A large draw of fantasy gaming is the alteration of our normal relationships with power in our lives. Can’t punch a co-worker who is being an ass? Well that orc slaver over there is a close second, and now you have a fireball or battleaxe with his name on it. Piles of wrong-doers rack up at the just and noble feet of our heroes, and some foes are even driven to a loftier goal of redemption. This control, while hard fought, is easier to find in game worlds and some of us like it a lot. Really, a lot. Sometimes such people are called:
While these players are commonly recognized in gaming, it is more the fruits of their labors that I tend to focus on. The characters created by the elite rule-smiths and forum trolling mathmaticians. It is these characters that can tend to be the issues with the games they are in. Combats collapse, dungeons empty, and party unity frays all in the edges of their shadow…
I call them Alphas.
Like it or not some of us take up the cause of our imagined struggles with a rule-melting, mind-shattering passion that sometimes can cause a GM regardless of experience to toss up their hands and walk away from the screen. But if a sense of power is a core drive of the game, how can you blame someone for living up to it? The shorthand is, you can’t. The rules of game worlds we engage in often have flaws or inequities that are exploitable, even on accident, to ridiculous effect. Power-Gamers are not exclusively a negative effect on games (see: Stormwind Fallacy). Yet, some GMs react by restricting rules-sets and banning 3rd party product. While this can address some Alpha-related problems, it also cripples the vast options available to to the role-players of your group. Truth be told most power concerns can be addressed in the metagame through the concept of Perfect Imbalance (another post later likely). But without bringing a MMO-like regular cycle of rebalance and respec, how should a GM deal with the emergence, planned or otherwise, of an Alpha in his or her game? First off, don’t panic, despite popular beliefs Alphas are not always game-ending horrors.
Here are a few thoughts:
1) Change the constants – No I don’t mean start a new game, or entirely new characters but a surprising amount of GMs get into comfortable rhythms while prepping and running adventures or encounters. Even with new monsters the tactics or complications become predictable and as such the combat favors a developmental path for the Alpha. Similarly players running support characters also begin to provide a relatively stable array of “buff” powers and abilities. After this rhythm is established, Alpha characters can be seriously challenged by changes to their paradigm. Recently, my gaming group ran an “All Star” pick-up game where lists were made of MVP characters people had played were randomly grouped together to form a new “Super Party”. These characters were almost all Alpha-style characters, yet during the second fight of the mega-dragon dungeon they were nearly slaughtered by a median CR group of Oni. Why? Their constants were changed. Missing buffs and new tactics resulting in blindfighting invisible, flying creatures with few options to recoup. It was a real eye-opener. Other great constant shaking ideas are NPC escorts or rescues, mixed allegiance fights, and of course environmental hazards books like Rite Publishing’s book 101 Hazards and Disasters are invaluable.
2) Communicate and After That, Communicate Again – Some Alphas are victims of misread or misinterpreted rules and their effectiveness isn’t actual. Talking to a player and understanding his or her strengths and mechanics is vital to making an Alpha’s presence work long term. If the logic and rulings follow and result in an incredibly effective character, understanding the interactions will still help you deal with the limitations of the character and (if needed) see potential vulnerabilities. Nothing is quite like the multi-Alpha’d party getting jumped by a GM that had no idea they shared a mutual shortcoming and suddenly the unstoppable adventures of last week are gasping for air and passing out from all that lost blood.
3) Good for the Goose – Evil goateed nemeses have stalked heroes for eons. If the Alpha or Alphas in your party are getting on your last nerve, remember the mirror rule. Good for them, Good for you. If you have followed #2 above, you have a pretty good idea of their mechanical realities and can steal blatantly from them. “Who taught your psycho-mage that rare talent?” “Great, did you know his sister founded a rival order of psycho-mages and she has always wanted to upstage him as a teacher…” Not only is this option a great way to balance game situations but it comes loaded with potential storyline gold. You can even take it as far as the “Legion of Doom” scenario where a rival group of adventures or enemies matches the party one for one mechanically.
4) Bust out the Wrench – If you know you have an Alpha, and it is someone you value in your game, you are making a conscious choice to allow the Alpha behavior. As such you may need to get a little Alpha going yourself. If you allow such great books as Kobold Design’s Complete Advanced Feats, 4 Winds/Puple Duck’s Strategists & Tacticians, Rite Publishing‘s spell or class resources, or any of Super Genius’ Guides or Feat Books for Heaven’s sake, USE THEM FOR YOUR BAD GUYS. Dropping “Bestiary-2-wet” straight off page 36 monsters on a party of 3rd Party, Ultimate X powered Alphas is asking for a one-sided murder fest. A little Alpha on Alpha action can be just what the doctor ordered. Often a gamer at my table has said “Well sure that is cool, but I don’t want to be the responsible for letting it into this campaign.” A healthy respect for both this tip and #3 can make your game Alpha-capable for months. Our own offerings at RPGNow.com, Paizo.com, and D20pfsrd.com might be worth a look as well.
5) Hit Hard, Hit Fast – Even Alphas tend to have a problems managing resources in extended combat. Where a single-class fighter’s value increases as the day and conflicts go on, many Alphas begin to show more than a little sweat after a few battles. Varying CRs and time periods between encounters can throw off an Alpha’s stride, just be careful in this option as that if your group is not Alpha heavy the weaker members of the party can sometimes suffer the Alpha’s fate. Sometimes the Alpha drops and the party members have to actually struggle to save Mightius the Major… these games are worth their weight in karma-laden gold.
6) Verisimilitude is a Two-Edged Sword – Make your world react and remember. If an Alpha walked into a mage’s tower and trashed his whole library and ended said mage, the mage’s guild might take issue. Rival adventurers seeking to make their names might burst into challenges are incredibly inopportune times and even delay the Alpha from a real danger. Sometimes the Alpha is faced by recruitment from a higher level party or grand organizations (this option works particularly well if the Alpha needs to go away for a while or be replaced with a character the player would rather play). Regardless of an Alpha’s power you have the whole of the world to challenge them with, you will be fine.
In summary, don’t fear the Alpha–Use them. If the above scenarios aren’t grabbing you as the best solution for your table you can always consider one more thing – don’t do anything. Clumsy attempts to re-balance or force certain view points are often as dangerous as the Alpha at their min-max best. A general air of acceptance with the Alpha is often more important than mechanics in managing player reaction. It is in fact a game that we are talking about, a little extra “win” never hurts too much.