So this week we have been invited to participate in a Roundtable of Doom topic with other bloggers and give our 2 credits’ worth on the big question of how tough challenges should be. Other participants will be linked at the bottom of the article. This weeks question:
Many of us probably remember the AD&D days when the DM could roll a black dragon on the random encounter table and end a low-level party’s career. The 3rd and 4th editions of the game led some newer players to believe that every encounter should be defeatable and appropriate to their level and capabilities. However, 5th edition has moved away from this structure.
We see this mirrored in other games as well. At one end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the PCs should be able to overcome any challenge that comes their way, that challenges should be “appropriate”. On the other end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the world should be realistic, that every fight shouldn’t be able to be won, and that one of the requisite skills of the game is knowing when to fight and when to run.
Where do you, as a GM, fall on this spectrum, and why? Should the PCs always be able to win?
I have touched on this subject a lot because it is a bit of a soap box for me, and I know Taylor has his own opinions on the matter.
This is Taylor. I do. They will be near the bottom.
So as a GM, where do we fall on the scale? First, let me explain a bit more about each side so that you better understand my answer.
For some reason, as I get ready to write this, my mind keeps showing me a clip from Dark Knight where Joker says “Here…we…go!”
When people talk about “Appropriate” challenges, what they usual mean are challenges that players have a good chance at succeeding. The idea is that the game should be fair to the players mechanically, and it was further popularized when our hobby got so popular that many new players wanted to learn how to play RPGs.
This method of encounter planning is very beneficial to the player that is self-motivated to be creative. Knowing that success is impossible keeps players, feelers, and storytellers engaged and allows them to experiment with interesting ways to succeed mechanically and narratively.
On the down side, the more possible your encounters generally are, the harder will be able to work depth into your game. Players can easily shift from relaxed to lazy, and mechanically the game can become very repetitive.
Realistic challenges are challenges that care less about being fair to the players and more about being consistent to the world that the GM has created. If dragons fly through the skies, then it is fair that one may drop down on a level 1 party and devour them. This is what our hobby was like when it first began, with players pitted against GMs, and we are just starting to see things swing back this way.
This method of encounter planning is beneficial to the character that likes to discover creative solutions to challenging problems. Fleeing a tough monster makes it that much sweeter when you are strong enough to defeat it. Thinkers and strategists thrive in this environment, where success means discovering the correct solution to a problem.
The big downside to this method is that reality can be harsh. What is fun for the GM may not be fun for the players, and it can be fairly easily for the GM to shift from referee to overlord.
Finding a Balance
Like most other things in life, challenge ratings are all about balance. A game that is too easy or too hard is not fun to play. A game where one side can effortlessly succeed over the other is going to encourage the consistently losing side to quit.
Now personally, I lean much more towards the appropriate side of things. Part of this is based on my experiences early on in the hobby, and part of it is just my personality. I like to see players succeed, and I feel like I can encourage them to be creative even when they do not have to be for the sake of success. The part of gaming that is the most fun for me is the storytelling, and honestly I could do it without complicated rules. This is probably why I favor games like Dungeon World, Dragon Age, and FATE Core.
That is not to say that I do not enjoy challenging encounters or realistic worlds. I would love to see more depth in my games. Something like the West Marches experiment or a typical Legend of the Five Rings campaign sound like a lot of fun, and I have run some games along those lines that I actually do enjoy.
I am a fan of having challenges be realistic and, as the name states, challenging. I also believe that there should be a way to “win” any challenge, but that “win” may be a pyrrhic victory.
Now we will return to Joshua since I believe him to be better with the words and such.
Keeping the Balance
Some final words of advice for my fellow GMs that lean towards one side over the other: play nice, take turns, and communicate.
Do not punish your players. Making bad things happen just because it is funny or interesting is never appreciated. This is a cooperative hobby, and everyone playing needs to matter. Don’t change the rules for your own sake, or even for the story’s sake, without getting everyone to agree first.
Do not play for your players. No matter how helpful you think you are being, explaining how they should do something is a bad idea. Offer options if they ask for help, but make sure you are encouraging the players to play. You are playing a cooperative game with real people, not writing a novel.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, make sure everyone is on the same page. Be clear about what type of campaign you are running, be patient with people that want to learn a new style of play, and be as consistent as possible. So long as everyone agrees, you can be as appropriate or realistic as you wish!
Marc Plourde – Inspiration Strikes
Scott Robinson – Strange Encounters
Peter Smit – Adventures, planar in nature
Lex Starwalker – A real chance of failure
Alan Kellogg – Perils of Constant Success
John Clayton – Files and Records
Dread Unicorn Games – Run Away! or Always Win?
… And a Brace of Pistols – Epic Fail?
Interested in taking part? join the chorus.