Ideas for disparate character power levels

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Say you want to play a TTRPG where there is zero concern for the PCs to be of equal power level. Maybe a superhero game with Superman and Batman in it, or The Doctor and companions, or Gandalf and the Fellowship.

So, given that premise, somebody (or multiple somebodies) gets to play a much more powerful character than other players are playing.

What mechanics can make that work?

Mechanics which grant the player stuff which isn't intrinsic to the character itself are one approach used by some games. A metacurrency like story points, fate points, whatever the game calls them. That can give the player agency and power without making the character more powerful. So Superman is directly powerful, but Batman has lots of metacurrency to affect the game.

What other methods are there to achieve this goal?
 

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Bill Zebub

“It’s probably Matt Mercer’s fault.”
Really flat progression helps. Zero-to-hero does not.

The One Ring handles it pretty well, to a large extent because progression tends to improve effectiveness a lot more than survivability. Which means that in an encounter the “weak” characters contribute less, but can also handle getting targeted by adversaries.
 


Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
What other methods are there to achieve this goal?

One thing that usually helps is a design that encourages conflicts in which there's a lot of important things to do besides "punch the one big bad guy".

Another is a system with a broad interpretation of "power". If social, psychological, emotional, or relationship power is overall as effective as bending girders and spewing fire, then Jimmy Olsen can work in a game with Superman and be okay.

Mechanics that make killing difficult or otherwise discourage it.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Fate accelerated Approaches work, everyone gets to be good at their own thing and create advantages and aspects that can be exploited by the narrative using fate points.

Approaches are particularly good as theyre about character not skills
 
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BookTenTiger

He / Him
I wonder if you would need a mechanic for narrative control. Lois Lane isn't superhuman, so the radioactive robot isn't going to be punching her. The character playing Lois Lane needs mechanics that allow them to avoid a situation in which they are even getting punched in the first place.

I could see something like Fate's fate points being used.

For myself, I really like crunch. So it would be more interesting to me if Superman got feats like "laser vision" and "flight" and Lois Lane got feats like "in the right place at the right time" and "there's always a plan b" that allow her player to take control of the narrative.

LOIS: My "right place at the right time" feat lets me (the player) place obstacles in the path of the bad guy. As the radioactive robot walks towards me, a water main breaks, enveloping the robot in a huge geyser.
 

Art Waring

Redlined Ratrod
Underground RPG was one example of a game with a pretty comprehensive character creation chassis with the equivalent of super powers, and both the ability to push the limits or take drawbacks to offset the costs.

Basically, you could have one character maxed out with RES (toughness) and literally become a walking tank (unless you get pasted), while most characters are typically built along the midrange and are considered only mildly augmented in comparison.

Edit: Oops, I forgot to mention that there are several drawbacks to pushing your powers too far, characters (veterans) must take anti-stress drugs regularly, or suffer from mild to severe mental drawbacks depending on your chosen powers.

So, the walking tank is really big and bad, but push him too far and he will buckle under the mental stress and go "homicidal mania." Thus, why most players play midrange characters with more balance, but characters can still push the limits of their characters with consequences.
 
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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
To me, it's the scale of punishment on failure. In a game like D&D where permanent(-ish) character loss is on the table it's really hard. In a superhero game where you are expected not to always be able to stop the foes plots every time and you just pick yourself up again it's literally nothing extra needed.

Marvel Heroic Roleplay can do a great buddy drinking night between Thor and Hawkeye where they get into all sorts of superpowered mischief, likely at least partially instigated by Loki. It doesn't matter that one is a highly skilled normal and the other is the god of thunder.

Same in the Masks: A New Generation game I'm running - literally if it came to full on PvP one character, our Nova, could incinerate the rest of the team. And probably a good chunk of the city at the same time. But the game isn't about that, it's about finding yuourself when everyone in the world has expectations on who you are. The mechanics don't care about X points of damage, they care if you are Angry or Helpless or Insecure, and what that does to you.

Fate has a nice damage mechanic. But as long as you are willing to lose the scene before the final force to lose the scene, you get to narrate how it happens. Does your body fall off the bridge and get washed safely downstream? Do you break and run away screaming? Do you fall unconscious, buried under lose dirt you can break out of when you wake? With a system like this, you can have characters of different power levels without much issue.
 

aco175

Legend
I kind of look at it in a Rocky/Apollo relationship. Rocky started out as a nobody and relatively quickly rose to be on the same level as Apollo. Apollo did not get any skills or powers since he started with them, but the new character got to pick several along his rise.
 

MGibster

Legend
Mechanics which grant the player stuff which isn't intrinsic to the character itself are one approach used by some games. A metacurrency like story points, fate points, whatever the game calls them. That can give the player agency and power without making the character more powerful. So Superman is directly powerful, but Batman has lots of metacurrency to affect the game.
This meta currency worked rather well for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel made by Eden Studios.

I think GURPS would just let the chips fall where they may. Batman isn't going to be as effective at punching things as Superman is, but he's got a lot going for him. He's good at figuring out what drives the bad guys and can use that against him, he can intimidate criminals who wouldn't be intimidated by Superman (because they know Supes won't hurt them), and of course he has the best superpower of all, money.

But then I remember a GURPS Supers campaign where I made a Batman analog that was greased rather quickly by some dude with a rifle. So maybe no the best example .

What other methods are there to achieve this goal?
Buffy/Angel also suggested the GM tailor encounters to the correct power level. i.e. Xander shouldn't be in a situation where he is expected to duke it out with Spike or evil Angel. Run away? Get captured? Sure.
 

RivetGeekWil

Lead developer Tribes in the Dark
Cortex Prime was practically built for this. The underpinnings that allow Superman and Lois Lane to be in the same scenes in Smallville, or any number of disparate superheroes in Marvel Heroic, are in Cortex Prime.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Say you want to play a TTRPG where there is zero concern for the PCs to be of equal power level. Maybe a superhero game with Superman and Batman in it, or The Doctor and companions, or Gandalf and the Fellowship. . .
What mechanics can make that work?
You'd need a DRPG that doesn't reward power. Maybe one that, I don't know, rewards role-playing.

I don't know about mechanics, but some rules that spread player spotlight would be good. Or experience point awards for something other than killing.

It's about the point of the game. I wish I could reference LotR, but I've been reading ASoIaF in which most main characters have comparable power levels. I can say that Gandalf and the hobbits play different games: Gandalf's goal is to keep his fellowship alive, while most hobbits try first to keep themselves alive. So even if Gandalf is at a higher level, he's playing a different game than the hobbits are anyway; more babysitting than combat.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
From a purely combat standpoint, many enemies are going to notice “the bigger threat” and gun for it. This leaves room for other (possibly less powerful characters) to make meaningful contributions on the battlefield without going toe-to-toe with the baddest foes on the board.*. This happens often in RIFTS, which is notorious for not giving a damn about balancing out PC power.

OTOH, some point based games will leave the non-combat focused PCs to shine in other aspects by simply letting them allocate their points elsewhere. In some old published HERO write-ups, Superman and Batman might be built on nearly identical point totals, but the bulk of Batman’s points are in skills, talents, perks and real world assets like bases, labs, vehicles, gizmos & gadgets, contacts & informants, and, of course, wealth.





* I’m reminded of the final issue of the DC miniseries Manhunter (the Paul Kirk one). He and Batman (and others) are assaulting the secret base of The Council (evilbad organization) that created Manhunter in the first place. Manhunter mentally notes as they’re all fighting through this army of defenders, Batman keeps going after the biggest, baddest foes on the battlefield, while Manhunter- as close to Batman in martial prowess as makes no narrative difference- mows through mooks at a ridiculous pace. In Manhunter’s mind, Batman’s tactic is mistaken because that the assault is taking place on a literal doomsday timer- if they take too long, the world is doomed, Ultimately, Manhunter is the only one who reaches deeply enough into the stronghold to accomplish the mission, which he does.
 

aco175

Legend
I would think that there needs to be skills/powers that the nobodies have that the supers do not. If I'm asked to play a game where my friends are Superman and Wonder Woman, but I am asked to play Jimmy Olson, then I may already have a grain of salt before I sit down about how much fun I will be having. It would just feel like one of the DMNPC thread horror stories.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
You'd need a DRPG that doesn't reward power. Maybe one that, I don't know, rewards role-playing.
I flip this, but it's really close - possibly just the other side of the same coin as they say. You need an RPG that doesn't penalize lack of power.

Failure in a scene needs to not be horrible, but just another fork in the narrative. Characters in literature, stories, movies and the like have upbeats and downbeats -- an RPG where a common downbeat is character death is not a good one for disparate power levels.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Say you want to play a TTRPG where there is zero concern for the PCs to be of equal power level. Maybe a superhero game with Superman and Batman in it, or The Doctor and companions, or Gandalf and the Fellowship.

So, given that premise, somebody (or multiple somebodies) gets to play a much more powerful character than other players are playing.

What mechanics can make that work?

Mechanics which grant the player stuff which isn't intrinsic to the character itself are one approach used by some games. A metacurrency like story points, fate points, whatever the game calls them. That can give the player agency and power without making the character more powerful. So Superman is directly powerful, but Batman has lots of metacurrency to affect the game.

What other methods are there to achieve this goal?
If no one has mentioned it, Monster of The Week does this well. The Mundane is just as capable of impacting the fiction as The Chosen, they just do it very differently. The Mundane has moves that give them narrative power without making the character powerful, but are still centered on what he character chooses to do in the fictional world.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
For me, there are three games to look at for pointers...

Marvel Heroic. Cortex Prime before Cortex Prime. Thor and Black Widow on the same team, both contributing about the same to the story. This was due to the squashed power scale and slight variation in dice pool size. Black Widow throwing fewer dice, mostly d6s or d8s with a few d10s Thor is throwing more dice, mostly d8s and d10s with a few d12s. Throwing more dice means more chances of 1s, which are opportunities for the referee to inject mischief. Which works really well thematically. Black Widow can't throw buses at people so the chances of her inflicting some collateral damage are way less than Thor's.

Doctor Who. The Doctor utterly overshadows the companion, full stop. More recent Doctors also utterly overshadow earlier Doctors, full stop. The designers push the idea that starting with fewer story points (the metacurrency) as the Doctor is sufficient to compensate. To me, it doesn't. Like at all. All the same meta earning options are available to the characters, so starting with fewer is meaningless in no time. And all the same meta spending options are available to the characters. Story points in Doctor Who flow like Fate points. It's how the characters win and survive. Only the Doctor has double or triple the stats and skills as the companion. It flat out doesn't work.

Over the Edge, 3rd Edition. To me, this one works the best. It has a flat scale like Marvel Heroic and the difference between levels is extra re-rolls on a 1-for-1 basis, but if the difference is three or more, the higher side just wins. Normally roll 2d6 with success on a 7+ if you're active, 8+ if you're reactive. Rolling one or more 3s gives you a negative twist; rolling one or more 4s gives you a positive twist. And character creation is basically free-form. You can play any kind of weird person you want with any kind of weird abilities. There's a few restrictions to keep the game playable, but you can do anything with it. Smooth, easy, and dead simple to deal with power disparity between characters.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
From the design side, my only thought would be to make sure that even the most powerful characters can't do it all; that every character has baked-in weaknesses that need to be covered off by others, thus giving those 'others' a reason to stick around.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I would think that there needs to be skills/powers that the nobodies have that the supers do not. If I'm asked to play a game where my friends are Superman and Wonder Woman, but I am asked to play Jimmy Olson, then I may already have a grain of salt before I sit down about how much fun I will be having. It would just feel like one of the DMNPC thread horror stories.

Jimmy Olsen is a quick-witted but impulsive character who being small and easily overlooked can sneak in behind enemy lines while the bad guys are fighting Superman and do things like get a photo of the secret plans or grab the mcguffin. He has a wide are of knowledge and so can often give hints or work stuff out.
He also has the sonic watch that allows him to summon an Invisible assistant (ie superman staying unseen).

The other thing about Jimmys stories is that he often acquires temporary powers - in FATE it would be a stunt that allows him to spend a point to raise an Approach to Superb or gain a Power for one scene.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
My understanding is that the Smallville RPG did this really well. I never played it myself but it’s mentioned a lot when this topic comes up. It’s a Cortex game, hough I think an earlier iteration than MHRP or Cortex Prime.

I personally ran Galaxies in Peril with three PCs Of varying power levels and that worked just fine. It’s a Forged in the Dark game.
 

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