One of my regular players and an occasional contributor here at Campaign Mastery, Ian Gray, has a simple philosophy when it comes to rewards – never ask for +5 when five +1’s will do.

The Judo Of Wishes

It’s a philosophy that has developed from his experiences with Rings Of Three Wishes and similar items. Like almost every D&D player out there, he’s seen people make outrageous demands and requests when using Wishes, and the inevitable reaction by the GM has been to do their utmost to screw the PC up as punishment for their audacity and in an attempt to keep some semblance of game balance.

The usual player reaction to this denial of their unmitigated greed has been to become amateur lawyers, attempting to make the terms and conditions of the wish ironclad in defense of the desired and exorbitant benefit they have claimed. The worst case of this that I have ever witnessed occurred when one player prepared a sixteen-page typed contract – for one wish.

This only makes the GM work harder and with more bloody-mindedness at finding and exploiting any loophole they can uncover, in my personal experience, and Ian has made the same observation. Since anything the GM says, goes – (short of driving his players away from the Game Table in outrage) – the deck is inevitably stacked in the GM’s favor in such contests – sooner or later, they will neutralize or steal or pervert or corrupt or render unusable the Player’s ill-gotten gains.

Ian observed this happening to other players on several occasions and quickly decided that a plus-one or plus-two that he got to keep and use was infinitely better than a plus-five that the GM will move heaven and earth to turn into a plus-zero. What’s more, as soon as it is announced that a PC is using a Wish, the GM – through experience and ingrained habit – inevitably girds his mental loins, bracing himself for whatever abomination the greedy player is about to demand. Making a slightly-weaker-than-reasonable request makes the granting of the request, with no hidden catches or strings – practically automatic, using the GM’s own determination to fight unreasonable requests against him.

The Stacking Equation

At around the same time, as I understand it, Ian was also formulating a second philosophic principle that has shaped his PC development ever since – it doesn’t really matter which came first. This states that it is more than twice as much work getting and keeping a +2 bonus than it is getting and keeping a +1 bonus. In other words, it’s easier to get two +1 bonuses that stack than it is to get a single +2, and much easier to get three +1 bonuses that stack than it is to get a single +3 item – but the end result is the same, in terms of character capabilities.

Extrapolating from that: it’s easier to get four +4 bonuses than it is to get a single +16 item (in fact, outside of possibly some monty haul campaigns, no such items even exist, and nor should they). Or six instead of +24.

Are these numbers starting to look alarming yet?

Looking at the rules

A typical +3 weapon costs roughly 18,000gp according to both the 3.x DMG and the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. According to the NPC gear value charts for 3.x (p127, 3.5 DMG) that means that the absolute earliest that a character should be able to get his hands on that equipment is around 11th level; the Pathfinder rules are more explicit and suggest 17th level (p454, Core Rulebook). The character-wealth-by-level table brings that forward to about 7th level (3.x DMG p135); I couldn’t find an equivalent table in Pathfinder.

If you can achieve the same result from three different sources of +1 – a feat, a magic item, and a +2 stat gain or a class ability – how soon can you get there? A feat: 1st level, or perhaps 3rd if you have to wait. A +1 magic item (value aprox 2000gp): 2nd level (3.x), 7th level (Pathfinder) – but I have seen 1st level characters for both that are so equipped. But, let’s stick with the official guideline for the moment. A stat gain of +2? You can get plus one at 4th level – and a potion or a scroll can make up the balance from 2nd level on (but again, I’ve seen 1st level characters with potions as starting equipment). A class ability that only gives +1 is pretty low-level – certainly, any such would normally be received by 4th or 5th level, and 3rd or sooner would not be unexpected.

Total: between 3rd and 5th level (3.x) a character can have the same benefits expected of a 7th level character. For Pathfinder, that’s 7th level to achieve the same effect as an 11th level character.

It takes work

A lot of players just show up to play, not even looking at their character sheets away from the Game table. Ian is not like that – he works hard for his +16 or +24 or whatever. Outside of game time, he will go over his supplements and references, looking for combinations – this class ability with that feat and the other magic item and this other feat – that actually total the sum of their parts, or more.

Nor is he – despite the impression you may have received so far – a min-maxer. He carefully develops a character concept and profile, evolving it as he interacts with the game world, and every choice that he makes has to be justified in light of that character concept. If it seems right for the character, he will ignore an obviously beneficial combination (in terms of the rules) and choose an option that seems more appropriate to who the character is. All this is an expression of his role-playing, not rules-lawyering (at least most of the time).

As he puts it: The bottom line is that you get out a game rewards equal to the effort that you put into it. Ian puts in a lot of effort, and he reaps the rewards – and he has trouble understanding those who don’t, especially if they complain about the relative power level between his character and theirs.

An Unfair Advantage?

Yet, all this single-minded attention gives Ian what many would consider an unfair advantage, simply because the GM can’t spend months or years developing and improving each encounter in advance. Heck, we’re usually lucky to find time to rub two dry words together!

GMs can live with this situation in one of three ways:

  • they can either target the lowest common denominator – matching the effectiveness of most of the party – and accept that Ian will make things look easy; or,
  • they can craft opposition that presuppose Ian-level effectiveness on the part of the PCs and accept that those characters not built to the optimum standard will suffer for their laziness; or,
  • they can try to mix-and-match – one foe of a standard suitably to confronting Ian’s PC and others to a standard appropriate for the other PCs.

Right off the bat that seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? When you put it that way, #3 is the obvious right answer. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Let’s consider the ramifications of each (in reverse order):

The Mix-and-match solution

Because the GM doesn’t have the time to build an efficient enemy (in the same way that Ian’s characters are efficient PCs), this solution equates to adding gross firepower to the encounter. Instead of (say) a CR8 creature, drop in a CR15.

But that means that the entire party gets not only the experience for defeating the CR15, but also the loot that a CR15 carries – which is a lot more than that of the typical CR8. The net result is that the characters earn more experience than is warranted at this point in the campaign, becoming more capable more quickly. And because Ian’s PC is not of a higher level than the others (or not much – something I’ll get to in a moment), he progresses just as quickly, with the progression amplified by his ability to design good characters.

This solution might work in the short-term, but it does so at the price of making the overall problem worse.

There’s a second exacerbating factor as well – using this approach means that when a solo encounters occur, matching effectiveness means that Ian gets the experience for beating a CR15 while the others get the experience for beating a CR8. It doesn’t take very many such encounters before he has gained several levels over the rest of the party – which only makes the apparent disparity of power levels worse.

All this tends to create ill-feeling and jealousy amongst the other players, as well, because they not only don’t get anywhere as much time in the spotlight, that spotlight doesn’t even burn as brightly when it IS on them. So it’s not the perfect solution that it might have seemed on the surface. In fact, it’s not even close. Throw in the frustration that the GM experiences, and the genuine difficulties of coping with parties whose power levels are so disparate, and you have a recipe for disaster – and I have seen whole campaigns shut down as a result.

I have to admit, this lesson was hard-earned; for a very long time, this was my solution to the problem. It was only when I started to wonder why the problem seemed to be getting worse that I came to the realizations offered in this section.

Targeting the Optimum PC

So, what then, for the idea of using Ian’s power level as the guideline for everyone, in effect “encouraging” the other players to match his expertise in character construction?

This falls into the trap of creating an “us-vs.-him” feeling at the game table, where the “him” is the GM – the other players feeling (quite rightly) that the GM is picking on them because they aren’t as skilled, or don’t have as much time to invest, or don’t have access to the same game resources, as Ian does. There is also a growing resentment toward Ian, whose fault they often consider this to be.

Mechanically, too, this solution has it’s problems – in fact, these are just the same problems as the previous answer, but amplified by the fact that there are now several CR15 opponents and not just one.

This is throwing HP at the problem and hoping it goes away – but because XP and HP are connected, you are also throwing XP at the problem, which only makes it worse.

In other words, this is no solution at all.

Targeting the Lowest Common Denominator

By virtue of excluding the other proposed solutions as fundamentally flawed, this then has to be the correct answer. But there are consequences of adopting it that make life harder for the GM.

The game effectively becomes too easy for the players. You can expect them to win every straightforward encounter without great difficulty. So the trick to making this solution work is to fill the game with challenges that are not so straightforward. Build nasty little surprises into the game. Be deceptive. Be secretive. Accepting that you are overmatched on the power front, attack on a different vector. Play smart, not strong. Emphasize role-play and relationships and situations in which the shortest distance between two goals is NEVER a straight line.

In an ideal world, this is the perfect solution. If you are at least 20 IQ points smarter than your players, this can work. If you and they are more reasonably matched – if you are a mere mortal when not ensconced behind the GM’s screen – you will need to find some other answer. It takes the power that a player like Ian confers to the characters that he designs and makes it largely irrelevant. Sadly, it’s never that easy.

I want to digress for a moment to emphasize that it’s not all downside, having a player like Ian in your games. What you have here is a player who pays attention to what you reveal in the game, who actively thinks about it a lot, who gets the little hints and appreciates the bigger picture and the twists and turns of the plot, who gets and appreciates more of the game than anyone else at the table. And who is a nice guy, to boot.

Everyone has a different tolerance level for the problems that players like Ian engender, but I’ll put up with an awful lot to keep those qualities at my table.

This article is not intended to be a criticism of him or his play – he’s doing nothing wrong – it’s about a GM being able to cope with a player of his caliber.

Other solutions

There are more than those three answers, of course, and it’s entirely possible that the reason none of them seem to be entirely satisfactory is that we haven’t looked hard enough for alternatives to find the solution.

  • Ian as player consultant: It’s a simple solution to the problem of disparate PC power levels: even up the playing field a bit by having the other players consult the acknowledged expert at character creation. Ian is quite happy to do so, because character creation is a skill like any other – the more you do it, the better you get at it. This also eases tensions, hostilities, and resentments amongst the other players toward Ian, producing greater harmony at the game table. Not a total solution, but a definite ameliorative.
  • Recruit Ian’s Talents: There have been a few occasions when I have needed a really top-notch NPC, and judged that the price of giving Ian some inside info about the campaign direction was less than the price of using an under-created character. Getting Ian to help in the creation of some of the top-line NPCs makes the game better for everybody, so he’s usually happy to do that, too. Again, not a complete solution, but a useful approach when you need the enemy to be top-notch.
  • Talk to him about the problem: The first character of Ian’s to really exhibit the mega-built problem in one of my campaigns was Warcry. The first thing I did was verify that Ian wasn’t cheating, and the second thing I did was to talk to him about the problem. Much of this article is a distillation of that, and many subsequent, conversations with him concerning his approach. The initial conversation led to the next solution:
  • Retire the character when it gets to be too much: In the case of Warcry, it was a good character with a lot of plot potential and I had worked up a number of interesting adventures for the character to have with the team. The obvious solution was to split the character off into his own campaign and have Ian generate a new PC for the main campaign. It worked quite well, and with greater awareness of the problems, Ian deliberately chose to create a less confrontational character the second time around; as a result, Glory was able to stick around until the first Zenith-3 campaign came to a close, even though (towards the end) she was again becoming too powerful relative to the other PCs. For the new campaign, Ian has generated another new character – one that he’s had about seven years to polish – but one that is even less directly powerful in terms of a direct confrontation.
  • Find a shortcut: The final solution is to match Ian at his own game. But wait a minute – the entire premise of this article is that no GM can spare the time from general game prep to do so, isn’t it? Well, yes, it is, but that’s not the end of the story. If a shortcut can be found that at least simulates what Ian does, then the whole problem goes away. Suddenly, that impractical answer, “Target the lowest common denominator”, becomes practical. And I think I’ve thought of just such a solution.

One Structure To Rule Them All

If it is conceded that there is one optimum construction for each character class, and that what Ian does is to winnow through the lesser options until he settles on the best one for the current circumstances of game and the particular character that he’s created, there is an approach that replicates his work – in less time, and without the finesse and artistry that he employs, so it will be a lesser solution, but better than nothing.

The solution is a Zwicky Morphological Box:

  • Each class has a number of functions and abilities.
  • Each of these functions will emphasize or be controlled by a particular numeric value. Sometimes there will be more than one, creating sub-variants.
  • Each sub-variant will have a particular characteristic apon which it is based.
  • Every feat will benefit either a numeric value, enhance a particular class ability (ie a function), or a characteristic. Some feats will produce a paradigm shift, altering the basis to a different characteristic.
  • The same is true for every magic item.
  • The same is true for other class abilities and Prestige Classes.
  • The same is true for the optimum tactical situation for the character to utilize their primary focus to best effect.

What I propose is a series of columns of lists, one set to each character class, one column to each character class function (ie, class ability) and any sub-variants. Each column would be divided into sections – Class Abilities, Feats, Magic Items, Skills, Spells, Prestige Classes, Tactical Notes. In addition, there would be a simpler set of columns (no sub-variants) of lists, one for each characteristic.

  1. Go through each of the class abilities for that class. If any of them enhance the character’s primary focus AND are accessible at the same class level as the primary ability, they go on the list under “Class abilities” for that primary ability focus. You can do this at the same time as you are setting up the initial lists.
  2. Go through each feat in the Core Rulebooks for your game – find a list of them, if you can – and number them, i.e. index them numerically. Then list it in the feats section for each primary focus or stat where it is relevant. This should take a matter of seconds for each feat; you aren’t worried about all the bric-a-brac and fluff and restrictions that come with it, just with the general question of ‘does this enhance or improve this focus ability’? If the feat has any prerequisites, these can be noted by number in brackets. Of course, you will also need a master list of indexed feats.
  3. Ditto magic items, in the Magic Items section. (Some won’t go anywhere – add them to another list, called “fluff”). Some may generate new sub-variants – Frostbrands vs. Flame Tongues, for example. Create by copying and pasting into a new column.
  4. Ditto skills, in the Skills section. Most of these will have no effects on any core functions, and can be ignored – you’re mostly looking for synergy bonuses and opportunities to enhance tactical positions. But some skills will recur often – spellcraft, and knowledge (religion), and spot, and listen, and search, for example.
  5. Ditto Class abilities from Prestige Classes.
  6. And so on, until you’ve finished with the core rulebooks. Next, grab the first game supplement that comes to hand, and do the same for what’s in that.
  7. Repeat as necessary. (It might be a good idea to keep a list of game supplements that you’ve processed, in alphabetic order, so you don’t waste time going over old ground a second time).

What you are really doing is culling all the alternatives that don’t benefit the class ability that you want to focus on in each column.

A table or spreadsheet is perfect for this work – and the implementation of tables in Open Office makes it better suited than Word for the purpose, because it lets you copy part or all of a column.

The Time Factor

Will this take time? I’m afraid so – but by simplifying the questions involved, and permitting a quick skim to do the work, and making each entry as simple as possible, and using cut-and-paste with multiple lists open at the same time, it should not take very long.

The beauty of the approach is that in the long run, it actually makes your game prep more efficient, so an initial investment in time helps in the longer term.

And, of course, the results are persistent within the game system that you are using – until a new edition comes out and your campaign switches over.

Why I haven’t done the work for you

I entertained thoughts of doing just that – bit by bit, over the course of multiple articles here at Campaign Mastery. Or of putting the results in an e-book – I’m sure that it would sell! And it would have the benefits of recycling something I’d like to do for my own campaigns into something publishable – which is probably the only way I’m going to find time to do it at all for the next few months!!

But a little thought about the project gave me pause. Every campaign is different – I don’t have every game supplement that’s out there, and I don’t interpret them all the same way, and my House Rules are different to those of the next campaign over. That means that every campaign’s lists would be just a little different from each other, and the format means that it becomes a lot harder to customize them after the fact. In fact, I think it would be even more work to customize an existing list than it would be to create a new one from scratch.

I could be persuaded otherwise, if our readers demand it – once the current Monday series of the Alternate History is finished, of course – but, for the moment, the best solution is to show all of you how to do it.

So, if I have to do it myself – why no example?

Unfortunately, it would take almost as long to craft an example as it would to do the whole thing. I would still have to glance at every feat, every magic item, and so on. In fact, arguably, it is more work to do it one class at a time (because there is more redundant activity) than it is to deal with each potential entry just once for each of the lists required.

This is an all-or-nothing project – and so it isn’t possible to extract and create an example, except perhaps for the layout of the lists – and those will vary with the software each GM has available, and with their own ideas, anyway. I’ve certainly had no time to optimize the design, and have not actually done this myself yet – so there are no examples to offer. Sorry.

The Bigger Picture

A few of you may be thinking that none of this matters to them – after all, they don’t have Ian Gray in their campaigns (for good or ill)!

But the fact is that everybody does have an Ian, at least to some extent. Every player has his own unique strengths and abilities, and no two are ever going to be identically competent at character design. Some will have a ‘favored class’ that is their preference, and whose options and nuances they’ve mastered, but be fish-out-of-water when it comes to optimizing a different class.

So the same problems exist, to at least some extent, in every campaign out there. It’s only that Ian has gone further than anyone else I know down this path – and hence, brought the associated difficulties sufficient prominance to be noticed.

Fractionalizing the Differential

Can this power, this technique, be turned to the Dark Side? Can it be adopted by the players to add to the problems confronting the GM?

Of course – but it’s hardly the end of the world if it happens. In fact, by normalizing the efficiency of character construction for both players and GM, and reducing the differential between the run-of-the-mill player and the Ian Grays of the gaming world, a campaign will be a lot stronger. Opposition will be more nearly a match for the PCs, making the challenge – and the fun of meeting that challenge – better for all.

Oh yes – and it also pulls the teeth somewhat of any genuine min-maxers amongst your players.

Not a bad thing to have your name associated with, eh, Ian?

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