The ABCs of GMing is an ongoing series about the different skills and ideas needed to run a successful table-top game.
Balancing a table-top RPG is a multi-faceted project. There are many variables thrown in from different directions, and as a GM, you can only control so many. When running a campaign, take special note of the following interactions:
PC vs. PC Balance
Your player characters (aka PCs) are, unfortunately, out of your control. What types of characters players develop is not something you can exercise command over. However, you can help put them on the right path. Any gaming group will suffer if exposed to one over-powered or over-demanding player taking all the spotlight and table time. A GM can get in some influence during character creation, however.
For example, encourage your players to sit down and make their characters together rather than on their own time. It’s a good idea to dedicate your first session to character creation. This way, every player can have an active conversation about the types of characters they are going to make and their potential development.
Also at this creation stage, you can get a better idea as to what players are gearing towards, and it’s easier to spot a player with that glint in their eyes that screams “Munchkin!” Make sure you review the rules to ensure that your players aren’t trying to do something that they really aren’t allowed to do. At worst case, exercise your right as a GM to keep them in check and rein them in. It is in your authority to do so if you feel it will benefit the story in the long run. Don’t flat out say “no”, but make them reconsider the consequences of their actions. For instance, an over-powered character will eventually draw all the attention from an attacking party, and a character too incongruous with your world setting could prove distracting to you and the other players.
PC vs. Story Balance
This is another consideration that can be addressed during character creation. If you think the group, as a whole, is too saturated in specific skills, guide them along by pointing out weak spots in their core skills and abilities. Remember that it’s your campaign, so you should already have an idea of what they are going up against. If you think they’re not covering the right skill sets, then subtly suggest that they move around a few skill points to compensate. You’ll likely at some point run into a situation where two or three players want to play the same class, an an example. Encourage some creativity, and suggest alternate classes that may not excel as well, but offer other abilities. A fighter may be the ultimate tank/damage character, but a paladin, barbarian, cleric, and even druid can easily handle the same tasks while offering additional abilities and can provide other elements to the group. In short: there are always other options for players. Sometimes you may need to help them see that.
PC vs. NPC Balance
This one is mostly on you, GM. Much like stacking character status, you don’t want to make your non-player characters (NPCs) overpowered, either. For allies of the party, you don’t want your creation stealing the limelight from the actual player characters. For enemies of the party, you don’t want them to always seem invincible in comparison. It’s OK if your end-game “bosses” are overpowered to begin with and make occasional overtures to flaunt their power, but you have to make sure that your players feel like they are approaching their level of power. Foreshadowing can help steer a group towards a set goal, but you have to make sure they know that they are improving and gaining ground.
Even the average NPC grunts who get killed every mission need to be balanced. However, as the game goes on and your players become more and more skilled, don’t be afraid to up the ante a bit and make these same grunts a bit tougher or more clever. My favorite thing to do is finding an attack technique that the party seems to exploit often and use it against them. After all, conceivably, the more experience PCs gain, the more their enemies learn of their tactics.
Side Note – Battle Adaptability
This is where Battle Adaptability is crucial. It’s important to balance your enemy NPCs as much as possible to the skills of your PCs. That flexibility you want to give your NPCs to make battles harder or easier for your PCs is something you can only achieve when the NPCs are balanced. If you make NPCs too weak or too strong, there’s no amount of Battle Adaptability that will help make the battle more interesting and engaging for your group.
Storyline vs. NPC Balance
This factor is important for a cohesive story line. It further enforces that you need to understand the system your game is in. The situations you design for your players have to be believable. If you design a game full of overpowered NPCs that just sit around and exist, it’s hard to grasp the idea that they wouldn’t just jump into these same terrible scenarios your players are getting into. Remember: your PCs have motives, and you’ll need to make sure all of your NPCs do as well.
Is some overpowered mage asking your players to go to the College of Magic to steal some important artifact? There has to be a reason why she isn’t going, and your players have to know and understand that (unless, you know, it’s a trap and you don’t want them asking questions).
The world you create has to be realistic to your players, and it has to be one where the PCs aren’t always overshadowed by something bigger and better. As your PCs gain experience, they should gain more notoriety and respect within your game. Otherwise, it just feels like there’s nothing they can do to stand out and shine. If their characters don’t grow, then players lose investment in the game, and this makes your job substantially more difficult. You want to find that ideal equilibrium.
Next time, I’ll be talking about Creativity, and things to keep in mind when crafting the perfect story. In the meantime, feel free to tell us about personal balance stories on our forums!