Facilitating Function in Fractious Factions

Thoughts on Parties of Mixed Capability Inspired by Joss Whedon’s film based on Marvel’s Avengers

Last week, thanks to early release dates in Asia, I watched the Avengers on a local screen in Daejeon, South Korea. As I was leaving the theatre I was struck by just how well Joss Whedon had managed to present an environment wherein the characters could stand together in a useful fashion despite the vast disparities in their capabilities, and even broader gulfs in their interpersonal relationships. This comes as no surprise as his years running Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel certainly gave him lots of practice sorting through all the permutations and problems which arise from mixed groups of heroes and side kicks tangling with weekly villains, recurring villains, and season-spanning major villains. From a certain point of view this skill, often likened to juggling, is more like being a master of scissors-rock-paper.

This entry will be dealing with the topic of running groups of mixed ability and temperament from the point of view of maintaining decent immersion in a reasonable simulation of realism, within the boundaries of context for your game and setting, while exploring, discovering, and creating the narrative in play. While some of what gets presented here might relate to stricter, pre-planned narrative structures, or to less ‘realistic’ contexts, much of it probably will not.

A god, a spy, and an inventor walk into a shawarma place…

In truly open settings, such as those afforded by certain Palladium game lines, games predicated on truly random chargen, parallel campaigns, or long-running campaigns with an expanded or changing roster of players, the experience levels of both the characters and those playing them may differ widely. At a certain age where you have access to a lot of time, a lot of games, and a lot of players of varying levels of investment, earnest GMs gather together in their secret meeting halls and once the special code words, signs, counter-signs, and secret handshakes have been dispensed with, immediately settle down to discussing game balance issues such as what to do when established characters are Big Damn Heroes and either a PC dies/gets written out, or a new player wants to join.  It might not be uncommon for the number of answers to this question to be the same as the number of people in the discussion – complete with painstakingly detailed, “In my campaign…” stories to ostensibly back up the pearls of wisdom offered for consideration in the great debate. We old guys have gotten over all this debate and have circled the wagons as far away from everyone else’s wagons as we possibly can and practice feeling sorry for the losers in the other circles while all the while politely wearing our “There is no wrong way to play” t-shirts. (Mine has an addendum: …but there may be wrong ways to play for YOUR group).

Ignoring issues of right and wrong, level playing-fields, and game design as being better suited to another post and probably a different blog, the question at hand is what do you do if you have the option to run a group of characters in the same session which are not remotely balanced with each other mechanically? More specifically, how do you approach running that party so that everyone is involved, has fun, and is not constantly dying or causing the insane boredom of the other players? I have a few thoughts on the matter which have grown from trial and error, those secret conversations mentioned above, and the example of those who have come before me, and have gamed around me. What follows is not the one true way, but most of the time this particular circle of wagons seems to generate good games – and here is the kicker – with little requirement for perfectly equal character builds. Okay, let’s start with a bang, shall we?

1. Do not adjust the risk to match the characters

One of the interesting criticisms of Joss Whedon’s work is that he is not afraid to kill characters. I would say he is absolutely guilty of that, and as he is a writer not a GM, I think he has every right to do so. He is telling a story, and frankly a story with no risk is mind-numbingly boring. We say that a lot around here, so let’s move on. In an RPG narrative that the GM is planning the arc for, I do see a problem with deciding that Character X will have his mortal coil shuffled off for him in Act 3 – particularly if that decision does not include Player X – but in a sandbox, the onus of deciding who lives and who dies is not the GM’s problem; it’s the players’. The onus of deciding if the threat is too great or too small is similarly on the players. It is not your problem. If the players, loaded up on Agency, talent, investment, and their growing experience with the game choose to do something, it is the GM’s job to simply adjudicate the outcomes according to the system, and then add a touch of personal panache. If the godlike character can convince the 0 level humans to hunt dinosaurs in a lost volcano and everyone is fine with that, then by rights they will be fine with their choice of death – be it feeding the saurians, or fueling the fires down below. Adjusting the risk to ensure the weaker characters survive, or to ensure the stronger characters are not bored takes skill, game mastery, time, and pre-planning, or a vast army of rules lawyers working in a stifling corporate atmosphere planning all encounter permutations in advance. It also indicates that the story is being intentionally shaped, not encouraged to emerge, and that removes both the burden and benefit of realistic player agency in the game world.

Give them information as befits their research and abilities, give them time to understand that information, and give them free rein to act upon it. When you make the rulings the scenes require of you, do so entertainingly, appropriately, with investment in each character, and above all, fairness. If they die, they die. If they triumph – celebrate with the players at the victory they just earned. Beating the odds is always, always, always better than performing as expected.

2. Keep relationships real, and in the forefront

No matter who is in your group, make damn sure that their characters are not in the group for meta-game reasons. For immersive and realistic play to occur, relationships between the characters, their NPC associates, and their setting need to stem from appropriate places. “We need a ranger,” is fine from a purely tactical point of view, but if that is the end of the chargen discussion, what chance at life does the resulting character have? A more effective question in the scenario presented by this post is, “Who do we need?”

Not what. Who.

The story as it plays out should be full of characters which will have very clear ideas about wanting or not wanting to associate with the characters. At certain points, outright hiring needs to occur, and ought to take place with an actual interview in-character. Characters may be thrown in with your group from results of the tale, or results of other relationships. Focusing on these relationships keeps the inclusion of less capable characters both in context and allows it to make sense. Fiction is full of these unbalanced match-ups, as is real life. A game – particularly an RPG – does not in and of itself require characters to be balanced with each other, and a strong method to insure that the imbalance does not cause problems is to remember that in this situation, character comes first.

Of all the suggestions in this post, when all is said and done if the GM can get this one working realistically with the group than the rest is just window dressing. In fiction and in real life, people stay together because of how the story of their lives connects, binds, compels, and persuades them. From the strongest friendships to the most dysfunctional servitude, people operate together not out of an optimal balance of skills, interests, talents, and proficiencies, but because who they are, what they have done, and what they will do unites them – for whatever reason, and whatever end.

3. Do not throw characters bones or provide spotlights to contrive a moment for them to  be awesome

You read that right. The story and the fates of the characters can take care of themselves, it’s the players that need extra attention from the GM. The players need to feel challenged, they need to feel that the effort they invest in each aspect of the game is producing both entertainment and results. Where this basic advice tends to produce problems is that players start to compete, or lose track of who their character actually is in relation to the setting. Forgetting one’s relationships is the surest route to getting lost. Opportunities for greatness await all players who are paying attention and focusing on roleplaying their characters. If the scenario puts them way out of their depth, then it will be far easier to find ways to enjoy the spotlight that that provides, feel thrills and chills, and use their skills to stay out of the slavering jaws of starving death. No fear of boredom there. Conversely, if things are too easy it is time to enjoy the fruits of development, but it is also time for the players to seek out new challenges and push on in new directions. Again, in this sort of environment, the GM’s job is to flesh out the world. The players’ is to operate within it.

If you seek to engage the characters you get tied up in story, metagame concerns, and spend way too much time chasing them when they go off on tangents. A director or novelist has the time and mandate for this, a GM doesn’t. The GM shapes the story not by contriving events, but by bringing the world to life. Address the interests of the player in what you portray, and leave it up to them to engage with the world. They are there to play. By all means, let them play. Game on!

4. Enable the group to cooperate and utilize the strengths of each character, such as it is

Know thyself is wonderful life advice and it applies just as well to the tabletop as it does to the real world. If the group is still learning the way the game system and/or campaign world work it is a solid idea to allow a lot of discourse on options to prevent players feeling in hindsight that ‘the character would not have done that.’  No one likes to feel stupid, and some games have steeper learning curves than others. As they are all gathered together to have fun and roleplay their characters well, an investment in time and critical examination for future returns of greater investment in the character and setting is definitely worth it. Players who really understand their characters and the setting in which those characters are operating will tend to make better, and more realistic decisions than ones who are desperate, detached, or just dicking around. Once you have reached the state where they can operate at this higher level of play, then you can reap the rewards of more and more scenes flowing as they would if the characters were real.

What do I mean by that? I mean that sometimes people run away from minor threats, make inane decisions, or get caught up in things much larger than they are. The story of their lives is dealing with the consequences. I mean that sometimes people are in the right place at the right time and everything just works. The story of their lives is the stuff of legend. These times are precious, and it is a shame to dilute them with a formulaic magic bullet guiding them from novice to master with the assumption of their success welded to the tracks. I mean that most of the time, people wander in and out of grace and idiocy and the story of their lives is a patchwork quilt of surprise, success, disappointment, murder, revenge, chases, escapes…  you get the drill. It is not about min/maxing and making optimal decisions. It is all about making the right choices…  the ones that the character would if they were real.

5. Split the party while keeping the action moving

According to conventional wisdom, this one is almost always seen as a mistake (but not in great games like HEX!). By all means split the party, and keep them scrambling the whole time. Keep the characters in motion with time pressure, decisions, tasks and tests, and in so doing keep all the players busy getting their parts done in whatever it is they are attempting to do. Remember that you are not scripting their actions or limiting their choices, you are simply running how they get resolved. Keep the focus moving through the scenes and across all the characters unpredictably, and as a means to heighten tension, anticipation, and allow the sort of tailored zoom that lets everyone appreciate the degree of effort it may take to earn a success for the character involved. Will Cap save the girl? Will Tony Stark be able to repair his armour in time? Will Thor be able to get through to Loki? Will Agent Coulson be able to convince Stark to play along? Will Black Widow be able to glean a vital piece of information? Will Hawkeye *spoiler*? These events, happening all at the same time in rapid cross-cutting, can be enjoyed by everyone at the table because no matter where the characters are, the players are gathered together socially – even if only in a Google Hangout.

Oddly, by splitting the party, you can often bring the group of players much closer together as they have short moments to focus on the play of their friends, and cheer them on as they struggle for their piece of glory in tonight’s adventure. To do this takes skill, clarity, and a certain dramatic ruthlessness as you build each slice of the scene toward climax, only to cut to another and another before granting that all important release. Ahem.

6. Design for Difference

Even in a simulated reality where no scripted story reigns, the GM still presents information to the players, and this will – intentionally or unintentionally – take on aspects of a story as it flows from one side of the screen to the other, and back again. As a GM considers the world they are about to build, it is a solid idea to start with the characters, and to know who your initial players will be. That may change down the road, but the tone and movement of the campaign will be set then and it won’t matter so much. In the beginning, when there is still void, it is imperative to curtail impulses to set up World vs PC plots and hurdles, as these can evolve into massed attacks on the PCs as a group, and chances are that in a game with no levels and no creature threat ratings, you end up with a threat that is too tough for a certain segment of your group to handle. What makes this a problem is that these threats will exist, and be in motion because of GM fiat not player action, and as such are the sorts of attacks which piss everyone off and are called unfair, because they flat-out are.

From the outset, design a setting which can develop rather than one in which there are certain massive things already in motion which the PCs have to oppose. Build a world with potentials, and reserve the triggering of that potential until the group and the world they are in has a chance to meld and mature together a little bit. Design with the players in mind. If they all build con men, it is a waste of everyone’s time to build a campaign around battles that must be fought. Better a game where the word is the mightiest blade, and battles are fought by fools in the background. Design with no attachment to outcome and ending. Design for the characters to be different, to change, to do the unexpected, and to not be in the right place at the right time. Design a world where things are happening and people are operating, with the faith that some of these things will catch the players’ eyes and… behold! A campaign is born.

In conclusion

Is it possible to play a story wherein the characters are not balanced? Is it possible outside of comics and fiction?

Try it. Earnestly try it, and then you tell me~

13 Responses to “Facilitating Function in Fractious Factions”
  1. morrisonmp says:

    Erm… is there a way to vote for this post as “My favorite post of all time?”

    Seriously. This is great advice and spot on. I think your points here are excellent reflections even in a game where balance isn’t a issue. A lot of your points run counter to “standard, accepted GM wisdom.” And your work is better for it.

    I’ve used a lot of this in my GMing for a long time and I’m not really good at articulating my process. When I do it never comes out right… So I’m just going to point people here from now on and say, “This.” “This is how I run my games.”

    And the thing is… it works. If the players and GM are willing to let go and just enjoy themselves, it works.

    Thanks for this post — you said it wonderfully.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Wow, high praise~ thanks

      It does work, and letting go of preconceptions is the way to get there, I agree. The best tales arise from the group, so letting go of the idea of GM as entertainer and grasping the concept of GM as facilitator and shaper is essential for this style of play to work. Some groups…hell, maybe most groups, just want to be entertained. There is, however, another way and I am convinced it pays bigger dividends on our investments.

      Thanks again for the support~

  2. BF Wolfe says:

    You know I’m a big fan of 1,2,3,4 and 6. 🙂 In fact, your summary titles make a terrific GM mantra. But do you agree that they apply to all groups? Not just those with power imbalance? number 5 seems to be the one geared specifically towards imbalanced groups, and it’s certainly the primary way that they managed a group scene in the movie.
    Have you lead, or been in groups where that level of character mismatch has worked? I have been in some great games with great gm’s, but I’ve never seen it work.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Yes, to both; it has worked every time the players focused on and enjoyed their roles instead of making comparisons, and the group respected the contributions of each character. It has failed to work when the imbalances were unintentional, such as when playing a new system, and when players have exerted force over other players.

      Most of the time, groups start off equal these days as a result of point-buy systems, but in the old days there were vast disparities between stats and class benefits and things worked out fine. They did not work when a player tried to run a character as something it was not.

      Like all suggestions, these need to be followed by the full group as much in spirit as they are followed literally. I do agree with you that any group can benefit from these tips, but to a certain extent they become more and more necessary as disparities between players and/or characters increase.

      You are suggesting a group as imbalanced as the Avengers would not work out in play? I am suggesting that a group who chooses to play this level of differentiation, values each character and uses them appropriately, and has a GM that presents their actions on a scale befitting their accomplishments rather than a flat scale based on one ranking of ability will have no trouble.

      • BF Wolfe says:

        The test is certainly laid out then. I would mention that the best games involve players with something of a competitive streak. The avengers had many great plot lines involving character tension and rivalry. ‘Making comparisons’ is then an aspect of RP for me. Would Stark ease up on a new-comer to promote party unity? no, he’s complete alpha personality and would have the new kid serving coffee. And what happens when balance is tilted to a degree that there are no niche’s left at the lower end? What purpose did Black Widow play other than to justify a female lead?

        • morrisonmp says:

          Competitive bits between characters are one thing… competitive play between players is a different issue. I almost always play “team alphas” who want to take on a leadership role, be the “planner” character, etc. And I don’t mind pushing folks a little during sessions — but it’s only in-character — and I’ll lay off/discuss out of character what I’m doing if I seem to be upsetting another player.

          For me, I only play these games for the cooperative elements, I’m not interested in competing with the other people sitting at the table with me.

          PS — sorry if there are spoilers, but Black Widow is entirely important. She provides a bridge for a more “human” perspective (though so do others) and her unique combination of relationships, baggage, and training allow her to get information out of the villain that no one else on the team could have. It might only be one scene but it was a good one.

        • Runeslinger says:

          I agree, an open test of the method would be fun. I don’t agree about players competing with each other, that’s what poker is for. Characters can and should be competitive if that makes them interesting and internally consistent, but players competing in a game where victory is everyone having a good time and succeeding together versus fictional adversity? I don’t see that working ever. That is stealing fun; taking it at another’s expense. In a situation like characters similar to Gimli and Legolas competing about the number of opponents they can slay competition does not need to extend to the players controlling them. Moreover this sort of rivalry among equals works to enhance both characters without overshadowing what is going on, or what the other characters are doing. Using a ‘better build’ to outdistance the others does not.

          As for Black Widow… she was instrumental in both obtaining and interpreting intel. She can’t compete with the heavy hitters in the cosmic scale violence, but neither should she – it would be out of character.

  3. morrisonmp says:

    I would agree that these tips work well for all groups. It’s why I had such effusive praise for this post. I think that the issue of players using a “more powerful” character to exert force over the party is an issue. Like many things in gaming, the experience is richer if the players buy in to the experience together instead of working at cross purposes.

    My own experience. I can attest to this working out. I’ve played in and run games with very different character power levels. I’ve run Supers games where we had pretty much a Superman and a Nightwing in the same group — with a range of characters in the middle of that. I find (especially in Super games) that works better than having everyone be perfectly power-balanced.

    I’ve also played in D&D games with wide level disparity (even in 3.5). I was part of a game where everyone rolled a D8 for their starting level and the party ranged from a level 2 sorceress to a level 7 rogue to start. We still had a ball — though again — the attempts to “balance” the power curve that 3.5 had built in actually made fun more difficult in some respects because the power curve was more noticeable in how it affected the “mechanical stuff” of interacting with the game.

    I’ve also run many, many Amber Diceless games where power can swing wildly based on the choices players make during creation — even though they all have the same pool of points. Heck, power level can swing from shadow to shadow based on who has certain abilities. And Amber is game where inter-party conflict is likely. And it is still my favorite game — as a player and GM. But it also relies on the players having a desire to collectively make a great game (even if the characters may come into conflict).

    Just my two cents.

  4. BF Wolfe says:

    Yes, certainly I meant competition between characters and not players. 🙂 And I like where the Black widow discussion is going, because I think you you can only stretch character imbalance to the point where everyone still has a niche. A reason for being part of the group. If one member is so powerful that they do not need the rest, then why have a group at all. Cheering squad? paperwork? cleanup duty? Interesting roles to play, perhaps, but they will get old quickly if the focus of the game is saving the world. Black widow *Spoiler*, did manage to get villain’s plan (to get everyone to start poking the hulk), but as soon as she told them, *everyone responded by poking the hulk!*. Her one success in the plot was completely ignored and made irrelevant.
    Her character had so much potential in that movie, yet I personally would have been very bored and frustrated playing it.
    Looking forward to finding out if the right ‘script’, ‘cast’ and ‘director’ would have made a difference. 😉

    • Runeslinger says:

      Yes, it should be fun if we can nail down a good setting, group, and system for the test that fulfills the basic requirements of easily allowing for broad power differentials at chargen, and is already familiar to the players, or can easily be learned by them.

      As for Black Widow’s *spoiler* failure, I think it’s unfair to say she failed. I think the situation was on its way to resolution, when the villain’s backup plan kicked in. Someone else was asleep at the switch allowing that to happen. Regardless, I whole-heartedly agree that if I were playing a puny human up against a supposed god, and outwitted him only to fail anyway because the GM decided it was better for the story, I would be annoyed.

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