Nerds only now! The rest of you guys just run along…
I think most of us who play RPGs have had this experience, the one where the game master (GM) brings in a ringer. It may be a non-player character (NPC), or it may be the GM’s own personal player character (PC, which was much more common back in 1st edition, …yes, I’m that old). Either way, the ringer towers over the player characters. He kicks ass while they struggle to make a difference.
One thing that strikes me about this is just how often the players will initially greet the ringer with joy. He or she typically shows up just when the player characters face some challenge they thought surely would prove too much. Suddenly they have a chance after all. With the appearance of a ringer, you can’t help but feel that hope is alive and well again. At least you can feel that way until somewhere during the course of that epic battle when the three orcs your ranger has killed don’t seem all that significant in comparison to the 6 giants, four ogres, and thirteen trolls the ringer has offed while you were struggling with a random goblin. The ringer is always a mixed blessing. He can win the day, but he can also make winning feel an awful lot like losing.
If the ringer is still in the group six games later, then I for one reckon it’s time to leave.
Should a ringer stick around for several sessions, the players begin to feel they are just along for the ride. The ringer can reduce player characters, and with them the players themselves to the role of an audience rather than a participant. It can take the fun out of the story, and it can make you reconsider how you want to spend your Saturday nights.
I think most gamers would say that it’s bad GMing to let a major character overshadow the player characters like that. It’s the job of the GM to challenge the players, not take center stage and enjoy their applause every time he wins the day. This is why so many frown on GM player characters. Game Masters shouldn’t run characters of their own, so the wisdom goes. That’s just asking for abuse. But in my experience, the taboo against GM player characters just contributes to the problem rather than helping to solve it. Almost every ringer that I’ve seen began as an NPC, just another character in the cast. This is what frees the GM to set them up with extra power. Often, the GM doesn’t even plan to keep the ringer around that long. he’s just another character in the overall plot-line, so it’s not big deal if he has a little extra power. The trouble is that GMs do become attached to interesting NPCs, so much so that they look forward to playing them, leveling them up, and watching the kick ass. A GM can feel this way about an NPC just as easily as he (or one of his players) can feel about a player character. In effect, some GMs have player characters, and they don’t even know it.
Back in the days of first edition, a GM’s player character was most often rolled up according to the same rules as those of the players. This provided a bit of a check on the whole ringer problem. Abuse could still happen, but there was a bit more of a sense that the GM’s character was supposed to be part of an ensemble. When they come in over-powered to begin with, they inevitably become the star of the show, and the notion that a given character isn’t really a player character can very well serve as the excuse for a GM to field one who simply dwarfs anything the other players can produce.
Anyway, ringers are a problem, right? “Don’t do them!” That’s usually a pretty good rule of thumb. So, here is a thought experiment. What if we toss that rule aside? Is it possible to put a ringer in a campaign without ruining everything?
Okay, I know you can do it for a game or two, but what if the ringer was there for the balance of the campaign. Is it possible to do this without ruining the players’ fun?
In essence, this is a question of re-protagonization. In gaming, we often talk about deprotagonization, the process by which a character is made irrelevant to the story-line in a campaign, but what can be done to provide genuine significance to a character living in the shadow of a ringer? That is the question posed by the prospect of gaming (deliberately) with a ringer. It’s a thought experiment of sorts, but hopefully an amusing one.
How to go about it?
I can think of a few angles. Whether or not they would actually add up to a fun campaign, well that’s an open question! Anyway, here are the guidelines I would use to set up the campaign.
One: Much of the ringer’s activities take place offstage, leaving the player characters free to resolve their own challenges without the help of the big guy. For example, the ringer is a spell caster, and she is performing a complex task inside a building. The players must protect the building themselves. If they fail, her spell is ruined, and the overall plot takes a turn for the worse. What I really like about this example is the characters can fail without this resulting in a total party kill. If they blow it, then the enemy reaches the ringer, and the ringer then enters the fight. This way the PCs will probably live through their failure, but everyone will know the development is bad in the long run, because that spell was important. How? Well that’s a question for a larger plot-line…
Okay, this might be cheating a bit, because a ringer off-stage isn’t all that different from any other background piece of a campaign plot. Arguably, such things are happening just offstage in many campaigns. It’s just not that unusual. The full challenge of making a ringer work would be one of making it work when the ringer is standing right there beside the players, doing things along with them, and providing tangible assistance during the course of events. It could provide an interesting twist for a game or two to let the players cope with the sudden absence of their MVP, but if that’s the campaign, then your campaign doesn’t really have a ringer. That’s ducking the challenge here rather than facing it.
Two: Give the healer an inherently supportive role. What is she good at? She can heal like no-one’s business, or she is really great at support magic. She can make the other characters run faster, hit harder, and otherwise kick ass. If only they were a little better to begin with! (This works particularly well if you combine it with a definite plan for PC growth.)
What I like about this approach is it filters the impact of the ringer through the actions of the PCs. The ringer remains a ringer She can do amazing things, but the PCs will still have to kill the bad guys; they will still have to scale the cliffs, and they will still have to break open the door to the enemy castle. They may get a boost from the ringer, but it’s up to them to make that boost matter. In effect, the ringer becomes their own asset. It is up to them to make her matter.
What doesn’t work about this approach is that it soft-peddles the ringer to the point that she may not seem like a ringer. Fantasy movies and books are full of wise wizards with far more power than the warrior-protagonists which remain the focal point of such stories. Simply put, we care who wields the sword more than we care who keeps him healthy. That’s one of life’s little perversions, but I reckon it’s a common enough feature to storytelling, it doesn’t make much sense to deny it. A real ringer is a ringer than leaves carnage in his wake, not one that brings you back from the dead and gives you an energy drink. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but it is.
Three: Let a player run the ringer. I’ve done this countless times. My old first edition D&D campaign ran for over 20 years. Since we started a new plot-line every year or so, we would often roll one or of the old characters into the new campaign. This often meant that a single player would have a 9th level character or two while everyone else was starting at 1st. It could be fun. We let different players run the ringers in different campaigns, and with multiple characters on the board, no-one got bored. There was always plenty for the other characters to do.
This approach at least takes some of the sting out of the GM bias, but that may be all it accomplishes, and a PC-ringer poses problems of its own. If the ringer-rolling player isn’t present for a game session, then either someone else must run their character (something I don’t like doing), or your ringer is gone. How to explain the absence of the ringer or the player’s how to cope with his absence is sometimes a tricky question. Also, letting a player run the ringer makes it harder to control the relationship between the ringer and the other players. If that player is selfish, then she will deprotagonize the other players, and you can’t do anything about it without taking the player’s ability to run her own character. That’s no fun. It can all workout, but suffice to say that I don’t think this really solves the problems posed by putting a ringer in a campaign.
Four: Make the ringer its own challenge. It doesn’t have to be obvious that the ringer will help with tasks the players have set out to accomplish. Maybe she doesn’t really want to help at all and the players will have to talk her into it. Better still, if they must actively work to keep her on track over the course of the campaign! Is the ringer a drunkard? The players must keep her sober for the big fights. Is she really forgetful or otherwise aloof to the point of becoming utterly unreliable? If the player characters have to make decisions for her, or even role-play the process of guiding her actions, the ringer becomes an extension of the player’s own efforts. What she does is what they get her to do. It may still be her fireball, but at least it will be the players who told her where to place it.
On a side note: it could be interesting to give players powers enabling them to redirect the actions of the ringer. In effect, she becomes a power source, but at least some of her actions are determined by the players.
I think this approach is promising insofar as it gives the player characters some sense of control over the campaign. Still, convincing the hero to do the right thing isn’t quite as much fun as being the one who does it yourself. a fireball rolled up by another character will never be as fun as one you roll up yourself, even if you did talk the other person into casting it. Giving the PCs a care and feeding role to play in managing the ringer helps a bit, but this alone won’t provide a satisfactory solution to the problem.
Five: You can give the player characters independent tasks and even long-term goals that diverge slightly from those of the ringer. Perhaps, the ringer is happy to demolish all the orcs in the northern wastelands, but she isn’t all that concerned about the elven princess the characters want to keep alive. Their challenge thus requires tasks that the ringer won’t help with and their sense of accomplishment will then rest (at least partially) on terms that don’t involve the ringer.
I think this is critical to resolving the problems posed by a ringer. Whatever problems the ringer can be relied upon to help the players solve, the players must face some problems they have to resolve on their own. If these problems can be put in play at the same time, in the same scenario, then so much the better. The ringer is in play on the table, and the player characters must do something for which her help will not be provided. Not only does this go a long way toward resolving the problems posed by a ringer; it can also spice up game combat in general. A battle with a subplot is more interesting than a straight-up fight, and if that sub-plot skews the significance of the characters present, so much the better.
Six: Let the characters progress to a level comparable to that of the ringer. This really is the big one, as far as this challenge is concerned, because it makes the ringer into a challenge that must itself be resolved over the course of the campaign. In effect, this turns the problem posed by a ringer into a source of meaning in itself. To make this work, though, you must risk letting the characters feel the weight of the ringer initially. Let them struggle to matter for challenge or two, then let them solve a problem or three, and finally give them a moment when they see the ringer as an equal rather than a superior.
For an extra twist, let the ringer become an enemy in this final moment, and let the battle with that ringer be the final test of progress. You know you’ve made it when your mentor lies defeated before you! …extra fun if some cryptic prophesy alludes to this early in the campaign.
Extra twist, or not, I think letting the players overcome the difference is the key to making a ringer into a positive force in the campaign. It’s an experience, I recall from my early days in gaming. I spent most of my gaming days playing first edition D&D. It was a consistent expectation back in those days that your character would start as a grunt and grow into power over the course of a campaign. Most importantly, first edition was a definite sense of diminishing returns. You could bring a 1st level character into an 8th level campaign, and by the time the other characters had made 10th, your own character was probably only one or two levels behind them. You weren’t quite even with the others yet, but at that point, you were one of the group, a force to be reckoned with. Watching your significance grow in comparison to the established characters in such a campaign could be a lot of fun. In effect, the over-powered characters provide a base-line from which you gauge your characters progress, effectively making it all that much more obvious than it would be in a campaign where the characters (and their enemies) are both relatively evenly matched.
The sense of character progress is something I missed in 3rd edition. The balance of power in that game didn’t shift much over the course of a game. If one character was 5th level and another 1st, ten games later, then 5th level character was till significantly more powerful than the 1st. You just couldn’t overcome the difference like you could in first edition. It’s one of the things that made the presence of a ringer that much more toxic in 3rd edition, I think. Under normal circumstances, the differences could not be overcome. I miss it. Maybe that’s what has me thinking about ringers.
No, I haven’t played 4th or 5th edition.
SixB: As a further twist on progress, give the ringer an active role in helping the PCs develop and grow. It’s easy enough to role-pay a mentor apprentice relationship, but it’s a little more fun to provide some significance to this in the game-mechanics. IN my home-brew system, I allow characters to share experience points, and I make this more effective under selected conditions, as in cases where the advanced character has specific teaching abilities, or if the characters have entered an established relationship of some kind). I let the players choose these things, of course, but I give these choices weight in character development. This can help to accelerate player character growth relative to the ringer even as it slows the ringer down. Such mechanics can help to facilitate the change in balance for an overall campaign. It’s particularly interesting when the players themselves have a ringer. Letting them decide how to deal with the differences in power-level provides another layer of meaning to the plot, and of course I try to ensure that the rewards for sharing experience and helping younger characters grow will outweigh any costs.
…of course, none of which is going to help any of the poor bastards when it’s time to meet the dragon!