Behind the Screen06/21/2003


Over my head
or, when a good game goes bad...



We've all seen columns about games gone wrong, so in the spirit of honest imitation I thought it was time I offered a few ideas of my own about ways a game can self-destruct. We've already talked about things that can and do go wrong outside of the game itself, such as the intrusion of real-life interpersonal relationships and attempted humor gone bad. This month's column addresses things inside the game that can turn a fun campaign into a boring one, or one teetering on the edge of total meltdown.

It's a bird, it's a play, it's SUPERMAN!

WORDS TO THE WISE

Problem #1: The entire party plays second fiddle to one supercharacter. Figure out what makes that character so much tougher than everyone else. Can a min-maxing player tone it down? Does one super-weapon/item/ability make him ultravicious, and can you take it away without totally screwing the character?

Problem #2: The entire party is filthy stinking rich. If the whole party is swimming in magic and loot, is everyone okay with that? Can you fix it by just turning off the treasure faucet, or should everyone adjust their characters to a more appropriate wealth level?

Problem #3: The entire party is DEAD. If all the characters die, is that the end of the campaign? It depends on how far you want to bend things to keep the campaign going.

Is it worth saving? You have to decide whether big problems in the campaign are major enough to warrant just sticking a fork in it, 'cause it's done. Consider whether it's better to start over than to do a massive fix.

When one character becomes head and shoulders more powerful than the others, problems ensue. This situation usually arises in one of two ways: (1) you have an expert min-maxing powergamer in your midst (the guilty may raise their hands along with me), or (2) you give out a magic item that is either more powerful/useful than you thought it was or simply more powerful than anything anyone else has. Unbalanced parties happen frequently at low levels, when magic items are apt to be unequally distributed and when class differences are magnified, but it is a much more bothersome problem as levels go up, because it is a cumulative problem. That is, it builds on itself in terms of sheer killpower (the more powerful character often tends to get progressively more powerful, with the gap between him and the other characters getting larger), and it gets progressively more annoying as it keeps going on and on. After a while, the other players start to feel like their characters are just second-rate henchmen of the supercharacter. This state also makes it difficult to create encounters that will be a challenge for the supercharacter without wiping out the wimpier characters, or suitable for the others without being a cakewalk for the supercharacter.

Solving this problem is tricky. Many min-maxers do what they do by second nature -- they almost literally can't help themselves. They also may derive some of their own enjoyment of the game from finding the best ways to work the system, so to tell them to just stop doing it may impede their enjoyment and engagement. You could tell them to put their energies into roleplaying and other elements of gaming, but many min-maxers already do that -- being a powergamer doesn't preclude being a roleplayer or having a well-rounded character. If it is some specific class ability or spell that helps them be ultravicious, you might just tone down the offending game mechanic. If it is a magic item, you might likewise re-engineer it to be less insane or just remove it entirely. Though these solutions seem simple enough, it is hard to implement them without the player feeling that his or her character is getting screwed. You might offer some other kickback to the character, a "trade-in" for something else useful. Or you might just point out to the player the fact that the supercharacter is annoying everyone else. Some players might recognize the problem themselves and come forward with suggestions.

We're in the money!

Sometimes instead of one supercharacter, the entire party has gotten just way too much loot and magic stuff. All the PCs are superheroic, ratcheting up the entire power level of the campaign. This situation isn't automatically a problem if you are comfortable running things that way, but it creates complications with the intended scaling of the game and figuring out appropriate challenges and rewards. If you keep giving treasure, the problem will just keep getting worse, and most the stuff will just get sold for money because the characters already have the best equipment around. A game like this usually ends up in an arms race of insane skill checks, save DCs, Armor Class, and attack rolls. Everyone either fails all the time or succeeds all the time. It's an intense way to game, but it's kind of like bingeing on candy after Halloween or Easter. It's not very fulfilling and leaves you a little queasy at the end.

Fixing this situation is much harder than fixing one supercharacter, because it affects the whole campaign. You could just stop giving out treasure for a long time, until the PCs' loot quotient balances out with their level. That's not too appealing, though, because adventuring is as much about the looting as it is about hacking, exploring, kingdom-building, NPC interactions and all the rest. Eliminating treasure from the campaign takes away part of what adventuring is all about. You could give out teeny-tiny treasure awards, but that is hardly better than nothing at all. Either way, it may also take a long time for levels to catch up with loot, and what do you do in the meantime?

As an alternative solution, consider recalibrating the possessions of everyone in the campaign. You mustdiscuss a campaign-wide "reboot" like this with the players. They may have built their characters around particular items, and you shouldn't just take stuff away without offering the chance to adjust the way characters were created and developed, or even for a player to create an entirely new character if her vision of her current character is too deeply enmeshed with the PC's items to want to do a full-on redesign. There is no easy or even appealing solution for fixing a campaign-wide problem like this, and hitting people in the wallet always hurts, but your campaign will probably be healthier and more enjoyable, even if you have to blow most of a game session to do it.

Ha-ha-ha-haaaaa . . . WIPEOUT!

For anyone too young to remember, those were the only lyrics to a classic surf-rock song; the rest was all instrumental, with a great guitar riff. In this case, though, what I'm talking about is the dreaded TPK, the Total Party Kill. Sometimes the dice just don't fall for the players, and your own are on a hot roll. Sometimes the players do something really, really dumb. Sometimes you underestimate how viciously effective a particular strategy or situation is going to be, or you overestimate the PCs' ability to deal with challenges. Sometimes all it takes is one lucky blow or unlucky save to turn the tide of the battle and change a tough fight into an absolute rout or, in the worst case scenario, complete annihilation.

What do you do when the adventuring party gets turned into Trollburger Helper? Just as the players have put time, energy, and effort into crafting their characters, you have done much the same with your campaign. You have orchestrated a framework of challenges for them to negotiate, allies to make, items to find, and on down the list. If the entire party croaks, what happens to your campaign? Well, you have several alternatives:

The preemptive fudge: The easiest solution is to fudge the die rolls or alter the game situation (e.g., reduce the hit points of monsters or the save DCs of some attack or trap) to ensure that a TPK never occurs in the first place. If done with subtlety, the players never need know. (They may guess that you are fudging on their behalf, but they'll be happy enough for their characters to survive that they probably won't mind too much.) You really have to be careful with this, though, because if the players suspect that you'll never really let them die, the tension that comes from riding the edge of danger vanishes from the campaign and it can easily lapse into boredom-ville.

A ghost of a chance: Let the dead characters remain in existence as shades of their former selves. You might construct an adventure where their restless spirits have the opportunity to possess some other creatures and try to recover their bodies and/or their stuff and get raised, or maybe just complete their original task in their new bodies, allowing their spirits to find rest after a job well done. [Editor's note: You can now run a whole afterlife campaign with the just releasedGhostwalk campaign setting. To learn more about it, check out our designers interview and other special Ghostwalk web features all this month!]

Game over, man. GAME OVER! The most common solution is to just create new characters. This might mean starting an entirely new campaign with 1st-level characters. Or you might create characters of levels and capabilities similar to the originals, whose mission is to find out what happened to the original characters and either bring them back or complete their task for them. Some players create backup characters just in case something happens to their main characters. If the DM allows it, the new characters might be proteges, family members, or other associates of the old characters, giving them a natural interest in following in their footsteps and investigating their fate.

The real heart of the matter is that when a campaign spins out of control, you have to decide whether it's worth saving. It may be too far gone to rescue without changes so massive that you may as well start over. It may also have run its course in terms of the fun and desire for the players to keep running those same characters -- they actually may welcome a fresh start. You might even want to play for a while instead of DMing, and a "broken" game might offer a good opportunity to change over. If you want to keep up the current campaign, though, you need to take a hard look at the way you've been doing things and how you and the players want to fix them.

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife (Judy), daughter (Meshia), son (Allen), and dog (Bear). He is a full-time homemaker, a part-time Ph.D. student in education policy and philosophy, and an active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in another.

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