GM Advice: How to Deal With Broken Characters

In a perfect world, every PC would be roughly as capable as his fellows. However through unbalanced rules, player skill or GM interference sometimes a PC gets broken.

Fight! by William McAusland (Outland Arts)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

 

Broken characters are just better than their fellows. Whether they are good at avoiding damage, slaughtering enemies or their magic is neigh on impossible to resist, dealing with broken PCs can cause a GM real problems.

I’ve had this problem several times in my Borderland of Adventure campaign. I’ve learnt it’s imperative when dealing with a broken PC to remember the player is invested in that character. Be open and honest about why you believe the PC is broken. Work with instead of against the player to resolve the situation so that both of you are happy.

How Did the PC Get Broken?

There are three main ways a PC gets broken:

  • Player Skill: The player is really good at eking every last bonus out of a PC’s build
  • GM Interference: The GM gave the player a magic item or other advantage.
  • Unbalanced Rules: The PC uses rules options that are broken.

Of course, sometimes it’s a combination of reasons. For example, a player skilled at optimising may use unbalanced rules which spawns a true monstrosity.

Dealing with the PC

But what’s a GM to do? Often it is not possible to challenge a broken PC without slaughtering the rest of the group. That’s clearly not ideal. In other instances, a GM may simply not have the time to repeatedly craft challenges specifically designed for the broken PC. There are three basic solutions to the problem of a broken PC:

  • In-Game Penalties: If a PC is particularly bloodthirsty or infamous, NPCs may stop dealing with him (or charge him inflated prices for their services if he appears to be wealthy). In games that do not solely focus on combat, this can be a fun solution to the problem. Alternatively, if the PC carves out a reputation as a mightier than mighty hero NPCs may continually appear to challenge him. At first this might be a fun diversion for the player, but slowly increasing the frequency (and skill) of the NPCs will gradually ratchet up the pressure on the hero.
  • Adjust the Character: The good news is a broken character can often be fixed. Unless the issue is something major like a class or race, often simply swapping out a feat, changing the build of a PC’s skills or removing certain powerful items is enough to bring the PC back into line with his fellows.
  • Retire the Character: A GM should never force a player to retire his beloved character, but sometimes a player will decide it’s the best thing for the party and the campaign. If you go down this route, don’t penalise the player for his sacrifice. Start his new PC with the same wealth (minus any items that caused the problem in the first place) and XP as the old one.

Help Fellow GMs

Have you had to deal with a wildly unbalanced or broken PC? How did you go about it? Let us know in the comments below and help your fellow GMs run better games!

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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23 thoughts on “GM Advice: How to Deal With Broken Characters

  1. It has been my experience that many times enemy tactics such as divide and concur or focusing attacks on the strongest opponent can help. Terrain and environment can be great equalizers as many characters optimized for damaged or combat are not well equipped to handle environment challenges such as crossing a desert, metal armor in the rain forest, ect…

  2. Just give them the ancient relic “the Armor of Blending ” once they have it on, have them recite the activation phrase “Puree Frappe Blende!” Pow Instant PC hamburger.

  3. I’ve seen a lot of talk about “game balance” resurface on various groups on facebook and elsewhere. Now, as noted in the few lines that follow, that kind of concept is fine as it is and if a group relies on some form of post-2000 “game balance” to ensure they have fun with the game and that works for them, then they totally should continue to do so.

    Where I feel the need to voice my own take on this is when this starts to be perceived as some sort of objective thing that should be applied to all game tables out there, like post-2000 “game balance” would be that silver bullet of superior game design, and if you don’t get on board with those arbitrary, resource management assumptions based on completely subjective criteria (such as four adventurers adventuring in a single day facing exactly four encounters equal to the average party level in a day and spending that much power and resources –20% per encounter– before needing to rest without fatalities, which serves as the base for the Encounter Level system of Dungeon & Dragons 3rd edition and on — see Dungeon Master’s Guide, D&D 3rd edition, page 101, boxed text “What’s Challenging?”), then you’d be some sort of Untermensch of gaming who doesn’t realize just how brilliant that idea is.

    To be clear, this is not what Creighton is doing here. But the assumption, as in, in a perfect world, all PCs would be “balanced”, is there. Now if that discussion was kept to groups like Pathfinder RPG gaming and whatnot, I wouldn’t be a party pooper and would just let people game the way they want (and as a matter of fact, you should game the way you want, regardless of what I have to say about it: my point here isn’t to change your way of gaming, it’s to say that there are OTHER ways of gaming that are perfectly fine too). Since the post was linked by Creighton on the Original Dungeons & Dragons facebook group, however, I must assume that it was supposed to apply there as well.

    So, now moving on to the actual post, the blog starts with the sentence “In a perfect world, every PC would be roughly as capable as his fellows.” Er. No. Sorry, that doesn’t work that way for me.
    This is based on a set of assumptions, namely “game balance” as defined post-2000, with a group of characters all the same level facing carefully tuned encounters expected to burn this much resources based on “challenge ratings” and all that.

    If your game, and those of your audience, are based on this sort of assumptions, that’s fine.
    My game isn’t. Actually, the OD&D and AD&D 1st ed game aren’t predicated on that set of assumptions either. It’s not uncommon to see different adventurers of different levels adventuring together, players have different characters in stables of different levels they mix and match according to the current objective in the campaign. It’s not uncommon to face threats that just “are”, regardless of the power level of the specific party adventuring this week, and these threats might be piece of cakes with low rewards or really too tough to engage directly.

    As a matter of fact, the campaign is, to paraphrase Mike Mornard, the story of the world in a game like OD&D/AD&D 1st ed. It is centered around the campaign milieu, the dungeon and the wilderness, where various adventurers seek fame and fortune, good or bad, band with one another, and live and die as they explore its unknown regions . It’s not the story of a specific set of characters that are expected to survive throughout a series of plot lines, climaxes and anticlimaxes.
    So as far as I am concerned, in my perfect world, every PC is not necessarily as roughly capable as his fellows. In my perfect world, players don’t see the sum of what’s written on their character sheet as the be-all, end-all of the role-playing game, and they play without looking over the other players’ shoulders to concentrate on the game and the world they are exploring with (not against) one another.

    Also, as it relates to the actual topic of the advice on the blog, the players and DM talk to one another and play the same game, which basically means that you don’t try to solve problems like metagame issues in the game, but talk about it with each other to find a way to make the game work for everyone. If that doesn’t work then somebody’s being a dick. Them’s the breaks.
    It’s perfectly fine to have modern “game balance” as a sort of compass to get the fun you want out of your game, but please, don’t make assumptions to the effect that it’s always worked that way, or it works that way for everyone, and if not, it ought to. I’m happy with the way I game, it’s different than yours, and I’m totally cool with that. Please keep on having fun!
    Thank you.

    • Thanks for the comprehensive reply, Benoist!

      You raise some very interesting points in regards to game balance and the various different editions of the game. As a long-term player of D&D, I know what you mean about balance among the party being less important the further back in editions you go.

      Even when I played 1st ed, though, most of the PCs in the group were roughly the same level. I, like you, agree tat the sum of a character is much more than numbers on a character sheet. That said, I like my players to all be able to contribute in roughly equal amounts to the game. That, I think, assumes they are all roughly of the same level (say +/- or 2).

      Of course, too much balance is a bad thing, but when one character hogs the limelight/kills all the baddies/repeatedly survives where everyone else dies then I think the party has a problem which should be fixed. I’d much rather fix that problem through talking to the player than simply escalating the challenges he faces until “I win.”

    • yeah wot he said, only just started readin, but yeah what he said. I am nor was a large group of the large group of players I played with, a fan of the Great God Playb A’lance, I character name I have brazenly used more than once. And your right on the if then dick equation. Sometimes, that dick is my character, the player may revel and sympathise with everyone, but my job is to be true to my character role playing wills it. As a player I’ll conspire to have the dick character killed in a fitting and somewhat on my terms. To the victor the spoils, epic, funny, brutal, unexpected, devious, even playfully mean spirited, the character is a dick, but I’m gonna spin that to ironic tragedy on my terms, my character will be blissfully unaware and true to their dickish self.

      Your environment/philosophy and the fact you talk and still play make I have no doubt both an awesome GM and Awesome player to GM for. I suspect we could share interesting stuff visa vie co op paties and not so co op parties, Ive been in some campaigns that where like diplomacy, sure you know the board game and they were awesome, epic just apples. Diversity in all things and role the play.

      • meant to say still play 1sted ad&d, makes me hanker for a good gamma world game there a game that cares not a jot for play balance, toon with deeper rules if you’ve the right CON on the right table in the correct edition 🙂

  4. The big issue here for me is always the fight you could end up having with the player when you tell him he has to change something or that he can’t have something that by itself is legal by the rules but is broken when used by a PC who knows how to optimize his character.

    I have found its much easier to just hinder this character in game with a penalty like a powerful curse that is very hard to remove or as I do in my home game, require that PCS had at least one stat that is an 8 so they always have at least one weakspot.

    Flaws are what make PCs interesting to me, and playing to those flows makes an optimal PC seem very weak.

  5. A “broken” character, as you describe it, is inevitable. Some characters will get ahead of others, through greater amounts of play, or just “the breaks of the game”. The build-point systems of more recent RPG designs are intended to give everyone a level playing field at the start — but not to guarantee that every character remains equally capable throughout.

    If a player has demonstrated the ability to deal with “all of the problems in the campaign” then add new problems — create situations that will force that more powerful character to “stretch”. Add politics to the mix.

    Of course, if you decide (as GM) that your campaign is going to end after a set calendar period (say, two years) this problem won’t develop – or if it does, it will be washed away when you end your campaign. My personal taste is to run campaigns as long as I have players interested in them, and I’ve been running one campaign since 1979 (with two of the original players still playing). Of course, the focus of the campaign is now on high level politics (where “breaking things and killing people” is seldom the best solution to problems).

  6. “Of course, sometimes it’s a combination of reasons. For example, a player skilled at optimising may use unbalanced rules which spawns a true monstrosity.”

    Not to mention how much worse if given GM candy that seemed fine to the GM at the time, but is that guys spec buffer delux o matic. Or you could be a real man and play early good hero system. And craft every character as that guy. I miss it so 🙂

    Reasons compound the whole is great than the sum. I’ve played a lot broken characters and a lot of crippled characters, not capable of pissing into a pisspot assuming they owned one to start with. Harn theres a game where you can be all or nothing, still probably die of sepsis if a disease doesn’t get before some stabs you. Random and diversity varying power level isn’t necessarily a problem. The plays the thing, a gracious king is a pleasure to serve, an ungracious one is fun to scheme against, diversity can get heated though, but sometimes party implode, if its colour and the bard lives winning I say 🙂 Horses for courses, funs the thing mostly.

  7. A solution you miss is normalise the broken, up the the rest of party and goal/foes accordingly, or the scope of the parties power as heros, in polotics and stuff because they are the guys in shiny hats. Its a less punitive approach and tends to high fantasy, but like any GM ploy is mouldable to fit almost any genre

      • Honey is sweeter than than vinegar, some players are salty, know the players guild but let the narrative flow, GMs IMO are the canvas to a good campaign, the world ultimately sets the rules. You whatever works, fudge the details, focus on role playing, can go wrong. You should try if you haven’t dwarf fortress dying over and over can be fun, or colourful. Boatmurdered is a thing you may also know, if not its a thing to research, its not a rpg, but abstracting boatmurdered as though they where a campaign I think would be a very insightful flight of thinking on the topic, the gm is the game and they are harsh and they are often unfair, but you can within reason trust them, its harsh, but fair. It will drop a boulder on anyone or anything, the boatmurrdered series is a group who take boatmurded thru a year each, and catolouge “in character” narration, diary, mad ravings, etal. It is hilarious and epic, Literally, burning dwarficidal blood crazed elephant in large number here now, good job your on fire too. kinda stuff. Looked at as a lesson on how to GM, I tip my hat to toady, truly the best computer game ever roleplay wise, if you like dwarfs, theres mods of, but I don’t mod DF.

  8. I would add that a PC who does way more damage than anyone else is not broken. For example, the archer character in our Shattered Star campaign probably does two or three times the damage as any other single character. However, I don’t consider him broken for a couple of reasons. First, the party is a full level behind the suggested level so his extra damage makes up for the lower damage of the other characters. In fact, one or two characters would have died last game session if not for him. Second, his focus on ranged combat makes him not much help in a lot of other areas (melee combat, magic items and spells, knowledge checks). Balance is good, but balance can be defined a lot of ways. New DMs need to be careful before changing things in the name of balance.

  9. My favorite is when the “broken” PC retires, then months or years later the group has to face this character again, for good or bad. Makes for a great story!

  10. This is a very complicated issue. While most of my group approaches game as a group story-telling exercise, (so much that sometimes they even take weaker options to back up story elements) there will always be gamers who believe that the game is an exercise in stat blocking and tactics, and expect, almost want, the GM to play it like a pure game where we almost try to kill the PCs. In this scenario, it’s every players job to maximize power. Everyone does and SHOULD want their character to be effective, even badass. I often find it best to try to let the two forces (story and power gamers) pull each other in opposite directions. I let the story gamers work with the lower gamers to craft full characters and let the lower gamers help the story gamers craft more effective builds for those well fleshed out characters.

  11. This is a time where an ounce of prevention can be better than a pound of cure. The best time to nip it in the bud is to prevent it at character creation. One thing I did back in the day was use the Ravenloft character creation system (all stats at 8 to start, then roll 7d6 and add the resulting die to any stat you choose. All points on all die have to be used, no overflow allowed).

    I also allowed for stat increases over the course of the campaign based on merit and story. It doesn’t prevent it from happening during the course of the chronicle, but it does cut down on it greatly.

  12. *the clinking of two pence being tossed onto the table*

    Assuming the player in question isn’t actually TRYING to break the game, and is genuinely having fun, I don’t think this issue is a problem at all. Certainly, if the other players at the table have no beef with the broken character, then the GM should probably file this issue under “my problem, not yours”, rather than taking on an adversarial attitude as some would prefer. Your game always belongs to the players, not the other way around.

    The only real question here is: are you challenging said PC enough in all areas of game play? Situations where good old fashioned problem-solving and role playing level the playing field quite a bit, so a good GM can always keep the game interesting for everyone involved. Design encounters that don’t focus solely on combat, and you’ll never find yourself at the mercy of the numbers game. Know the spec and build of all the PCs at your table so that you don’t inadvertently drop a magic item in that further ‘breaks’ said PC.

    Speaking of resources….

    It is the mantra of every good storyteller that suspense and drama arise from conflict. Characters on the brink of starvation (figuratively, of course… unless you are just mean) are always far more invested in the game than those who never have to worry about whether they will survive the next encounter. Design your game this way when it comes to resources (the items, information, shelter, food, water, horses, and coin) your PCs are given from day one, and maintain it. By doing so you will prevent characters from becoming broken in the first place. Throw in a minor windfall to these resources as a reward for good play, and lean times when the PCs fail to accomplish a mission, and this will do wonders to keep your players’ thoughts on the game-world, and not glued to the numbers on their character sheets.

  13. Yep. I had a character inadvertently become broken through a multi-class that we all thought would weaken my character. In pathfinder I was playing as an orc barbarian, really strong, but just a barbarian. However at one point we visited an orc village that had scholars and the alchemists there introduced me to the alchemist bomb. From this, my character got happy and decided to visit alchemists and learn from them in every town we visited because the voodoo was cool. Because of this when we leveled up next I decided to take one level in alchemist to show all of that studying. I thought it would weaken my character since I was losing barbarian progression, but it had the opposite effect.

    The alchemist mutagen being an alchemical bonus stacked with rage and bull’s strength (had the belt) and alchemist level 1 extracts include enlarge person. I was a character that was a DD that could enlarge himself and give him a +10 str through mutagen, rage, and enlarge with mutagen also giving NA that counteracted rage’s -AC. I required no other characters to buff myself and I destroyed everything once my character started doing that.

    Because of this I ended up walking my character out of the campaign because in order to challenge the party, the DM had to either throw stuff at us that I couldn’t just mow down and in turn could mow us down or just not have meaningful combat.

    I had the Orc meet a traveling crafter who he convinced to join the group while he ran off on a separate quest of his own, he passed along his alchemical stuff to the crafter and then I played the new character. Brought a lot of balance back to the game.

  14. My only issue with your take (as most ofnit was spot on) is that in most cases a gamer who squeezes every last bonus from the rules and has a nose for broken character concepts does not easily allow you to step in and adjust their character. I’ve had more power gamers yell at me for suggesting that their chosen build is unbalancing than I’ve had ones willingly work with me to find a happy compromise. Such players are easily one of the more pervasive issues in the gaming world that I’ve run across.