Some roleplaying games, such as Exalted, let players take the roles of immensely powerful characters. I think that most people who have frequented Exalted forums or hang around with people who talk a lot about the game, have probably read or heard that a Game Master cannot plan a game of Exalted because the PCs are too powerful. The idea is that Exalted characters have powers at their disposal that allow the players to steamroll challenges, ruin their GM’s planned storyline, and force them to improvise as a reaction to their shenanigans. This, of course, is incorrect. Storytelling for powerful PCs such as Exalted is perfectly doable, but it’s also fun and rewarding.
While this post focuses heavily on the game Exalted, the ideas can be applied to any game with PCs of godlike power. The goal is to be able to have an easy and rewarding time as a Game Master without having to rein in the players’ powers, while motivating the players’ creativity, and motivate them to use the powers at their disposal.
Knowing your PCs is the first step to knowing how to plan for them. In games like Exalted, characters have a list of Intimacies that represent their feelings and desires about the world. Even if the player does not act out their Intimacies rigorously in every scene, they are shaping the character’s characteristics and drives, and knowing them as a Game Master will help you better understand how that PC may react to certain situations. In other games without a system to determine wants and characteristics, you may want to communicate with your player more directly about what they want to experience and achieve in game, as well as remember how they have reacted to certain situations previously in the game.
When planning for a scene, making notes regarding your players’ personalities will help you better improvise in response to their actions. For example, let us say you want to have a scene where the player group is going to meet up with an informant and question them in order to get information that will lead them towards their goal. By knowing your PCs beforehand, you may know some details such as “PC1 is more introverted than the others and will probably let the others take the lead here. PC2 usually resorts to threats and violence and will probably intimidate the person into giving information. PC3 is usually the face in social situations and will probably take the lead and try to make a deal with the person.” Make some notes about what the consequences here could be if PC2 threatens the person or PC3 tries to bargain with them. Is there anything in their personalities or drives that may change how they approach this situation? If you cannot think of any, is there anything you want them to do or do not want them to do and can guide them towards? If you are worried that PC2 will kill the NPCs or scare them off so the group does not get any information at all, it is wise to plan for at least two things: First, see if you can indirectly discourage PC2 by appealing to another aspect of their personality. Are they a big gambler? Maybe the person is offering to play some dice over the information. Are they a big drinker? Maybe the person has a companion there that offers to pay PC2 for some drinks to get them away from the table when PC3 strikes the bargain. And of course, make a note of what the consequences would be if the players kill the NPC without getting any information. This should not kill the storyline outright. Instead make sure that some following event can lead the players to where you want the story to take them. Even when PCs “fail,” the players should progress. Alternatively, and perhaps even preferably, you want to encourage the players to do whatever it is they feel makes sense for their character. Even if PC2 kills the NPC without getting any information, you want the consequence of this action – even if detrimental in game – to feel fun and rewarding out of game. You do not want to restrict PC2 from doing what they think is fun, unless it ruins the experience for the other players. If you feel like you should punish PC2 somehow, maybe for publicly committing a crime or drawing too much attention, the punishment should be strictly in game while the out of game experience should be exciting and thrilling. This can be difficult to pull off, but it is something to keep in mind when planning out your scenes and storylines. In my experience, some of the most exciting moments of roleplay are the moments of failure and the consequences of those failures. Because of that, whenever possible, try to plan for failure.
There will be times when you simply cannot foresee what your players will do, but knowing at least some of their personality traits and aspirations will be very helpful in planning scenes aimed at getting certain outcomes. But this is Game Mastery 101 that can be applied to any group of players in pretty much any game, and not just powerful PCs. The definition of a powerful PC is someone where the norm is that they will overcome the challenge, no matter how grand the challenge may seem on paper. Planning for failure may seem to be a waste of time when you know that the PCs will succeed, but failure is more than simply failed actions; failure is also represented by detrimental consequences, and PCs who use godlike powers without regard for consequences should encounter these failures more often than someone who uses their powers with more thought. By knowing the PCs desires and personalities, you will often be a step ahead when it comes to foreseeing the possibility of certain actions, whether detrimental or rewarding.
Being powerful does not mean that you are powerful at everything. Even the most powerful characters tend to be specialized in some ways while being less capable in others. Player groups often build characters with this in mind, actively avoiding overlap by covering more ground. As a Game Master, I want to give my players as much freedom as possible when they are building and developing their characters, but I find that the experience is more fun when there is little overlap and more focus on character specializations. If everyone is playing a rogue, more players are more likely to want to resolve challenges in a similar way. If, on the other hand, everyone is focusing on different roles, you can better tune the story in ways that sometimes let some characters shine more than others. Knowing that the rogue can pick locks and sneak around unseen is important, but it is also important to know that the same rogue cannot as easily take on an army as a powerful warrior, and they are less likely to strike a bargain with an experienced merchant than the player who is actually playing a merchant.
When preparing a situation that will challenge the players, make note of the players strengths, weaknesses, and specializations and try to think of multiple ways the situation can be approached. Even if some players are better suited for that challenge, try to think of some ways that the less suited characters can approach it successfully, even if you do not directly give their players hints in game. There will be times when puzzles and challenges that seem obvious to you are not so obvious to your players. Since they do not have insight into your mind, a puzzle with an easy solution may only be easy to the one who constructed the puzzle to begin with. The warrior and the merchant may not see a solution to the army or bargaining challenge that you have set up. It may be the rogue with the clear limitations that figure out that they have the strength to overcome these challenges. They may not be able to take on an army directly, but the rogue’s player may be creative enough to come up with ways to use their strengths in order to weaken or defeat that army in other ways. In addition, even if the rogue is not good at bargaining, pickpocketing the merchant may remove any need for a bargain to begin with. When a character has clear limitations, a good player thinks in terms of their strengths and not in terms of those limitations. When there are some things they cannot do, it becomes much more apparent what they can do. When you try to plan for these situations in game, try to make some notes about how every player in the scene could possibly approach the situation, if you can think of any. Let us say that you have the rogue, the warrior, and the merchant, and the challenge you have in mind is to acquire a special golden necklace from a rich noble surrounded by bodyguards. Think about what each of these three players can and cannot do and make notes accordingly. For example, the rogue may try to sneak up close to the noble and steal the necklace. The warrior may fight the bodyguards, kill the noble, and take the necklace off their corpse. The merchant may approach them and bargain for the necklace. Based on what you know of your players personalities and desires so far, you may suspect that certain actions are more likely than others, but the more approaches you can think of when planning the situation, the more prepared you will be to respond to any surprises the players can come up with. Ultimately, it is more helpful to think of the players’ weaknesses as directions for how they can better utilize their strengths.
You know your players’ characteristics and desires. You also know their strengths, weaknesses, and specializations. For most of the time, and for most games, this is more than enough to be prepared for just about anything. But when it comes to games like Exalted, where the characters’ special powers can let them accomplish just about anything imaginable, it is good to keep those powers in mind. Depending on how the players use their godlike powers, what you thought would be an interesting adventure may be completely turned on its head. Have you presented the local tyrant as a great threat? Maybe one player shapeshifts into that tyrant’s bodyguard, gets close to them, kills the tyrant themselves, and shapeshifts into them, then takes the country for themselves. That was not what you intended as a Game Master, so how do you respond to it?
First, you want to encourage the players to use their powers exactly like that. It is particularly important to remember that the powers at the players’ disposal are not obstacles for you to overcome, but weapons at the players’ arsenal. You should not plan the game in a way that diminishes or restricts the players’ capabilities. You should plan the game in a way that benefits from those capabilities. Knowing how your players’ tackle certain problems come with experience, but before you get that experience in game, make some personal notes about what their powers allow them to do. If a player can change shape or create illusions to infiltrate any palace, you need to know that this power is on their character sheet, and you will give that player a better experience if you prepare your game with that power in mind. When you present the local tyrant, knowing your player’s power, it is important that you welcome the possibility that the player does exactly what the power allows them to do. The key to a good story for powerful PCs is not the challenges and obstacles that they may face on their way to overturn the tyrant, but the catharsis of success, the potential their success has for future accomplishments and stories, alongside the challenges and obstacles that may come with that success. Your player is now the tyrant, and they have the country at their disposal. But as they revel in their success, they are unaware that their action had unforeseen consequences upon the fabric of fate, and now the viziers of Heaven are turning their eyes upon them. Overcoming the tyrant was just a moment, but now stars will descend upon them. Your players are godlike in their power, and the actual story is godlike in scope. They think they have seen a tyrant. You crack you knuckles. They have seen nothing yet.
Games should be tuned for their players, and games with powerful PCs should present powerful adventures. If you let your Level 20 Dungeons & Dragons adventure group head into a dungeon balanced for Levels 1 to 3, those PCs will not only walk right through the dungeon, but they will be bored along the way. The same applies to games like Exalted, where you cannot present mortal challenges to godlike characters. You need to make a story that matches their power, so that the players can feel that their powers mean something, and they experience the catharsis of success rather than the boredom of a steamroll.
Ultimately, you do not want to have to prepare for anything because you will know your group and what they can do by heart, but that comes with experience. Instead, use the guidelines I have mentioned so far. Know what your PCs are like and what their goals are, know their overall strengths and weaknesses to understand what role they fill and in what moments they can shine. Then with that knowledge in mind, build a story that encourages the players to shine by specifically taking note of their current powers and magics when designing your challenges. Encourage the shapeshifter to shapeshift, or the combat monkey to fight things head on. Encourage the socialite to whisper poison in the ears of diplomats and the thief to steal relics from palace vaults. If the players get stuck and do not know what to do, you can give them some discreet nudges in the right direction, but do not get upset or frustrated if they do not pick up on your clues or do not tackle things in ways you thought were obvious. There will be times when the players do something that make your notes completely worthless, and a new situation is at hand that you had not foreseen and do not know how to tackle.
A contingency is a panicked reaction for when your players threw your planned adventure out the window. The better you are at improvising, the better you can handle it, but you can also plan for contingencies where you feel that you need them the most. Remember the informant with the information and the player who you thought were at risk of killing them before the group could find out what you wanted them to find out? Adding a contingency note would be something like: “if the group doesn’t get the information, this could happen …” followed by some other way to find out the information. The planned contingency in this situation is a guideline for yourself to avoid getting stuck in your own story when things did not turn out the way you wanted.
But some contingencies just cannot be foreseen. Maybe you were sure that the group would get the information in one, two, or three ways, but you never expected the scene to end up with not only the group getting the information out of the informant, but befriending them through social wit and magic, and acquiring a loyal new servant with much more and much more useful information than you expected them to get. Your contingency in this situation should not be to simply reject the players’ success, get rid of the NPC, and return to your decided status quo. Your contingency here should be to go with the flow and give the players a bigger win in the moment than originally planned.
If you feel unable to improvise new content on the spot and you are stuck in your own story, there is only really one thing you can do. Do not force it. If you tell your group that “You know what, I did not expect this. I like where this went, but it stumped me a bit, and I need to gather my thoughts to know where to go next with this,” your group will accept that. Your players will likely enjoy the result more if you take a break for you to gather your thoughts than if you stumble through an improvised session that you feel bad about. The players will know when you do not know what to do, and while they may be helpful and supportive to get the game going, there is nothing wrong with taking a break or ending a session early. This happens to every GM quite a few times in their careers, and it is nothing to feel bad about.
Knowing your PCs’ desires, knowing their limitations, and knowing their capabilities is a good guideline to keep yourself as prepared as you can possibly be in order to avoid contingencies. But those contingencies will happen, and sometimes it is more important to know how to face them than it is to prepare enough to avoid them. I mentioned earlier that the most memorable roleplaying experiences often come from the failures, but they also come from the contingencies. From the unplanned and unforeseen events that no one saw coming. When you play a game with powerful PCs capable of godlike feats, these moments come more often than I feel they do in more earthbound games. If you don’t fear those moments when they come, I think you will find them fun and rewarding in their own way. It is those moments that make storytelling for powerful PCs more fun than storytelling for more ordinary characters.
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