Friday, January 29, 2016

Your PCs Should Get To Feel Powerful

One of the common irks I have with a lot of the GM advice you see on the internet is the almost knee jerk reaction most GMs/advice givers seem to have about ways to take away things from the PC. Someone posts asking advice on how to handle their PCs recent acquisition of 500 million dollars and half the responses boil down to "take it away from them" or "punish the PCs for this." If someone posts asking advice on what to do because the player built a character who is nigh untouchable in combat, most advice is on how to bludgeon through the character's defenses and make them feel pain.

I admit, sometimes it is tempting, and I have my own share of knee jerk reactions. But I feel a lot of advice down this line doesn't get it. While, yes, you need to be able to challenge your players that doesn't mean they shouldn't ever feel like they won. I mean, it's ok for your players to feel powerful and like they've grown in strength. Today, I want to talk about that.

Confidence Changes The Story
The reason you want your PCs to feel powerful is because it gives the players a sense of confidence. If the PCs feel strong, they'll act strong, and that will change how they interact with the world for the better. Confident PCs will have no problem challenging the Evil Arch Duke and fighting him in a style that is both dramatic and fun with a lot of grand action. PCs that aren't confident will burn down 4 city blocks as part of their grand assassination plot for the Arch Duke that essentially boils down to "we nuke him from orbit, then we nuke him from orbit three more times, and then we nuke the area from orbit."

Sure, not all groups change between the two that dramatically, but the difference you will see between a group who gets to feel like they are strong and matter in the world, vs. a group that is constantly being shown they can just barely survive is dramatic. Heck, half the "standard player actions" and "oh, players" moments stem from experienced players doing what they've learned they need to in order to survive. Yes, it's absurd to fill a defiled church with a hundred barrels of oil then light it on fire to kill the undead inside, but when you need through the church and are scared for your life with every fight, why would you try to fight that out?

Feel And Show > Told
With confidence in the players and their respective characters being the goal, what do you need to do to get it? Well, here's the thing, you can't tell the PCs they're strong and expect them to believe it. They need to feel it.

If every fight is a challenge that is weighted to be hard but beatable, the PCs will never feel stronger because the fights never change in tone. I mean, sure, last month they were fighting kobolds and this month they're fighting a dragon, but the scale of the fight still feels the same. This can also lead to stagnation in the game.

Even with increased dressing it doesn't help. Sure, last month they were fighting StormTroopers from back water colony sector, and this month it's the 501st, but in the end it is still storm troopers. Yes, it sounds cool, but it feels about the same.

On the other hand, if last month the group could barely take out a group of 12 storm troopers, and this month just one PC can take out 6 storm troopers alone? Well, hell, now that's progress. The PC gets to feel stronger. Even better if you put them against a group of 12 storm troopers and have them mop the floor. Yeah, it will be quick, but it will also show the PCs they've grown in strength.

Varying Difficulty Gives Better Dramatic Effect
I like to have most of the fights in my game be on the easy side of moderate. That means, I want the bad guys to have a chance at winning, but I want it to be a relatively low chance. Someone might get hurt, but the PCs should be ok. This lets my PCs feel strong in comparison to the world - most encounters are things they can deal with without must fuss - but it also opens up the game to other things. For example, by having my base line be so low, I have room to work with in order to establish other things.

Sure, those bumpkin storm troopers could be mowed through at will, but the 501st guys are tougher. They're still beatable, the PCs are still heroic, but they know they're dealing with better troopers because the fight is harder (and, after more time, the 501st guys are just as easy.) When Darth Vader shows up and kicks their teeth in, it feels more shocking. That wasn't just bad luck, they're actually in a fight they need to start pulling out all the stops for. This, in turn, also makes Vader more of a bad ass because if they kick the crap out of 80% of the world, and Vader kicks the crap out of them...well, that's a much bigger deal than if Vader is just the next in line of a series of villains that are deadly but beatable.

Combined You Get Great Results
Combine the two and you end up with amazing stories. The PCs feel powerful, they act with confidence, but they know there are big threats out there. You get "oh shit" moments when Vader shows up, but you also get the players causing their own when they wreck a group of the 501st that may be beating on allied NPCs. You get moments where a PC stands out, brazenly, and defies fate. You also get moments where the PCs sneak and hide because they don't want the scary guy to see them off on their own.

By letting the PCs feel powerful, you also get to let them feel weak and have that mean something. By having that range, you open up the responses your players feel they have to any situation. Maybe they don't need to shoot first if they want to win. Maybe they'reconfident in their ability to stay safe so they give a chance to surrender. Maybe they get used to being able, and so when they crash a star destroyer into coruscant to kill Vader it's truly an act of desperation and not just "murder hobos go on another rampage, News at 11."

Let them feel powerful. See what they do with it. I'll talk about how to handle you PCs being too rich/too powerful next week.


  1. You know... I have absolutely no idea whether my players feel powerful/confident. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. So I decided to discuss this subject with them.
    As a GM, I have a tendency to take away items they fail to use (not as in: you have it 2 sessions and you haven't used it yet, but: I gave you this item a year ago in real time and I gave you a gazillion opportunities to use it. If it's still no more than a name on your sheet, it'll disappear). Not sure how much impact that has on their playstyle, but it does take away some of their agency.

    1. I'm not sure how much agency it takes away. If they're not using the item it's just clutter. if they are using the item, it's something more. After a year it's fairly safe to say they don't want it in the game. Assuming, of course, they know how it works and that they can use it. But that is usually a given when it is on their sheet.

  2. The PCs belong to a powerful institution & are supposed to be pretty badass, and so they tend to defeat their foes fairly handily the substantial majority of the time. As a result, I'm pretty sure they feel powerful/confident.

    This results in an ongoing concern I've had in this long-running campaign. That they get so confident that they overestimate their chances of defeating any given foe, even in the face of information to the contrary. Of course, one could say that this isn't really a "concern", it's just part of the game.

    As a matter of fact, they are currently in a battle where all are incapacitated but one, who's trying to escape carrying one of his fallen comrades. I remember there was a recent post on this blog about TPKs....