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You Set the Baseline

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On July 2, 2009 @ 12:01 am In GMing Advice | 5 Comments

I was running a Star Wars campaign a few years ago (revised pre-Saga) edition. One of the most helpful sections in the core book was a list of stat blocks for NPCs. As I wanted these stat blocks to be challenging for the PCs, I decided that the PCs would be standard by-the-book characters.

When I showed up to the first session, I discovered that the group had a set of Star Wars characters that had been created for a game that lasted all of two sessions. Since they were all 1st level and had backgrounds suitable for my campaign, the players wanted to use them. Unfortunately, I knew that these PCs would have better stats than what I wanted them to have.

So what do I do?

The question is as old as gaming. In ye olden times, there would always be one person (or three) that would end up with two 18s, a 17, and no other score lower than a 15, especially if you used the honor system. If I ran a game of Marvel Superheroes (FASERIP) and annouced that I wanted a “street level” campaign, I’d still get a set of PCs that would shrug off bullets.

Nor did “point-buy” systems fix the issue. If I was running a horror campaign, my group of “average joe” PCs would be armed to the teeth and ready for (dire) bear. Justifications were easy. “My waitress PC takes tae kwon do classes during the day.” “My lawyer PC is a weekend warrior.” “My chef PC used to be a street thug in his youth.”

One trick I’ve learned is that, as the GM, I set the baseline.

For my Star Wars game, it was simple. I took the average of the party’s stats and found that, on average, they were about +2 higher than the “elite array” (which is what the NPCs were built on). I just added +2 to all of my NPCs stats and I was finished. The game was challenging. I’ve used it in other d20/OGL games as well.

For FASERIP, I made guns more lethal. An assault rifle’s damage already pasted an average bystander; upping the damage to be more deadly to superheroes really didn’t affect the average joe; he was still getting pasted.

For my horror games, things were a bit different. My original baseline assumed that the PCs would be normal people. Once I realized that my players wanted to be able to kick a little butt, I rolled with it and changed my baseline. I amped up the action a bit and let them blast away at a few minor horrors, only to let the major ones be impervious to their karate chops and bullets.

There are other ways to craft the game you want as well. GURPS uses the “Unusual Background,” which can be easily ported to any point-buy system. If the player really wants something that you wouldn’t normally allow then she can get it, but at an increased cost. Similarly, you can tie experience points to power level. If you tell your players that the amount of XP for an average encounter is inversely proportional to their average stat modifier, then you’ll soon see more balanced heroes (just be careful to set a floor; otherwise you’ll have a party of characters with a 3 in everything).

Roleplaying awards also work well. I once wanted to capture a “silver age” feel in a superhero campaign, so I came up with a list of XP rewards for appropriate behaviors. The PCs were soon playing model silver age heroes.

So remember, no matter what kinds of characters the players want to play and the lengths they’ll go to make them powerful, YOU set the baseline. It’s one of the biggest tools in your GMing arsenal.

What say you? What techniques have you used to keep games balanced or running the way you’d envisioned?

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "You Set the Baseline"

#1 Comment By Tabulazero On July 2, 2009 @ 2:35 am

I usually give the choice to my players to choose between a set of 3 arrays when they create their characters (we play Runequest).

I typically make it so that the sum of each array is equal but differentiate by making one array quite unbalanced (high and low numbers) and one quite even (with little difference between numbers).

This has 3 key adavantages 1) It gives me control since I am one creating the arrays 2) It still leaves a lot of choice to the players (some prefer character which are very specialised while other prefer jack-of-all trades)3) Everyone starts with the same choices, thus avoiding the argument that so and so had it easy because they had so much higher characteristics to start with

As for keeping things under control I give experience rolls to pretty everyone but only what I call hero point to the player that had the best RP in my opinion. Hero Points are different from experience rolls. They cannot be used to increase a skill but instead they can be used to buy re-rolls or special talents. It create a kind of competition as to whom will have the best RP

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 2, 2009 @ 7:57 am

I like your “shift the median scores” trick. Much easier than starting a campaign with an argument.

#3 Comment By John Arcadian On July 2, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

Excellent article. My players are always trying to move outside the bounds I initially set for the game. I learn to just roll with it, because it makes the game more fun for the players.

When the players get beyond the power level of my predesigned encounters, I’ll usually change the next one to amp it up a bit. I’ll also design my encounters a little beyond, and then have the enemies hold back a bit. If you think of it in a realistic way, the group of enemies wouldn’t normally throw absolutely everything at one group, unless they realize it becomes life or death, just like the PCs aren’t going to go all out and use every power until they feel the risk/cost/benefit ratio is justified.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On July 2, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

I like your solution. It lets the players feel special with their above average stats, but keeps the balance in the game by quietly advancing the monsters to match.

I’ve tried to keep PCs within a tight band of each other, but I didn’t think to just adjust the NPCs up to match. Adding +1 to everything sure seems easier than what I wound up doing…

#5 Comment By Nicholas On July 2, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

I find that a careful explaining of the mood you are looking for goes a long way. Even if you set heavy restrictions in point-buy or some other limiting tool, a determined player will still make an over powered character. If you make it clear what you want, they will usually go just a little bit stronger than that and you must meet them halfway.


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