An alternative way to measure character power imbalances

@cyclops has just announced a new levelled ranking system for the games here, based on 5 categories with 6 ranks each.

This probably works for people who are used to game systems where you have to fill out a character sheet, but I come from a freeform roleplaying background. I’ve never been keen on category systems like that. They always seemed too detached from the game to be very helpful. And it’s always so hard to figure out how to categorize extremely min-maxed characters.

I don’t know how much it will help anyone else, but I’ve always used an informal “head count” metric to figure out how over/under-powered a character is for a game. I’ll describe how it works so you can decide if it might work for you.

The idea is you imagine your character is in the middle of a crowd of well-trained, well-equipped soldiers who are on the alert for trouble. They know there is a potential enemy among them, but they don’t know who.

For combat-oriented characters, your character starts attacking the soldiers. The question is: Under ideal (for your character) conditions, how many soldiers can your character plausibly take out (not necessarily kill; just remove from combat, or somehow make them no longer a threat) before they are themselves taken out?

  • An ordinary human, with no special training, could only pull off one… because while they may get the jump on a single soldier, the instant they attack every other soldier will turn and fire.
  • A badass human with martial arts training or skill with weapons or whatever might take out 3 or 4. They can attack quickly enough and/or dodge the first hasty counterattacks and/or strike using some tool, trick, or technique that confuses the soldiers long enough to take a couple out before the soldiers get organized and retaliate.
  • A street-level superhero like Daredevil or Jessica Jones might take down a whole section (8–12).
  • A low-level superhero like some of the less insanely powerful X-Men might take down a whole platoon (15–30).
  • A mid-level superhero like the average X-Men person might take down a whole company (80–150).
  • A Marvel-level superhero might take down a whole battalion (300–800).
  • A DC-level superhero might take down a whole brigade (2,000–5,000).
  • A really powerful superhero might take down a whole army (100,000+).
  • A semidemigod might take down the combined armies of a section of the world (1,000,000+).
  • A demigod might take down the entire combined population of an entire planet (or multiple planets) that has banded together to fight them (10,000,000+).
  • And a god would take down any number (up to infinity).

For support-style characters, you modify the scenario by saying that it’s not your character that attacks, but a well-trained, well-equipped soldier who happens to be on your character’s side. The question becomes: How many soldiers can your character’s ally take out with your character’s support before they get taken out?

The reason I’ve always liked this metric is because it directly relates to game planning. You usually want to know how many mooks you have to throw at a character in order for them to not be able to fight their way out.

Plus it kinda eliminates the difference between primarily defensive characters and primarily offensive characters. You just try the thought experiment both with the character as the attacker, and then with the character defending a well-trained, well-armed soldier ally. That will detect absurdly over/under-powered characters whether their imbalance is on defence or offence.

It also smooths out disputes over what counts as more powerful. For example, someone could create a psionic character with Charles Xavier-levels of power, and argue that they’re not powerful at all because they could be taken down with a single punch from an ordinary human. That kind of sneaky min-maxing won’t work with this method, because Charles Xavier has been shown to be able to freeze an entire battalion’s worth of people, and maybe a brigade or even more. Most min-maxing tricks can be sussed out by slightly changing the thought experiment. Like if someone gives themselves crazy cosmic powers then “balances” it out by saying they can only work at night, just run the thought experiment when the conditions are satisfied to see how the power actually stacks up.

You can even modify the thought experiment for people who fight in machines like space fighters or mecha. Just make it so that (for example) the character is in their machine in the middle of a swarm of well-trained, well-equipped soldiers in standard fighting machines (whether they’re mecha or fighter jets or whatever), and ask how many the character can take out before they’re taken out.

With the types of games I’ve always done, I’ve always found it really important to have a lot of fine detail toward the low end… but then I don’t usually do games with super- or cosmically-powered characters. Your mileage may vary.

That would do… So long as it gives a clear way to make comparisons of power and skill levels. Direct examples of ability can be the best sometimes. Saying area of effect, number of people impacted, comparison to some real world act… All that kind of thing can make thinhs very clear.

It probably wouldn’t help you very much, or the character profiles for the setting in general. It’s more something for people trying to make individual stories in the setting.

The problem you’re facing is that you don’t have a specific story, you’ve got this whole setting in which there are countless stories possible. You can’t really come up with a single thought experiment to measure power balances across the whole setting. If you used a hand-to-hand combat thought experiment, that would still leave loopholes for massive imbalances in space combat power levels, and vice versa.

As an actual example, Kana would be only very slightly above human norms at hand-to-hand combat. Like, she’d be 2C, 2D, or 2E - maybe even 2F - she is genetically enhanced, but an unmodified human with some training could easily kick her ass. But in Scythe, in space combat, she’d be like 3C, 3B, or 3A - she’s not only modified for space combat piloting, she’s literally lived over half her life in her mech’s cockpit, fighting almost weekly battles in an endless war. So depending on whether your thought experiment is a space battle or something on foot, you get wildly different results.

So you’d still need something like the levels you proposed, just to take into account all the myriad possible stories.

But this method might help people planning out one shots or stories within the setting. If they have a story in mind, they can come up with a thought experiment perfectly tailored to that story. It might help them figure out how a 3C actually stacks up against a 2A, for whatever specific skill really matters to the story.

You know, that’s an interesting point that I hadn’t considered. I’ll have to give that some thought, the Scythe, the Class 2K armor, and other such things that augment abilities - what do they do to abilities, etc. That will require some thought.

I’d say you have to watch out not just for augmenting factors, but also cheap, min-maxy “limiting” factors. You should never allow a “weakness” that the GM doesn’t have absolute control over. For example: a character who has crazy powers and their only real weakness is they can’t use them and are basically just ordinary when they’re tired, or emotionally upset, or their mind’s not clear, or that kind of thing. That may sound “balanced” - massive powers, massive weakness - but you don’t know if the player is actually going to play it that way. And if the GM has to step in and dictate a character’s state of mind, that’s surely going to be interpreted as being too dictatorial.

But again, that’s me looking at it more from the perspective of working a particular story, rather than a setting-wide thing.

Well, almost everything in role play comes down to exactly that. How does the player (or the GM / Storyteller) actually manage the situation. In the case you’re talking about, for a particular story, I think I have to get people used to setting parameters themselves when running a story. Have an idea of how to balance the situation as players want to come in and such. For the setting itself, I think each individual storyline would be almost like a cell within that. The setting provides the weighing mechanisms and it is up to the people to use them.

A perfect example was Lilac, who had no idea how to balance things out, this is in contrast to say Tal or Zeph who balance out the psychological issues of their characters very well with the setting.

You know what might be handy for novice-to-intermediate storytellers? A step-by-step guide or checklist they can follow when setting up a new story. Like simple instructions and tips on how to design a story (so it’s something others can participate in and not just a platform for your own characters), how to advertise it to potential players, how to vet character/subplot submissions, and so on.

That is an excellent idea. I’m working on, how to best do such a list. I want to start doing podcasts or video podcasts or some such on youtube or something like that, for guides to doing role playing. Though it has stalled out a bit from school and such.