Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Harsh Lessons of DMing: Level Balance

My friend Tom Wright is running several of my friends and I through the Shackled City using Pathfinder as the rule engine. He's got some rules and notes and is fairly consistent in the way he runs. It's one of his greatest strengths.

However, he had a vision about how the game was going to work this time. He was going to incorporate various ends and odd bits of our characters backgrounds into the game. To accomplish this and still run the campaign, he decided to use the slow advancement table.

One of the great things about roleplaying games is the ability to modify things so that they work the way you want. However, if you are going to do that in a manner that keeps the pace with a prewritten adventure, you need to verify that your doing the right thing.

At the end of the first adventure, we were too low level to handle the big bad who wiped out a few members of the party and the rest of us managed to retreat. How did that happen? No side quests. When the xp goal was changed without bringing in additional xp, the end result has to be characters that are lower level.

After that, he decided he was going to use the medium or normal level of advancement. He's very good about listening to player feedback in terms of it not being 'his' game but 'our' game. But he also decided that new characters would start a level lower than the standard characters. Does anyone see any potential problems here?

So when we got to the big bad in the next adventure... yeah, essentially another TPK.

Take the time to read through the adventurers. Take the time to review the character sheets. Review not only their abilities that are level based, but also their choice of 'fiddy' bits like feats and spells. Make sure that if there are encounters coming up that rely on magic items or silver items or something of that nature, that if the party doesn't already own them, they can own them. Make some routes of escape.

Mind you, in a freestyle campaign where you let the first level party know, "Over here are rumored to be dragons and giants" and they go there anyway, well, I'm old school enough to say kill away. But if you're running an adventure and it says, "Party should be level X when they reach area Y" and they get blitzed by the baddies? Well, was party level X? Did party have level X equipment?

In some games, its easier to tell when players are min-maxed then others. Try to keep onto of it and don't wait till the last minute to find out that the party didn't have a wand of cure light wounds and that the party didn't have a method of deciphering that ancient script. DMing can be a great thing but it also often requires some homework. Do that homework!