Most RPGs don’t require explicit challenge in order to be fun, and what exactly constitutes a challenge will vary by the individual. Challenge can be pretty abstract. Some won’t feel challenged until they’re at their wits end, pulling their hair out trying to figure out a solution. Some think that challenge is purely something the rules create while others think the very nature of conflict and resolution will always provide a challenge. I like challenge – but I’ve been thinking about what that entails for me.
Combat is the easiest place most of the time to quantify “challenge.” There’s usually numbers there that are going up and down and make it easy to spot where difficulty is being had. When things start to grind, you notice it. However, in “story scenes,” challenge can be harder to gauge. Yesterday I thought out loud about some of this stuff to a friend, today I’m posting my thoughts. I will definitely have missed something here, so you can add your own thoughts in the comments section.
(I don’t mean to imply combat is inherently devoid of story or that story is always the province of a different kind of scene, but I need a way to quickly differentiate scenes where you interact with the world and NPCs from scenes where you want to hurt them – because a lot of times these two have different game design priorities in RPGs.)
Let’s be real here – unless you have some kind of resource that is expended to boost rolls, and you need to use it strategically (in which case it fits in another category and not really in this one) then “rolling a high number” is kind of a bad challenge. You don’t have any control over this.
A pit that’s got a Target Number of 20 is way more difficult for you if you’re rolling d20+2 or something, but there’s not much of a challenge to it, because everything about the situation as described is out of your control. You don’t magically will the dice to roll high by trying harder or using your player skills. They just roll. But we’ll start off with this one because it helps set the tone. Sometimes putting in an obstacle you can only circumvent 20% of the time is treated as a challenge. There’s arguments to be made in favor of this but I’ve segregated them out of this category. I really think we need to start looking elsewhere for challenges than “whoa that’s a steep probability, I guess I am screwed.”
However it’s important to note that sometimes, this kind of challenge results because either an earlier decision point was reached, or as a trade-off for some kind of reward. For example, in a game where you get free tokens when your GM cranks up the probability to “near impossible,” or where you can give the GM non-refundable resources that he or she spends to do so, then it’s more legitimate to present that as a challenge, because there are elements within your control leading up to it. It’s also important to note than in fail forward games like 13th Age, this sort of thing is less tedious but it isn’t, in my opinion, challenging.
In a Player Input challenge there’s a set of decisions to be made that are most optimal and finding your way to that correct decision is the challenge. This is stuff like logic puzzles. It’s hard to do a puzzle in an RPG that isn’t basically this. Figuring out that you need to flood the Chamber of the Water Gods by using the Decanter of Endless Water so that you can swim into the mouth of the Dagon Statue is arguably obtuse, but the challenge lies there. I also categorize a lot of the old school player skill arguments (which I don’t favor) into this category. There are optimal decisions to make that are essentially outside the rules, such as knowing not to enter a room that’s weird or knowing to bang every surface with a 10 foot pole so you don’t die, and if you don’t make those decisions then the game is a lot harder (and ultimately your character wipes).
A lot of times GMs use Player Inputs to make O Fortuna stuff less impossible. For example if you come up with a cheeky plan to get around an obstacle your GM might crank down the probability on the obstacle from “impossible” to “manageable.” A lot of old school D&D play as spoken of by blogs seems to revolve around this transaction. The player gives the correct input to, in spirit, defeat the GM’s challenge, so it is allowed.
You have tokens, chips, points or other sources of aid that are either non-refundable or which refund at a small, predictable rate, and which can possibly run out over the course of several significant events, such that choosing when and where to spend these resources optimally is the challenge.
Let’s say there’s a theoretical RPG where every single Event or Scene is composed of 5 steps of resolution. Each step is resolved similarly, but has an individual and separate outcome, and in each step you can spend a resource to reach that outcome more easily. However you only have 2 points of Resource in each Event or Scene, so you can only nudge two of those five steps. The challenge lies in which step you nudge – if the outcome of those particular steps is more favorable to you, you nudge that one to make the Event as a whole easier, but if the outcome of a victory at that step is only minimal compared to the optimal nudge, then nudging it will only make future steps harder for you, because you’ve lost a nudge for a poor gain.
If the Resources never come back for the next Scene, then you expand the decisions such that picking which Scene and in which Steps in that scene you spend your points on becomes key. There’s some pitfalls to both of these and all in between. If your Resources return every Scene and you have enough to “nudge” every step of the way then they’re kind of meaningless to me – the decision there is just how much to stack on any given step. So you have to tweak that really carefully so there’s a balance there. If the Resources come back too slowly it might create a hoarding mentality where players are afraid to ever nudge, and are always on such a wearying lookout for key nudging events that they hardly ever spend.
Resource management exists in a lot of forms in RPGs. There’s a playstyle often wound around older D&Ds where keeping track of your hardtack and whiskey and lantern oil is of crucial importance. Games that have Health of some kind also have an element of resource management. How do you proceed in a way that minimizes injury? When you have all this stuff bound together, you get more interesting decisions. For example, do you nudge the resolution steps where losing will hurt you, or can you afford to ignore those and instead nudge steps that give you greater rewards than mere survival? If you’re keenly aware that not nudging will hurt you, but need to save your nudges to get treasure, you have a challenging decision.
Narrative games propose a different sort of challenge. When you’re really invested in your character and the story of the game, getting the story to go the way you precisely wish to architect it, is part of the challenge. Say, if you want to start an in-character romance, then your challenge is in the story events related here, and rules might not apply. You have to find a compatible NPC, have to be enough of a non-douche that everyone doesn’t immediately want to veto your romance subplot, and there’s all kinds of things that can go wrong (such as the typical “the GM kidnapped my character’s family” event) where you have to finagle to get your story. I separate this from player inputs because it’s not often thought of as a challenge.
You think of a puzzle or a mystery as a challenge even though in some classic games you might not be interacting with the rules to solve either of them. Everyone has a D&D story where the GM read too many mystery books and then expected them to solve a murder case without rolling any dice, because humans have deduction, it says so in Sherlock Holmes! However there’s also a kind of challenge in instigating a tavern brawl, or keeping a pet, or adopting the orphan you found in the cultist’s hideout. All this stuff can stay firmly out of the rules, and in a lot of games it often does (note to self: write orphan adopting rules), but getting it done is also a process that can be difficult and require some finesse and skill from you.
Those are the four categories I can think of off the top of my head when I think about what I find challenging in RPGs. It also nicely encapsulates some of the stuff I’m thinking of for my Uttarakuru game. I do want the game to have a conflict, but I also need to evaluate exactly what I feel constitutes a challenge, and how my game does that. I can’t simply and blindly accept traditional modes, because there’s a couple I don’t necessarily find myself comfortable agreeing with.