Saving the Game from Party Imbalance

We have all faced this beast before.  The heroes line up to go on their adventure and everyone is proud of the hero that they’ve built.  Bill has built a character with a lot of cool tricks, Mike is excited because he’s going to be an awesome ninja, and then there’s Frank.  Frank has built a character who outshines everyone else in damage output, survivability, and whatever else.  Suddenly it’s the Frank show, like the band is “Frank and the Other Guys.”  Dammit Frank, this is a team game!  Now the DM has to upgrade the challenges, and no one else is even relevant.  Honestly, why did we even invite Frank?

But wait a second, maybe it’s not Frank’s fault.  There are a lot of things that could lead to a party having a horrible power imbalance.  Yes, sometimes Frank is just being a tool, but more often than not there are a lot of other issues at play.  So let’s talk about some causes and treatments of severe party imbalance.

Cause 1:  Random Character Generation

Quite a few RPGs generate characters randomly.  Sometimes it’s just the character’s basic abilities, but sometimes it’s EVERYTHING.  Dungeons and Dragons used to generate your base stats completely randomly and games like Mutant Epoch generate everything about your character besides their name and gender randomly.

So maybe you decided to play D&D old school.  You gathered everyone and sat them down to make characters, rolling 3d6 in order the way God and Gary Gygax intended.  Well, Bill’s high stat is a 13 in intelligence and charisma, Mike got a 15 in in strength and a 13 in dexterity, and Frank didn’t have a stat below 16.  It’s not Frank’s fault his character is better than everyone, it was just fate.

I hate to say this, but random character generation is literally asking for party imbalance to be a thing.  There’s a reason that RPGs have been consistently doffing it in favor of point buy mechanisms.  So if Frank is the most powerful because of random generation, then be nice to him.  It’s not his fault.  This time

Cause 2:  The Challenges Favor One Person

So maybe everybody had the same stat pool for their characters.  Frank didn’t heavily optimize too much and even built a simple character, a front-line fighter who fights with a big hammer.  He’s got a really high strength score and says stuff like “It’s hammer time!” when he wades into combat, because of course he does.  There’s nothing wrong with the way Frank has built his character…

…except that he’s perfect for every challenge we happen to face.  First it’s the giant skeletons who can resist the swordsman’s blade but crumble under Frank’s hammer.  Then it’s the pile of rocks that only Frank is strong enough to move.  Then, even though the wizard could have used a knock spell or the rogue could have picked the lock, Frank broke the lock off with his hammer because “It’s quicker.”  To top it off he flashed that toothy, shiny smile of his.  Seriously, why did anybody even invite Frank?

But wait, it’s not Frank’s fault this time either; he didn’t have foreknowledge of the adventure or anything.  The GM is just putting all of Frank’s favorite challenges in front of us.  In time, they may shift so that the rogue or the wizard gets to shine.  Or maybe the GM is just showing Frank favoritism because of his bulging biceps and sapphire blue eyes.  Either way, the problem is bigger than just one person, even if that person is Frank.

Cause 3:  Everyone Else is Underdeveloped

Maybe Frank built his character with the same resources as everyone else, and maybe there’s a pretty wide range of challenges.  So why is Frank still outshining us?  I mean, sure our rogue doesn’t flank and our wizard’s abilities are spread so thin that he can’t reliably do anything on our level but…

That’s right.  Sometimes the problem is actually everyone BUT the guy who’s shining too bright.  My first character was a rogue who I envisioned as a stealthy jack-of-all trades type but I built him so poorly that he couldn’t even do being stealthy right.  So maybe Frank has just built a solid character and he’s surrounded by people who, for whatever reason, have not built very effective characters.  Maybe they’re new, maybe something that looked like a good idea didn’t pan out, who knows.

Ok, but seriously, can we stop making excuses for Frank here?  Maybe the problem isn’t random characters, or a lucky set of challenges, or everyone else.  Maybe the problem is just…

Cause 4:  Frank is a Tool

THANK YOU!  It’s about time we acknowledged that Frank’s really the one at fault here, right?

Well, sad as it is, sometimes the guy who’s hogging the spotlight is just being a munchkin.  Sometimes you’ve got one guy (Frank) who keeps forcing himself into the spotlight.  He’s built his character to outshine other people, and even if it doesn’t make sense he’ll force himself into center-stage because he (Frank) really wants to be the main character.  Now sometimes this is just a player trying to be helpful because they see themselves as the leader of the group, but sometimes it’s someone (Frank) wanting to show off or just trying to get everyone’s attention because they weren’t hugged enough as a child.

This is actually the best time to move on to the solution.

The Solution

And no, it’s not kicking Frank out of the party.  Whatever the problem is, if there’s a serious case of some people not getting the chance to shine (which is a much bigger deal than some people shining too often) then it’s important to sit down with everyone in the group and figure out what’s going on.  Maybe Frank needs to reel his character in a bit, and stop being so damn charming.  Maybe the GM needs to reassess his dungeons to make sure that everyone has a chance to shine, and maybe stop staring at Frank’s pecs, it only encourages him to do that thing where they bounce.  Maybe everyone else needs to step up their game and get on Frank’s level because his character’s actually well-developed and balanced.  Or maybe, just maybe, Frank is an atomic level tool and I don’t need him anyway!

Regardless of the cause, the solution starts with a healthy and sincere discussion of the problem with all members of the party present.  Singling someone out into one-on-one conversation in a case like this gives them no room to suggest solutions that might involve other people, which means that it’s only useful if you’re dealing with cause four.  Remember that this is a group game and it’s rare that problems get solved if you put the responsibility for fixing them onto one person, even if that person is as glorious and majestic as Frank.

I’ve just been reminded that Frank is an arbitrary and imaginary figure that I made up for this article.  He will be missed.

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