Running for Smart PCs

It’s pretty easy for a GM to manage a group whose idea of ideal characters to emulate are your standard sword and sorcery hero. Provide plenty of things for them to pound/spellcast at/otherwise beat to a pulp (possibly with variations for the ones who do it from behind, or do it with a little bit of extra piety added or… you get the idea). Give them thrilling backdrops, all sorts of new and interesting things to fight with new and interesting thing to fight quirks, occasionally dangle something they can’t fight yet and let them work up to it, and you’ve got a pretty good shot at all parties satisfied.

But what happens if, instead of idolizing warrior or blaster mage type characters, you end up with a party (or partial party, or whatever) whose fictional character archetype influences are more along the lines of, say, Miles Vorkosigan, Alianne of Pirate’s Swoop, or Locke Lamora? The kind who adventure because a heroic reputation might mean protection from consequences when they start acting according to their more duplicitous natures, whose idea of dealing with an opposing force is lie their way to the person in charge, dispatch them, and then lie (or possibly fight) their way out? The kind where you discover that half of your party has dumpstatted Strength and the other half are NPCs, where quick thinking and silver tongues are the order of the day? It’s safe to say that a different strategy is in order.

Give them people to talk to. Friends. Enemies. Potential marks. Characters who aren’t any of the above yet, whom they can influence in any of those directions. Make sure you have plans for said conversations ending in something other than your ideal result, partly because they’re PCs and partly because the only thing worse than a 0 and 1 battle is a conversation in which everyone is being relentlessly herded towards a foreordained conclusion. I strongly recommend emphasizing NPCs’ personalities, and their emotional reactions; the social monster’s particularly well-chosen insult should get as satisfying a reaction as the fighter’s particularly clever use of battle tactics.

Make your plots intricate, interesting, and full of cause and effect. And I don’t mean using cause and effect to railroad them into your pre-existing plan, or to punish them for avoiding confrontations and thinking their way around their opponents. Instead, give them choices that mean something, with a decent chance of figuring out what they might be getting into when they make the decision, and possibly that even reward their style of play (believe you me, there is nothing worse than having an idea of fun and feeling like the mechanics are out to prevent you from utilizing it at all). Grand conspiracies? Enemies who work by manipulation or long-reaching plans? Plot-affecting social dynamics that would probably require a diagram or two to map out? Go for it.

Consider also modifying your approach to combat. These kinds of players are in the game to do things like talk and think. Why not give them situations in which the battle comes to them, and let them mess with the terrain accordingly? Provide them opportunities to mess with their opponents through battle banter (particularly if you’ve got a character or two who could hold her own in that sort of exchange)? Set up fights where the tactics are at least as important as the straight abilities involved?

You can’t assume that everyone will be equally stimulated by a standard fight; if you’ve got a group that veers towards the social manipulation/intellectual/finesse side of things, it’s probably because that’s what they consider fun, and the best thing to do is to maximize fun.


  1. UZ says:

    Remember the lesson of Cyberpunk – in any situation, no matter how dire, the two most important things are what your character is wearing and how recently they have bathed and combed their hair.

    Catty Wig Type: Are you? You’re not! You are *not* fighting me in that. I mean, quite apart from the absolute departure from proper dueling etiquette… well just look! (points with sword) Up here, circles! Down there, stripes! And is that… is that really a cravat? With a mailshirt? I absolutely refuse to kill anyone who is dressed like… *that*.

    Sasha: So… duel’s off, then?

    Catty Wig Type: Ugh! Don’t talk to me!

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