Dealing with High Level PCs
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  1. #1

    Dealing with High Level PCs

    Conventional methods of adventure design often donít work so well with high level characters. Because of the mouse-hitting-the-switch-for-more-food-effect, PCs at higher levels tend to be way overpowered. The average high level character has at least a half dozen powerful abilities, and magic items. So, instead of throwing more orcs at them, here are some strategies to stop your overpowered PCs in their tracks.

    1. High Level NPCs
    Presumably, the PCs arenít one-of-a-kind super heroes. Itís probable that there are a half million high level NPCs, Villains, and monsters whoíve had the opportunity to level up and gain ten times more magic items and special abilities than the party. Naturally, they probably work in hit squads of 20+.
    2. Anti-Magic

    Yes, itís cheap. Yes, itís annoying. Yes, itís a miserable cop out. However, anti-magic in all its various forms is like having a giant death ray marked: disable all PCs. 90% of your heroesí abilities are likely to be magical in nature if only for the reason that magic is so overpowered. Using copious amounts of dispel magic, anti-magic zones, magic eating monsters, magic immune monsters, and permanently magic draining effects is probably a good idea. Be warned, this tactic is often so effective the players will all quit when their characters die because you were so cheap.

    3. Invincible Monsters

    Who says a monster canít be utterly invincible? The players certainly have their fair share of cheap magical effects. Reserve actual invincibility for your own creations. These ultra-baddies should also be able to detect invisibility, wield insane magic, and have 200 billion intelligence scores. Inventing at least one way they can be killed, preferably something the players donít have ready access to, can be a good idea too.

    4. Other Dimensions

    Other realms and times can serve as great ways to mess around with the high level characters. If they come up against modern weaponry, starships, deities, realms without magic, or dinosaurs; it can be helpful for taking their power level down a notch. Of course, theyíre highly likely to grab all this new weaponry so you might want to suck it off them for some whack-o, paradox reason when they eventually get back to their own world.
    5. Overpowered Monsters

    Take a look at all the character sheets of the players. Then create a monster with all of their stats x10 and ways to counter or abuse their existing abilities. If the party magic is a pyromaniac, consider having the creature feed on flame. If the whole party can time travel, maybe it travels through time and eats people?

    6. Use Realism

    The players, no doubt, figure theyíre invincible. Using Ďrealismí in your favor can be a tremendous boon for taking them down a notch. You can have them: starve, dehydrate, get poisoned, become infected, cursed, hit with a 20 ton stone block, etc. While they might have 1 billion hit points and enough armor to block any known attack, you can always simply have them trip in a 1 foot pool of water and drown.

    7. Insidious Traps

    More than likely, the party thief can find any trap, unlock any door, and so forth. Donít use normal traps, use insane traps. Traps which you canít find unless you specifically look in that one corner of the room with the glass figurine of a chicken. These traps are probably magical, un-blockable, and send all your gear to Pluto while teleporting you naked to the bottom of a billion level dungeon filled with demons.

    8. Use Traditionally Cheap Enemies

    Yes, there are historically cheap enemies. These enemies can include: demons, genies, deities, Godzilla, etc. All of these enemies share something in common: theyíre cheap as dirt. Not only can all of them fly/swim, breath fire, crush cities, mind control people, become immune to everything, and detect/banish/control magic; they also have a logical reason for being there (someone other than you invented them).
    9. Have Weak Enemies Get Smart

    Who says your kobolds, orcs, and goblins have to sit around and get wasted? Have them all equipped with lethal ranged weapons, magical grenades, insidious traps, killer intelligence, and have ready access to cheap anti-magic powder or something else like that. Generally, weak foes get killed for acting stupid more than anything else. Any orc who stands around with an axe and tries to charge the party is eventually going to get it. The same orc in a tank guarded by 20th level shamans, wearing indestructible plate-mail, and wielding heat-seeking anti-magic missiles might stand a better chance.

    10. Be Creative

    The playersí power probably comes from knowing the rules fifty times better than you and abusing them. Well, that works both ways. Donít bother trying to know the rules better, thatís a waste of time. Instead, simply make up whatever rubbish you want and force it on the players. Incredibly powerful monsters, insane traps, and arbitrary effects are all at your disposal and more.

    11. Use Overkill

    Balancing things against high level characters is almost impossible. They have so much cheapness and magic on their side that any Ďfair fightí will quickly slide into their favor. Instead, overkill everything by about 50% or more until you hit a good balance. The players should almost have to burn all those special powers just to stay alive. Sending reasonable opponents against cheap PCs is like trying to send storm troopers after Darth Vader. Instead, send 50 Yodas in giant mechs with grenade launchers.

    12. Be Cheap

    While a good player can be plenty cheap with the rules, especially at high levels, a (good?) GM can be far cheaper and at any level. Without the constraints of following the rules and with ultimate power over the campaign universe, your potential for cheapness far outweighs that of the players. However, itís your job to refrain from as much cheapness as you can in a game. If you can get away with being completely fair, and still challenge the players; do so. However, if the players get a little out of hand, you can get way out of hand to bring back balance to the Force.
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  2. #2
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    my 15th level (4e) characters are now in Gamma World, when not there, they have been dealing with Tomb of Horror variants...

    ...but I never thought of this as "cheap". Definitely expensive.

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    ...huh.

    This is mostly terrible advice, in my view. I suppose it depends on what one sees as the role of the GM in any given game. These entries, if meant to be taken seriously (which I'm not completely sure it is), advocate a very adversarial, antagonistic GM role.

    Now, I fully endorse adversarial, antagonistic NPC's within the game...hell yes. But the GM -must- be impartial. You're not in this to 'win' by crushing the PCs. Assembling a good cast of villains, creating dangers, making tense situations...all part of good RPG GMing. But so is giving PCs time and opportunity to shine, creating memorable allies they feel connected to, and rewarding successes (not just with treasure either).

    It's easy to be a dick. It's a lot harder, and more rewarding for everyone, to be a good GM.

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    Cannot tell if this is satirical... Reminds me of the worst GMing advice from 1978...

    When running deity-level AD&D I have used moderate versions of some of these techniques, but I don't like taking an adversarial screw-the-players approach.

  5. #5
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    Oh dear...

    I really hope this was a joke. If serious, it is some of the worst advice I have seen in a long time.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by S'mon View Post
    Cannot tell if this is satirical... Reminds me of the worst GMing advice from 1978...
    Yeah, just like in previous articles from Challenger RPG I somehow fail to get the joke. It looks too much like it's supposed to be genuine advice to be funny.

  7. #7
    Yes, it's meant to be funny (not serious), sorry for any confusion.

    To quote myself, "...These ultra-baddies should also be able to detect invisibility, wield insane magic, and have 200 billion intelligence scores."
    Last edited by Challenger RPG; Thursday, 29th November, 2012 at 07:00 PM.

  8. #8
    I'm guessing that the author missed his mark for target audience. By the comments, the audience was looking for something more insightful to the problem, rather than something meant to be humor.

    For instance, in my view, PCs start with a mininimal social network. They don't get missions from the king at 1st level. But as they rise in level, their accomplishments get the notice of higher level people. So at 10th level, the party is hob-nobbing with the king, and giving him advice on his problem with the western provinces.

    That means, that by level 20, the party is in positions of leadership and such. That means instead of the PCs going out to kill more orcs, the party is deciding where to deploy their minions and resources to solve the problem.

    This greatly removes the problem of munchkin powers on the PCs, because they aren't in direct combat to utilize them for most of the time.

    High level PCs should be dealing with large scope issues at a macro level, rather than a personal level.

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by Challenger RPG View Post
    Yes, it's meant to be funny (not serious), sorry for any confusion.
    Ah, fair enough. I'm afraid I missed the joke.

    Possibly, the problem is that I've seen all of the above being offered as serious advice to DMs of high-level adventures.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by Janx View Post
    I'm guessing that the author missed his mark for target audience. By the comments, the audience was looking for something more insightful to the problem, rather than something meant to be humor.
    And I agree it's worthwhile to try to provide it.

    (Incidentally, for the purposes of this discussion, I consider "high level" to mean different things in different editions. In pre-3e, high-level is anything beyond "name" level. In 3e, high-level is 13+ (I consider 3e's "Epic" levels to be a worthless addition to the game. YMMV). In 4e, I consider the Epic tier to be high-level.)

    For instance, in my view, PCs start with a mininimal social network. They don't get missions from the king at 1st level. But as they rise in level, their accomplishments get the notice of higher level people. So at 10th level, the party is hob-nobbing with the king, and giving him advice on his problem with the western provinces.

    That means, that by level 20, the party is in positions of leadership and such. That means instead of the PCs going out to kill more orcs, the party is deciding where to deploy their minions and resources to solve the problem.
    I agree with a lot of this. And I agree with an underlying premise - that you should "widen the scope" as the PCs level up. That is, while the low-level PCs might save the farmer's daughter, and mid-level PCs might save the village, it's high-level PCs that save the world. And, sure, there's nothing inherent in the game that means you can't have your 1st level PCs save the world... but you shouldn't - because if you do then there's nowhere for your series to go.

    One of the (admittedly very few) things I liked about 4e's "Scales of War" AP was that at the end the PCs could kill one of the evil gods, permanently changing the setting. Similarly, the end goal of one of the Epic Destinies in the Eberron 4e books allowed the character to actually undo the Mourning, thus starting the healing of Cyre (and, again, permanently changing the setting). That's pretty cool.

    So, for high level characters, I would suggest:

    1) Identfy one of more suitably large-scale goals for them to achieve. These should be "end of the campaign" stuff, and should be suitably epic (but also achieveable at the highest level your campaign is expected to reach!). Perhaps they're going to kill a god, or avert a war, or close a portal to Hell, or...

    2) Identify a small number of truly legendary villains for them to defeat. Don't worry about the small stuff, just the combats you want them to talk about in years to come - the Joker to their Batman, the Darth Vader to their Skywalker.

    For the most part, I would also focus the campaign quite clearly on how awesome the characters are. When they walk into a bar, the reaction should be equivalent to if Superman were suddenly to walk into our lives. Because that's the equivalent - by this point the PCs are living legends, the people stories and songs will be written about in years to come... heck, the people stories and songs are already written about.

    So, let them enjoy their success. Perhaps the great sages of the day come to them for advice. Perhaps they are annointed champions of their faiths. Heck, maybe the king abdicates in their favour. And most of the monsters that crop up are simply excuses for them to flex their high-level muscles. That orcish army on the horizon? No problem!

    Of course, once they've milked things for a while, then you need to set them a suitably epic challenge. Or perhaps they'll set it for themselves. So, the gods ask them to clear up some mess that they're forbidden to touch by divine edict. Or Godzilla goes on a rampage. Or they decide to rid the world of nuclear weapons in an ill-advised third sequel. (Okay, maybe not that last one.)

    And take it from there. Let them be awesome, then give them an awesome task, then have them face awesome challenges.

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