PDA

View Full Version : How do do different rpgs balance (successfully or otherwise)story breaking abilities



Ameraaaaaa
2021-09-25, 12:46 AM
I was thinking about how exalted (which i only know from reputation) balances out the various overpowered abilities mainly through limited energy to spend on them (or maybe i was thinking of nobilis) and i was wondering how different rpgs balance normally would be story breaking powers in other mediums.

So what are some examples of such attempts of balancing normally op abilities?

Telok
2021-09-25, 01:32 AM
What's a story breaking ability? Honestly, I don't understand the phrase.

I know of complaints of 'game breaking', 'plot/adventure breaking', and 'balance breaking' stuff. For example, in an old Dragon Mag from AD&D days that's... somewhere in a closet... there's a short adventure that's a murder mystery. Its bent around the fact that the level of character its for (and one of the pregen characters) can cast mind reading and zone of truth spells. The adventure fully admits that its the reason the actual badguys & murderer are all either equipped with mental privacy amulets or set up to never be in the same room as the PCs until the end scene of the adventure. In that instance mind reading and truth magic are considered 'adventure breaking' by the author.

But my understanding of "story" is that the story is what actually happens, not the DM's crystal vase of a plot that is being handed over to the Three Stooges / PCs.

Now, personally, I don't worry about story, plot, or adventure breaking abilities. My games are run in sandboxs or bounded sandboxes where the PCs and NPCs have pretty much... call it mechano-narrative parity. If someone wants the abilities another person has then, with sufficient effort (including possibly some time travel, reincarnation, and other hijinks if they want to be the 'chosen one' born a specific species under certain circumstances they weren't born under the first time) they have a chance to do that.

So what happens when "totes op uber move" meets "yeah no, immune to that"? Well, that's the story isn't it?

Vahnavoi
2021-09-25, 02:46 AM
Balance them with.... what?

Just preventing a certain kind of ability from breaking a sequence of events is not "balance" in any shape or form. Here's what games and game systems with any kind of clue tell you about that subject: if some ability would make a game scenario unfeasible, don't give players that ability. If you want an ability to be available in some scenarios but not in others, invent reason why it isn't applicable in those other sort of scenarios.

Some common examples:

Some people say you "can't do horror" in a contemporary setting because why don't the characters just call the police on their cellphone? The common solutions:

- the characters ARE the police! They are the ones with social and legal obligation to deal with the situation and failure to engage with the scenario means bad things to them. The choice isn't between "face horror" and "be safe and have someone else face horror", it's between "face horror in the dark basement" and "face horror of losing your job, friends and social standing"

- the cellphone's battery is out or the characters are out of reception range. They can't call the police right now, they have to deal with the immediate problem first

- the police are the horror. Doesn't even need to have a supernatural element to it, just have the cops be pigs. Calling them won't solve the problem or worse, will cause more problems.

- the characters are criminals. Calling cops right now will implicate them for various wrongdoings. The choice isn't between "face horror" and "be safe and have someone else face horror", it's between "face horror in the basement" and "face horror of modern justice system"

- you can call the police allright, and they will totes be on your side... it will just take them, oh, fifteen minutes to an hour to actually haul their asses to your location. So what are you going to do, for that time? That's the scenario, you haven't solved it, you've just given yourself a time-bounded victory condition.

- there is no actual reason that'd prevent calling the cops, but the players think one or more of the above reasons is true.

The last one especially is often underestimated. It's entirely possible to play a little mindgame (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/IKnowYouKnowIKnow) with your players and have them follow your planned event sequence even when they could break away from it. Your players can even do it all on their own. :smalltongue: Often, the most powerful mechanism keeping a "story" from being "broken" is just the players' (sometimes nonsensical) aversion to doing things because they don't want to break the story.

Kymme
2021-09-25, 03:36 AM
I think Masks: A New Generation is kind of a masterclass when it comes to 'balancing' abilities between characters. Namely, it abstracts the individual superpowers of the teenage heroes and focuses them all along the same system. You can very easily have a superhero team in Masks that consists of: A normal person with (mundane) martial arts training, a magician empowered by a bevy of magical words, and an invincible girl with rage-powered strength sufficient to rearrange geographical features and punch steel into superheated plasma. All of these characters can coexist in the same team and work to fight villains together because the game system hones in on what makes them similar - namely, they're all teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, facing the problems of growing up and finding their place in the world. When villains talk down to them, it makes them angry. When they fail to apprehend a criminal, it makes them insecure. When their actions cause collateral damage, it makes them guilty. These Conditions are how the game represents your health. It doesn't really care how much physical damage you can take, because it isn't a game about getting disemboweled by a giant monster or getting shot in the gut and having to spend 2 months in the hospital; rather, it's a game about dealing with conflicted emotions and the often irresponsible actions they lead you towards.

Masks also helps to balance teams where the individual members vary wildly in power with its Moves, essentially a list of player actions. One of the moves that came up from time to time in one of my games, which featured the trio I described earlier, is called Assess the Situation. It triggers when your character takes a few moments to analyze the scene around them and lets you ask questions from a list on a successful roll (it also gives you a mechanical bonus to actions that act on information the move granted you). One of those questions is "What here can I use to [X]."

As an example, the trio at one point found themselves faced with a gigantic robot, ten stories tall. The wizard could animate several lamp-posts to wrap around its ankles to hold it in place, or turn some dumpsters into winged projectiles; the invincible girl could go punch-for-punch with the thing, catching its massive fists and knocking it off-balance. The martial artist, however, was a bit out of his depth. Even the coolest inside-crescent-kick in the world isn't going to do squat to a robot the size of an apartment building. So he rolled to Assess the Situation and asked "What here can I use to [stop this thing]?" and everybody around the table put their heads together to figure out an interesting way he could help participate in the fight. We decided that he spotted a gap in the robot's fuselage, a narrow hatchway that seemed to lead inside the machine. It'd take some agility and dexterity to get in there without getting batted aside by the robot's giant arms, which the martial artist had in spades.

This led to an awesome sequence where the invincible girl picked her friend up and hurled him at the robot and he used his incredible agility to spin around the robot's massive hand and run down its arm to the gap at its shoulder, before making a nimble leap and slipping inside its hull. From there he infiltrated the robot and found the supervillain piloting it from the inside, engaging the madman in a fistfight while his friends fought it from the outside. It was awesome, and everybody at the table got to feel like their characters were able to have some impact on the fight, despite each of them having wildly disparate power levels.

Also the entire fight took like 30 minutes, which is another virtue of Masks: it takes you straight to the action!

SimonMoon6
2021-09-25, 08:44 AM
In a superhero game, it is possible for EVERY player to have what some might deem "game breaking" powers.

But the thing is, they usually each only have one. Or maybe two.

The key thing is that they can't go switching things up. If one guy is Angel Summoner who can summon all the angels he wants, well, that's ALL he can do. He can't go switching things up so that he can cast Prismatic Sphere on the next adventure.

That means that it's easy enough to make adventures that take these things into account. Perhaps Angel Summoner has to fight his arch-enemy Angel Banisher who banishes angels as quickly as Angel Summoner can summon them. Or Angel Summoner has to fight his other arch-enemy Demon Summoner who can summon demons that are just as powerful as Angel Summoner's angels. Or maybe he fights Doctor Atheist whose non-belief is so strong that no angels or other mythical beings can exist within five miles of him. Or, perhaps, there's Mister Anti-Magic Field who, um, puts up an anti-magic field so that magical stuff like angels won't work.

The key thing is that everybody will be stuck with whatever powers they chose at the beginning of the game (for the most part). And the second thing is that there's always a counter to whatever power someone might have. There's always a way to deal with it. If someone is intangible and therefore can't be touched, well, he can be attacked mentally. If someone can teleport anywhere he can see, well, he can't do anything in the darkness.

No one villain can counteract EVERY power that a superhero might have (well except the villains who have that as their power), but he can certainly counter any one power that a hero might have.

In a superhero game, having a game breaking power is sort of the point. You're supposed to be SUPER.

Of course, this means that stories can't be dull braindead things like "fight an orc guarding a chest in a 10 foot by 10 foot room" or "go kill the rats in the sewers". You have to have plots that can take into account that heroes are powerful.

Adventures have to be created based around the abilities of the PCs. This means that you can't have lazy GMs who just want to run one pre-packaged module after another. That won't work. IMHO, that should be true even in D&D games as well, but YMMV.

Tanarii
2021-09-25, 09:30 AM
Story breaking abilities are balanced by the author being in full control of the plot. They're able to contrive any circumstance they desire.

Since most RPGs aren't stories and don't have an author in control of a plot, the answer to how they handle story breaking / superhero / demigod abilities is typically: poorly. Usually the method is unexplained, or the same as for stories, full control and contrivance. Otherwise known as railroading.

Of course, all games have some degree of buy in by the players and GM, where they don't extend the logical implications out to Tippyverse. And that players will buy in to the adventures or sandbox hooks the GM puts in front of them. But there's a reason that campaigns that aren't linear adventure paths tend to fall apart in most types of games.

In short, the best way to handle it is strictly limit the 'story' / adventure path, plan for things to spin out of control (think AW), or set a predetermined point to end the campaign / retire characters .. or don't introduce superhero / Demi-god powers in the first place.

Psyren
2021-09-27, 09:51 AM
Pathfinder's Ultimate Intrigue has a section called "Spells of Intrigue" that discuss common types of magic that can have particularly impactful effects on a game's narrative, and advice for GMs to deal with them. These include divinations (especially spammable ones like "Detect X" cantrips), charms, compulsions, illusions, teleportation etc. The key is to strike a balance between the spells being useful without being a silver bullet that negates the plot at a stroke.

Grod_The_Giant
2021-09-27, 01:39 PM
It's interesting that you mention Exalted as an example of "balancing game changing abilities." It actually does, but not really through its resource management systems. Instead of trying to make the rules conform to the narrative, the game is built from the ground up around the idea that the players can and will make sweeping changes to the setting.

Sure, I can abuse these two social charms to start a religion worshipping me; that's the kind of thing Exalts do, and there are some rules for drawing power from your followers right over here. Of course I can kick-start a magitech industrial revolution; Solars did the exact same thing the last time they were in power thousands of years ago. I can absolutely steamroller past any resistance short of fellow Exalts and significant gods or demons, that's the entire point of the game.

There's nothing wrong with granting players incredible power, as long as the setting and system are set up to allow them to use it (ie, godly power isn't limited to certain specific archetypes, there's sufficient opposition at the same sort of power levels, etc) and--most importantly--the GM doesn't try to hold onto low-level challenges.

Ths last point is probably the most important, for what it's worth. If your players can perfectly detect lies and talk with dead people, don't run a vanilla murder mystery. If they can teleport, don't plan for long travel adventures. That sort of thing.

Psyren
2021-09-27, 02:40 PM
Ths last point is probably the most important, for what it's worth. If your players can perfectly detect lies and talk with dead people, don't run a vanilla murder mystery. If they can teleport, don't plan for long travel adventures. That sort of thing.

I agree - but I think the solution is actually to make those abilities imperfect. And that I feel is what D&D/PF does. (I can't speak for other systems.)

You can talk with the dead guy - but the corpse only knows what it knew/perceived in life, so if it got stabbed in the back and died facedown, you've still got a mystery to solve. And you better pick the right questions the first time, because it's got the memory of a goldfish.

You can detect lies - but the guy in the lie detector knows you're using one, so he can lie by omission or be evasive. Or there's ways to fool it (https://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0595.html), which is even worse because you have to overcome the weight of the original falsehood that your own spell reinforced.

You can teleport - but the bad guy's base is behind a waterfall or on top of a leyline, so at best you can get close to the front door, and at worst trying to port inside triggers a mishap or wastes a high-level spell slot.

By incorporating limits into the abilities themselves, you can come closer to bridging the gap between an ability being helpful, but not removing all tension or effort in a single round.

HidesHisEyes
2021-10-01, 10:02 AM
I was thinking about how exalted (which i only know from reputation) balances out the various overpowered abilities mainly through limited energy to spend on them (or maybe i was thinking of nobilis) and i was wondering how different rpgs balance normally would be story breaking powers in other mediums.

So what are some examples of such attempts of balancing normally op abilities?

PbtA games do this by being so flexible in how they work at a basic level that you canít really break anything. The story will bend infinitely, in fact thatís just the process of creating the story, but it wonít break.

For example in Dungeon World if the GM was expecting to run a crawl through the caverns beneath the mountains and the wizard casts a spell to let everyone fly over the mountains instead, the GM just responds to that and runs a slightly more improvised session about the flight and whatever comes after it (only slightly more because the game is always pretty improv-heavy even when the players do what you expect.

Even if a player used an ability that destroyed civilisation and plunged the world into bleak eternal darkness, the game would just carry right on as a post-apocalyptic campaign.

The rules are pretty lightweight and donít require a ton of prep, and combat encounters donít need to be balanced or really crafted, which is necessary for this kind of approach. Well, Iíve heard of people running modern D&D this way but I donít think I could, personally.

HidesHisEyes
2021-10-01, 10:06 AM
But my understanding of "story" is that the story is what actually happens, not the DM's crystal vase of a plot that is being handed over to the Three Stooges / PCs.


This x 1000.

Ikoma
2021-10-01, 03:58 PM
Exalted is one of my favorite games of all time, and for that game the answer is twofold
1) plot bigger: a who dunnit murder mystery is no match for a demigod who can read truth from the hearts of mortals. To get upset that something like this was handled in a few moments means the gm planned to recognize the game they were actually running. I see this a lot from people running dnd past, say, cater getting 4th level spells. An ability can only ruin a game if you don't take into account the game your actually running
2) scope of consequences: sure the party just easily conquered the city state, but survivors/ refuges will arrive at the neighboring kingdoms and spread tale of what happened. Treaties will need to be renegotiated, alliances and rivalries will be reconsidered, and now their a target for the blessed aisle.

The score of the game needs to keep up with the players. A pit trap is no longer a concern for someone who can levitate. A goblin is no longer a threat to someone who can strike a legion at a time. A God is no longer a threat to someone who threw down the titans

HidesHisEyes
2021-10-02, 04:21 AM
Exalted is one of my favorite games of all time, and for that game the answer is twofold
1) plot bigger: a who dunnit murder mystery is no match for a demigod who can read truth from the hearts of mortals. To get upset that something like this was handled in a few moments means the gm planned to recognize the game they were actually running. I see this a lot from people running dnd past, say, cater getting 4th level spells. An ability can only ruin a game if you don't take into account the game your actually running
2) scope of consequences: sure the party just easily conquered the city state, but survivors/ refuges will arrive at the neighboring kingdoms and spread tale of what happened. Treaties will need to be renegotiated, alliances and rivalries will be reconsidered, and now their a target for the blessed aisle.

The score of the game needs to keep up with the players. A pit trap is no longer a concern for someone who can levitate. A goblin is no longer a threat to someone who can strike a legion at a time. A God is no longer a threat to someone who threw down the titans

Iíd add that what often goes wrong with high level D&D games is that people do try to account for the high level abilities, but they end up doing so on a case by case basis. Like, plan a game that, by default, has limited consequences and small scale problems and solutions, and try to think of specific responses for when the players fly, read minds, level cities etc. And the workload just gets overwhelming.

So whatís needed is a structural change, a change to the basic form and procedures of the game. Unfortunately the text of 5E doesnít give you any help with structure at any power level. I know the early editions taught you how to structure a dungeon crawl and then how to transition to domain play once the PCs are all fancy lords with armies. I think modern D&D needs some equivalent to that. It has the concept of ďtiersĒ which is a nice start, but it doesnít offer any practical advice at all for how to use them.

Jay R
2021-10-02, 05:33 PM
RPGs don't balance story-breaking abilities. GMs do. The most important job of a GM is to prevent the rules from breaking the story. This includes preventing the players from using the rules to break the story.

From my Rules for DMs:



16. The players do not have the right to screw up the game. They do have the right to screw up your plot. Donít confuse the two.

a. Do not give them a set of options that includes screwing up the game.
b. ďScrewing up the gameĒ includes genre-busting. Medieval fantasies donít have railroads, factories, or atomic power; the players have no right to introduce them (unless genre-busting is a focus for that game).

17. The dice do not have the right to screw up the game. They do have the right to screw up your plot. Donít confuse the two.

a. Do not roll a die if one result could screw up the game.
b. I donít care how wonderful that well-designed NPC is. He or she is not necessary for the story to continue. If the PCs kill him, let him die.

18. The DM does not have the right to screw up the PC's story. He does have the right to screw up the PCs' plans. Donít confuse the two.

a. The player does have the right to screw up the PC's story -- even by accident. If a 2nd level PC chooses to attack a dragon, then the PC's death is his doing, not the DM's.
b. Some players believe that they have the right to screw up another PCís story. This can lead to serious problems. There is no quick, glib answer.

PhoenixPhyre
2021-10-02, 06:07 PM
You can detect lies - but the guy in the lie detector knows you're using one, so he can lie by omission or be evasive. Or there's ways to fool it (https://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0595.html), which is even worse because you have to overcome the weight of the original falsehood that your own spell reinforced.

As my party will soon discover (or re-discover). When you're trying to pin down a famously deceptive and manipulative ancient dragon who casts like a 20th level sorcerer...with expanded spell selection, glibness makes for a great cover. Why yes, of course I'll agree to a truce. I'll even agree to the punishment (short of death or actual imprisonment) y'all want to impose, because I'm reformed. I was a bad person, but now I'm different. Totally. I just want to be left alone. Cross my heart. In fact, I'll willingly fail the save against that zone of truth so I can convince you I'm telling the truth.

Best part is they even had detect magic and saw the transmutation aura...but didn't realize that it was such a spell. :smalltongue:

Pex
2021-10-03, 10:06 AM
When it's the Player's Fault:

The player is purposely trying to break the game. He pushes the metaphorical buttons of the DM or other players to get them riled up. Purposely argues the rules to get what he wants that's not what the rules intended or even outright mean. Refuses to abide by the gameworld conventions, such as wanting to play a pirate ninja assassin or disease and poison spreading cleric in a game about the holy order of philanthropists.

When it's the DM's Fault:

Being unable or unwilling to adapt that particular obstacles or challenges no longer are. Getting upset a chasm is no longer an obstacle when that's the game's design and players' legitimate desire. Is bothered PC's are "powerful" able to do wonderful things the DM feels he's losing control. The DM not understanding that it is his campaign, but it is everyone's game.

When it's the Game's Fault, unintentionally:

The rules or combination of rules makes the game unplayable. Something is not working as intended. The game mechanics has something too weak or can't work at all. More often with a combination of rules something becomes too powerful by creating an infinite loop.

When it's the Game's Fault, intentionally:

Punishing a character for doing what the game said he could do. The designers were so worried something was so powerful as to ruin the game that if the PC were to actually do it, because of the restrictions and penalties applied the character is worse off to have done it than if he didn't do it at all the player wishes he never did it. If something is so powerful you feel the need to metaphorically smack the PC upside the head how dare you do such a thing now you must be The Suck then you shouldn't have allowed that powerful thing at all and do something else.

KineticDiplomat
2021-10-03, 10:15 PM
I am a staunch supporter of either low-power or deity-power settings for exactly this reason, with an option for undefined power.

In gritty low power, you can tell human level stories because the players are Hollywood human at best - the components for what makes a good story within constraints we understand are all there. The King or the Corporation are powerful because money and people matter and work in social constructs we get; the murder mystery is still a mystery without a "win at mysteries" spell/ability, information is still controllable by normal means.

Up high, well if your players are the literal embodiment of the etneral and twisting nature of hope or madness, well...that game is going to tell stories that are meant to be a series of outside context problems.

It's those middling games that bite it. Try to tell a human story and you'll find its been teleported and invisibly disintegrated around. The ring went to mount doom in two rolls. Whoops. Try to tell a real gods level story, and it's back to "can I pack on enough fireballs to incinerate Dream the Endless", which isn't going to be fun

ShadowSandbag
2021-10-04, 02:13 PM
I haven't seen anyone else talk about it, so I will bring up Fellowship. That is a game that has a lot of really strong abilities for the characters, but has one major balancing factor for the GM. "Threat to The World" is a tag that the GM can give to certain enemies, mainly the Big Bad and some second-in-command types. There are a handful of of abilities that flat out can't be used against a Threat to The World, but whats more balancing is Paying a Price. When you want to do anything towards a Threat To The World, you have to pay some sort of price first. I don't have the list off hand, but some of the things are using up pieces of gear, taking damage to your stats or losing whatever narrative advantage you might have. It makes things a lot more tense and ensures that even if the players roll perfect there are consequences to fighting someone/thing so powerful.