Roll For Insight: Balancing The Power Fantasy

June 14, 2019 by brennon

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One of the key aspects of being a Dungeon/Games Master is that you have to try and make sure that the heroes feel like, well...heroes! This can take many different forms and one such way is to embrace the Power Fantasy.

Roll For Insight: Balancing The Power Fantasy

However, whilst I agree that there is a time for making your characters feel like mighty heroes, be it from movies or books, there should also be more time given to exploring the fact that even the mightiest heroes have cracks in their armour.

Carving Through Foes

This topic was raised recently when talking about Age Of Sigmar: Soulbound, the upcoming roleplaying game from Cubicle 7. In the game, you can play as characters like the Knight-Questor, a mighty warrior blessed by Sigmar, able to harness the power of lightning through their swords in order to smite their foes. Sounds cool right? Well, it's going to be fun playing one of those alongside someone like a Kharadron Overlord Skyrigger with nought but their guns I'm sure.

Urban Conquest by Jaime Martinez

The folks at Cubicle 7 mentioned that they have found mechanical ways to make this balance feel right in gameplay but also there's the roleplaying element which comes into effect. Now, of course, this depends entirely upon your group but I love the idea that someone might play the role of a Stormcast Eternal who is a mighty weapon of war, but broken inside and dealing with the fact that they are essentially a tool of a higher being. Suddenly you've got a much more nuanced character, even though one is of a much higher power level (over 9000 surely?).

The same comes up a lot when you look at games like Wrath & Glory where Space Marines go adventuring alongside Inquisitors, Guardsmen and Techpriests. Sure you've all got lots of cool skills at your disposal but when the filth hits the fan surely the Space Marine can just wade in and sort out the problem? This 'power fantasy' problem becomes even more apparent when you look back to games like Deathwatch where everyone is a Space Marine, a living weapon of war blessed with near-impenetrable armour and genetically engineered constitutions.

Surely after a period of time playing these characters, it's going to get boring just being the killing machine?

This is not going to be a problem for every group as some folks like being murder hobos but I think that a lot of people are now finding out that exploring the nuances of characters in roleplaying games is much more rewarding. Here is where the cracks in the armour come in.

Cracks In The Armour

Even Space Marines, those grim and brutal killing machines of Warhammer 40,000 have a nuance to them. If you've ever read any Black Library book or delved deeper into the lore behind Chapters like the Space Wolves or Blood Angels you'll find tragic figures who make for excellent characters to roleplay.

Battle by Yerbol Bulentayev

If you're taking on the role of a Blood Angel you're a warrior cursed with a fury and angry which can only be sated by letting yourself go. As a storyteller, you should be trying to emphasise this with the player who is taking on that role, cluing them into the potential chaos (quite literally) that awaits them if they let the Red Thirst take control.

Maybe you're a Black Templar who spent their entire life on a Crusade hunting down heretics in the name of The Emperor. You have a strict and regimented set of ideals that you follow but what if the Space Wolf in your Kill Team starts making your question your decisions. Maybe you don't just go in and burn all those Imperial citizens that might have accidentally harboured a Chaos cultist?

Forcing your mighty heroes to make hard decisions and think in different ways allows you to temper that power and make them think twice about just murdering everything they see. I suppose you could call it appealing to the reality of their decisions. Sure it would be easy to load up rocket launchers and blow a settlement to pieces but how would that really affect your character?

The Beast Within & A Sense Of Humanity

Another game which deals with this really well is the World Of Darkness. I'm going to reference my time here with Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse here where, in both cases, you are effectively monsters who have to try and use their 'gifts' whilst also trying to keep your existence a secret.

Werewolf by Jakub Rozalski

Vampires need to feed and can use mystical powers but they also must adhere to the Masquerade. Werewolves can turn into balls of fur and fury but if you end up letting your rage get the better of you, you could end up not only threatening the safety of your pack but also being hunted by Hunters and maybe even the dreaded Pentex Corporation.

As well as this focus on tempering your power you've also got the added element that the players were, at one point, human. Maybe you have friends, family and others you ended up having to leave behind? Completely embracing your darker side might end up coming back to those you love in a terrible way.

Appealing to this humanity is a sure fire way to really balance out the want to just kill everything you see for the sake of experience. If we go back to the idea of playing a Knight-Questor, at one time or another you were a mortal who had a life beyond service of Sigmar. Maybe, despite being reforged as you are, you start to remember a glimpse of your old life and that starts to determine just what decisions you make when adventuring.

Mechanical Balancing

As well as the roleplaying options here which are really dependant on the group in question, there are also mechanical ways you can make your players feel like mighty heroes, and also nuanced characters with depth to their personalities.

Goblin Battle by Kieran Yanner

Back in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, they had a mechanic for Minions. Minions could be creatures like Goblins or something more powerful but they just needed one hit to bring them down. This meant that you could send your heroes into a fierce battle against dozens and dozens of enemies, hacking through them as a farmer harvests their wheat field.  It meant that you could give the players that epic 'Balin's Tomb' moment where the heroes carve their way through a bunch of foes with ease, making them feel epic.

It also meant that when you threw something a bit more powerful at them that didn't have the Minion keyword they'd also get a rude awakening and have to change up their tactics, making fights feel a bit more deadly. Sure, this was very much focused towards the idea of miniature-based combat but it could easily be transplanted into newer editions of D&D and other games.

Savage Worlds also does something similar whereby most foes go down from one hit. You, as heroes in the story, take a bit longer to go down but it enables you to make interesting and action-orientated combat like you see in the movies. Also, the way you can effectively do as many different actions as you like in a turn (as long as you're willing to take the minuses!) means that you could be even more epic.

All of these different mechanics can be transferred into other games to make sure that your Paladin feels like an iridescent holy warrior, or your Barbarian feels like Conan at the height of his power.

Away from combat, there are also ways to twist things the other way. Offer experience and give additional cool story points to players who try and solve situations without the need for combat. If they manage to talk their way through a situation, or the Space Marine intimidates his foes into giving up the information they've still done something cool. Make sure you reward them for doing so! It'll still make the Space Marine feel like a badass if he managed to get the Cultist to pee himself.

Fail Forward

There is also another quick topic that I want to bring up. If you want to make sure that your party feels awesome, make sure that you employ the Fail Forward ethos. Even if the players fail a roll, make sure that it succeeds, but at a cost. This means that they still feel great but they also have to deal with the consequences. It's much more fun!

Thief by Jesper Ejsing

Also, don't be afraid of making sure the heroes actually fail once in a while. Maybe the enemy gets away, they accidentally burn the evidence they needed, or a hostage situation goes really badly. If they make a bad plan, don't shy away from making them feel the consequences of it sometimes!

Take Cues From Books!

Lastly, I want to talk about something we've discussed before. Books are a great resource on which to draw inspiration from. Some examples which influence my campaigns are the likes of The First Law trilogy and The Dresden Files.

The First Law by Greg Danton

Joe Abercrombie has a character in his trilogy called Logen Ninefingers. Ninefingers is a gentle giant most of the time but when battle descends he turns into The Bloody Nine. This is how I explore the way Barbarians work on the tabletop. The Bloody Nine is a force of nature, immune to pain and a wrecking ball, killing everything in sight...everything. Even Logen's friends fear The Bloody Nine.

I love the idea of weighing the powerful musclebound Barbarian against the results of their actions. Sure he/she raged and butchered a bunch of foes, but did any innocents get caught in the crossfire? Did you accidentally turn on your friends and hit one of them in the midst of battle? It suddenly makes them fear to set off the bomb, even if it's going to make for epic explosions.

The Dresden Files helps those who want to try and temper the power that spellcasters can use in battle. Sure Dresden can bring to life a wall of fire, or turn an entire lake into a sheet of ice, but it sucks out everything he has in order to do it. Make magic have a cost. As Bayaz in The First Law also says, he can't just cast magic whenever he likes. Everything draws from somewhere and has a cost. Making sure that that fireball might cause something terrible to happen elsewhere, maybe when the wizard is pushing themselves to their limit, means that once again you're letting them be powerful...but thinking about how that might affect the world around them.

Trust me, read both of these book series for yourself. It will give you a new appreciation for Fantasy!

Not For Everyone

These tips aren't going to work for everyone. As I mentioned, sometimes groups just like murdering hordes of enemies and stealing the loot. But, for those that want to play mighty heroes with a twist, powerful warriors and wizards who have nuance and character, hopefully, this might have given you a few ideas.

The last thing I'll say is that sometimes it's good to explore role-playing games where you're not the mighty hero. Look to games like World Of Darkness, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and perhaps something funny like Goblin Quest in order to play a game where you maybe don't have the solution to every problem. Sometimes it's good to fail.

Art by Greg Danton, Jasper EjsingYerbol BulentayevKieran YannerJaime Martinez and Jakub Rozalski

How do you balance the Power Fantasy?

"...I think that a lot of people are now finding out that exploring the nuances of characters in roleplaying games is much more rewarding"

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"...for those that want to play mighty heroes with a twist, powerful warriors and wizards who have nuance and character, hopefully, this might have given you a few ideas"

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