I used to believe fair play was the necessary foundation to any kind of tabletop gaming if you wanted everyone to have fun. The moment fairness and power balance went out the window, so too did your last chance for everyone to enjoy themselves during the game.
But lately I’m learning to redefine what that balance looks like, and more importantly, where allowing for immediate imbalance can actually enhance the fun for the whole group as long as the larger context of the game and the wants of the players is factored in.
The Avengers model of gaming.
When the Avengers hit the MCU, it was highlighted pretty quickly how big a gap existed in power sets. You have The Hulk and Thor at the top of the power ladder, with Iron Man and Captain America making up the middle tier and Black Widow and Hawkeye on the low end repping the skilled-but-unenhanced human population.
The same gap has always existed in gaming, although more recent systems have fought to eliminate it as much as possible – until recently, that seemed like universally the right direction to take things.
But I’ve come to realize that there are players who like being Hawkeye standing next to someone playing Thor – they like being the one Shadowrunner who isn’t cybered out the wazoo or covered in fetishes and foci and is just a straight up thief and con-man surviving in Seattle 2064 by wits alone. Some players love being the Mortal in a World of Darkness game. The Expert class in D&D exists for a reason.
In my experience, the Hawkeye players out there are happiest when their characters’ lack of powers is contrasted by a party of at least mid-ranged enhanced folks so that they’re ability to survive against the same threats that make Iron Man have to work for it is that much more notable.
Naturally, that can be a difficult thing to replicate from the GM’s perspective – the whole point of being underpowered is that you likely can’t survive in the same environments and against the same challenges outright, which forces a GM to have to switch up how you’re handling deadly situations so that your Hawkeyes are able to shine when appropriate without getting turned into pavement stains the rest of the time.
Often the obvious solution, at least for combat or traps and the like, is to create multiple tiers of baddies or dangers and make it clear which heroes should tackle which obstacles. Good in theory, but so obvious in practice that most players will naturally fight against the clear paths set before them. Rarely do people who can only realistically take on the mooks want to only ever be fighting obvious mooks while the Thors of the world lightning-bolt titans right nearby.
Combat-wise, it’s often better to keep all the baddies at roughly the same level, and simply allow the Thors in the group to take on larger groups of them while the Hawkeyes handle the perimeter cases or simply defend the heavy hitters from stragglers. While that may seem the same, the fact that every enemy on the field is a viable target for any hero creates a very different landscape than a clear difference between the kobolds and the red dragons. Hawkeye might be able to take out two or three kobolds, meaning even if Thor can scatter a few dozen, they’re both still taking on the same baddies with the same end result.
Alternatively, for the titan-style enemies, ensure that the Hawkeyes have some way to contribute beyond pure damage (which will almost certainly seem fruitless against the health pool of something that massive), whether it’s setting up multi-turn chain-reactions or getting to a key item that’s helping the titan heal while the Thors keep it busy and do the real damage. Again, everyone is fighting against enemies of the same caliber – in this case, they’re just fighting it in different ways.
Where you often have to be most clever is outside of combat. The natural upside to being normal and not super-powered is the ability to blend with other normal people, who make up 99% of the world. Antagonists prepared for a super-powered team might not see the simple, unpowered spy sneaking into their midst and getting the better of them without having to call down lighting or punch over a skyscraper or two.
This is especially important in games where normalcy is a super-power all its own, where supers might not be welcome in open society (like, say, all of World of Darkness) or otherwise have trouble getting into places a normal person can easily walk. Create scenarios that powerful people can’t brute-force their way through to highlight why being a regular joe can be so valuable – it’s often what players who prefer those characters are hoping for.
Lastly, always have an option open for an underpowered character to rise, or a super-powered character to drop the mantle. For superhero games, there’s no shortage of source material to draw from – plenty of ways for ordinary folks to gain super-powers, or for the super-powered to lose what made them super-special for at least a time (Thor becomes unworthy, Superman gets kryptonite poisoning, etc.). If you intentionally play with an unbalanced group, the chance for a grass-is-greener scenario to arise is extremely high, and you will want to be prepared to handle players crossing that line as the game goes on.
Naturally, for non-superhero games, this can become a bit trickier. Not every system handles power imbalance, and certainly most of them don’t handle hopping back and forth across power lines smoothly. In World of Darkness, making a Mortal supernatural is easy – going the other direction, decidedly not. In most fantasy settings, gaining access to magic is rarely something you can do overnight, and certainly not something you can just suddenly forget without extraordinary circumstances at work, so be ready to aid that transition with whatever house-rules are required, just ensure that it’s something all your players can take advantage of if the time comes.
Because while we’re used to everyone wanting to be big, strong and strange, the longer I play, the more people I meet who prefer being different. In a game world, that means being absolutely ordinary.