Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Challenge is Challenge

I used to run out of inventory space on my D&D character sheets. I was utterly fascinated with packing just the right tool for every sort of situation, and I spent an unreasonable amount of time figuring out the lightest, most useful kit I could pack. As a player, it's a lot of fun to come into a situation and have just the right tool to short-circuit the challenge and move on (especially because the challenge is almost certainly unfair in a substantial and gygaxian way). There's sort of a double satisfaction to this because, outside of fiction, it's what good problem solving looks like: finding the easiest, most effective solution with the tools on hand.

Unfortunately, that can make for a very boring game (and a frustrated GM).

A lot of adventure design gets committed to keeping things from being simple. The logic behind this is reasonable enough: simple challenges are quickly resolved with little sense of risk or engagement, and that is a recipe for boring play. Unfortunately, the obvious solution (making things arbitrarily more challenging) is workable but ultimately counterproductive.

To illustrate this, consider a dungeon. There might be some reason to go into the dungeon (rescue the hostage, let's say), but how many of the challenges you're going to run into have any bearing on that? In some adventures, they might all be, but I think we all have experience with the adventure where there's a mandatory quota of fight scenes with random-seeming monsters. Those encounters "flesh out" the adventure and keep it from being too simple.

But that's sloppy design. It's LAZY. Look at it this way: if I have a bunch of cultists take a prisoner, there are lots of ways I can make the adventure more challenging. I can include an important NPC among the cultists backers, meaning I may face legal barriers keeping me from pursuing the cultists. I may face hard choices in terms of the price of stopping them. Maybe the cultists are not so morally black as I think, calling into question the righteousness of violence as a solution. I can introduce a second challenge (Burn Notice Style) and make the real difficulty in juggling both concerns.

Or I can just add a few more monsters/fight scenes.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love good fight scenes. If I want to add more of them, there are plenty of ways to do it that make more sense then "And behind this door lives a shambling mound!" Similarly, I'm sympathetic that for any published adventure, the lack of hooks into the specifics of the campaign being played limits options, but I must add that it doesn't remove them entirely. There are too many examples of good adventures to pretend it can't be done.

The specific solutions for this are going to depend a lot on your game, but the question it raises is always going to be the same. When looking at a challenge you're going to throw at your players, ask yourself how it's going to make the game better as well as harder. There are lots of good answers, including "It will be an awesomely fun fight", "I need to give this player some spotlight time" or even "Holy god, I need to fill an hour - Fight time!". Just make sure you have an answer.


  1. Is it just me, or does this seem like a great place to create a concise, quick "challenge them!" checklist? Something that quickly walked an adventure designer or GM through the different angles of approach beyond "throw a fight at them"?

  2. @fred You say such things when I'm really _trying_ to keep the posts shorter!

    But, yeah. Ok, that's going in "to do" the bucket.

  3. I have been trying to come up with an all-new kind of framework to hang adventures off that isn't just map-with-keyed-locations or scenes-connected-by-rails. And one of the thoughts was just a sort of, here's the challenge, here are the stakeholders, here's the resources they have available, here's where they tend to assign those resources.

    So, the Villain is a dragon, he wants to expand his territory, has lots of money to hire mercenaries in the vicinity of his lair, he has three young offspring who he controls via threats, he has a pet wizard who he pays in dragon scales, etc etc.

  4. This really makes me think of the MC Moves from Apocalypse World, having a set of elements that you can have on hand that help move along the action without conflicting the established scenerio.

  5. Oh, Cam, please do. That's so much more useful.

    As I mentioned to Rob on Twitter the other day, my experience with running premade adventures has always been bad, because (a) I have to read and absorb them, which is harder and less fun (for me) than setting up a situation and running with improv off what the players do; and (b) no adventure survives contact with the players, so trying to, as I did, run the 5 premade adventures in the back of the Promethean books was an exercise in trying to figure out justifications for why the PCs would want to do the things that would keep them on the rails—less than fun for any of us.

    But premade adventures have their place, in helping to jumpstart creativity and keep things from being pretty much the same all the time. What you suggest is a good balance.

    One more thing I might suggest is not just a problem and the resources that problem can bring to bear, but also some text on possible ramifications—what happens if you leave this problem untouched, what happens if you stop it this way, what happens if you stop it that way.

  6. It's worth pointing out that very few games give advice on how to use fights to move the plot forward. Heck, plenty of Hollywood producers don't understand how to use fight scenes to move a plot forward. I know it challenges me when playing D&D too.

  7. @Cam: Reign has some interesting mechanics in this regard, which it accomplishes by creating a larger construct in which it then embeds the characters (players and non-player). By then determining the actions of the larger construct (be it a street gang, a guild, a city, or a nation), it gives a useful guide to how the lower-level effects might occur.

    The problem is that most campaigns tend to be overly focused on the player characters, to the exclusion of everything else. They often forget that non-player characters often have plans that blatantly don't include the player characters. At least not until they have made a sufficient pest of themselves. <grin>

    And it's these sort of games I prefer. Where the characters may not start out as the focus of the campaign, but where they eventually can grab the focus of the campaign.

  8. Personally, I think that the proper idea should be that challenges should be consequential, not eventful.

    In other words, if a challenge has no consequences, either for the players or the campaign as a whole, then why is it there?

  9. @rev I mostly agree, but I am willing to make exceptions for "Because it's awesome". As an example, some games (Feng Shui and 4e especially) do set piece fights really well, and I am willing to accept very thin context if the scene itself is a ton of fun. That said, I consider the bar for that to be fairly high, so it' snot a free pass.


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