Handling Overpowered Player Characters

Dragon Magazine issue 314 Cover I spent most of today working on a project which will affect the future of Comma, Blank_. Once completed, I think it will be a huge improvement for this humble blog. Until that time, however, I’m afraid that working on it is consuming much of the time I would otherwise be using to play tabletop games, and write about them for your amusement. I’ve actually been working on it since early December, and only mention it now because I accidentally let it get far too late on a day which I’m supposed to post something. So my options are to stay up really late to finish today’s post, or cop-out. And with work in the morning, I’ve decided to cop-out. So I hope you liked Gary Gygax’s story of the Jeweled Man from last week, because it’s time for another post based on The All-Father’s column.

This time it’s a tale of self-destructing PCs from Dragon #314, first published in December of 2003. Gygax reminisces about an overconfident player with a high leveled character he didn’t earn, and gives advice on how to deal with such players. Advice I don’t entirely agree with, in matter of fact. But we’ll get to that later.

Once again, I will reprint Gygax’s original words here, but I do so without permission. I’m doing this because this is from a seven-year-old issue of a magazine which has been out of print for almost 5 years (by Vecna’s Eye, has it been that long? ;_;). To my knowledge, it’s not currently possible to read this column unless you somehow manage to physically acquire an original copy of the issue. And once again, I will happily remove it if contacted by anyone from Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast, or the Gygax Estate.

Self Destructing PCs

Unearned levels are the PC’s worst enemy

Many DMs have asked me how I handle characters that are obviously over-powered, “jumped-up” PCs that never really earned their high abilities and survive by massive hit-point total, super magic, and unearned ease in attacking with sword or spell. To such inquiries, I respond that in recognizing this sort of character I simply play the encounters a bit differently, mainly in the presentation of information, not in “fudging” of the dice rolls for monsters. Inept players will destroy their characters without having to resort to such methods. Allow me to illustrate this with the following account:

While at a regional convention in upstate New York, I was asked to run adventures in my campaign’s Castle Greyhawk Dungeons. An assembly of players gathered for what was billed a moderate-level excursion. One aggressive young chap came to the table with a 13th-level ranger, supposedly his least powerful character. Although the others in the group had PCs of about half that level and were chary about including the lad with the ranger, I assured them all would work just fine, even with experience division given by shares according to level.

There followed some initial exploration and minor encounters as the team worked its way down into the dungeon maze. The first real test came when the party came into a large chamber with many pillars and several doors. As the main group discussed what strategy they would follow in this locale, a bold dwarf broke off and opened a nearby door. Rather than telling the player what he saw, I told the players this:

“The dwarf slams the door. He reels back and comes staggering towards the rest of you, stammering something that sounds like. ‘G-ga-get back! W-wuh… Horrible! A bunch of them!’ He is obviously fearful and thus incoherent.

The 13th-level ranger hesitated not a moment. Without consulting with his fellows, the character ran to the door that the dwarf had slammed closed and opened it without concern. The four wights that were preparing to exit their lair confronted him, won initiative, and two succeeded in hitting. In the ensuing melee, these undead monsters managed to strike the ranger twice more, so at the end of the battle, the ranger was of a level more commensurate with the others, 9th as it were.

Much disturbed by that turn of events, but clearly not chagrined by his rash behavior and the results, the ranger insisted on leading the way. Soon thereafter, they discovered a staircase down, and beside it lay an alcove wherein a great clay pot rested, radiating heat and billowing smoke. The other PCs advised leaving the strange vessel alone, but the ranger determined to attack it. As he did so, all the other characters fled the area. With a single blow the ranger shattered the pot, and thus a really angry fire elemental was freed. It didn’t take long for that monster to finish off the ranger, and thereafter it departed.

I took the character sheet from the fellow, suggesting that he should be more careful with such potent characters in the future, for surely he had spent a long time gaining 13th level with his now dead ranger PC. He left the table without comment, and the rest of the group went on to several exciting hours of dungeon delving.

This shows that unearned levels don’t translate to playing ability. To the contrary, the power gained often makes the player overconfident. Any able DM can craft adventures that weed out unwise and inept players who think to bulldoze their way through problems by use of undeserved power. That’s possible only in computer games where saved games and cheat codes serve to reward such play.

Clearly, the culture surrounding the game in those days was significantly different than it is today. I can’t imagine a GM taking a player’s character sheet like that. But, then, neither can I really imagine arguing with Gary Gygax if he was my Dungeon Master.

Vegeta, what's the reader say about his power level? IT'S OVER NINE THOUSAND!This column struck a cord with me because my own character, Zalekios Gromar, is bursting with unearned power. Not only is he a Gestalt character with levels in both Warlock and Rogue, but a few years back my GM facetiously gave him a Ring of 100 Wishes, which rocketed his undeserved power level into the stratosphere. Of course, Zalekios is a very special case. He has no party–no companions to excel in the areas where he is weak. He’s got to be able to handle everything by himself. That being said, though, he could still probably out-perform four characters of equivalent level. The character is overpowered. I won’t argue that.

The way my GM and I have always handled it is simply to raise the difficulty of the challenges Zalekios must face. And, when we get it right, it works very well. A few sessions ago, Zalekios was very nearly killed when he was attacked by a level 16 gestalt Paladin/Barbarian character. My GM overruled the fact that Paladins must be lawful, and Barbarians must be Chaotic, because he’s evil like that. The combination of rage and smite evil very nearly ended Zalekios career. If not for some clever tactics on my part, using Dimensional Door and Eldritch Blast to keep my foe at range, I would not have survived.

And if all the players are overpowered, that’s a fine solution. But most often, that’s not the case. Players being different levels than one another is not often a problem in modern games, but power disparity will always exist. Sometimes players pull min-maxed builds off of the Internet. Other times, you underestimate just how effective a certain magic item will be in the hands of your players. Or, occasionally, a player just gets really stupidly lucky with a Deck of Many Things. And in this, I think Gary’s advice is eternal.

Let player skill determine whether your player deserves what he or she has. Give them opportunities to be overconfident, and pay for it. A player who has easily cut through challenges which the other players would have struggled with is going to come to expect it. So throw them a curve-ball. Drop a high leveled monster on them, and watch as they refuse to run away from a fight. Don’t take their power from them, just put them into a position where foolish action will cause them to lose it.

Of course, this may not always work. If your player is just as skilled as they are powerful, then you may need to reassess. You don’t want them to ruin the game for the other PCs who are left to stroll in their companion’s wake. But neither do you want to punish the player if they’ve made no mistakes. At this point you might consider making a loss of their power part of an important quest. Perhaps the artifact they acquired is evil and needs to be destroyed, or perhaps it is the lost blade of a celestial general who needs it to continue the battle against evil. If the deck of many things granted the player millions of gold, let him learn that an equivalent amount of gold disappeared from the coffers of a small nation, which is now unable to feed its people during a famine. If all else fails, you can just buff up the rest of the party, and the encounter level along with it.

As a side note, is it just me, or does it seem really uncool to take control of a player’s character? I know role playing games were different in those days, and the particular instance here is pretty mundane, but I can’t imagine ever doing that. The control a player has over their character is sacrosanct in my mind. I would have at least allowed him a saving throw versus fear.

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One thought on “Handling Overpowered Player Characters”

  1. –This is an imported comment from the old blog–

    Name: Robert Fisher
    Date: Jan 23, 2012 12:44 PM

    Gary really isn’t talking about a wide spread of levels in a party. Or ratcheting up the challenge for high level PCs. That’s just incidental here. It isn’t even really about making up a high level character instead of playing a character up to high level.

    He’s just addressing the kind of player who tries, foolishly, to cheat at D&D. Some DMs, when they suspect this behavior, think they should do something about it. But it is kind of uncomfortable to call out a player as a liar or otherwise address it directly. Gary, here, is advising them that there’s no need to do much of anything special because the inexperienced player will hoist themself on their own petard. All the DM has to do is give them the opportunity.

    At least, that’s my impression based on reading his stories and conversations with him.

    Yes, taking the character sheet seems weird. I’ve never seen a DM do it, but it is something Gary seemed to do on occasion.

    Taking control of a PC? Yeah, that’s generally bad form. As long as a DM doesn’t abuse this tactic and uses it sparingly, it can be done to good effect, though. OTOH, Gary may just be summarizing here. There may have been a brief side conversation with the player or notes passed.