Fire is still plenty warm from last night, so the chat can go on. The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is hitting maturity (read: growing up, not old) and it is time to have some honest talks about the birds, the bees… and the behemoths of balance.
For the next few days we are going to look at the ultimate field of balance in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Your Table.
Yep. It is on you kids… not the designers… not the developers… not the 3pp companies.
So let’s get into it. Today’s topic is about Environment…
Understanding Balance at the Table: Environment
It is far from the first time we’ve taken a look at the metabalance of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game but every time we look at a new slice of an issue, there are different angles and insights to gain. An important consideration when balancing your own table is that of environment.
The most powerful of characters is next to useless in the wrong circumstance. From heavy armor at sea to archers in a foggy dungeon, environment is as important as class or build to the actual realization of balance at your table.
Environmental Balance Factors
Scale and Movement – Jason’s triple damage cavalier just doesn’t fair that well when the harpies flyby with razor chakram throws at his destrier… at least not without some help from the party’s magical contingent. Tim and John’s paladin and rogue duo are a sight to behold… especially for archers on an open field at long range. Embracing the battlefield is as important if not more so for the GM as it is the players. Subtle shifts in environmental dynamics can reign in the strongest alpha or shift advantage to members of a party that is ready to forget them.
Visibility – Though touched on in the above archer scene, it bears mentioning that fog, darkness, water conditions and extremes of distance can drastically alter the function of a party dynamic. Got a lackluster player with the only non-human in the group? Check their race traits for darkvision or low-light vision and MAKE it matter. Move the range contingents or shift their options. Small changes can have radically different endgames.
Hazards – Traps, natural disasters and ambient magics are just the tip of the iceberg here. Antimagic is the classic heavy hand of this situation but subtler things like looming clouds of paralytic ghoul ashes or a bane against divinations specifically. The more detailed the better here, adding both specifics to solve and overcome and detail that render the problem more real, enhancing overall verisimilitude.
Terrain – While aspects of terrain come into play with scale and visibility sometimes hindering ground or even partial cover from a standing remnant of a wall still make all the difference. Learn the rules around the situations you want and again–detail the danger. The careful thought to hazards-known and unknown-will lend a visceral realness to the game. Just don’t go far enough to turn the world into a persistent death trap… unless it is of course.
Social Environments – Don’t under estimate the balancing powers of social interaction. Cleric showboating every deed and do with her divine miracles? Let her reputation precede her and swarm her with the hungry, needy and blessing-craving masses. Got a once in a generation racial rebel? Great time to show what the locals think of the REST of their race.
Economic Environments – Sometimes the mage guild is fresh out of pearls. But they are willing to hire the PCs to get more! Take the granted and the givens of your game examine problem points for inherent solutions tied to their costs or desires. That uber-effective ranseur master need a check? Kidnap the only smith who can upgrade his weapon. You’ll see an adventure underway faster than you can finish stating it and while he “earns” his new weapon, you can focus on the rest of the party to get them up to speed.
Smoothing It Out
Bringing balance to bear against the party through the environment is a powerful and wonderful tool for a GM on the ropes. Just make sure to smooth the edges some. An overzealous or too frequent hand with this approach WILL make your game adversarial and lead you to a very conflict driven game. You are, after all, wielding the power of the gods.