Clem asked about less special PCs in the suggestion pot:
Almost all settings and campaigns seem to assume that pcs are a breed apart. They may start weak but, if they survive, they can eventually become extremely powerful and/or capable. Ok, suppose there are such special people in the world and that they are born with something extra that gives them this superhuman potential. Now suppose that the pcs are not such people. How to make a game where they are, say, peasant conscripts in some noble’s war of revenge for some imagined slight or they are henchmen of an adventuring party with a disturbing habit of using them as cannon fodder and trap springers, or perhaps low powered mages specialized in household spells exciting? And how do you run such a game where the characters are takers, not givers, of orders without turning it into a railroadfest? Finally, what sort of goals can the players have beyond day to day survival that will keep their interest in spite of their knowledge of their limited potential?
A good way to make this work is by shrinking the scope. People don’t ask random peasants to act like special forces troops- while that’s fun for heroic PCs to play, it doesn’t fit the tone of the world that you’re trying to create. If you were running a campaign of say, the hundred years war, you might spend weeks roleplaying the tedium of forced marches, the friendships that spring up under pressure, the difficulties of keeping fed in a hostile land, camp duties and relationships, etc.
Kobolds kidnapping your sister sounds like a cliched opening for a D&D campaign, but kobolds are a difficult adversary for apprentices or first level NPC-classed heroes. For such characters a dozen kobolds aren’t critters you slaughter casually and just swig a healing potion. They are a foe that will take planning, cunning, and luck for a few untrained people to beat.
By picking good goals, you can make any power level interesting. Spend time during character generation to generate PCs with complex relationships. Take advantage of their lack of power and embed them in their location. (They won’t move around as much.) Jealous lovers and cruel guild masters are difficult opponents for anyone under their thumb to oppose. Make the plots personal. Whether you’re level one or twenty, a rival who spits on you will spark passion, even if he’s just another scribe in the copy room and you’re only competing to become the Duke’s seneschal.
A good relationship map of the characters and recurring NPCs can help you brainstorm the new night’s adventure. A mysterious threatening note, your character’s son or daughter caught with their pants down, or the guild master trying to give your hard earned spot to his idiot son can make for a solid plot that doesn’t require tactical nukes to solve.
Another solution is to pick a familiar setting, like a modern day campaign. Players should have a good idea about how ordinary people can have outsized effects without powers. Playing mortals in the World of Darkness, you could run a completely mundane game- the characters could be ordinary cops inspired by your group’s love of The Wire or Law and Order. Even without magical powers, ordinary police can use their influence for public good or self aggrandizement.
Investigative adventures work well in any setting. Figuring out what happened doesn’t require fiery confrontation- just an interesting mystery. steady work by the PCs, and specialized knowledge. Low level divinations can have a huge impact on these types of adventures, as can a good gather information roll, science skills in a CSI game, or Mythos in Call of Cthulu.
The players need to buy in to a low powered game. If they want to hack and slay but you force them to make low powered characters, they’ll be frustrated when their actions kill them off. Once they aim for a different goal it won’t feel like a poor man’s version of the standard game.
The system you pick will influence the characters that result. If you’re trying to drive home the horrors of war, abstract damage systems like Hero and D&D might not be your best choice. (Break out the old Rolemaster crit tables!) If you’re looking for a way to show normal people in extraordinary situations, make sure that your game can handle ordinary people well. If ordinary people are an after thought in your game’s design, your players may wind up playing heroes who suck instead of ordinary people who struggle.
Railroading can be avoided just as easily in at low power as high. You’ll still need to prepare prompts for the plot, so they don’t just wander around playing out their lives as accountants. Connecting them to the plot can be an extra burden, particularly if you’re used to giving the PCs plots because “they’re the only heroes are in town”.
The best way to ensure that orders don’t become railroading is to avoid ordering things related to the heart of your game. If you’re playing a military game with a focus on how the PCs treat local NPCs, then have the leader give the soldiers tasks (but not specify how to accomplish them). If the characters are caravan guards and you’re interested in tactical play, don’t have the merchants who hire them understand tactics and don’t let the merchants micromanage the PC deployments. If you’re playing a soldiers in war, the whole game can be about the tension of following orders versus your heart and instincts. Easiest of all is soap opera play- orders become just one more hurdle crowding in the path between you and your true love (or this week’s guest star).
Are you excited about playing normal people in an extraordinary world? What advice did I miss for making this type of game practical and fun? Have you played (or run) in a campaign like this? Tell us about your experiences.