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The Level Playing Field - random discussion

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The Level Playing Field - random discussion

Postby pachristian » Mon Dec 26, 2016 1:28 pm

The level playing field that I insist on in my game works like this: PC's and NPC's follow the same rules.

To me, this is intuitive. Many GM's I talk with disagree. When I say "how powerful should an NPC be?" they reply with "as powerful as needed for the scenario." This is a correct answer, but it has an arbitrary quality. You see, if the playing field is going to be level, the PC's have to have the same opportunities as the NPC's. Yes, social class and wealth unbalances the playing field. But a player-character can be from a wealthy and privileged class.

Players are competitive: I want them competing against the NPC's. For that, there has to be a sense of fairness in how the game is run.

So the first ironclad rule is: No NPC is more powerful than a PC can become.

If I'm running in Glorantha, with demigod NPC's, then I feel I have an obligation to provide a path to power to match those NPC's. It's only fair to the players: the game is not "Mighty NPC's" story, it is the player-character's story. A corollary is that there are no NPC classes: No NPC-only cults or organizations that give huge power bonuses to their members.

The second ironclad rule is: The NPC's had to go through the same kind of experience/training cycle as the PC's.

So if you encounter the fifteen-year-old Japanese schoolgirl who is a super-powerful wizard, then you know something is fishy. She couldn't have gained that much power in that short of a time. For that matter, if Sir Eric Von Stromm is the greatest knight in the kingdom, then you can learn his history by talking to minstrels and heralds: He has a track record of training, battles fought in, and adventures completed.

The third ironclad rule is: The Game Rules are used to define parameters of power. Parameters of Power are quantified.

The game rules set the standards that PC's must achieve to advance in their order. NPC's follow the same rules. Ergo, the High Priest of Set has (at least) two of his five cult skills at 110%+. You don't know which two, and you probably don't even know what his five cult skills are. But you know he's supremely good at something! For that matter, if I tell you that the Cyrenean Third Legion is a veteran unit, but the 22nd is pretty green, then you know (per Ships and Shieldwalls) that members of the third have their key skills in the 71-90% range, but most members of the 22nd are in the 31-50% range.

Is it more work to build a game this way? Perhaps, but I think it gives the players a chance to plan ahead and make intelligent decisions. If the GM follows a set of consistent rules, and the players trust that, then anomalies and mysteries spark a desire to investigate - that is, adventures - instead of "oh god, he's doing it again."

Comments or observations?
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Re: The Level Playing Field - random discussion

Postby soltakss » Mon Dec 26, 2016 2:28 pm

pachristian wrote:So the first ironclad rule is: No NPC is more powerful than a PC can become.


I agree with this. There is no point having artificial ceilings that restrict how powerful PCs can get.

pachristian wrote:The second ironclad rule is: The NPC's had to go through the same kind of experience/training cycle as the PC's.


I don't always agree with this.

Some NPCs have gone through magical processes that have increased their skills. I would say that an NPC should be generated using a set of rules, so a 15 year old magician might be very powerful as she was rolled up at a Legendary level (does Mythras have this concept, I cannot remember) whereas PCs are rolled up using Standard level.

pachristian wrote:The third ironclad rule is: The Game Rules are used to define parameters of power. Parameters of Power are quantified.


Sure, that is fine. However, I reserve the right, as a GM, to give NPCs spells and abilities that are not in the normal rules. Just because an NPC has an ability, it doesn't always mean that PCs have access to the ability.

Also, a Priest of Set might be a priest because he is a son of Set or because his father is High Priest of Set. There is nothing wrong with giving an NPC, or PC, a level in a cult that they don't qualify for, as a result of nepotism or patronage.
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Re: The Level Playing Field - random discussion

Postby pachristian » Mon Dec 26, 2016 3:03 pm

soltakss wrote:
pachristian wrote:The second ironclad rule is: The NPC's had to go through the same kind of experience/training cycle as the PC's.


I don't always agree with this.

Some NPCs have gone through magical processes that have increased their skills. I would say that an NPC should be generated using a set of rules, so a 15 year old magician might be very powerful as she was rolled up at a Legendary level (does Mythras have this concept, I cannot remember) whereas PCs are rolled up using Standard level.


We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. If there is a magical process that can increase a character's skill, then the PC's should have access to it. What's more likely is the little girl is possessed by a powerful ancestor spirit... but that's an adventure in and of itself.

pachristian wrote:
pachristian wrote:The third ironclad rule is: The Game Rules are used to define parameters of power. Parameters of Power are quantified.


Sure, that is fine. However, I reserve the right, as a GM, to give NPCs spells and abilities that are not in the normal rules. Just because an NPC has an ability, it doesn't always mean that PCs have access to the ability.

Also, a Priest of Set might be a priest because he is a son of Set or because his father is High Priest of Set. There is nothing wrong with giving an NPC, or PC, a level in a cult that they don't qualify for, as a result of nepotism or patronage.


Now this I disagree with. If an NPC has access to an ability, then PC's have access to the same ability. There are often restrictions (such as specific cult membership) but they can have access if they are willing to make the appropriate sacrifices.

I do draw a distinction between political level and magical level: An NPC who was made high priest of a cult that he does not qualify for is a political appointee; he does not have the magic or abilities associated with that cult, and he rules the cult with the quiet contempt of those whom he leapfrogged over. Just like in the real world. So I should have been more specific.
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Re: The Level Playing Field - random discussion

Postby soltakss » Mon Dec 26, 2016 5:29 pm

I'm not saying that PCs can never get certain NPC abilities, but that some NPCs can start with abilities that the PCs won't have access to. If they HeroQuest or join certain organisations, then they might get them, but it won't be easy. This abilities reserved for descendants of a certain deity will not be available to PCs unless the PCs are descendant of said deity, for example.
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Re: The Level Playing Field - random discussion

Postby pachristian » Mon Dec 26, 2016 9:24 pm

Agreed -

"Easy" is not any part of the equation.

As for the "child of a deity" option - as long as that is an option to a PC, then it's perfectly fine for an NPC as well.
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Re: The Level Playing Field - random discussion

Postby skoll » Tue Dec 27, 2016 3:24 am

I am more of the "as powerful as needed" -school. But I'd like to think, that I'm not unfair with this.

The way I see it, there's a difference between theory and practice. Let’s take Blueface in Glorantha (or Merlin). In theory, yes, the PC’s should be able to become the most powerful shaman in the world, but in practice it took Blueface over a 100 years of study and practice to acquire that powerlevel, and our campaigns simply don’t cover those kinds of timeframes.

As a matter of fact, in practice the PC’s have the advantage, as their progression speed is significantly faster than that of any NPC. In two years of adventuring a dedicated PC can have one skill at 100%. But the world would be a very different kind of place, when every other 22 year old thug would have a fighting skill of 100%. Are you impartial with this?

Another thing I sometimes bend the rules with, are magical items. NPC’s might have magical items PC’s can’t create. There are ancient artifacts, which nobody knows how to create anymore. And of course, the PC’s can acquire the artifacts by disposing of the previous owner.

Coming back to (un)leveling the field between PC’s and NPC’s… There are often elements baked into the setting, that allow creating NPC’s with powers PC’s don’t have access to. For example, in Mythic Britain Celtic druids never bind spirits, but the Saxon shamans don’t have this restriction. Or in Glorantha, you can always give some weird chaotic features to a foe (assuming, it’s a creature with some connection to Chaos) to create a memorable fight, while knowing, that the PC’s will never want to get chaotic features (assuming it’s a traditional campaign).
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Re: The Level Playing Field - random discussion

Postby skoll » Tue Dec 27, 2016 3:36 am

pachristian wrote:As for the "child of a deity" option - as long as that is an option to a PC, then it's perfectly fine for an NPC as well.
If the main boss the campaign is an ancient demon king, should the players be able to roll a demon king as well?

I think this underlines the differences in our approaches. I usually want to create a world, that is bigger than the heroes. There’s a lot they can achieve, but some things are out of reach for them. There are things they will never know, powers they will never achieve. I believe (hope) this adds to an atmosphere of mystique. By giving the players everything they want, I’m afraid the world becomes mundane quickly.
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Re: The Level Playing Field - random discussion

Postby nDervish » Tue Dec 27, 2016 8:30 am

pachristian wrote:The level playing field that I insist on in my game works like this: PC's and NPC's follow the same rules.


I tend to agree in general, although I do make a few exceptions. Most significantly, I don't give Luck Points to every single NPC in the world. Those are specific to the PCs an a relatively small number of other major figures in the game. I could also imagine myself using the Rabble and Underlings rules for human opposition in certain circumstances, although that's not yet happened in actual practice. (If it did, it would be for reasons of keeping play moving quickly, not out of narrative, worldbuilding, or "balance" concerns.)

pachristian wrote:If I'm running in Glorantha, with demigod NPC's, then I feel I have an obligation to provide a path to power to match those NPC's.


I'm not familiar with Glorantha. Did these demigod NPCs start life as humans and then grow into demigodhood?

If not, and they are true demigods in the sense of having one divine and one mortal parent, then isn't this basically like saying elf NPCs are not allowed unless there's a way for human PCs to become elves? Some things you just have to be born with and cannot develop later in life, no matter how hard you work at it. Except, perhaps, if reality-warping magic is available which can be used to remake a person completely, but such magic is not appropriate to every setting.

pachristian wrote:It's only fair to the players: the game is not "Mighty NPC's" story, it is the player-character's story.


Interesting statement. Do you really feel that every RPG is just the story of the most powerful person in the setting? Because I've run plenty of WFRP and other games where the PCs are basically just a bunch of average-to-below-average schlubs with nothing special about them, and yet the game is still very much the story of those PCs.

pachristian wrote:A corollary is that there are no NPC classes: No NPC-only cults or organizations that give huge power bonuses to their members.


Definitely agreed here. If a human can learn it and a PC is a human, then the PC can clearly learn it.

pachristian wrote:The second ironclad rule is: The NPC's had to go through the same kind of experience/training cycle as the PC's.


Again, mostly agreed, but there are some people who are able to achieve astonishing things at a very early age due to some combination of natural aptitude and/or access to exceptional training. I'm perfectly content to include such individuals as NPCs without necessarily making that kind of background available to PCs. (At least in Mythras-type games. If it were GURPS, then I'd definitely assign an appropriate point cost and allow PCs to buy it as an Unusual Background.)

pachristian wrote:Is it more work to build a game this way? Perhaps, but I think it gives the players a chance to plan ahead and make intelligent decisions.


If you're willing to approximate/estimate the NPCs instead of rigorously developing them through the same rules used by the PCs ("OK, this high priest should have about 350 skill rolls. First skill roll goes into Influence... *roll* 86, so he gains *roll* 3 points of Influence skill... Second skill roll goes into...") then I'd say it can be less work. If nothing else, it avoids having to remember two different sets of rules.

pachristian wrote:As for the "child of a deity" option - as long as that is an option to a PC, then it's perfectly fine for an NPC as well.


If Set has a child, then someone is that child. But it's almost certainly not you. (Kind of like lottery winners, now that I think about it...)

skoll wrote:I think this underlines the differences in our approaches. I usually want to create a world, that is bigger than the heroes. There’s a lot they can achieve, but some things are out of reach for them. There are things they will never know, powers they will never achieve. I believe (hope) this adds to an atmosphere of mystique. By giving the players everything they want, I’m afraid the world becomes mundane quickly.


QFT. And note that it also goes the other direction, too - the PCs are special in ways that nobody else in the setting can ever be, simply by virtue of being PCs. (And I'm talking here about things like each PC having an entire brain to himself, while all the NPCs have to share the GM's brain between them. I don't mean plot immunity or anything of that sort.)
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Re: The Level Playing Field - random discussion

Postby Matt_E » Tue Dec 27, 2016 10:14 pm

skoll wrote:I am more of the "as powerful as needed" -school. But I'd like to think, that I'm not unfair with this.


I agree with skoll. Being arbitrary is not being unfair, nor is it being loosely defined. Unfair is bad, I can agree, but the others are not necessarily so.

I would not artificially limit PCs in terms of the power they can achieve, but NPCs might well be more powerful than a particular group of PCs can expect to become in any reasonable time. Not everyone is going to succeed at becoming king, even if he wants to try, although I would not flatly refuse the attempt. This is one way in which the probabilistic aspects of the game can handle matters quite nicely.

I do not believe in an inherent need, or right, to a level playing field for PCs and NPCs. However, a GM who runs a game that's perceived to be (whether or not it is) manifestly unbalanced or injust, does so at her peril. Those games usually die promptly, I think.

The world does not have to be a fair and balanced place, where all rules play out the same for everyone, day in and day out. In terms of (meta)physical law, sure, PCs and NPCs all have HP and MP and muscles and blood, fine. I'm not talking about that, though. That's the canvas under the painting, to me, and with that given, some characters may be painted very large and bright, yet others small and dull. The players do get to exert some control over how the paint is spilled, though; that's what we call "agency" and "co-creating the world", and is the difference between roleplaying and reading stories.
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Re: The Level Playing Field - random discussion

Postby Jefferiot » Thu Dec 29, 2016 11:46 pm

I wouldn't make anything arbitrary rigid across all settings. If the GM and his players want to explore a setting from a certain point of view, they may want to limit the player characters to those characters with that point of view. The point of view may be the one that sees how unfair everything is.
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