I look at RPGs and I see three distinct type of challenge that we can present players with inside the fiction of our games. When I mean challenge, I am talking about that forms of fictional “resistance” (also an article I’ll explore) that opposes the characters and creates the tension and excitement in RPGs (yes, even “story games” –I consider them the same thing, just like Starcraft and Myst are both video games). I’d like to describe them first, talk about resistance, then I’d like to describe how each informs game design and play in RPGs in detail. Once I lay this out I’ll talk about how you can use it all in games.
The first challenge is that of raw survival. “Can you live through this?” To expand: When we present a character with the challenge of survival, we put the characters and players skill in the ring, and make the player’s right to play a character at stake. We take damage, suffer penalties, and try to live another day. This is the traditional challenge that people think about in games, and it is a hallmark of many RPG designs.
It’s where the wargaming roots of the hobby can be seen most readily as our player characters oppose and antagonie armies of evil or fundamentally misguided foes. When I talk to GMs about challenge, it is this definition that leaves them dismayed. Not because they didn’t kill the players, but because it didn’t feel like the players could die. It’s a perverse business we are in as GMs. Kill everybody and all that story you invested in takes a detour; don’t put pressure on, and people feel like your story has no tension. Someone always counters by saying how there are styles of play that are all about killing PCs and having a great time. I acknowledge that but also assert that there is this other style and it is also valid and pretty damn prevalent. GMs who are killing PCs who’ve agreed to be in these high risk games aren’t the ones who are complaining: they frame a style of play where they can supply constant pressure and tension, and the players are having fun trying to thwart that. Any story that comes is coming organically and feels more earned. A totally valid style of play that fits some people’s needs quite nicely.
But these conflicted GMs I mentioned want to tell stories and they want tension and pain and drama without the threat of restarting every session. It’s made even more difficult once you acknowledge that many times an appropriate level of challenge is out of your hands: when dice come into play, very bad or very good things can happen, and often do. Fights that were supposed to be pushovers become life and death struggles, and BBEGs get one-shotted before they even look at the players.
Dice add their own contributions to any good story told at the tabletop. Once they become part of the equation, you have to cede that you lose some direct control over the outcome. When you try to control dice randomness you attempt to control the wind with your bare hands. It’s a little futile, and in the end you end up frustrated. Because you can’t control the dice, and dice are (in most systems) core to the challenge, basing the core of a more story-driven game’s tension on survival challenges alone tends to be self-defeating. Fortunately there are ways to challenge characters that are more productive than riding the dice down “Threaten TPKs but don’t regularly TPK” lane.
In my opinion, most GMs who have frustrations with “challenging” players are relying almost solely on survival , when they should rely on desires & needs, which I’ll discuss next.