As a GM who runs a lot of darker themed campaigns, be they cyberpunk or gothic fantasy, I’ve encountered situations where the players should not be allowed to win, but they shouldn’t be totally crushed and leave unfulfilled. The challenge then comes down to providing a satisfying play experience without giving the players a victory that unbalances and complicates the narrative.Some games are best when their story consists of a struggle for survival, but the problem with most tabletop games is that they do a very poor job at creating an environment conducive to this. Either their systems tend to lead to some pretty rampant scaling (I had a Shadowrun group that reliably took down armored vehicles), or they don’t have mechanics that really punish failure. In other places you want to let players live to see another day, something that could be problematic in, say, Legend of the Five Rings, where baseline play is incredibly lethal. In these cases, you really need to work on both a long-term scale and a short-term scale to prevent players from reaching power levels that do not fit the campaign they are in.
A core problem with power scaling in campaigns is when it causes a genre shift. When a cyberpunk game becomes an action movie ripoff with future tech you’ve hit an entirely different method of GM’ing. This isn’t always undesirable, but it does mean that you, as a GM, will have to deal with an entirely different flavor of game.
Long-term modifications are simple. I rarely try to run a low level game of anything on the d20 system or similar level-based systems, because there’s not really a good way to allow characters to develop without just giving them power inflation. When I play something like Shadowrun that has a more organic development system I’m very cautious to keep the rewards for players very low unless I want them to become very strong very quickly. While the exact specifics are going to vary from system to system, you’ll have to be very careful to keep things interesting without giving too much power.
One thing I’ve tried that didn’t work so well in the past was to reward breadth rather than depth in characters. What I found is that players either ignored the mechanics I put in place to encourage diversification, trampled on each others’ roles, or just colluded so that they had a very broad range of skills but only one person could do any given thing. If you’re trying to keep your players’ characters from growing out of scale, I wouldn’t bother with trying to allow them to “sidegrade”, as that has never, to my knowledge, benefited a campaign in the long run. Just limit growth rates.
Short-term modifications to your story and setting are also important. Don’t just look at the numbers but also consider where the campaign will go. Place players in situations that they can’t handle and set them up to fail. Not only does this create a great challenge (and an occasional unexpected success), but it gives a good opportunity to reinforce the mood of your campaign. A group of Shadowrunners may try to rescue a hostage only to find that he had already been executed. The knights might finally take down the vampire only to realize that they’ve left their homes undefended as distant flames appear on the horizon. The archaic technology that the team just recovered burnt out after a short test, giving them a mere glimpse of success.
The important thing when you’re doing this is to be fair and stick to conventions. Don’t make everything fail for the players; this isn’t (usually) a comedy of errors. However, whatever the players’ goals are can be thwarted by proving that they’re not the biggest guys around. With that in mind, remember the joy of a low-level campaign; every effort is one’s best, and occasionally the underdog wins the day.
Kyle’s Note: The irony of the title of this article being combined with the massive delay in its release has not escaped me.