Wednesday, February 28, 2018

On Challenge

There is a shortage of player intended advice in RPG books, but the 1e PHB contains a section on "Successful Adventures" full of good tips for playing the game.  Although it assumes a level of out of game commitment among the players which likely seems absurd to most GMs, it ends with this poignant section on why players should care about playing well:

"Superior play makes the game more enjoyable for all participants, DM and players alike.  It allows more actual playing time.  It makes play more interesting.  The DM will have to respond to superior play by extending himself or herself to pose bigger and better problems for the party to solve.  This in turn means more enjoyment for the payers.  Successful play means long-lived characters, characters who will steadily, if not rapidly, gain levels.  You will find that such characters become like old friends; they become almost real.  Characters with stories related about their exploits - be they cleverly wrought gains or narrow escapes - bring a sense of pride and accomplishment to their players, and each new success adds to the luster and fame thus engendered.  The DM will likewise revel in telling of such exploits... just as surely as he or she will not enjoy stories which constantly relate the poor play of his or her group!  Some characters will meet their doom, some will eventually retire in favor of a new character of a different class and/or alignment, but playing well is a reward unto itself, and old characters are often remembered with fondness and pride as well.  If you believe that ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is a game worth playing, you will certainly find it doubly so if you play well."

As I was writing a campaign update for my AS&SH campaign, I realized that after 11 sessions of gameplay we hadn't had a single party death.  Compared to my recent Stonehell adventures, where we averaged nearly 3 per session.  There are probably a lot of reasons for that.  I wouldn't call AS&SH an easy system or the world of Hyperborea friendly, but the classes do provide the players more starting power than the standard S&W classes, and playing in the wide world of Hyperborea offers more choice to pursue safer goals than the confines of Stonehell.

Still, we've had several sessions crawling through dungeons that I'd consider every bit as dangerous as Stonehell, fighting venomous vermin, infernal daemons, and some of the most fearsome zombies I've seen in any game.  Throughout, I've seen the party operate like a trained tactical squad.  They approach each session with a clear goal.  They carefully manage resources.  They avoid any unnecessary combat.  They come up with clever solutions to problems.  They weigh the risks vs rewards as a group and generally are playing at a high level.

Now, this isn't to say that my group is some kind of elite competitive dungeon delving squad.  They were mostly introduced to RPGs through newer games, 3x or 4e.  They're remarkably receptive to playing whatever I want to run though and don't complain about how brutal the game I run is.  They have taken a lot of knocks over the years and have learned a lot of harsh lessons.  There are always monsters more powerful than them in the world.  Dark abandoned wells are probably best not to go diving into.  Sometimes the road to hell is very explicitly marked.  Sometimes NPCs lie and betray them.  These are just things I like to do in my games.  Over time they've learned a lot of my traits as a judge and they've adapted.  They still occasionally try something boneheaded just for fun, but our days of session 1 TPKs seem to be over.

Now, I am not an adversarial judge.  I am truly rooting for them, because when they overcome problems the game escalates and we get to keep having fun.  The fun of this hobby for me is not telling them a story about their epic heroics.  It's a back and forth of challenging each other.  As Gary says, "The DM will have to respond to superior play by extending himself or herself to pose bigger and better problems for the party to solve."  It is a competition, but one in which we all win the more the stakes increase.

I have trouble relating to so many discussions around the hobby.  There is so much advice on carefully balancing and tailoring the challenges to meet the party's strengths.  Actual play accounts always read like absurd narratives lacking any real sense of danger.  Apparently the idea of actually killing the PCs is heavily frowned upon in many places.  Popular narrative game designs employ collaborative world building and player authorial powers that absolutely neuter the judge's ability to present unknown challenges.  Advice to "fudge" the dice rolls in favor of an exciting story is pretty much ubiquitous on any forum, or even my favorite podcast.  It's considered taboo to say anyone is playing wrong if they're having fun.  But I definitely feel like most people are just playing something completely different than what I am.

For my part, challenge isn't just something to ratchet up tension in a narrative.  It's why I play these games.  And I think it's worth playing well.


  1. I very much agree (especially when it comes to OSR games), PCs shouldn't always be able to romp into an encounter knowing it has been balanced to be possible for them to triumph. I'm also not a fan of fudging dice rolls in general.

    1. I'm as hardline against fudging dice as it gets. I roll anything that isn't a secret check in front of the players and I'd never play in a game where the judge fudges rolls (I've been in a couple and it became evident pretty quickly, so I dropped out). I don't understand why fudging is so prevailing. People probably wouldn't be ok with their players cheating "in the interest of a better story", but it seems to be completely accepted practice among most crowds.

  2. Encounter balance the OSR way is for the DM to make it clear to the players that the deeper they go into the dungeon (or when they enter tough terrain hexes), the more difficult the encounters will be.

    1. That's true to a certain extent, but I don't strictly abide by monster distributions like that. Where it makes sense, I like to have mix it up a little bit and put something really frightening amongst the low level stuff. I think a big part of player skill comes from being able to evaluate dangers. For judges, it's important to provide enough information for them to be able to make those judgements.

    2. I do put higher level encounters within easier dungeon areas occasionally. But most of the time I make sure there is foreshadowing: bones, warning graffiti from other creatures, scorch marks, etc.

  3. I used to fudge dice rolls back in 3e, to get players to "my story". Now I realize "my stories" were much less interesting than the players' stories.

    Their decisions based on the things they know about the world and their interests leads to much more interesting moments than I could craft before hand.

    I like the Gameist elements to Table Top RPGs because I believe it's another way the players can have clarity about the gameworld to make more informed decisions. (That doesn't mean their decisions are always right.) They can push their luck against the odds or play the safe route, having a general idea of their chances of success.

    Narrative approach is fine but once you bend the rules too much you're no longer playing a game.