, so to does the standard enemy, meaning that a fight at level 18 feels much like a fight at level 5. Sure, the damage numbers and other rolls are astronomically higher, but the ratio is pretty much the same.

My suggestion? Leave those normal enemies where they are. Hell, leave some of the special and formerly big enemies where they are too. Let the players surpass NPCs, and let them run into them on occasion. How strong do you feel, afterall, when you casually defeat an opponent single handedly that wiped the floor with the entire group before? At the same time, doesn't it feel more powerful to take down 10 guys instead of 1?

Who cares if the average NPC isn't a challenge to the player at that point, if you need a challenging fight you can always cook one up, and that fight will be even more meaningful if it is a rare occurrence.

Shake Up the NPC View
The other place where a lot of games fail is in how the NPCs treat the PCs. For example, in Fable 3 I had become the king, and yet town guards were still giving me the same mission text as when I was a nobody. I was even wearing the crown and was getting a "Hey, help us catch this stupid prisoner who escaped". Not very epic at all really.

Now, instead, what if the normal villagers actually acted with reverance when you walked in? What if the fact that you're a group of armed soldiers/mercenaries wasn't met with the same ho-hum attitude, but with people coming to you for help, or shying away from you in fear? You'd feel special then wouldn't you? Or at least, that you stood out from the normal person.

Again, just a suggestion, but it is the little nods and touches from the NPCs that can really sell the experience. It doesn't even take a lot of time or prep, just some recognition from random NPCs and you have gone a long way towards making the players feel immersed, and the PCs feel powerful.

Bigger Power, Bigger Tasks
Finally, and this is the most obvious, give the PCs bigger tasks, at least on occasion. Sure, the same old fetch and grabs are great to have, but the occasional "save the kingdom" or "Save the world" can do a lot for making the players feel big. Hell, in Super Hero games, the rite of passage for becoming an A lister seems to be saving the world at least twice.

Give them bigger tasks, and when they complete them they get the big notch on their gun for having done it. Then, you go back up a step here and give them recognition by having the NPCs react to it. If nothing else, this cements what they did as a big deal, and helps them feel a lot more powerful as players.

Try to have fun with it, and don't worry about how much power your PCs have, worry about making them feel powerful, and what they are actually going to do with it.


  1. Great advice! I hate when a game system leaves a powerful PC immune to attacks from base level NPCs. I think this is the rationale for leveling up NPCs. A good system is balanced so that the base level NPCs still pose some threat even if it's vanishingly small. That way all a GM has to do is add more of them and an equilibrium of threat is maintained (not saying that's the only thing to do).

    About the shaking up the NPC's view, the thing that took me the longest to figure out is that any NPC that has just saw five of his buddies fall at the hands of one PC would probably run. That doesn't mean the fight is over, it just means that they'll regroup and make sure they have some kind of added advantage this time (Ambush, cover, bigger guns, nastier insults, etc.)

  2. Couldn't agree more with this post. Love it and am using just about everything in my current Star Wars campaign. And not to gush too badly, but one of the reasons I love the old Star Wars D6 system so much is that, mechanically (stat-wise), even the toughest character can still get taken out by a lucky shot or by a barrage from a large number of grunts. Thus, even very powerful players have to play smart, even if the odds ARE stacked in their favor. There is never an instance of: "Oh, well, I have 100 hp, so I'll charge the 20 archers firing at me."