This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: More PCs with Excessive Firepower
The PCs in my campaign are over-powered. They haven't used any cheap-but-still-technically-possible rule-milking strategies to get there. They're just too lucky!
The 12th-level wizard has 22 AC, 28 Intelligence, and a Staff of Power. All this was brought about by perfectly fair rolls on treasure tables. The other 12th-level PCs are similarly powerful. The barbarian has 28 AC and +21 attack bonus with his +1 Greataxe of Shocking Fire, averaging 25 damage per hit. The Ranger has a Longsword of Speed, Improved Critical (longsword), and a 60% chance every round to score a critical threat. He also can fire four arrows per round from his Oathbow with a 20% chance of a critical threat.
I could go on and on about the outrageous combat prowess of the party. I feel that I can't penalize them for being lucky and taking advantage of it. If I pit them against extremely high-level challenges, they'll just gain more XP and spiral onward into invincibility. Their wealth level is beyond subtle and gradual correction. What should I do about PCs who got so powerful without borderline cheating or even a determined attempt at such power?
-- GibbZ, from AskWizards.com
It's time for a little tough love. This isn't a player problem, it's a DMing problem, and your players aren't lucky, they have a lazy DM. Luck has nothing to do with it.
"All this was brought about by perfectly fair rolls on treasure tables?" Who threw the dice for loot? Who decided to use the treasure tables at all? GibbZ, you are your own worst enemy, but the good part is that you are also your own salvation.
Look back at a previous article in this series, PCs with Excessive Firepower, and you will see a similar problem -- a super-uber-killer character with loot far beyond his level. Your problem is a little worse in that you have a whole party of them. The problem for you is not with balance for that one PC but for a massive glut of loot and killpower party-wide. It's not a bad thing for characters to be powerful and successful, but you have let it get out of hand and now they are walking all over you.
We've all used random treasure tables. There's nothing wrong with that. Used within a set of parameters, random generation is an easy route to creating variety. Used without limits, it creates chaos, as you have seen. In theory, these things will even out over time as random probability regresses to the mean, but sometimes they don't. Sometimes those rolls just keep coming up aces (or snake eyes) and PCs end up at a given level with way too much or way too little stuff, which throws CRs and ELs out of whack because the PCs are operating off the scale by which such things are calibrated. That makes it harder to do your job.
You don't need to make up these parameters yourself. They are right there in the Dungeon Master's Guide -- tables 3-3 and 3-4 on p. 51 are the counterweights to table 3-5, the main treasure table on pp. 52-53. When you are randomly rolling up treasure, if the result of your random roll is out of line with 3-3 (as in, more than double or less than half), you need to reconsider your random roll and adjust the result. The tables are there to serve you -- you are not their servant. They don't tell you how to place treasure -- they offer suggestions. As the DM, you are a craftsman building your campaign with the tables as your tools. You decide which ones to use and how.
Looking beyond the DMG, this month also sees the release of the Magic Item Compendium, which includes an all new set of random treasure tables containing all the items from both the DMG and the MIC.
Why new tables? To quote the MIC -- "This new set of tables is designed to make random treasure generation quicker, easier, and more consistent. The DMG tables can produce powerful items even at lower levels, which can be exciting, but the party can also end up with too little gold or items for their level."
Table 3-3 is not a hard and fast rule that you can never break, either. Sometimes it will serve the campaign to lump more treasure in one place than another (e.g., with the boss monsters in an evil organization rather than evenly distributed among all the minions and footsoldiers). You also need to think in the context of the whole campaign. That is where table 5-1 (p. 135) is your best friend. It is a measurable standard by which you can do a wealth audit of your campaign and your characters and see where they stand compared to the presumptive 'typical' campaign around which the CR and EL system is based. Your campaign doesn't need to be 'typical,' but this standard means that you can make an informed analysis of how to adjust the rest of the system to compensate for how your wealth rate differs.
That's how to define the problem. You also need to fix it.
Method 1. Simple and Direct
It's your fault that the campaign is out of balance, so you call a character audit and do the math, showing how far out of balance it is. Then you recalibrate. You could boost the characters' levels so they're commensurate with the stuff, or you can divest the characters of their loot. No in-game rationale is needed. You, the DM, caused a problem in the game by bad management of the game mechanics, so you are adjusting the game mechanics to put the game back into balance. You set a new maximum value on wealth (and wealth equivalents such as wishes bought to boost ability scores) and a maximum value on individual items (no, 200,000 gp of wealth does not mean one 200,000 gp item). Then you let players recalibrate their items to meet the new standard, subject to final approval by you. This approach is likely to generate some backlash from disappointed players who've grown attached to their treasure, so use it only if you're prepared to take the heat and stand up to their complaints.
Method 2. The Battle of Attrition
You stated that gradual equilibration would never happen, but have you stopped giving out significant treasure? Of course a gradual approach won't work if you keep giving out level-appropriate loot, but remember that you already gave out too much loot before. Now you are balancing the scales of luck (since random chance isn't doing the job for you) by giving out too little. Gaining lots of xp isn't a problem. It is the mechanism of solving your problem. More xp in this situation is a good thing. The loot they have won't seem nearly so outrageous when they are 16th or 17th level. Ramp up the xp and cut back the gp, and your problem goes away.
Method 3. Get Ready to Rumble
The column mentioned above offers numerous examples of how to deal in-game with overpowered (especially over-equipped) characters. Your problem is harder, because you can't just play 'keep-away' from one character and their particular strengths. Your entire party is overpowered, so your tactical solutions need to deal with all of them. Still, one-at-a-time solutions can work as you whittle away the party's base of equipment. Rogues can steal, enemy warriors can sunder, spells can be targeted at items (use dispel magic or greater dispel magic to make items non-functional, or disintegrate or a rod of cancellation to make them nonexistent). Heck, one well-placed Mordenkainen's disjunction could solve a lot of problems. Maybe you need to be more creative and ruthless in wiping out the party's cache of goodies. Look through your monster books and bring the pain … to their stuff!
Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards -- and again, be sure to include "Save My Game" in the subject line.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He just finished his doctorate in education and is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981.