Character growth is something that we talk about a lot in terms of tabletop RPGs. Characters overcome obstacles both external and internal in nature. They reach various milestones and they come to realize that they are no longer the same people that they were when they stepped out their door at level 1.
And sometimes character growth is literal. Characters will, either temporarily (or sometimes permanently) become larger in size with all of the associated benefits and penalties associated with it.
But you don’t often hear about the inverse. Sure you have races like Halflings and Gnomes that are smaller than other races, but never to a degree of more than a couple of feet. You don’t often hear stories about the players being shrunk down to diminutive size very often. Why is that?
I think it comes down to a few things. The first is definitely the more ineffable of the two. But I believe that it boils down to a simple thing. In tabletop RPGs – especially those concerned with character advancement – a character is always concerned about what happens the next time he gains experience or gains a level. Which stats will he increase? How much better will he get at using his sword? How much bigger of an impact will he be able to make on the world? Increase, increase, increase. Reduction flies directly in the face of that philosophy and so I think it gets avoided for some of those reasons.
The second reason is much more easily quantified and explained – it’s harder to appropriately challenge a party that has been reduced to the size of an ant. If you look through the various Monster Manuals and Bestiaries out there the Monsters just keep getting larger as they grow more dangerous. And it oftentimes fits, especially in games like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder where the milieu is heroic fantasy.
However, I think there is simply too much opportunity to tell a great story to dismiss it out of hand. Here are a few ideas that I can think of to make a great adventure out of shrinking the characters down.
Focus on the Environment
I would actually argue that combat is not the true challenge that takes place when the heroes have been shrunk down to a fraction of their normal size. Instead, the biggest challenge becomes navigating the mundane, which is now able to cause them great harm. Travelling across a 50 foot room is suddenly a much more daunting task when you’re only six inches tall, so say nothing of the everyday objects and devices that can cause you harm or even kill you in your smaller state. A simple hut becomes a sprawling complex. A small garden becomes a massive forest. Inclement weather becomes incredibly dangerous.
This requires a little bit more work, but if you’re trying to go for a specific feeling in the adventure, it might be the best way to go about it. You can create new threats out of nothing to challenge your PCs. Maybe the colony of ants whose territory the PCs are in have been affected by residual magic from a nearby druid’s ritual and have developed intelligence. Maybe the PCs need to enter the body of a mechanical creation to find out why it’s not working or to destroy it from the inside and it has internal defenses. The possibilities here are just as limitless as your ideas for the adventure. It’s more work on the front end though, so if you’re short on time, maybe you’ll have some more luck with the next thought.
Reskin, Reskin, Reskin!
This one may seem like common sense, but it’s amazing how quickly it can be forgotten in cases like this. If you want to challenge your characters with combat but don’t have the time or inclination to create new threats, simply grab an existing monster’s stats and run it as the threat. Are they facing down an angry rat in the sewers? Are they going to know if you throw rhinoceros or dire bear stats at them to represent the size difference between them now? Similarly a snake can be represented by any number of larger serpentine creatures. Flying insects like mosquitoes become strix. I’m sure you can find appropriate analogues for any number of insects or other tiny creatures out there.
And Last But Not Least
Let’s not forget that there are some games that are built and function around the concept of the heroes being small characters. Look up Mouseguard for a brilliant example of ways that you can effectively challenge a party of heroes that has been shrunk down for whatever reason.
So don’t be afraid to pull the trigger on that size-changing ray or reduction spell and cut your players down to size. I know I have some ideas…