Friday, April 17, 2015

How Do You Define Power?

Power creep is a thing for a lot of GMs. They worry about power creep in their games. It could be that they don't want the PCs to get too strong too fast so that they can challenge them with certain things. It could be they don't want certain thresholds of power being crossed for reasons relating to the theme of the game. After all, a Warrior who can great cleave through three hundred goblins in a round is neither challenged by a group of fifty goblins nor appropriate in a "gritty, bloody dark fantasy" adventure.

There is a lot of advice on how to deal with power in games. Even I have posts about it - short version: worry about the what will they do, not what can they do - but it occurs to me that not many take the time to look at what power actually is. How do you define power? What is its metric? Is a warrior more powerful than a mage? Today I want to look at power, and what it actually is. Why? Because once we know what power is we can actually work to control it - or unleash it - in our games.

The Definition of Power
As my side bar says, I graduated with a degree in Sociology. Unsurprisingly, Sociology has a big concern over power and how it works. It plays into a lot of our social interaction and is basically how and why we form bonds with other people.

I don't bring this up to brag about having a degree, but because I want you to know where this definition comes from. I find the Sociological definition of power to work very well for RPGs because RPGs are, in essence, social games. Even better though, is this definition works for all kinds of power because it has to be able to work for numerous types of social encounters and interactions.

This particular definition comes from Robert Faulkner, a professor at UMass and expert on Sociology with an emphasis on Deviance and Social Order (crime and how societies function.) His definition is as follows:

Power is the ability for person A to get something from person B without person B being able to do anything about it.

But What Does That Mean?
Said that way it seems pretty simple, but also hard to grasp. It is the kind of thing that works better with examples.

A more direct example would be a rope pull. Sarah and Michelle stand on opposite sides of a pool of water holding a rope. Whomever can get the knot in the middle to their side wins. Both want it. In this situation the person able to exert more physical force on the rope is going to win.

Crime Boss Corleone and Prosecutor Schultz are going head to head and it is going to a court of law. Corleone wants his freedom. Corleone goes to his crime organization and sends a hitman out to grab Schultz's family. The day of the trial Schultz is approached and shown a picture of her husband being held at gun point. The more she values her husbands life, the more power Corleone has over her in this moment. Schultz throws the trial, Corleone goes free, and that is the end of the story...for now.

In both these situations power is exerted. In both situations the person with more power wins. But did you catch the difference in how Corleone/Schultz worked as opposed to Sarah and Michelle?

Different Kinds Of Power
In any given situation we face obstacles, but we also have multiple avenues of power that we can exploit. Our world isn't linear or locked in. There are no places where the only path through is straight, but there are places where the only realistic path through is straight. This is something you want to consider when designing your adventures. What kinds of power can the players bring to bare here.

For example, goblins are generally considered a combat problem. You put goblins down. The players put their PCs down. Both groups compare their "combat power" and the one with more power wins. But what about other kinds of power? What if a PC took the money from the last adventure and paid a bunch of other people to wipe out the goblins? What if a PC used a magic spell to charm the goblins through a dimensional door? What if a PC used his power of persuasion to join the goblins and take over as their leader?

These are the kind of solutions creative players will come up with. String it out over enough games and you end up with a string of events that puts a rube goldberg machine to shame.

What Power Do Your PCs Really Have?
Take a moment and think about this for a moment. What power do your PCs really have? I mean, most games do a great job of quantifying their combat power so you have that, but what else? What can they do? What can't they do? If a King declared them enemies of a nation and no one who knew who they are would talk to them and soldiers attacked them on sight, could they handle it?

On the other hand, where can NPCs get power over the PCs? What do they value? What will they do for it? Could an NPC get the PCs to unleash an evil god by paying them to do so? Would the Paladin give up his abilities and alignment to save a street orphan?

Power, and its ebb and flow, lies at the heart of your game. Know what it is. Know where it lays. Find ways to manipulate it, and you'll find the game does a lot of the work for you. After all, a clash of people wanting power over the other is always fun and seldom stable.


  1. Ooh, this is actually very relevant for the campaign I'm currently a player in. The campaign deals with several factions who each have a leader much, much more powerful than the PC's we're currently playing. And my PC managed to lose her magic (loss of power) and proceeded to challenge two of the leaders anyway by maneuvering the different faction leaders against each other. Neither one would be able to attack her without facing a retaliation from another faction leader. :p It was even more epic than it sounds now. So yeah, that got me thinking about power so your blogpost is well timed for me. In terms of raw magic, my PC is the weakest of the party, but she has a way with words that means she has spent a lot of time building friendships and alliances because she knew she wouldn't be able to make it on her own. Because of the challenge I just mentioned, the whole party has suddenly gone up in status in the campaign world and my GM hinted there'll be quite a few effects we haven't seen yet. So she's very aware of the well, power of power too. I think I'll have to redefine the power of my PC. :) (And as a side note, one of the faction leaders whose support she has IS the Goblin king, lol)

  2. Very topical for my campaign, as well. I was new to GM'ing when the campaign started two years ago & so did not articulate as well as I could what I had in mind long-term (probably because I didn't know).

    Come to find out, I wanted a constantly gritty low-power fight against the odds. Fortunately, I did well in game choice, as it overwhelmingly supports that kind of game. However, two years along, a couple of the players have made known to me that my "low-power" is very low, indeed.

    There hasn't been a lot of feedback from my group, so though I crave an occasional "atta'boy" from my guys, I need to be grateful & attentive for this constructive criticism.

    This probably ties in with that no campaign lives forever. Two years in, what am I afraid of? That it won't last five years? Let the campaign evolve, boost their challenges as appropriate to their badassery, just see what happens & have fun with it.