Riddle Me This …

What makes for a good challenge?

I used to care less about characters sheets, but, then, I used to play more of my RPing in one-shots.  In a campaign, the character sheet should matter as advancement is only meaningful if you have context for it.

But, is a challenge that just comes down to a die roll all that compelling?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  I like it when my obscure skill is the key to overcoming a challenge, and I like putting all of my resources into one megaroll.  However, that’s in the heat of the moment.  Stepping back, isn’t it just a random result that I’m getting excited by?  Sure, increasing the probability of a role succeeding may involve player input, but outside of that influence, what is compelling about randomness leading to success or failure?

Where’s the input from me, the player?

On the other hand, consider the situation where all of the contribution of the PC is due to the player.  For instance, say I’m interrogating someone and all of the questions are from me, the player, rather than the character’s aptitude being considered.

I would contend the ideal is for player decisions to have influence on character results, but that the decisions are no greater an element to success than character ability with randomness thrown in to make results unpredictable.  Though, is it really that important for results to be unpredictable?  Given a certain level of character competence mixed with player competence, I can see automatic success.  On the other hand, such judgment calls can be difficult and character competence is typically defined not in the absolute but in the relative, with a greater probability of success than a relative inferior.

Another reason combat tends to be more compelling than other challenges is that combat is not any one thing.  It’s not a single die roll.  It’s not a single tactical decision.  Tactical decisions, which typically come from the player, can (and should) matter, while character sheet mechanics distinguish different character builds.

Is there an analogy to CCGs, where the character build is the deck construction step and the play of the deck is the tactical decisions made?

How does one develop challenges so that decisions and character sheets both matter?  I should note that I’m not a fan of logistical challenges – how to build a pulley system to lift a heavy object, for instance, or how to arrange caravan guards and set their watches.  I play RPGs to have adventures and have little interest in mundane considerations.

In keeping with an earlier post, I’m trying to think of challenges for the party and not individuals.  In a recent session of one of my campaigns, there was a fight with a fire burning out of control.  I like these sorts of situations – those who like combat can fight and I can try to come up with something else to do that improves the situation.  Unfortunately, my non-combat actions had no impact on this scene.  But, let’s say you take the fight out of the equation.

A fire is burning out of control.  Or, there’s flooding.  Or, there’s an earthquake, lava flow, blizzard, whatever.  Mundanes abound, and the party likes at least some of the mundanes.  What do you do?  What do you do?

There’s an adventure I played where you need to cook a meal.  It’s important to get the ingredients, then make cooking rolls, while under a time limit.  It could have been done better, if maybe not a lot better.  The character sheet bit was making cooking rolls, though that could have been diversified since few characters will have the game’s cooking skill.  The decisions were how to get the ingredients.  That structure seems right.  I think the reason why I thought it could be better is the two events were separated, rather than blended.  I’d like to see:  discuss which ingredients to get, find out how to get them right away, process (cook) them right away.  Everything feels like the part of one action rather than separate actions.

Other time limit challenges come to mind that would work similarly.  We have to put on a show.  What acts are we going to do?  Who is going to do them (based on what skills they require)?  How are we going to adapt to audience reaction?  A fort needs repairing before being sieged.  A way across a river needs to be devised.  An escape (assuming enough elements to interact with that a variety of skills/abilities get put to use at the same time) needs to be executed.

Less defined challenges could work.  Suppose a ruler wants to be compensated before marrying a child to a party member.  The problem I have with less defined challenges is that the PCs often have a hard time ever coming to a decision about what to do.  Even if they do, it might be a terrible decision, and unlike a combat where each decision is part of a scene, one decision can make or break the endeavor.  And, then, there’s also the issue of whether every party member is relevant to the challenge.  Spellcasters are great for solving problems others can’t, which might be true of combat as well, but people in combat feel like they are doing stuff, where less immediate challenges don’t require someone to do anything.

An example of a challenge that can be rewarding or not for any given PC.  The party makes it to a city.  The party needs information.  If the primary way to get info is to be a talker, then the non-talkers are out of luck.  Consider, though, a party with a brawler, a knight, a scholar, a priest, and a sneak.  The brawler drinks at the pub to listen to gossip.  The knight checks in with nobility or knightly orders.  The scholar finds other nerds.  The priest finds religios.  The sneak spies.  In each case, if there is not only a die roll involved but a decision beyond this first level decision … *and* … there’s different and relevant information to be gained, then this can be quite compelling.

Note that if people just get the same info, then only some of the PCs were doing anything important.  Same if some info is important and some is not so much.  What is the second stage decision of the brawler?  Deciding who to believe, perhaps, which means the GM needs multiple information sources.  The knight?  What to say in a dangerous political arena?  Whether to go to a friendly knight with less info or a knave with more info?  Scholar?  What research to engage in, what crackpot to talk to, etc.  Priest?  Whether to ask, demand, draw forth answers.  Sneak?  Who to spy on.  The thing is that while it may seem like excessive detail, without a decision on how to approach one’s personal challenge, you get back to simply abstracting a situation down to a die roll, which is character dependent but not player dependent.

Of course, not every challenge is a major challenge and some can be dealt with only through player decisions or through abstracted die rolls, but my concern is for coming up with more challenges for parties which combine the two, as combat so often does.  Otherwise, I’m concerned that combat challenges will be more satisfying.  For someone else, this might not be a problem.  For me, I need combats to naturally flow from the situation to feel comfortable, not just be “Angry dudes charge you, roll initiative.” just so that players have interesting things to do.


3 Responses to Riddle Me This …

  1. Drain says:

    As a budding GM and one who has been inching towards the “char-sheet determines challenges” camp, I have to say this post felt extremely clairvoyant and relevant. A very descriptive and natural follow-up to the concerns voiced on one of your previous posts. Vital food for thought.

    I’ve been pondering myself as to the relevance of having challenges presented to players defined by what they :do not: have on their char-sheet as a means of contrasting their (in)aptitudes with their party mates as well as cultivating interesting responses though I suspect this might generate frustration if not used sparingly.

  2. Andrew Haas says:

    I don’t know why you’re concerned about over using combat, your 3 hour TPK wolf fights are the highlight of my games. Seriously though, good post. Some nice thoughts to consider.

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