by Mike Shea on 1 December 2014
Players want their PCs to feel empowered in just about every situation in which they find themselves. This is a stark contrast to "real life" but it's also one of the reasons we seek escape in games like this. Tabletop RPGs are one of the few games we can play where PCs CAN be fully empowered. Nearly all other games have barriers, boundaries, and rules put in place before the game ever falls in your hands.
RPGs have rules too, but they also sit within malleable boundaries. Yes, when we attack we only get a +5 bonus and must hit an AC of 17, but we have nearly limitless options to try. What if we just talk to the dark knight instead of shooting him full of arrows? What if we look around the environment and find a better vantage point? What if we toss a cask of oil on him and set it on fire? Our limitations in RPGs are few. We're empowered.
Good DMs embrace PC empowerment, but our instinct can often get in the way. We don't like the feeling of losing control. We want the world in which we're playing to feel realistic and sometimes that realism means that our PCs are stuck in a tough spot. Maybe the PCs took a wrong turn and now face a powerful lich who toys with them. Is that empowerment? Not unless one of them discovers that strange stylus necklace they possess is actually the lich's phylactery. Now they're empowered. They're still in a dangerous spot but the scales are even.
Do PCs wander in a wild world where dangers big and small can lurk around any corner or does the world conform around the current power of the PCs? This seems like a loaded question, but it's not. We are in full control of the world we present. Our worlds are complete amorphous blobs of pure creative clay that only form into people and places and things when our players put their minds on them. We may have three-ring binders full of world notes and 400 page tomes of shared-world history but none of that has to be true and real until we decide to match it up with our game.
Dynamic worlds full of dangers can sound exciting and dangerous and wonderful until a stone giant crushes the skulls of three level 2 PCs traveling through the mountains. That isn't empowerment, that's just piss-poor luck.
There's nothing wrong with letting the world form around the PCs. We all want a little more opportunity to make choices and grasp the world with both hands. Our tabletop RPGs are a place we can actually do that.
There's also nothing wrong with having a dynamic dangerous world filled with threats both great and small as long as we ensure the PCs (and the players) have the information they need in order to deal with it.
So what happens when a group of low-level PCs tries to go out into the big-bad world and faces a threat well beyond them? That's up to us. What can we give them to make them feel empowered even when the deck is stacked against them?
The biggest advantage we can give them is information. Maybe they hear about those stone giants before they ever go into the mountains? Maybe they have a chance to avoid them or perhaps parlay with them. Maybe they can work out how to give the stone giants something they want enough to pass.
Even with random encounters we can insert something like this. No rule anywhere says you can't give PCs a clue that something really bad is heading their way before the nasty creature gets a sense that the PCs are around. If you happen to roll the number of a particularly terrible creature, give the PCs a chance to choose a few options before they're stomped into jelly.
PC death isn't really the problem here. PCs die sometimes. It's the feeling of helplessness. It's the feeling that big monsters are toying with the PCs and could, with a flick of a finger, turn them into dust. That removes the feeling of empowerment from PCs and can hurt the feeling of the game. Yes, the world can be nasty, but PCs should have a chance to avoid that feeling of helplessness with some useful information received ahead of time.
Planning this sort of thing out is easy. If you have Doom the Demigod in his ethereal vault, a creature capable of devouring entire planes of existence, it's easy to ensure the PCs have the knowledge ahead of time that Doom isn't something they can stand toe-to-toe with.
If you're running an adventure off the cuff, it can be harder to figure out. The minute you get a feeling that the PCs are heading into a helpless situation, start giving them clues. Think about and implement some ways the PCs can become empowered in the situation. This is a story about the PCs and their actions in the world, not about how the lich got them to give up their gold so they could pass without being destroyed.
Letting the world conform around the power of the PCs is also a fine way to go when you're improvising. It's safe and it's easy even if it makes the world a little bit less realistic.
Finally, you can give the official disclaimer—an agreement ahead of time among the players and you, the GM.
The world here is a place full of dangers great and small. It does not conform to your individual power. You may find yourself facing things you cannot defeat in combat, things that, if angered, will crush you like insects. Think carefully and be warned. The world is a dangerous place.
When it comes down to it, tabletop RPGs are a relaxing escape from the boundaries of our real lives. They let us stretch our imaginations, roll some dice, share some laughs, and enjoy some great storytelling. We don't have to be realistic all the time. We GMs should always let go of realism for fun. Fun PCs are empowered PCs, PCs able to face meaningful decisions and get the information they need to make those decisions. Empowered PCs make for happy players.