Big Fish, Little Fish: The Foodchain of RPGs
A lot of role-playing nerds are obessed with ideas of status and power. They ask their GM’s questions like ‘how many of us would it take to slay an Ancient Red Dragon?’ or ‘how many kobolds can each of us kill ourselves?’ Speaking for myself, I usually answer something along the lines of ‘depends on how you go about it,’ but when a player is asking that question of his or her GM, the question they want answered isn’t ‘can I kill x’, per se. What they really want to know is ‘where do I stand in the foodchain of this RPG?’
In a completely fictional world where the rules often don’t imitate reality well, there can be some very real anxiety among players regarding what will and will not get their character killed and what kinds of tasks they can and cannot succeed with. Some of this is due to unfamiliarity with the rules (and, since I switch systems constantly, I get questions like this a lot), but a greater part has to do with unfamiliarity with the campaign setting or the GM’s style. Some RPGs set the foodchain up for you so you don’t need to think about it (D&D 4th ed, for instance, with it’s level system and rigid encounter creation guidelines), and others leave you to guess on your own entirely (Shadowrun, for instance). In any case, it is up to you, as the GM, to make certain the PCs know where they stand. This will make everybody have more fun, since they will know what is expected of them and what to expect, and they will become more comfortable with taking risks (and risks, always remember, are where are the fun lies).
Above and beyond any system-based cues regarding the difficulty of opponents (level systems, the Brute/Henchman/Villain set up in Wick’s 7th Sea, etc.) , a GM should consider and inform players where their group will fall on the foodchain of the campaign. For me, I separate campaigns into one of three strata: Little Fish, Medium Fish, and Big Fish.
Medium Fish Campaigns
Medium Fish are the standard, so I’m going to start here. Basically, if the PCs are meant to be ‘medium’, it means that, while they are generally quite capable, there are a lot of big baddies in the world they can’t handle. Your average thugs and minions aren’t much of a problem, the elite guards of the enemy should pose a significant health threat, and the big, big baddies should be beyond their capabilities until they either find a clever way to defeat them or grow in power somehow.
‘Medium Fish’ campaigns I refer to as the ‘default’, since it is where most D&D campaigns spend most of their time (anywhere from levels 5-15, arguably, and even broader if the GM gets clever). Since most RPGs take their cue from D&D on some level, this is where everybody lands. The advantages of the medium fish campaign are obvious: the PCs have enough power so that they feel awesome, but not so much power that the GM feels like he or she might lose control of the party (which, in itself, is a concern better addressed other ways, but I digress). Medium Fish are a good way to keep a campaign on the rails, so to speak, and to give PCs both a keen sense of mortality coupled with some fun opportunities for derring-do and frontal-assault type heroics.
My only problem with Medium Fish campaigns is that it sets a kind of arbitrary cap on what PCs can do. This is fine in many contexts, but not in all of them. Furthermore, you run the risk of making your game ‘formulaic’ in the sense that PCs always know what to expect all the time. Medium Fish campaigns don’t always require the GM or players to think outside the box (we beat up the henchmen, we outwit/outlast/outnumber the big villain, we go home and party!). They are often great fun, granted, but they can get old after a while.
Little Fish Campaigns
Little Fish campaigns have the PCs controlling characters that are either novices, apprentices, or other kinds of low-status individuals in the world in question. This means the scope of these campaigns is either fairly small-potatoes (you are doing jobs intended for novices) or they are exceptionally dangerous (i.e. Call of Cthulhu).
The advantage of such campaigns is that, because the players aren’t very powerful, the standby frontal assault tactics don’t work anymore. This requires the players to think harder and come up with plans that are outside the box, which makes things more interesting. Furthermore, more deadly opposition means players are more worried about their impending demise, which can also up the tension in the game and make things more fun (so long as everybody is on the same page, of course).
The drawback of these games, of course, is that there is only so much the PCs can realistically accomplish and the GM has to be constantly aware of this. Unless playing a Cthulhu-type game where the death of all PCs is acceptable, the GM has to pay close attention to how fairly he’s balanced the obstacles to PC success to avoid bitterness or frustration on the part of his players, which is a big no-no, obviously.
Big Fish Campaigns
Big Fish campaigns involve the players using characters at the top of their professions–they are tough, smart, fast, and all-around super-badass. They can kill any enemy, cut their way past any army, conquer any castle, defeat any foe. They are supermen, pure and simple.
The big advantage of this campaign is that it frees up PCs to do whatever it is they want. They are allowed to be creative just for fun, without the worry of dying due to a lousy roll or looking foolish. The world becomes their playground, and this is good.
The problem with Big Fish is, of course, the GM can’t really control them. They will do whatever they please and he has to bend over backwards to make things challenging enough to give them pause. Since the GM needs to create challenge to make things fun (no matter what the players believe), things get hard for the GM. Essentially, what he has to do is think outside the box, himself. Challenge needs to be internal rather than external; the PCs need to fight their own character’s demons as much as real, actual demons coming to eat their souls. Also, even though they are super powerful, they can still be outsmarted–GMs need to be clever and they need their villains to fight with intelligence rather than raw force if they hope to be a challenge for the PCs.
In the end, there is no one type of campaign I prefer to the other–I like to shake it up. Of the three, I think Big Fish campaigns are the hardest to manage, if for no other reason than you need to try so very hard to keep things interesting for the good guys (though there are a number of tactics I’ve developed by this point). So long as everybody’s having fun, however, it doesn’t really matter. Make sure you know where your PCs stand and make sure they know, as well, and things should be fine!