Gene asks – I’m running a fifth edition D&D campaign that’s been going on for about two and a half years. We have five players but average three or four per session. One player, who I’ll call Jess, has hardly ever missed a session and so has more experience (and is two levels higher) than everyone else. Also, a couple of really good loot rolls over the last six months has given Jess’s character a fantastic weapon and some other awesome equipment. The difference in power between Jess’s paladin and everyone else is big enough that I find myself having a hard time designing encounters that feel equally challenging to everyone. Something that could challenge Jess’s armor class and hit points often chews through everyone else. What do I do?
A difference in character level can be a challenge, particularly when a campaign just starts out. A level 4 warrior in a level 2 party, for instance, can seem like a walking siege engine compared to everyone else. But while the power difference tends to become more muted the further into the game you get, it seems like you have stumbled upon a perfect storm of a character with a higher level that has incredibly good equipment and is likely helmed very deftly by your player. Add all those things up and the difference between level 15 and level 13 might feel like a mile.
Gene, the big issue is that you think that Jess’s paladin is so head and shoulders above everyone else that there’s nothing you can do to keep the playing field level when orcs emerge from the treeline. Either the enemies will be a challenge to everyone but the paladin, or the enemies will be a challenge to the paladin but kill everyone else. My guess is that you’re focusing too much on the stats and not enough on the story.
The best encounters aren’t ones in which the players meet the enemy on a featureless plain under a clear blue sky. The best encounters involve complexity and problem solving and a healthy dose of tactics. Line up both sides in a straight line and have them march towards each other and the mighty paladin will stand out every time. But put the parties in a cave with poor visibility and a lot of choke points, or have them fight an enemy that can control distance with archers, or require the party to solve some crazy riddle involving rotating walls while goblins swarm them and all of a sudden you have a rocking good time.
If you incorporate enough fun, interesting and unique elements to each fight, every player will feel like they’re contributing. But, honestly, even if you don’t make every encounter a fever dream of zany wheels within zany wheels, just put enough kobolds on the board and all your players will have something to do. Rarely if ever will a player spend the session keeping a quiet tally of all the creatures he killed compared to everyone else’s. While it’s fun when Gimli and Legolas compare totals on the battlefield, players are often too busy keeping track of their spell slots and number of arrows to worry too much.
It is your job as GM to fill the campaign with awesome moments. And while, for a paladin, carving up dragons and turning back armies of undead is awesome, you should be able to provide that same level of awesome to the bard who’s two levels lower but has spent her life trying to impress her parents. Or to the ranger who’s hunting the mercenaries that burned down his village. The exaltation of these characters often has less to do with their relative martial prowess than with their desire to set a goals for themselves and achieve them. Make the world one in which everyone works together on both shared and individual conquests and levels won’t matter.
With all of that said, you may still have that itching feeling in the back of your mind that is compelling you to confiscate your paladin’s mighty weapon or permanently hobble her in some way. And while those are certainly options if you think the power differential is unsolvable, I warm against doing those things unless you can incorporate them seamlessly into the game’s narrative and make it feel necessary instead of arbitrary. If that weapon is a badge of office and restoring it to its rightful owner brings peace to the realm, well, maybe that evens things up in a tidy way.
So to sum up, vary the encounters, make them interesting and fill them with challenges that it takes a whole team to solve. Don’t worry too much about the difference in combat strength, especially if you’re investing the time in making every encounter original. And if all else fails, make your paladin donate her weapon to a museum.
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