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D&D 5E PC Exceptionalism

Fauchard1520

Explorer
Consider the humble monk. Here's a class that puts in time, discipline, and strenuous martial training to earn his fantasy super power. Ki and stunning strike and elemental disciplines set him apart from common folk, and make him something extraordinary within the fiction of the game world. When the product of your life’s worth of kung-fu montages looks like a cantrip though, it’s awfully easy to get discouraged. In my experience, it takes a group effort to make the world feel as magical as it does in your head.

So here's my question to the board. In a world filled with exceptional people -- where you're mostly interacting with other powerful beings -- what can a GM or other players do to help one another remember that their characters actually are special? How do you maintain that basic power fantasy when it seems the whole world is already in your league?

(Comic for illustrative purposes.)
 

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aco175

Legend
At a certain point, the PCs are more exceptional than most people in the world. It could be argued that at level 1, or 3, or 5. At some point they become better than most in the most places. By 5th level there is few in a town that can challenge them, by 10th it may be a city. The pyramid gets small at the top.

Comparing to real world, I was in the Army and have training in things like shooting and such. Do I consider myself more exceptional than other people I meet. Maybe in certain skills, but they guy that grew up on the street and learned to pick pockets and open locks is better than me at that, or the guy with a black belt that trained since early age is certainly better than at that. As you gain levels, you gain other powers that narrows the competition.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Have more interactions and/or combats against lower CR creatures.

Sometimes 5th level characters can still engage a band of goblins or deal with a couple hungry wolves. And when it becomes an exceedingly easy encounter, it reminds players of how much harder it was when they were younger and thus how far they actually have come.
 

Consider the humble monk. Here's a class that puts in time, discipline, and strenuous martial training to earn his fantasy super power. Ki and stunning strike and elemental disciplines set him apart from common folk, and make him something extraordinary within the fiction of the game world. When the product of your life’s worth of kung-fu montages looks like a cantrip though, it’s awfully easy to get discouraged. In my experience, it takes a group effort to make the world feel as magical as it does in your head.
Others have already covered the "just because you aren't the MOST exceptional, doesn't mean you aren't still exceptional." Like, this is...a bit like looking at Star Trek and assuming that the Federation is 80% Starfleet officers, simply because those make up 80% of the people we see. We look at a subset of the world that is especially interesting. While I can grant that theme and tone are a cooperative effort, forgetting that you're only looking at a slim, and VERY selectively high-powered, slice of the world's people is the more fundamental error here.

So here's my question to the board. In a world filled with exceptional people -- where you're mostly interacting with other powerful beings -- what can a GM or other players do to help one another remember that their characters actually are special? How do you maintain that basic power fantasy when it seems the whole world is already in your league?

(Comic for illustrative purposes.)
Well, firstly? Either don't be rude (and yes, I would call that other player's behavior rude), or accept that people may interrupt you sometimes when you're on a roll and "ruin the moment." If a player had said that to me--instead of, as noted, responding even with an in-character "there's no need to get upset" or the like--I would have been legitimately angry at them IRL. I can't say that I would necessarily have said something (I tend to quail in the face of social disapproval) but I would probably complain to the DM privately because, holy crap man, that was rude.

Secondly, always have a Session 0 (and preferably some chatter before session 0) where you talk about the kind of tone you're looking for in a game, whether you're the DM or one of the players. Perhaps the person who made that comic is looking for a high-drama or even "melodrama" kind of game, where flowery descriptions accompanying a cantrip are appropriate when it's a high-tension situation, while a low-tension one might not give more than a single sentence even for a powerful spell. Conversely, maybe that other player is looking for a more "serious" sort of thing, where a cantrip is understood to be a pretty minor demonstration of magic and the dramatics are saved for the times when you're bending reality, not for when emotions are riding high per se. Talking these things out can make a world of difference for ensuring everyone is supporting each person in having a good time.

Thirdly, the DM really should be including a spectrum of situations and encounters. Even in 4e, the edition that gets mocked for having Elder Scrolls-style "the world levels with you" mechanics, explicitly told DMs to include encounters that are both above and below the party's weight. And it doesn't just stop with encounters, either. Have the occasional "milk run," as Shadowrun puts it. Include NPCs who simply can't do the kinds of things the PCs do, despite being talented in their own way.* Have the party interface with powerful figures they have to watch their step around, and weaker figures they can oppose or protect (or bully, if that's more their speed, I guess). Take situations the party has mastered, and find ways to expand them, so they can see how they ARE succeeding at the big-picture stuff, but now have NEW concerns on top of the old ones.**

*Just had an example of this last night. Players were talking about whether they'd share certain secrets with an allied wizard NPC. One player said, "Oh, I'm sure she'd figure it all out in a heartbeat [if we just show her part of it]." I reminded them that this NPC, despite being a wizard, is NOT an adventurer, and that she's far too prudent to go wandering off into the wilderness to find more info on her own without their help.

**E.g.: Dungeon World has a special move, Undertake a Perilous Journey. These can be consequence-heavy, so early on they were high tension; now, at high level, they're pretty routine. So I added a new, fourth role (beyond Scout, Trailblazer, and Quartermaster): Intelligencer, concealing the party's route to throw off would-be trackers or tracing efforts. This expanded the move to a higher-level, emergent goal: before, the party only cared about getting there, but now (with many secrets of their own) they care about controlling information as well.
 

embee

Lawyer by day. Rules lawyer by night.
The PCs start in a village. Or a town. Or they're en route to a village or town. In this town, there are people. These people may be laborers or tradesfolk or even nobility. They have lives.

But they don't have levels. They are, for all practical purposes, Level 0.

The PCs are Level 1.

Why is this?

Because outside of that village or town, there are monsters. There are goblins. There are orcs. There are ankhegs and dragons and bandits and hags and manticores and owlbears and an infinite number of other things that have statblocks. And these things with statblocks will kill the Level 0 folk. And the Level 0 folk know this.

So the Level 0 folk stay in the villages and towns.

What makes the PCs special?

They DON'T stay in the villages and towns. They go out. They adventure. They have a level. And that level - even if it's just one level - let's them have a fighting chance against something with a statblock.

If the PCs weren't exceptional, they wouldn't be adventurers. They'd be NPCs and they'd be Level 0. More often than not, the players know this, even if it's only subconsciously. This piece of meta helps bind D&D together.

This is different from the PCs being underdogs. Which is also a trope that binds the game together. The PCs are exceptional. They have names and titles and classes and abilities and scores and modifiers. But that doesn't mean that the encounters are foregone conclusions. The Avengers are exceptional. But when they fight against Thanos, wielding the Infinity Gauntlet and backed up by the forces of evil and destruction, they are underdogs. Both can be true.

Which brings us to the how. How do you have the PCs be exceptional underdogs? In the case of the Avengers (and the Fellowship and the Rebellion and the Justice League), with bosses and mooks and setbacks and a BBEG who seems to always be one step ahead of the good guys.

Think of the tropes:

The villain who plans to get caught (Loki). The villain who answers to an even bigger bad (Vader). The villain who usurps his former boss (Ronin the Accuser). The villain looking to free an ancient evil (Rasputin from Hellboy). The secret cult of killers that is everywhere that no one else knows about (The League of Shadows, every other person in New York in the John Wick movies). The infinite army that can't be stopped but also can't ever hit the heroes (the Empire). The Tank Lieutenant (Karl from Die Hard). The ever-escalating series of Tank Lieutenants (Lord of the Rings). The evil elite team (the Legion of Doom, HIVE, the Sinister Six, the Black Order).

The PCs can go up against any of these. Because they're exceptional, they'll have a chance. Because they're the underdog, failure is an option.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Consider the humble monk. Here's a class that puts in time, discipline, and strenuous martial training to earn his fantasy super power. Ki and stunning strike and elemental disciplines set him apart from common folk, and make him something extraordinary within the fiction of the game world. When the product of your life’s worth of kung-fu montages looks like a cantrip though, it’s awfully easy to get discouraged. In my experience, it takes a group effort to make the world feel as magical as it does in your head.

So here's my question to the board. In a world filled with exceptional people -- where you're mostly interacting with other powerful beings -- what can a GM or other players do to help one another remember that their characters actually are special? How do you maintain that basic power fantasy when it seems the whole world is already in your league?

(Comic for illustrative purposes.)
The top thing for me: don’t frame missed rolls or natural 1s as incompetence. This utterly destroys the illusion and turns the power fantasy into bumbling slapstick.
 

payn

Hero
This line of thought is strange to me. My characters always felt special because they were average David's facing off against Goliaths. Most folks in the setting dont do it because its dangerous and requires a combination of selflessness and insanity. The fact that they stare danger int he face and survive is what makes them special. Not because they can magic kick their enemies.
 

Have more interactions and/or combats against lower CR creatures.

This. In a recent session of my GURPS Dungeon Fantasy campaign (similar enough to D&D for the purposes of this discussion), the PCs came back to town after a successful adventure against vicious winter fae, dinosaurs, a wraith, and other nastiness. The party was powerful. In town, they got sucked into a scenario involving some teenage children of NPCs that the party was close to. There were interactions with lots of different kids, an investigation of clues, and a final showdown with a gang of teen bullies. The PCs were extremely overpowered when compared with their foes, yet the conflict required some delicacy to resolve—they couldn't just massacre the mean kids. The players loved it. One of the reasons they gave was that they got to "show off" their abilities more than usual.
 


ph0rk

Friendship is Magic, and Magic is Heresy.
The existence of Captain Marvel doesn't make Daredevil unexceptional.

You don't need to be the most powerful thing in your universe in order to be special or to have amazing stories.
You do if you are sitting at the same table with Captain Marvel every week.
 

Democratus

Adventurer
You do if you are sitting at the same table with Captain Marvel every week.
No, you really don't.

Not unless you have such a burning inferiority complex that you can't imagine an amazing story with anyone else at the table having a character more powerful than yours. And that's just sad.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
@Democratus

You could have made your point without the rather inflammatory phrase, “burning inferiority complex”, it would seem. Going forward, try not to make your commentary so confrontational, please.
 

ph0rk

Friendship is Magic, and Magic is Heresy.
If the power imbalance between characters in the same campaigns
is as great as that between Captain Marvel and Daredevil, it is natural for the player of the Daredevil to get bored as their contributions to many challenges are negligible. Further, it takes a great deal of work on the part of the DM to make special stories for the Daredevil character not seem patronizing.

It would be better if such a power disparity wasn't possible between player characters.
 

dave2008

Legend
So here's my question to the board. In a world filled with exceptional people -- where you're mostly interacting with other powerful beings -- what can a GM or other players do to help one another remember that their characters actually are special? How do you maintain that basic power fantasy when it seems the whole world is already in your league?
Well, the simple solution for me is that the world is more mundane and the PC are exceptional. In our current setting / campaign the PCs are 15th level and they are unique. The highest lvl NPC caster outside the PC Wizard is a 12th lvl Cleric. Most NPCs don't get beyond 5th level, and a only a handful make it to 10th (I literally mean 5-6 NPCs in the whole known world).

Now, if you want a similar effect in world with more prevalent high level NPCs, just have the PCs go against lower level monsters and NPCs primarily. It also makes a difference that the PCs are usually in a group and high level NPCs are solo.
 

When I read the interaction in the link, I read it as the other player as their character saying Yeah yeah,” interrupts my fellow tiefling. “I can cast thaumaturgy too. Big whoop.

Which to me is a 100% appropriate in-game interaction between PCs. "Don't try to intimidate ME buddy, I share a Tiny Hut with you and I know your tricks!"

It is rare - and not particularly important - for a PC to be exceptional to the other PCs. If you want to make them (and their player) feel special, they need to interact with the mundanes more.

Let them absolutely roll a street gang who has the temerity to cross them. Throw circumstance appropriate challenge 1/2 encounters at them when they are Level 6. Don't have the world around them always keep pace with them, so that they never seem awesome.
 
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It’s a question of play style.
If you want to have special PC, you build a world where only the PC has access to PHB classes, feats, subclasses.
At best another monk in your world is the Martial artist showed in the Volo’s guide.
 

Stalker0

Legend
You do if you are sitting at the same table with Captain Marvel every week.
Or lets take it a step further, Superman.

Now a character can always have their side plots and personal goals, there is always a way to make things interesting. But if we are talking about the main plot....power imbalance can absolutely skew the spotlight towards a single character if unchecked. I used to love the Justice League cartoons, and there are lot of fun fights where the whole league is beating up the bad guys. But....realistically if only superman was present....the result would be exactly the same. It would take maybe a few more seconds to finish the job. The rest of the league could literally just grab a chair and hang out, and the result would be 100% the exact same.

Only in those rare cases where someone throws out the red sun or kryptonite is another leaguer really necessary, or if the plot is such that multiple leaguers are needed at the same time (and normally this requires you to nerf super speed to make it plausible).

This actually happened in a 3.5 game I played it. My friend played a dread necromancer, and "won the game". His army of undead was superior to everything the rest of us had, and he could heal them at-will. Every enemy we killed just added to his collection, the strongest the monster we faced, the better the undead he got. Eventually one player just flat out said in game "I think my character would just quit at this moment, I honestly don't think I matter to the campaign". And in that game....he was right.

Now I don't think most games get to the level, and I think 5e's balance is such that's its very difficult to get to that level of imbalance, but yeah if that imbalance occurs....it does suck to be the guy next to superman narratively speaking.
 

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