Earlier this week, we built out a (very) general outline of level tiers and abilities to anticipate when GMing, planning encounters or designing campaigns. We all know however that players like to deviate from norms as matter of nightly play. Today we are looking at ways players do this that can derail GMs who are unaware or unprepared of potential deviations from Power Tiers…
PC Power Tier Deviation
Simply put what we mean here is when a PC creates a character that deviates above or below an expected norm. In a playthrough of the classic of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game’s initial Adventure Path, we were a little stunned when one of the PCs seemed to be a god compared to others and nothing in the adventure could derail him. What did he have that the rest of us didn’t that made him so amazing? Wings.
Adventures designed without awareness or (in the above case) before a deviating element was created make a need for the GM to be aware of it. In the above example, at the time it was written, it was impossible for a character to have flight at such low levels. No encounters were designed to account for it or the synergies of an archer build with it. The module collapsed in a hail of arrow fire.
Types of Tier Deviation:
- Racial Disparity: It is possible for a race to have elements that are balanced while still deviating from anticipated norms. Examples include the above Strix and others like Android’s immunity to disease. Both of these abilities arrive 4 levels earlier than most other characters even have the chance to access them temporarily. Challenges that would normally account for difficulty such as falling damage, will not be as hard or engaging for those characters.
- Class Ability Disparity: Classes like specialist conjurers and arcanists get short range teleportation effects SIX full levels before many classes can even touch them. Paladins become immune to fear. Other classes can mitigate falling damage and so on. Granted these abilities are limited but create realities a GM needs to be aware of when accounting for limitations or possible challenges. Or they might be surprised when their prison break adventure results in the conjurer blipping outside the cell grabbing the keys and busts the party free in a few rounds.
- Situational Disparity: Spells and powers at lower levels are often balanced for general gameplay but situational factors can greatly distort their power. A short range teleportation effect can be effective as a full retreat with teleport if the relocation is to an inaccessible height or location (across a river etc.). These situations may not be readily apparent at first read-through of a module
- Metabalance Absences: It doesn’t matter what the party is tier wise if the classes that source a solution don’t exist in the party. We have seen parties devastated by incorporeal creatures in close quarters when the party didn’t have a single force effect available to even one member. This Tier Deviation is most commonly the source of TPKs and other game disasters. If you see a key tier absence it is critical to be aware of the real danger (and potential nail-biting fun) of those encounters.
- Optional Rule Disparity: House Rules and Third Party Content can adjust these norms very quickly. Innocuous-seeming inclusions can have created some of the biggest Tier Deviations we have witnessed. A GM once included an optional parry rule for attacks of opportunity. Melee combatants became half as effective immediately making every attack resolve against both parry and AC. Some Third Party classes will trade balances for unique configurations that may provide abilites significantly before standard classes or may not have access to assumed abilities ever!
Building awareness of Power Tier deviations in a party can be key to making certain your game has the pacing and challenge level that you desire. Players are not generally going to engage this level of metabalance planning (many struggle with basics like flanking tactics and party roles) so try to make regular check-ins with players to see who has what access and what new potential abilities are soon to come on line.