I was running a Star Wars campaign a few years ago (revised pre-Saga) edition. One of the most helpful sections in the core book was a list of stat blocks for NPCs. As I wanted these stat blocks to be challenging for the PCs, I decided that the PCs would be standard by-the-book characters.

When I showed up to the first session, I discovered that the group had a set of Star Wars characters that had been created for a game that lasted all of two sessions. Since they were all 1st level and had backgrounds suitable for my campaign, the players wanted to use them. Unfortunately, I knew that these PCs would have better stats than what I wanted them to have.

So what do I do?

The question is as old as gaming. In ye olden times, there would always be one person (or three) that would end up with two 18s, a 17, and no other score lower than a 15, especially if you used the honor system. If I ran a game of Marvel Superheroes (FASERIP) and annouced that I wanted a “street level” campaign, I’d still get a set of PCs that would shrug off bullets.

Nor did “point-buy” systems fix the issue. If I was running a horror campaign, my group of “average joe” PCs would be armed to the teeth and ready for (dire) bear. Justifications were easy. “My waitress PC takes tae kwon do classes during the day.” “My lawyer PC is a weekend warrior.” “My chef PC used to be a street thug in his youth.”

One trick I’ve learned is that, as the GM, I set the baseline.

For my Star Wars game, it was simple. I took the average of the party’s stats and found that, on average, they were about +2 higher than the “elite array” (which is what the NPCs were built on). I just added +2 to all of my NPCs stats and I was finished. The game was challenging. I’ve used it in other d20/OGL games as well.

For FASERIP, I made guns more lethal. An assault rifle’s damage already pasted an average bystander; upping the damage to be more deadly to superheroes really didn’t affect the average joe; he was still getting pasted.

For my horror games, things were a bit different. My original baseline assumed that the PCs would be normal people. Once I realized that my players wanted to be able to kick a little butt, I rolled with it and changed my baseline. I amped up the action a bit and let them blast away at a few minor horrors, only to let the major ones be impervious to their karate chops and bullets.

There are other ways to craft the game you want as well. GURPS uses the “Unusual Background,” which can be easily ported to any point-buy system. If the player really wants something that you wouldn’t normally allow then she can get it, but at an increased cost. Similarly, you can tie experience points to power level. If you tell your players that the amount of XP for an average encounter is inversely proportional to their average stat modifier, then you’ll soon see more balanced heroes (just be careful to set a floor; otherwise you’ll have a party of characters with a 3 in everything).

Roleplaying awards also work well. I once wanted to capture a “silver age” feel in a superhero campaign, so I came up with a list of XP rewards for appropriate behaviors. The PCs were soon playing model silver age heroes.

So remember, no matter what kinds of characters the players want to play and the lengths they’ll go to make them powerful, YOU set the baseline. It’s one of the biggest tools in your GMing arsenal.

What say you? What techniques have you used to keep games balanced or running the way you’d envisioned?