Frame: Freeimages.com / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: Freeimages.com / Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke
I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the last part of the current block of three articles; the series will then take a break for a month or so.
I’m attempting to write this as though there were no problems with my laptop, in hopes of being able to post it as usual. If that doesn’t work, I have a plan B – and then a plan C
…which is exactly as far as I got before my system crashed once again – after working perfectly all day. As soon as I tried to type at anything approaching normal speed, the system died. All of which supports my current working theory that there is a crack in the circuit board – hit the wrong key too hard and bang!
So I am now on plan B, which involves an old USB keyboard – one that I haven’t used extensively for years, and that was a bit clunky (sticking keys etc) even before that – and the system is not crashing. It doesn’t prove the theory, but it goes some distance toward confirming it. Meanwhile, a longer-term solution is in the works, thanks to some generous friends and my upcoming Birthday.
The upshot is that I can still write, but with nothing even remotely resembling the speed and fluidity that I had achieved. Efficiency is down – and will be, for a while.
But enough about me, let’s get to the subject at hand…
One of the most controversial articles I’ve ever written was on the subject of challenges. That article was about the challenge-balancing architecture within the D&D game mechanics.
Every game that I can think of has something of the sort, either overt or embedded beneath the surface.
Certainly, a lot of other people have written on the same topic over the years. A Google search for “encounter balance” yields 123 million results. If you could read one a second, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, you would reach the end of them in about 11-ad-a-half years – assuming no more were written in that time. “Encounter Level” is another 123,000,000 results (it’s possible but unlikely that there would be 100% correlation between the two searches). “Challenge Rating”, which is intimately connected to the afore-mentioned D&D game mechanic, lists 145 million results.
That tells me two things: first, that a lot of people find the subject difficult; and second, that there are no shortage of people who think it’s important, or even essential.
Why is it so difficult?
Every group of PCs is different. They have different abilities, different stats, different imperatives, and different personalities. The differences between characters at different experience level is only a subset of this larger problem. But even if all these things were exactly the same for every PC group in existence, all over the world, every group would still be different – because every player is different, perceives things differently, has different priorities both in- and out-of-game, and every GM is likewise an individual.
Now quantify all those differences and boil it all down to a single numeric value that tells you what opposition is appropriate, under a universal set of circumstances.
When you put it like that, the whole idea seems ludicrous, doesn’t it?
Why is it so important?
It’s no fun going up against characters and situations that you can solve with your eyes closed and one hand tied behind your back. It’s no fun going into a situation knowing that you have absolutely no hope of any sort of victory.
The fun in an RPG is directly-connected to a measured and equitable degree of difficulty, whether that difficulty is mechanical (needing good die rolls), narrative (coming up with a good idea to advance your cause), impersonative (roleplaying a specific character as an individual and an exemplar of his type in the many, many ways characters can be classified), or logical (here’s a puzzle – solve it).
To be sure, there can be fun beyond these things – the social interaction, for example – that can be present even if the game fails to entertain in every one of those game-related respects. But I doubt anyone would dispute that games are better when every box is ticked and you don’t need to rely on that social interaction as the sole source of fun – I doubt games where that happens last very long. You would play something else, instead, or choose an alternate form of social activity.
Is it essential?
So it’s important that challenges – no matter what form they take – be at least somewhere in the ball-park of the right answer. But is it essential that you get it exactly right, even most of the time?
The answer is, not really. If you overestimate how strong the Four-armed Gargoyle with the Mace Of Flesh Eating should be by a little but, you’ll underestimate the next encounter, and over time, your errors will average out – provided that you get somewhere close enough to a reasonable answer.
Is it even Realistic?
Actually, the answer, once again, is “not really”. In the long-ago days of AD&D, one of the primary distinctions between dungeon encounters and wilderness encounters is that the former were “managed” and “metered” to provide opposition reasonably appropriate to the characters, while wilderness encounters were more concerned with paying lip service to the concept of an ecology. Because creatures were free to come and go as they pleased in the open-air environment, a particularly unlucky set of PCs could run into Smaug on their first night out-of-town.
A lot of the advice (and some of the most interesting articles) in the early gaming magazines was directed at imposing rationality on both of these facets – from making sense of a dungeon’s ecology, stratification, and construction to creating more rational and balanced ecologies in the wilderness (or attempting to rationalize and justify the imbalances).
Over the years, it became unacceptable for a GM to permit such a lopsided-encounter to take place, and stratification of challenge levels became ubiquitous, for all the reasons enunciated in the discussion of importance. And yet, it would be hard to argue with the notion that the old-school was more realistic in that you could never know what was around the next corner; the world didn’t censor anything outside an acceptable Encounter Level or Challenge Rating.
The best campaigns imposed a rationalization that restricted the power level of oppositions to something within reasonable bounds – “semi-tamed” wildernesses and the like became the state of the art, and – arguably – the most realistic compromise of the lot. So much so that the concept even began to infiltrate the more controlled adventuring environments.
This, de facto, is a rejection of the premise of precisely balanced and metered challenges; instead, a reasonable spread centered around character capabilities became the goal. The 3.x/Pathfinder experience mechanics are a tacit acknowledgement of this, by providing a means of determining rewards based on relative ease of an encounter as actually experienced in-game, even though it was still a secondary determinant to relative Encounter Levels.
Subsequent generations of game system do their best to embed encounter balance and challenge standards into the mechanics themselves, making it more and more difficult for GMs to exceed reasonable limits without deliberately trying to do so. And yet, something was lost in the homogeneity of the resulting game mechanics – leading to the edition wars of 4e D&D. What emerged was tuned to a parity with player capabilities that was no more realistic than the original stratification model of AD&D.
An Old-school Technique
There’s an old-school technique that I learned when I first began to GM AD&D (you can read about other aspects of the experience and what I learned in Bringing on the next generation, Part Two: Gamemaster Mentors, in which I argue that it is a responsibility of experienced GMs to train the next generation, or should be, using my own experience as a template). It’s also full of good more good advice for beginners.
It’s this: mentally tally up the number of “significant advantages” the opposition have over each PC, then balance that tally with a like number of “significant advantages”. That might be increased levels, improved stats, greater numbers, a tactical or environmental advantage or disadvantage, whatever.
It didn’t take me long to refine this technique by incorporating the advantages of group flexibility/capabilities and formalizing the process but the basic principle stood unchanged until 3.x promised a more sophisticated approach. These days, I’m more-or-less back to the same approach in both the Zenith-3 and Adventurer’s Club campaigns, and they are the better for it – but the modern-day approach is far more refined. Scratch the surface, though, and this principle is still lurking underneath.
The Transfigurative Revelation
The key word in that principle is “significant”. I didn’t use any algorithm to decide what was and what wasn’t “significant”; instead, I applied the metagame approach of what “felt” significant. Again, if I missed something, or rated something as more significant than it was, it didn’t matter so long as I got the balance somewhere in the ballpark of correct.
I’m not sure when it happened – post-2010, for certain, but beyond that, I can’t be certain – but over time I realized that what I had really been doing in my pre-3.x methodology was imposing an idealized and incomplete formality on the more basic and generalized question:
“How hard should it be?”
I was already in the habit of making minor tweaks and corrections to challenge difficulties to ensure that they posed an appropriate level of struggle for the PCs; this revelation permitted me to take a still more liberal, narrative-based, and informal approach to the whole question.
The Narrative Alternative
“How hard should it be” – for a good story, an entertaining narrative, a plausible situation? That has become my silent mantra when designing challenges. “This NPC detests being interrupted with trivial disturbances, so he has made it very difficult to reach his inner chambers – and, he therefore treats anyone who does so with an appropriate level of respect and wariness.” “This NPC has an ego second only to his self-confidence, and enjoys humiliating opponents, so he makes it easy to reach him, lulling invaders into a false sense of security, then coming down on them with as much overwhelming force as he can muster.” “This NPC is cautious and paranoid; he will always have an escape route at hand, and will strive to delay characters more than overwhelm them to give himself ample warning to use that escape route after an initial test of threat level.”
After profiling the style of the architect of the opposition that the PCs will be facing, I next look at the overall narrative that I have planned. Is it essential that the NPC make an escape – at least this time? Is he a dead-end, his story having no further impact on planned events? Is his continued presence a threat to what I have planned?
The third stage is to decide, in general terms, how to transform the initial assessment of challenge to the desired outcome. At this point, I also factor in player satisfaction – just because I ultimately want them to succeed is no reason to make it too easy for them. Just because I want them to fail to permanently stop the NPC this time is no reason to extinguish all hope of doing so.
My usual technique is to build a flaw or vulnerability into the encounter’s preparations that will not be immediately obvious to the players or their characters and an equally-inobvious way that the encounter might have overcome that vulnerability. I then let events proceed as they will – increasing the effectiveness of opposition if things look too easy, reducing it if things look too difficult, playing that vulnerability “card” if the PCs don’t think of it first or the opposition is really too tough, or pulling the surprise out if things become too easy. Often, both will involve some change in the environment or circumstances.
In short, I do whatever is necessary to the challenge level to ensure a good story that will entertain the participants, inserting rational explanations as I need them.
It doesn’t matter whether the challenge is trying to pick a locked door, overcome a giant mutant alligator, discover why a castle seems to be haunted, track down a possibly-forged painting or free an ally from an enemy’s mind-control – all of which are past examples from the Adventurer’s Club campaign (except one that is still to come). I decide “how hard it should be” to make the shared narrative a good story, an entertaining experience, and then make it so.
Of course, there are some tools that I use to make things easier for myself.
Plotting Within Character Limitations
In 2010, I described a planning tool to facilitate this sort of plotting, in The Ubercharacter Wimp: Plotting within your PCs limitations. This is the first and arguably most important of the tools that I use to implement the principle of letting the story do the driving, because it gives me a means of translating “how hard should it be” into game mechanics.
For example, let’s say that there is a filing cabinet containing some information that I want the players to have, but that the owner of the filing cabinet would not want any unauthorized people to have. What might he have done? Lock the filing cabinet. Hide the information in an innocuous folder within the cabinet. Put the information in a separate safe, but put the combination into a file within the cabinet – in case he forgets it. Place a fraudulent version of the document within the filing cabinet. Encode the original document. Security systems of some sort. Booby traps of some sort.
Any or all of these can be in place to successively ramp up the difficulty of retrieving the information that for story purposes I want the PCs to have.
Let’s rule the booby-traps out on the basis that it doesn’t fit his personality. Let’s rule the coded version out because he needs to refer to this information frequently, or doesn’t fully appreciate how useful it will be to the PCs. Let’s reserve the security systems to a wandering patrol who can rattle the door to the office just as the PCs retrieve what they are looking for, posing a separate but related challenge to them getting away with the information.
Within the boundaries of ensuring that they eventually succeed, I then want to make the challenge as difficult as I can reasonably make it, but not impossible. So I look up on The Ubercharacter Wimp how good the characters are at picking locks, and assign the lock a difficulty that gives them a slightly less than 50-50 chance – but stipulate that the catch itself is flimsy enough that the cabinet can be forced open with a crowbar if the lock-picking attempt fails. Next, they have to find the relevant document in the cabinet – rather than a success-or-failure check, I will use an appropriate skill check to determine how long it takes them before they succeed. If they do really poorly, I will let them simply find the information when they do; if they do really well, I will stretch the encounter by having them first discover a fraudulent version of the document they want, then spot a logical discrepancy that identifies it as a forgery, and THEN discover the safe combination written on a receipt from the manufacturer. That tells them that there is a wall-safe somewhere; next, they have to find it. On an intermediate result, I might delay the discovery of the receipt with the combination, but omit the fake version of the documents. When they do, the combination lets them open it easily, no roll required. At which point, they find the document, and there’s a sudden rattle from the doorknob. But, if the PCs rolled really well, I might tell them that there’s no document with the information they need in the safe (letting them think they’ve failed), rattle the doorknob, and then have one of the PCs spot a sheet of used but fresh carbon paper in the secretary’s wastebasket – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
The key to selling all this to the players is setting the difficulty level of the original roll, making the difficulties to be overcome commensurate to the results of their skill check, but making sure that they can succeed regardless of their initial success or failure so that the overall plotline we are writing advances. Of course, if they give up too quickly, they will need to find another way to get the information they need! And, of course, if they do something stupid, like trying to shoot out the lock on the filing cabinet with a shotgun, they deserve all the trouble that they will get themselves into!
The other big benefit of this approach is that it takes what is essentially a one-character job and shares the spotlight around – it might not be the character that opens the cabinet who detects the forgery, or finds the combination, or locates the safe, or discovers the carbon paper. There’s enough going on there to share the glory – and the fun – around.
A Beginner’s Checklist
The other tool that I have available is a formalization of the procedure for answering and quantifying the question, “How hard should it be?” This is a series of seven considerations that I take into account:
- Challenge Concept
- One Chance or Many?
- Degree Of Difficulty
- Opposition Specifications
Well, actually, I don’t articulate the questions or the answers, or perform the process sequentially; I simply tell the story, in the same way that I did the example in the previous section. But for beginners, I recommend that they do articulate the questions and determine the answers, sequentially. It doesn’t take much longer, and ensures that nothing important gets left out.
1. Challenge Concept
What’s the nature of the challenge, the broad description? In the example, it was gathering information from a filing cabinet. This is where you specify the type of encounter or difficulty to be overcome. For example, the challenge might be a combat encounter that forces the party mage into a front-line situation – a fish-out-of-water situation focusing on one particular character, in other words.
How to achieve that? Why not a combat encounter that wouldn’t normally pose a challenge, like a Kobold, with some sort of enhancement that targets one of the primary differences between the mage and the more combat-oriented types – like having a Hypnotoad on his shoulder. It takes him a round to put the Hypnotoad down after enthralling everyone, giving the mage (by virtue of his INT) a chance to regain his wits and recognize his predicament. The Kobold is between him and the toad – he has to beat one (or at least get past it intact) to kill the Hypnotoad and release the others, who will then make short work of the Kobold.
2. One Chance or Many?
A key question is whether the PCs will have to bet the farm on one success-or-failure check, or will have multiple opportunities for differences to manifest. Obviously, you can’t assess this until you have some idea as to the nature of the challenge.
The PCs might have only a slight advantage over an opposition, but if they get multiple attempts to hit, those advantages will accumulate in overall effectiveness. That means that if there are few (or only one) all-or-nothing opportunities for success, greater scope for diversity of challenge rating is acceptable – but will often have a disproportionate impact. Multiple opportunities permit a smaller window of tolerance – you have to get closer to the mark with your estimate of “appropriate” challenge.
If partial success, or eventual success, are permitted even on a single roll, you have greater latitude than normal, there is a broader tolerance.
3. Degree Of Difficulty
How difficult, with everything taken into account, do I want the challenge to be?
If the environment is a factor, does it make the difficulty greater or smaller – indicating that the base difficulty has the opposite relationship to the overall degree of difficulty? Let’s say that the environment poses a significant additional difficulty, that means that a relatively simple challenge under normal circumstances which can take advantage of the environment will present a substantially greater effective challenge – so what I want is a relatively simple base challenge.
What are the circumstances? Being rushed increases the difficulty of any challenge. Being under fire might also do so. There are numerous other examples. Again, what you need to know is what this tells you about the base difficulty of the challenge, so that you can get the overall difficulty to the level required.
What skills or difficulties can one side or the other apply to the challenge? This covers a broad swathe – everything from powers, magic items, class abilities, skills, even character levels if they are significantly different from those of the expected enemy. I don’t try and create a shopping list; it’s more of a gestalt impression and key differences between the challenge and the capabilities that the PC or PCs bring to the encounter.
Exclude everything that’s irrelevant – but be sure to think outside the box; a clear example being the use of physical force to open the filing cabinet in the earlier example.
Once again, you want to subtract from your “working difficulty” anything extraordinary to reach a determination of the appropriate base level of challenge that will – when everything is taken into account – yields the desired opportunity for success or failure, and hence the degree of struggle.
7. Opposition Specifications
The final step is to determine the base challenge and put it into descriptive language that implies the degree of base challenge. This not only facilitates narrative passages leading up to and during the resolution of the challenge, it enables you to assess the value and effects of alterations to your assumptions.
For example, you may have factored the effects of an adverse environment on the PCs into the difficulty of the challenge; the PCs, when the time comes, employ a spell to make themselves more comfortable within the environment, mitigating or even annulling those effects. Because you’ve thought about it in advance, even if it was only by a second or two, you can take these alterations into account without batting an eyelid or breaking stride.
When to assess
There are two different times when it’s appropriate to assess these questions. The first is during the adventure creation process, and the second is at the moment when the PCs (or NPCs – I employ the same process) have to meet the challenge.
During Prep, I won’t necessarily try to think of everything or get too specific. I will have a narrative flow, a basic outline of the circumstances and conditions, written up so that I can describe the situation to the players, and then a brief summary of each of the topics raised above, plus notes on success or failure. The filing cabinet example, if it were preceded by a description of the room and circumstances (“working in the dark by flashlight”) would be a perfect example.
The reader might note that no details concerning the precise challenge levels, in terms of game mechanics, were incorporated within the description; I simply listed all the things that I could think of that might be there, in logical narrative sequence, and then excluded things that didn’t fit the parameters of the overall story, including the personalities involved. Nor, aside from ruling those few things out, did I decide in advance which of the possible challenges the PCs would actually encounter. That is all set aside for the second assessment – in the moment of encountering the challenge, i.e. within play.
Why? Because this process elevates plot over game mechanics. I want to present the players with heroic challenges and the opportunity to overcome them – and sometimes, that can mean “throwing” an earlier challenge in order to ensure that the real challenge is met. Once again, the filing cabinet example is a perfect representation of this approach: I need the PCs to have the information in question, either to increase the drama and significance of the ultimate challenge (by giving the PCs details of what the antagonist is up to) or simply to ensure that the ultimate challenge takes place (by telling the PCs who or where that antagonist is). That means that unless things go very badly awry, no matter how badly they role, they will succeed in overcoming the challenge of retrieving the information from the files.
I mentioned, in passing, the possibilities of doing something stupid, or of giving up prematurely; I will always have a “Plan B” up my sleeve for these eventualities, though that “Plan B” might well confer additional advantages to their antagonist. PCs always have to pay for their mistakes – but there’s no reason why that payment has to be levied at the moment it is incurred.
The Sculpture Analogy
There is a rather neat analogy for describing any plotline from the perspective of a reader (in a novel) or a player (in an RPG). The experience of reading the story, watching the movie or TV show, or playing the game, is not dissimilar to the process of creating a sculpture from a block of stone or clay. I have seen that process described as the art of seeing the finished sculpture in your mind and simply removing all the bits of material that don’t belong.
You start with what is essentially a blank slate, a block of material; little or nothing is known beyond the identities of the protagonists. It might be that the players also know the identity of the antagonist, or they might not – or may think they do (when it’s actually someone else completely). As play proceeds, one unknown after another is resolved, like the sculpture excavating waste material, until – at the denouement – the complete story is revealed, and the “sculpture” is revealed. And, if that story inevitably leads to another, that’s akin to the sculptor taking his finished image and carving a new object out of it (perhaps putting back some of the material previously removed).
In the same way, when play begins, the GM has a broad idea as to the shape of the finished adventure (though few, if any, of the details are resolved), while the players have little or no idea. The process of playing the game slowly reveals the finished story, cutting away unknowns one after another until the “true shape” of the narrative is revealed.
The filing cabinet example shows that individual challenges are a miniature representation of the same process. The initial description of the elements that might form the final shape of the challenge of retrieving the information is the GM thinking of what the final shape of this part of the finished story might look like, but it is only through interaction with the players that the specifics are revealed.
A handful of Do’s:
I have ten rules of thumb to round out this discussion of challenges – five “Do’s” and five “Don’ts”.
- Do reward cleverness
- Do reward success
- Do make corrections as you go
- Do have an encounter exit strategy planned
- Do justify deviations from consistency (even if only to yourself)
Do reward cleverness
When the PCs do something smart, even if it doesn’t directly alter the circumstances of the challenge you are presenting, reward them. Either make it a little easier, or give the clever character a little extra reward. Intelligent game play may not make the job of running the game any easier (just the opposite) but it makes the process of adventure design easier and contributes to a more satisfying result all round – and so, should always be encouraged.
If the PCs placed one of their number at the door to listen for approaching footsteps, for example, that has no direct impact on the challenge of getting the information – but I would have the cleverness (or, in this case, the sensibleness) “rub off” onto the challenge, on the principle that cleverness in one area is symbolic of cleverness in general. A lookout thus justifies making the information a little easier to find – maybe it’s in the safe after all.
This should always be balanced with the demands of a satisfying experience, however. It confers an advantage, not a victory.
Do reward success – and punish failure
If a character makes a critical success, they should always be rewarded in some way in terms of plot, either directly or by proxy. Again using the filing cabinet example, another of the PCs might discover a note on the secretary’s desk of the hotel that she has booked the antagonist into. Or maybe the antagonist has doodled some sort of cryptic clue to his master plan on the margins of the document.
Of course, balance then demands that a failure makes life more difficult. This might be a direct or indirect penalty. Perhaps the antagonist has recruited a bodyguard, or has some means of being forewarned that the PCs are going to interfere. Perhaps there is an alarm on the safe after all – one that lights up down in the security office. It won’t do anything to alter the outcome of the current challenge, but the antagonist will know someone has been inside his safe, and can take extra precautions – and it won’t take a genius to put two and two together when the PCs show up.
Do make corrections as you go
Every GM under- or over-estimates the difficulty of a challenge from time to time. Always have a pair of back-doors at hand – one to get the PCs past the challenge if you’ve overestimated the difficulty, and one to throw a roadblock into their path if it all seems too easy. One of the best examples of the latter is simply to have one of them make a die roll, ignore the results, and tell the player “[character name] suddenly has the sinking feeling that this has all been too easy.” Player paranoia, never far from the surface, will do the rest.
As a general rule of thumb, I prefer to have something specific up my sleeve, saving that wild card for when nothing else will suffice. Think of the sequence in “Diamonds Are Forever” in which Bond discovers that there are two Blofelds – one natural, and one a perfect double. This is that sort of twist, which has little overall impact on the plot, but produces a momentary “down elevator” sensation in the pit of the stomach.
Do have an encounter exit strategy planned
The worst thing you can possibly do is have an all-or-nothing combat encounter, or some other sort of “save or die” situation. These are marginally tolerable when it’s a fight with the primary antagonist at the climax of an adventure; the rest of the time, they should be strictly forbidden.
Overestimate the challenge somewhere along the way badly enough, and you can discover, all too late, that you’ve incorporated such an all-or-nothing plot train-wreck into your adventure inadvertently.
Always make sure that you have a way out, for both any antagonist and for the PCs.
Final confrontation with the antagonist. The PCs stuff things up, or the antagonist gets incredibly lucky, or perhaps you badly underestimated the degree of challenge that he would pose; either way, his dastardly plan is on the verge of succeeding, and there’s the PCs can do to stop what might well be a campaign-wrecking outcome.
Time to deploy the golden parachute you have up your sleeve. At the moment he is about to achieve total victory, the antagonist makes a mistake, or a PC realizes that there’s something everyone has overlooked until now, or the villain abandons his plan because this unprecedented success has given him the opportunity to shoot for an even grander ambition – in the process, giving the PCs another bite at the cherry in a subsequent adventure.
What? You don’t have another adventure planned for this eventuality? That’s all right – the PCs don’t know what it is, either. Maybe the villain has the US nuclear launch codes, and is about to seize power by blackmailing the world with the threat of nuclear annihilation – but discovers proof of aliens at Area 51 and decides to seize the opportunity to become a Galactic Overlord, instead. But you haven’t worked that out, yet – so do something open-ended: the villain grabs a briefcase, leaving the nuclear football that until now was his target, and makes his escape. You have until the next game session to figure out what he grabbed, and to raise the stakes accordingly.
Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat is always the sweetest. And hubris can afflict anyone when everything seems to be going their way. Take advantage of these facts.
Example the other:
But perhaps you have made a mistake in the other direction, and the antagonist is too easily overcome. Time to deploy the trapdoor full of high explosives: The antagonist bites down on a hollow tooth packed with cyanide, and with his dying breath, states “Cut off a limb and two will take it’s place. Hail Hydra! The diversion has served its purpose…” Examining the body, the PCs discover that it’s actually their mailman or whoever, wearing a prosthetic disguise to make him LOOK like their antagonist.
What the real antagonist was actually up to, you have no idea at this point; the key point is that this was all a diversion from something. You have until next adventure to make up your mind – in the meantime, listen to your players speculating to get ideas. What they thought was the main course has suddenly turned out to be just the hors d’oeuvre…
Do justify deviations from consistency (even if only to yourself)
Isaac Asimov was fond of quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. Emerson was writing about perceived truth, and how it can change from one day to the next, but the point has a greater validity: consistency for its’ own sake is not a virtue. Neither is capricious inconsistency.
If an early encounter, or part thereof, reveals that you’ve over- or under-estimated the challenge posed by a foe or situation, do something about it – don’t cling to a foolish consistency. And then come up with a plausible reason for the deviation. Their enemy lands a couple of crippling blows at the start of the battle, and what was supposed to be a difficult victory for the PCs begins to look like an unmitigated disaster? Weaken their opponent, immediately. And justify it: “And then his Potion Of Fortitude wears off…” – though you don’t necessarily have to hand-deliver the cause to the PCs so blatantly: “And then he shudders and seems to shrink an inch or two, as though some magic enhancement had run its course…”
Or perhaps it’s environmental and not personal. The PCs shoot at the villain, but they all miss, because you’ve set his AC (or equivalent) too high. It seems there’s nothing the PCs can do to stop him. And then one of them notices that there is a fast-moving “curtain of air” between them and him, looks around and spots the controls.
The most fearsome power armor in existence is only dead weight if the battery pack can be removed.
Make good use of power-ups – if the villain is too weak, activate one; if the villain too strong, have one that was in operation wear off. If the lock on the chest is too hard to pick, maybe the hinges are less secure, or the eyes through which the padlock is threaded.
A few Don’ts:
- Don’t sweat imperfection
- Don’t overwhelm the shared narrative
- Don’t belittle the PCs
- Don’t assume failure
- Don’t assume success
Don’t sweat imperfection
I’ve written this multiple times in multiple articles: don’t ever expect to be perfect. You’ll have good days and bad days; use reviews and prep to wallpaper over the bad ones and move on. Assume that you’re going to make mistakes, and have plans in place to recover from them.
It’s astonishing how much confidence you can draw from assuming that something will go wrong and you have a plan to cope with it.
Don’t overwhelm the shared narrative
This is another way of phrasing “don’t railroad your plots”. You can steer the ship, but can’t control the flotsam and jetsam carried by the river on which it sails. Even at high tide, the surf still draws back before the next wave breaks. Make sure that the players have at least an equal part in the shared narrative, both amongst themselves, and overall.
There is an obvious disproportion to the scale of the input that you have, as GM, when it comes to instigating plotlines. That also needs to be balanced, by giving the players a disproportionate level of input into the outcome of an adventure, perhaps diffused through the middle part of the adventure as well.
Don’t belittle the PCs
No matter how great an advantage an opponent might have, no matter how arrogant and boastful, he should never humiliate the PCs. There’s an art to this: go over-the-top and the players will discount the statements, anesthetizing the humiliation that would otherwise be inflicted.
“You pathetic little worms never had a chance; I spare your lives as a measure of contempt for your inability to stop me. You may leave,” is unacceptable.
“You pathetic little worms never had a chance against me, for I am the sun and moon, the lord of all creation, perfection incarnate, master of all that I survey, and so shall it be for all eternity! I spare your lives in the vain hope that you will learn to respect your betters; now, begone, for my patience wears thin!” is absolutely fine.
Why? Because arrogance and overconfidence – even when you have something to be overconfident about, like a humiliating demonstration of prowess – are weaknesses that can be exploited. After the first speech, if I were a player, my inclination would be to give up, because it was hopeless; after the second, if I were a player, I would wink at the other players, bow, and state “I have seen the light, my lord, and wish to remain at your side to render whatever small service could benefit one so magnificent,” – and then start looking for opportunities and hidden weaknesses. Because the arrogance of the second version is so over the top that I can use it to manipulate the enemy; if the GM is even half-way consistent in roleplaying the character, he would never be able to resist such outrageous groveling, and would keep me around as a trophy. The wink, and going over-the-top myself, should indicate to the other players what I’m up to – and they could then signal that understanding with their own overacting: “Traitorous scum, you betray us all! I can never forgive this, there shall be undying enmity between us forevermore!”
The PCs should never have no hope of eventual success. No hope in the short-term? That’s a whole different story. If they can’t win right away, they can look at changing the conditions that make their enemy unbeatable. And if they can’t change the conditions, maybe they can change the question, altering both the definition of victory and the obstacles to be overcome to some combination that can be achieved.
Which brings up an interesting side-issue:
Is one back-door to victory enough?
Given that providing only one route to success could be viewed as railroading, providing only one way out of an impossible conundrum is arguably not good enough. However, it has been my experience that where there is one solution to a problem, there are usually several; and that means that one, plus a willingness to give the PCs a fair chance of success, is probably enough, most of the time.
A related question from the other side of the GM’s screen is “How much of a partial or conditional success is needed before we count it as a victory – at a price?” The answer will vary from group to group and even circumstance to circumstance. There will be occasions when only total victory is deemed acceptable, and no price is too high; there will be the occasional situation in which any concession won is a victory, provided that it costs less than the concession is worth. And there is a very wide territory in between. All this talk of “success” and “failure” puts most things into too harsh a black-and-white contrast; most of life is a shade of gray.
Don’t assume failure
You should never assume that something is impossible; there’s almost always a way if you’re determined enough. Be prepared, as per the boy scout motto.
Don’t assume success
At the same time, no matter how trivially easy it should be, don’t assume that success will be automatic. Even with the filing cabinet example, there were two ways to fail: giving up too quickly and doing something silly. Failure is always an option.
The Experience Connection
There is, in many game systems, a direct correlation between the difficulty of a challenge and the awarding of experience for first attempting, and second succeeding at overcoming, that challenge. By doing away with the numeric indexing of challenges, no matter how flawed and inadequate the system was, I have also broken the XP system.
The Runaway-XP problem
Of course, there are those who would argue that it has always been broken, and all I’ve done is give it a fitting burial. That’s because of an inherently-unstable feedback loop built into the system.
GM underestimates the degree of challenge. PCs get additional experience, PCs use that experience to become more effective in combat. GM needs to ramp up the opposition in future in order to pose a challenge. If he doesn’t, he hands the PCs easy victories – slow but steady accumulation of more experience at minimal risk. If he does, he puts some risk into the equation – but also increases the rewards of success. What’s more, the relationships aren’t linear; the power gains are exponential. Exponentially-exponential in the case of Mages. Fixing this problem was so critical to D&D 4e that the entire system had to be rewritten to house the cure.
A recommended divorce
The best solution is to finalize a divorce between Challenge Difficulty and experience, in effect throwing away the entire XP-generation part of the game mechanics and replacing the whole thing. And, since the new structure of challenge difficulty is narrative-based, it makes a certain amount of sense for the same to be true of the replacement for the system of awarding XP.
Once again, this is a problem that I’ve tackled in the past, in a 2011 article entitled Objective-Oriented Experience Points. Although envisaged specifically in 3.x / Pathfinder terms, it works for ANY RPG that hands out experience points. What’s more, it can easily be adapted to determine the increase in wealth or resources that should accrue from an adventure, if any, pulling the other fang of Monty-Hallism, and deflating any trend to Munchkinism.
One of the best ways of looking at a game is as a narrative on which you and the players are collaborating. Think of them as experts in the protagonists; your role is to provide whatever spark of inspiration is needed to keep the story moving, and make sure that the players get to contribute equally.
Ensure your players have an input into the shared narrative on which you are collaborating, remember that little worth winning comes easily, but that the ‘good guys’ should win in the end without ever being handed that victory on a platter, and your game will be successful. And if that means that the PCs fail to achieve the total success that usually completes a story, that simply means that you’ve saved the villain for a sequel – or for another chapter. All you really have to avoid is painting yourself into a corner without an escape route.
External keyboard scoreboard: Zero laptop problems. Which still doesn’t prove my diagnosis, but at least means that I have an effective (if inconvenient) solution…