I have touched on this topic before:
And, rather recently, at that. That post was about whether there was any value to plans, but the context of whether plans matter was the far larger topic of the nature of appropriate challenges in RPG play.
Various things I’ve read recently bring me back to thinking about this topic, that I struggle with.
As seen in Playgroup Cohesion, I’m “100% Storyteller”. As a pure storyteller, I am inclined to challenges that make for good stories, which means that there’s no point in easy challenges or too difficult challenges.
However, the more I’ve read about simulationist play (vs. narrativist or gamist play), the more I intellectually get that trying to force drama has unintended consequences.
There’s little point to a GM coming up with obviously inappropriate challenges for a party. If the party can’t fail at something, then it’s unsatisfying to everyone. If the party can’t succeed, same. However, the range of challenges for a party that fall between those two extremes should be broad. Also, going back to the value of plans, there is an element of the challenge being fair but the consequences of succeeding or failing being unfair.
What does that mean?
The challenge can be to get into a fort (the same fort from Panama!?). Walk up to the guards and smooth talk them … with a party full of Charismaless, socially-impaired PCs. Challenge failed. GM has 100 guards wipe party. Players complain about fairness of fight against 100 guards. The challenge isn’t the fight.
For the storyteller, getting massacred by 100 guards is not a terribly compelling story. But, then, stupidly trying to talk one’s way past guards with people who smell funny and make lame jokes is not a compelling story, either.
Narrativistly, it might be epic to roll well and perform this smooth talking, but it’s unlikely to happen to where another option is more narrativist appropriate. For the gamist, as players, you don’t send people to do something when it’s likely they will fail, if given a choice. For the simulationist, it’s not realistic to take a course of action the characters would fail at; the characters would have a more realistic plan.
So, challenges. One axis of a suitability chart for challenges can be what would make for challenges appropriate to the ability of the party. The(?) other axis could be what would be appropriate to the situation as contextualized by the GM. Within the chart, we are looking for data points that tend towards the middle.
If I’m some random merc looting a temple, then when a pissed off god shows up, I don’t think “if I roll well on initiative, I can take ’em”. However, many situations aren’t that cut and dry when it comes to the context for the danger of the situation. Fortunately, GMs often tip off when you are not reading the situation appropriately. Should be noted that a situation too easy for the party is not a party concern, so from the player perspective, it’s more the challenges that seem too difficult or that are more difficult than they seem.
A common question for GMs or by GMs is how to handle ordinary people. Suppose you play a d20 game, and at first level, the guards of the jewelry shop are first level. When you break into the jewelry shop at 10th level, why would the guards not still be first level? Because then there’s no challenge.
The obvious answer to that situation is that 10th level dudes don’t break into podunk village jewelry shops, they break into Fort Hard Knocks. But, having challenges in the flow of play match up that well doesn’t always happen.
Let me use an actual play example. In the fight in our last L5R home campaign session that I got smited and the rest of the party struggled, it was our party of one rank 2 shugenja, one rank 1 shugenja, one rank 2 courtier, two rank 1 bushi versus a rank 2 shugenja, a rank 4 courtier, a rank 2 bushi, and a rank 2 monk.
We had numbers – huge. We had magical advantage (to a degree, it was actually closer than this appears) – generally busted. We were at rank disadvantage – not always clear cut but significant in this case.
This is coin flippish. Coin flips in L5R tend to have permanent results. Did the danger level make sense?
We (essentially) charged in and initiated combat. We created the combat challenge, in other words. The challenge was actually to track these guys down, arrest them, and get info from them. Direct combat was an obvious way to approach that for us as both a natural result from a chase and because our characters are built towards combat. But, we could have continued to follow them to see where they would go and take them when we had a greater numbers advantage – they split up, we hit a town where we requisitioned additional forces. And, as much as the PCs are built for combat, they aren’t built well for combat.
From a challenge level valuation, it was reasonable. The high ranking courtier wasn’t far more capable in combat than we were.
From an appropriateness level, it was also reasonable. We knew something about these guys before we engaged them. We knew they had names, which meant they weren’t going to be mook level in ability (to the extent that L5R ever has mook level opposition for rank 1 characters).
So, it was a good challenge to fight them. A dangerous challenge. But, we accepted the danger.
As counterexamples, I’ve seen L5R fights with four PCs against eight bandits where the PCs really had no chance outside of good tactics (never expect good tactics, never). Numbers are just too powerful in 4e L5R. Just think about how many more attack rolls the larger side makes. Even with reduced probability of hitting, which is no guarantee as many of my L5R builds aren’t hard to hit, still getting a good number of damage rolls in, which turns into multiple hits on PCs. PCs generally can’t take multiple hits any better than any other humans. Inflict enough damage on shugenja, and healing goes out the window, which is exactly what happened in the five on four above and which takes out a lot of advantage a party will have over foes. Higher Insight Ranks, higher skill ranks, magic – a fight of appropriate bandit horde versus smaller, elite force of samurai is just a massacre in the making … if rolled out without fudging.
From the player side, many of my characters are far from optimal at combat. Yet, that isn’t an expectation the party should have. I play bushi mostly in L5R. The party should not expect some courtier level fighting ability from these bushi. But, what about the GM?
When the GM is considering challenge level, should the GM take into account poor builds? Poor game knowledge by a player (which will result in poor tactics)? Or, is it unrealistic that opposition will be weaker because players decided to embrace the min side of min/maxing. I’ve just started a new campaign with a system that I understand better than the players, especially the players who have never played a Roll & Keep system. How do I factor in that gap in character design knowledge and strategic and tactical combat ability?
I can get the chart values that take into account that extremes in challenges are pointless while putting enough stress on the situationally appropriateness of the challenge. What I’m less sure about is whether my data point choices are the fun ones for the group. There seems to be some sort of need to set expectations with the players, which a lot of groups do over time. When the GM is consistent, I think this happens fairly quickly. I just worry about being consistent, especially when we don’t play very often to where a track record can be more easily built.
Then, I need to work on my skill at statting out reasonable challenges as I seem to miss often. One thing I hate is having to pull punches on parties when I made a challenge beyond their ability, when it wasn’t reasonable that the challenge would be that dangerous.
I think there’s some value to aiming low as a GM and ramping up as one gets a better idea. On the other hand, it’s also rather sad when the opposition seems pathetic. “Okay guys, you see two goblins, one looks like it has a bad leg and could be near-sighted.” There’s an art to selling challenges as more awesome flavorwise than they really are mechanicswise I also need to work on.