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The Last Dark Art

Seven: Challenge Rantings

by Dan Layman-Kennedy
May 21,2003


The Last Dark Art: Exploring the Gaming Aesthetic

Seven: Challenge Rantings

by Dan Layman-Kennedy

Challenges are one of the cornerstones of roleplaying. Much as players might like to believe otherwise, a weekly session of shopping for gear and drinking in taverns isn't going to be much fun for long. Players (and their characters) need obstacles to overcome, problems to solve, things to -- metaphorically or otherwise -- kill and take their stuff. More than that, though, participants in RPGs tend to expect challenges the same way they'd expect them from any other form of storytelling -- a means of both catharsis (surviving and overcoming -- or not -- along with their characters) and of exploring difficulties of situation and philosophy.

Unfortunately (perhaps), what this translates to in games is frequently a showdown of numbers. Combats and ability checks come down to a roll of the dice as often as not, and while there's something to be said for the thrill of an uncertain outcome, such resolutions aren't much of a satisfying measure of how well the characters, as extensions of the players, are overcoming the obstacles they're facing. (Beating the numbers may be a measure of successful character design -- for a certain value of "successful," anyway -- but not much else, and it's sure hard to sustain interest in that for four or five hours.) And there's something that doesn't feel quite right about major plot twists or grand showdowns hinging on lucky rolls. Players, for the most part, like to feel they've accomplished something more in a night than be in the right place and time for a critical success, and GMs usually feel better about what they're doing if there's less pressure to fudge the dice so the bad guys don't win.

Don't misunderstand -- I'm not arguing against random elements in games or suggesting that playing diceless is somehow more "artful" than rolling fistfulls of d10s (though Nobilis is a fine and elegant example of how to do that sort of thing well). Random outcomes often suggest plot developments that might never have come up otherwise, and that can be a great thing. What I suggest is that GMs -- and players, too -- might make a slight adjustment in thinking of what a challenge is in terms of roleplaying, scenarios, and plot arcs. A few suggestions follow that might serve to make a game session more than a series of Contests of Skill or Opposed Checks, and along the way we'll be exploring some other definitions of what "challenge" can mean as well.

Puzzles, riddles and mysteries are further old standbys of adventure design, and can go far in providing challenges above and beyond making successful to-hit rolls. Mysteries in particular are a natural fit; it can be argued that most stories are in some sense mysteries. Spending an evening just figuring out what was behind some huge event in the first scene can be immensely satisfying for a lot of groups. It can be very possible to lay this on too thick, though. A scenario heavy in mystery tends to nudge all the PCs into "playing detective," which is great as long as all the characters are appropriate for such activities. Not all will be, though, nor will their players likely be satisfied in relegating those characters to secondary roles in the unfolding plot. And the fact is that not everyone likes games with the kind of cerebral slant mystery-solving entails.

Riddles and puzzles carry their own pitfalls, not the least of which is the likelihood that the GM is much too clever for his own good. Puzzles are interesting in books and movies because the writer has control over who figures out what, and when, but RPGs don't have that luxury. Unless the players are particularly good at logic or word games, and can think on the same wavelength as the GM to boot, they're likely to be frustrated more than inspired. It's probably best to use such elements carefully, sparingly, and with much consideration. A brilliant scenario whose climax won't work unless the players can figure out some obscure and elaborate pun is going to earn the GM a lot more thrown pretzels than accolades.

Potentially much more interesting are dilemmas of one kind or another. Here we're really getting into territory of challenges with a literary pedigree; the Great Stories are much more about people finding themselves making impossible decisions than about overcoming foes by force and luck. There are lots of changes that can be rung on the idea of dilemmas, and fortunately the world is full of examples in novels, films and drama of how to do this well.

Good dilemmas place characters in situations that play to their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. In games where characters have Flaws or Disadvantages or similar, the GM is provided with a lot of clearly-defined buttons to push for this kind of thing; it's easy enough to engineer situations where the PCs' drawbacks are exploited and their strengths are lessened. (Make sure you've got committed roleplayers, though. Players have a very justifiable survival instinct when it comes to their characters, and aren't going to just walk into circumstances where they're at their least competent without a very good reason.) But even without obvious character traits to exploit, there are ways to use this -- imagine a fighter or rogue who finds herself having to solve the problems of a magician without a magician's knowledge or tools. The challenge to overcome here is finding solutions to problems where you don't have access to the things that would normally give you an edge. It's a plot device with a lot of great dramatic potential, but be cautious; players load up their PCs with cool abilities for a reason, and are going to get frustrated fast if they're consistently placed in dilemmas where they're robbed of all their strengths.

Such ideas shade easily into the realm of ethical dilemmas, where characters are forced to examine their own values in situations without easy answers. It's unfortunately simple for RPG plots to create situations where the ethical path is clear, especially in worlds with a lot of absolute moral polarization. But there's a literary adage that a conflict between right and wrong isn't interesting -- it's between right and right that makes for fascinating stories. (And by the same extention, especially if you're playing Unknown Armies or Vampire, wrong and wrong.) Once again, literary examples for this are easy to come by, from Hamlet's revenge-quandary to Detective Mills' awful crossroads at the climax of Se7en - both of which are fine examples of stories where the violence, though effective, is secondary to the motives driving it.

It should be noted once again here, however, that PCs can't be expected to behave like characters in books or films. Without an especially keen sense of drama or another, similar out-of-game incentive, a player is simply not going to allow his character to walk into Hamlet's rigged duel and to his doom, and is certainly going to see right through any clever tricks with poisoned wine and unbated foils. Players are simply far too paranoid (with good reason!) to throw themselves into every trap the GM sets for them if they can figure out any way at all to beat it -- which, of course, can be an exciting scenario all by itself, and a rewarding exploration of a challenge. The point is simply that GMs can do well to think out the nature of the challenges they set, ethical and otherwise, for their players, and be aware that they may be presenting what seems like a choice between two options where players will see half a dozen or more. This is a good thing - indeed, it's what makes gaming exciting. The protean nature of an improvised story means that no outcome is or should be predetermined -- and the GM needs to keep this in mind while crafting dilemmas and ethical traps with which to challenge players.

One further aspect of challenge should be addressed here, which has been saved until now because it falls more into metagame territory than any of the others. This is the challenge of ideas - using the game and its themes to explore new intellectual, philosophical or political territory for the GM and players themselves. This is potentially very touchy stuff, and the GM who uses a game to force uncomfortable themes on his players for the purpose of "broadening their horizons" isn't doing his friends or his ideas any favors. That said, there's no reason games can't explore ground that itself is a challenge to the participants, and be very effective in doing so -- as long as all involved are aware of the boundaries and willing to honor whatever game-contract is necessary to keep everyone from getting too uneasy. As with so many aspects of gaming, discussion beforehand is vital. The thing to keep in mind when injecting any kind of "heaviness" into RPGs is what might be thought of as the Cardinal Rule of Gaming: Whatever makes a game not be fun is no good for the game.

All of which is well and good, but there's still the big fight scene to think of -- which still comes down to dice and luck. How do players feel they're really rising to the challenges of randomly-influences scenes -- and how do they feel they've really accomplished something if they come out on top? One answer might be to subtly alter the way combats and other die-rolls are approached, and reward innovative player-provided color or strategies with substantial bonuses. Take an example from Exalted's Stunt rules, and give an edge to players who describe what they're doing well, or come up with creative ways to use their abilities. This not only makes randomly-driven contests more than measuring up what the rules can do tactically -- it allows the characters to do things outside what the rules explicitly allow, and it gives the players incentive to come up with interesting ways to rise to their challenges. The random element is still present, with the added element of knowing that even if the characters fail, they'll fail spectacularly. And thereby are great stories made.

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