I finished the new Discworld novel, Snuff, this weekend.

(Possible mild spoilers to follow.)

It’s a story that is basically a solo adventure for Vimes, the police commander for the focal city of the setting. Starring in more Discworld novels than any other character (particularly if you count cameos), Vimes has basically undergone a D&D character arc over the years: he started out as the drunken leader of a discredited squad of less than a dozen cops and is now a Duke, one of the most politically powerful men in the world, and recently almost singlehandedly stopped a race war while defeating a primordial demon with sheer willpower.

Interestingly, his latest novel is a set up precisely to see how far he’s come: after years of straining his hardest to overcome unfair odds at every turn, suddenly he’s a high level character and finally gets to show off. Political machinations are sardonically brushed off, physical conflicts are often Vimes basically playing with his opponents, and there’s a general sense that while he may be out of his element (he’s on vacation away from the city and most of his support network), it’s everyone else that’s out of their league.

And yet, the story doesn’t lose pacing or feel phoned in, because there are still issues for Vimes to deal with. He’s never really in much personal danger, but he has family and friends to worry about. Moreso, he has his own crucial and sometimes conflicting personal drives to support the law and also to see justice done without becoming a vigilante. The question isn’t whether he will come through alive, but whether he will succeed in time and still able to look at himself in the mirror.

(/end spoilers)

In the show Burn Notice, most of the plot revolves around the fact that Michael Westen is quite likely one of the best spies in the world and he’s stuck solving small crimes in Miami. He completely outclasses almost everyone he faces, and being without any governmental support or funding is only a minor inconvenience. Instead, his troubles tend to come from splitting his attention between an A plot where he solves a small crime and a B plot that continues from episode to episode where he’s trying to uncover a massive conspiracy. The show generally gives the sense that he’d have a much easier time with the A plot if he wasn’t totally distracted by being focused on his own personal crusade. And, when he does focus on the A plot, it’s often time to bring in the fact that being stuck in his home town means that his family can be put in danger.

Though I can’t figure out which one it was, I have it on good authority that at one point there was a Superman video game where Superman didn’t have hit points, Metropolis did. This is the essential solution to the problem of challenging Superman: unless you’re a global annihilation threat or at least an obsessed genius with time to learn his flaws, you’re never going to be able to hurt Superman, but you don’t have to hurt him to get what you want. For the cannier criminals of Metropolis, Superman is a force of nature to be planned for. As a mere mortal, you can’t stop a natural disaster, but you can try to build and manage risk to account for it. The trick is to accomplish your goals quietly, quickly, and decisively enough that Superman is just a bit too late.

But while I can obviously think of three examples, there aren’t a lot more that I’m aware of. Superman is notoriously difficult to write for, Burn Notice is a rare exception to the normal one hour drama, and Snuff is the culmination of over eight novels written in over twenty years of Vimes earning high level the hard way. By far, most action-oriented media relies on danger to the protagonist being a major source of drama. The dominant meme is that progressively more talented characters get to deal with progressively more dangerous threats.

Writers of non-interactive media get to cheat. Heroes can be impossibly awesome while still being subject to mundane threats. Not many writers come up with characters so powerful that they can ignore the concept of a lucky shot or stab doing them in; even superheroes that aren’t explicitly invulnerable still theoretically worry about being shot. But nearly every roleplaying system has a breakpoint where PCs can legitimately discount certain threats and there’s a profound motivation to shift the goal posts to keep introducing bigger and bigger problems. D&D is perhaps the worst offender in this regard because levels scale so widely; it’s very easy to run into a dissonance of wondering where the hell all these high level minions came from who could have been living the high life as villains in their own right against lower level heroes.

In my experience, players of powerful PCs don’t necessarily want to experience the kind of drama that comes from going up against threats that are lethal because they’re of a similar power level. Particularly if they’ve “earned” the powerful PCs through extended play, it’s not particularly enjoyable to feel like the world is leveling up with them. They want cool lairs, massive social engineering projects, the respect of the rich, and the fear of the villainous. Sure, sometimes they deal with threats on their scale, but Superman can’t fight Doomsday every issue. Instead, I believe, in their souls they crave challenges that respect the fact that they’ve assembled unholy engines of destruction before whom the world should shake in awe.

How do you give them that? You take a page from Sam Vimes, Michael Westen, and Kal El:

  • Time is of the essence. Figure out how long it would take for something to be easy and give them way less. Sure, you could chew through the dungeon without breaking a sweat if you had a week… but the ritual goes off at midnight tonight.
  • When it rains, it pours. Two or more problems happen at once, and both hate waiting. There’s a serial killer striking at least once every night, the evil robot factory churns out more androids every day, and your alter ego has finals next week and hasn’t studied.
  • Temporal ties are the ones that bind. Hopefully your system and setting haven’t resulted in your PCs getting powerful without family, friends, investments, or influence to threaten. Your sister keeps digging into your secret activities, your control of the mayor’s office is being threatened by another operator, a trendy night club just opened next to your secret base, and your dog ran off down the street while you were getting the paper this morning.
  • With great power comes great responsibility. Most importantly, powerful characters should come with powerful ethics, drivers, and agendas that can be put into conflict and rule out the easy solution. The cyborg assassin is right in your sights. Do you let your need for poetic justice overcome your disgust at resorting to his methods? How do you deal with one PC that has a pathological hatred for cyborgs and another that wants to suborn him for her own purposes?

Ultimately, there’s a lot of player good will to be earned by acknowledging that their characters are badass. You know it, they know it, and the NPCs know it. If they could bring their full power to bear on a problem, it would go away. The challenge shifts to figuring out how to bring that hammer down instead of continuing to look for a bigger hammer.