Regaining Balance: running fun and balanced combats with an asymmetrical party.

Image Courtesy of Corbis Images

Gamers come in a wide variety of flavors. Some are canny, cunning old veterans and others are fresh-faced newcomers with a slightly bewildered gleam in their eye. Math and science majors rub shoulders and butt heads with artists,  writers, and drama fiends. The vast majority of us fall somewhere in between these extremes, and most groups usually come out as a hodgepodge mixture of these different elements.

As such, it is no surprise that some people are better at making more powerful characters than others. Some do it for the thrill of power and to lay hideously unbalanced waste to their enemies. Others, like certain members of my group, enjoy breaking a system into splintery little flinders and rolling around in the pieces while making an unsettling giggling noise. Since roleplaying is supposed to be fun for everyone at the table, not just the powergamers, running a balanced game where everyone feels like an involved, contributing member can be a righteous pain in the ass… and that goes double for combat. If you feel like reading a few pointers for giving everyone an equal slice of the murder pie, mosey on past the jump for a few tips on running a better, balanced combat with an asymmetrical party.



1. Make sure everything’s been filled out completely and correctly.

I tend to belabor this point a lot, but that’s because it tends to have a serious impact on the game in a variety of ways. Derived attributes are the bane of many fledgling players, and I’ve seen people short themselves a significant amount of combat prowess because one or more of their values hadn’t been updated recently, filled out properly, or calculated at all in the first place. Improving the abilities of the less cheese-thickened characters will go a long way towards restoring the balance to your game.

2. Get everyone on the same page in regards to powers and abilities. 

I have never, to my knowledge, had anyone cheat in one of my games. That said, I’ve had people interpret the way powers work significantly differently from the way I would have, and if someone is becoming problematic with the use of a certain ability, go over it with them and make sure it actually works the way they say it does. It also helps to go over powers with the newer players and make sure they understand exactly how they work and what they can be used for.

3. Reward teamwork.

Creating an incentive to work together can work wonders for party cohesion and cooperation. Offering an XP bonus for group-executed actions and planning that involves every member of the party in a fairly equal capacity can do a lot of your work for you. This can also work when you’ve got a mixture of pushier, decisive people and those of us who are a little more soft-spoken and accommodating. Getting the players involved in making sure that everyone gets a crack at the action will usually work a lot better than you trying to do it on your lonesome.

4. Power comes at a price. 

People who excel at a small handful of things tend to do so at the cost of a broader range of abilities. Unfortunately, with most systems the ability to commit gratuitous amounts of face-stabbing can usually be had at the cost of anything remotely resembling social or trade skills, which usually don’t come up in combat that often. That said, changing up the opponents (or the type of encounter) to offset the abilities of the powergamers can help get things back on a proper keel. A melee-monster might find themselves at a disadvantage when faced with a shootout across the width of a deep canyon, just as a peerless archer would be severely inconvenienced by a series of pitched battles in narrow, sharply-winding tunnels or a heavy blanket of fog.

5. Summon the Horde. 

As a GM, I enjoy using large swarms of weaker opponents. While it can make combat take a bit longer, it provides everyone with something to do, and it even the most min-maxed character will have a cap on the number of mooks they can plow through in a round. This tactic not only encourages teamwork to keep the players from getting surrounded and torn apart, but it also provides the more generalized characters with opponents they can fight and defeat while still providing a challenge for the powergamers. Foe distribution is key with this tactic, as you need to make sure to pile a sufficient number of opponents on the munchkins to keep them busy without burying the other characters in a meaty avalanche of enemies.

6. Change up the opponents.  

Most stock enemies in roleplaying games tend to be fairly balanced between offensive and defensive capabilities, or fairly mediocre at pretty much everything, depending on the setting. Changing the focus of the opponents to fit a specific role can really help matters. Pitting the party against more defensively-oriented opponents can provide a solid challenge for everyone without creating enemies that will flatten anyone but the powergamers. High hit points, solid armor, and regenerative abilities can keep them alive long enough to engage with all the players, but a decreased emphasis on attack means they won’t splatter the character of the player who chose to invest in character development over chasing the ideal arrangement of combat abilities.

7. Look! A shiny distraction! 

Sometimes, the only thing you can do is keep the more system-oriented people occupied with a conflict of their own while the rest of the party fights a different, albeit equally important, battle elsewhere. Splitting the party almost never ends well, but sometimes it’s  an excellent opportunity to let the shyer players come into their own without being constantly overshadowed by the showy, 20-year veteran of a thousand dungeon crawls.

8. Reserve the Deathblow 

This is not something you should make a regular habit of. However, letting one of the less-accomplished players score the killing blow on a tough enemy, regardless of the fact that they still had 20 hit points left or Baron Munchhausen over there should have technically killed them three rounds ago, can do wonders for their morale. If you’re of the school of thought that the players live or die by the dice and eschew fudging things at all, then this probably isn’t the strategy for you. It can, however, give people a strong sense of accomplishment, regardless of their actual numerical contribution to the fight. Regardless of our motivations for playing, I think we all share at least a little love for the thrill of achieving glory in battle, and that sense of accomplishment is something that should be shared equally among comrades.


In Conclusion 

Our goal with the game is, first and foremost, to have fun. It’s not fun for people to sit there while Sir Stabby McKillspree mows down every orc in a hundred-yard radius before they’ve even gotten a chance to draw their seldom-used weapon. It is also extremely frustrating to be hampered, handicapped, and shut down because you happen to be outpacing the other players. It’s important to make sure that everyone is enjoying the game, and it’s always better to throw in unique challenges and lift the players with less experience at rule molestation up as opposed to dragging the more system-oriented people down or nerfing their abilities without precedent.

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