Publication:Unearthed Arcana/Balancing Gestalt Characters
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Balancing Gestalt Characters
Obviously, this variant results in characters who are significantly more powerful than is standard. But how much more powerful? The simple answer-that gestalt characters are twice as powerful as standard characters—isn’t accurate. Gestalt characters don’t have an advantage in the most important game currency: available actions. Even a character who can fight like a barbarian and cast spells like a sorcerer can’t do both in the same round. A gestalt character can’t be in two places at once as two separate characters can be. Gestalt characters who try to fulfill two party roles (melee fighter and spellcaster, for example) find they must split their feat choices, ability score improvements, and gear selection between their two functions.
While a gestalt character isn’t as powerful as two characters of equal level, a gestalt character is more powerful than a standard character. Hit points will always be at least equal to those of a standard character, saving throws will almost certainly be better, and gestalt characters have versatility that standard characters can’t achieve without multiclassing. Furthermore, a party of gestalt characters has greater durability and many more spells per day, so they can often take on six or more consecutive encounters without stopping to rest and prepare more spells.
Your players may be excited by the chance to play fighters with powerful sneak attacks or spellcasters who can cast any spell. But as the DM, you know that the only measure of PC power that matters is the comparison with NPC power. By throwing monsters of higher Challenge Ratings at them, you’ll still be giving them significant challenges. Gestalt characters look superior compared to standard characters, but that’s a false comparison. With this variant, such “standard” characters don’t exist.
Here’s how to build a campaign that can handle gestalt characters.
Gestalt characters can obviously handle more opposition than standard characters. The simplest way to compensate for this is to use adventures with tougher monsters. In general, a party of four gestalt characters can handle multiple encounters with a single monster of a Challenge Rating equal to their average level + 1. If the monster poses a challenge because it forces the characters to succeed on life-threatening saving throws (such as with a medusa or a wyvern), it’s even weaker against gestalt characters, who have few or no weak saves. Characters can handle multiple encounters with such monsters at a Challenge Rating equal to their average level + 2. A shambling mound (CR 6) or a medusa (CR 7) would be appropriate average encounters for four 5th-level gestalt characters. If you take this approach, realize that characters gain levels faster than in a typical campaign, because they’re gaining experience points as if those encounters were harder than they actually are. You’re obviously comfortable with a high-powered game, so faster advancement may be an additional benefit, not a problem. if you rely on published adventures, this is the easiest option.
If you want to keep level advancement at the standard average of thirteen encounters per level, reduce the Challenge Ratings of all the monsters and NPCs in your campaign by 1 (or by 2 if they rely on failed PC saving throws to pose a challenge). The shambling mound and the medusa would both become CR 5 monsters, and the gestalt characters gain levels at the usual rate. Monsters with a Challenge Rating of 1 become CR 1/2, and other monsters with fractional Challenge Ratings have their CRs cut in half (kobolds become CR 1/6, in other words). Many staple low-CR monsters don’t work well against a party of gestalt characters, even 1st-level gestalts.
Once you adjust the Challenge Ratings, you have one more subtle factor to consider when you design adventures for gestalt characters. You must take into account the greater “adventure stamina” of gestalt characters both when you’re preparing an adventure and when you’re at the gaming table running the adventure. Because gestalt characters have more hit points, better saving throws, and deeper spellcasting lists than standard characters, they can safely tackle more encounters in a row before they run low on hit points and spells.
Gestalt characters can, for example, delve deeply into a dungeon on their first foray, when the dungeon denizens may not be expecting them. The defenders of any site in a site-based adventure can’t rely on wearing out a party of gestalt characters. They have to pose enough of a threat that the gestalt characters retreat because they’re worried about their hides, not just because the wizard is almost out of spells.
In event-based adventures, gestalt characters can wreak havoc with timetables because they have more resources at their disposal. For example, a 10th-level gestalt wizard/sorcerer can easily teleport the entire party four times a day-without resorting to scrolls. That means two round trips to visit the wizened sage who’s an expert in rune translation, each in the blink of an eye.
At the gaming table, you may want to plan longer gaming sessions because rest periods for the characters are natural stopping points for the players, and gestalt characters have fewer rest periods. if you do stop in the middle of the action, encourage your players to take careful notes of which class abilities they expend, which spells they have active, and other relevant information. Gestalt characters are complex enough that relying solely on memory is a recipe for trouble.
An important aspect of most campaigns is verisimilitude—which is centered on the notion that everything in the campaign world is obeying the same set of rules. Accordingly, any important NPCs in your game should also be gestalt characters. It’s probably not necessary to have low-level noncombatant NPCs pick two classes, but any NPCs above 1st level should be constructed as gestalt characters. (NPCs with levels only in NPC classes-adept, aristocrat, commoner, expert, and warrior-can remain standard characters.)
The high-powered nature of the gestalt character variant gives you more room to create unique prestige classes. First, you can create narrowly specialized prestige classes, and they’ll still be compelling choices for PCs because the characters can simultaneously advance in a regular class while taking levels in the prestige class. Players won’t feel shoehorned into a very specific prestige class if they have another class they’re also advancing in. Second, you can create truly outrageous prestige classes-but add the additional cost that such classes take up both class choices for gestalt characters. For example, a prestige class that offered a d12 Hit Die, +1/level base attack bonus, two good saves, full spellcasting, and a host of class features would be completely unbalanced in a standard game. But if it takes up both “class slots” for a gestalt characters, it’s no more powerful than taking a level in the barbarian/wizard gestalt.
Once it is adjusted as outlined above, a campaign that employs gestalt characters isn’t that different from a standard campaign. Gestalt characters don’t gain access to key campaign-changing abilities faster than their standard counterparts. No gestalt character can use teleport or raise the dead under her own power before 9th level, and no nonmonk gestalt character gets a second melee attack in a round before 6th level. Gestalt characters get to tackle monsters a level or two ahead of time, but they’re still fighting gnolls at low levels, rakshasas at middle levels, and balors at high levels. Perhaps the only noticeable difference in terms of campaign pacing is that gestalt PCs are “something special” from the beginning. They are far more powerful than typical 1st-level commoners even at the beginning of the campaign. Again, this difference only matters for a level or two, because standard 3rd level characters are also far more powerful than 1st-level commoners.