Let the Heroes be Strong


Ultimately, campaigns, much like movies, are about your protagonists. Much as Henry said in his previous article on Screen Time, “by running a game you are agreeing to give the PCs the stage”. Of course, by ‘the stage’, he meant something akin to ‘camera time’. But not only should the camera follow them (mostly), but they should also be the movers and shakers of the universe. Of course, there are some exceptions: villains will often be stronger than PCs, especially in games with elements of horror. And there may be campaigns in which the PCs have limited agency (or are a part of events bigger than themselves). But in those cases, they should still, ultimately, be the agents of the events they ARE privy to.

To give an example, should you be running a WWII campaign, you don’t necessarily have to make all of your characters generals. On the other hand, if they are all Privates, you may do well to separate them from any commanding officers, or render them otherwise unfit. Why? Because ultimately, a roleplaying game is predicated on the idea that the players’ decisions are meaningful. In the situation described above, the players only have two meaningful decisions: follow orders, or mutiny. I am not necessarily saying that such a campaign could NOT be done well, but if I were hearing it described to me, I’d be at least a bit skeptical from the beginning.

Authority is not the only way that an NPC can take limelight away from the PCs. Power is another one. Think back to any movie in which one massively powerful character exists. They are (typically) either the protagonist, or rarely present. For example, how would the adventures of LotR be meaningful if Gandalf were with them the whole time? Everything’s less scary when you have a powerful wizard following you around! As Henry had also mentioned, “if one of your NPCs is competing with the PCs for screen time or story focus, you should take that as a warning sign”. This again applies not only to camera time but power. Ultimately, the reason for this is simple: if a powerful NPC has to solve every problem of the PCs, it takes away the agency of the players, and disenfranchises their agency.

Now, of course, there are two large exceptions:

  1. Villains
    • Villains should typically start off overpowering the PCs. However, cinematic convention tends to dictate that they only engage at disadvantages at first. For example, they could engage
      • From afar/through minions
        • Sauron throughout LotR
      • While weak/away from sources of power
        • Voldemort in the first 5 books
      • While hedging their power for some reason.
        • Darth Vader does not intend to kill Luke in their first encounter, but to convert him.
      • Only symbolically/in a metaphorical battle
        • A Cold War of proxy
        • A game of chess.
      • Not intending to kill directly, but through machinations. For example, Bond Villains.
  2. Horror campaigns
    • The monsters in horror campaigns are supposed to be terrifying, and the characters are supposed to range from weak to completely powerless.
    • These monsters SHOULD be more powerful than the players. The players should be more focused on survival, or perhaps attacking a specific source of weakness in the monster, but they should not be attacking the monsters head-on.

Again, there are guidelines, and not rules, but typically, if an NPC is going to be stronger than the PCs, his/her camera time should be limited, or he/she should be a villain or foil of sorts. Otherwise, they risk dominating every scene they are in, and then they just feel like a PC with whom the GM is playing favorites.


2 responses to “Let the Heroes be Strong

  1. Pingback: Opportunities vs. Obstacles | Fistful of Wits

  2. I think there are places for strong NPCs. You shouldn’t have Elminster follow the party along and kill every enemy, but there is nothing conceptually wrong with having a universe where most people are more dangerous than the heroes and part of the game is avoiding direct conflict until you set up a favorable situation. It’s about agency rather than power. Actually, a good example here would be Aladdin: you could have a frequently present great power (the genie) as long as his agency is limited. It isn’t a problem to have Elminster follow the party if he’s frequently not working with them as long as your players are fine with the idea that part of the game is working around his personality and manipulating him. My first thought for your WWII campaign where everyone is a private is that the game wouldn’t be about mutiny vs obedience but about not getting caught at whatever shenanigans the players choose to engage in. As long as the players have agency and the game is framed in terms of that agency overshadowing shouldn’t be an issue (having the genie as an unlimited fix all would be boring, but because there aren’t any challenges or creative space left, not because it was an NPC that had the power; the problem is the same if you let one of the players play Pun Pun)

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