Scarecrow dropped this little nugget into the Gnome Stew Suggestion Pot, and it’s a great topic. Someplace I think we’ve all been as GMs.
"Last night I finally ran my first game of Star Wars Saga. Everything was in place. I knew the rules, I knew the scenario. I was ready for them to fail as well as succeed. I was prepared to say ‘yes’ to the players and let them go off at a tangent rather than railroad them. The game was as dull as dish water. They aced all their rolls (despite making the DCs quite high – usually 20) and breezed through the scenario without any real challenges at all – except for one totally overpowered combat (but that’s another issue).
The problem as I saw it was that I didn’t complicate their situations at all. Sure they made their checks but that just made for a dull game. They needed to succeed at a cost."
Power creep might have gotten your players above the challenge level of the campaign, the system you are using might not be mechanically balanced or you might be on a groove with the players and they’re easily figuring out the flow of the adventure. No matter what the reason for the lack of challenge, there are always ways to fix it.
Ramping Up The Mechanical Challenge on Combats
Very mechanical games have a lot of options for ramping up the challenge factor on combats: adding in more hit points, adding in new powers, increasing the number of attacks, etc. However, every system handles its combats a little differently. Look at what makes a character in the system particularly vicious. Is it their speed, their ability to hit an enemy, the amount of damage they do when they hit or their capacity to absorb damage? If you’re looking to make it a pyrrhic victory , you’ve got to focus on how to make it damaging to the party.
- If their HP isn’t dropping…
Nothing makes a player feel more troubled in combat than when they take a lot of damage. Look at your enemy NPCs and figure out how to make them hit the PCs where it hurts, their HP. Even if the combat is short, or they eliminate the enemies quickly, if the NPCs get their damage in it will feel like a hard won victory. Also, if you’re not getting damage on one character, switch to another one. The tank’s job is to take the damage, but that doesn’t mean every creature is going to attack the tank. *cough* Geek The Mage *cough*
- How many were invited to dinner?
If one major bad guy can put the hurt on the party that is great, but most of my characters died by Kobold rush. Having to deal with lots of enemies is always tougher than having 4 or 5 PCs take on one BBEG. One significant BBEG with mooks to play distract the PC is also a good tactic. The problem with this method is keeping the PCs focused on the mooks. The mooks can be strategically positioned to get in the PCs way, the BBEG might move around and use the mooks as shields while attacking or they might have some special ability that lets them seem like a serious threat. Whatever you’ve got on an NPC, use it.
- Are you effectively using the powers?
The major problem I have when running a combat is that I forget to use all of an enemies powers. In reality, you don’t need to use all of them, just the ones that are tuned to the current situation. If an enemy has an attack that hits multiple squares, make sure they use it when the PCs group together. If the PCs aren’t grouping together, figure out a reason for them to. An NPC is going to know the scope of their power and will likely try to get into situations that make full use of it. If a monster has multiple attacks in a round, make sure they take them.
- The Cheap Enemy
If all else fails in a combat, throw some great armor on someone who can do massive damage. The PCs will likely still get some hits in, but they aren’t going to do enough damage while the bad guy gets their licks in. One caution, make it at least plausible that the enemy is as tough as they come off mechanically. Get ready for some complaining, but they’re definitely going to feel challenged.
PCs don’t actually have to be in mortal danger to feel challenged. Do whatever you can to make the PCs feel like they’re just escaping death’s door, or that they’re not quite beating the task they’re attempting, but always make sure they feel like they can make it if they just try a little harder.
Raise The Challenge Rating
I usually try to avoid system specifics, but since Scarecrow’s suggestion pot  comment made mention that his difficulty classes were high, I’m going to address it. Make them higher. Players get smart at figuring out the ways to maximize the potential of their characters. If one person is playing the pilot then he or she has dropped all their training into whatever can help them with piloting. Maybe they just roll well, but they probably roll REALLY well in their area of specialty. One player of mine had a diplomacy rating of +38 far too early in the game. He found every feat he could that would raise it, and everything that could give him some bonus. He role-played well, he just didn’t want ot lose.
Whatever mechanic the system uses, use it to make the challenges harder. If you need to raise the required number of successes, do so. If you need to raise the target number, do so. If you need to make the dice on your side of the rolloff higher, do so. Find a way in game to justify it. If the PCs broke out of a supposedly inescapable imperial base, you’d better believe that a system wide alert went out and the forces were more cautious for a while.
Split A Challenge Up To Draw It Out
Multi-part challenges are helpful for this. Instead of having them make a roll to hack a system, pick a lock or negotiate passage, tell them they’ll need to make 4 rolls because of the complexity. Make the first roll easy, this leads them to feel like the challenge won’t be that bad. Make the second roll very challenging, almost impossible. If they fail this, let them keep going. Make the third roll slightly easier than the previous. Then make the final roll just a little harder than the penultimate one. If you feel like it, add a final one to have them repair the damage caused by the roll they missed. In truth this is more realistic than a single roll to perform a task. With the right implementation, it is just a little harder than a single roll with a much higher challenge level and feels more rewarding when defeated.
The Sideshow Spin
You can also ramp up a challenge by making it contingent on a single roll, with a little of the sideshow spin. Sideshow hawkers always make the inevitably less than spectacular thing inside the tent seem more incredible than it is with a big buildup. When the PC takes on the lock picking challenge, make them wait before making their roll. Describe the lock in detail, explain the wires that go off to some unknown place, ask them what their bonuses and skill ratings are and then write down some notes before telling them the difficulty. Make their challenge a little bit higher than they expected. The bit of buildup without knowing the final target will make them sweat a little.
Changing The Paradigm Of The Challenges
Ok, so the players rose to a level where they left the sweet spot so far behind that they can’t even see it anymore. Change the nature of the challenges. One World Of Darkness game that I played ended with us systematically diablerizing the blood of antediluvians to gain their power. There was literally nothing we couldn’t easily do in the game. We had to make the game different. We stopped taking over cities and started addressing world problems. To take an example form the Star Wars universe, if the PCs are easily evading the imperial ships that are hunting them down, then have a planet start paying them to harry the fleets themselves. Make the nature of the challenges meet the level of the players. Big fish in a little pond are small in the ocean.
If the rolls are always falling in the PCs favor, make something impassable by a roll. Maybe the PCs have to quest for the one item that can damage a great monster, then fight it with the item. If the PCs can take down any enemy you throw at them, make them fight an undercover cop and have to deal with legal issues. Think of the challenges the PCs can take and give them something different.
There is one major caution with this approach. Make sure the game is still the type of game the players want to play. If the players wanted a tactical combat game and it became a political intrigue game, they’re not going to be very happy.
Making It More Challenging On The Fly
Ok. Back to mechanical challenges. Let’s lay a little flame bait . If you find the PCs are taking an enemy’s hit points down too quickly, tweak them out. If you absolutely don’t want to see a system get hacked without the techie character
sweating, don’t reveal the difficulty that they’re aiming for, then keep giving them hope that they’ve almost got it until they actually get a good roll. If you don’t like the idea of fudging things on the fly, then don’t. That doesn’t mean you can’t still change the challenge on the fly.
Plenty of buffing abilities exist in all role playing games. Fantasy settings have spells to make people stronger or better, spells to make it harder to get into places, spells to hide objects – heck there are spells to do pretty much anything you need. Sci-fi settings have extra tech that can enhance a person or situation. Throw some combat armor or better weapons on mook enemies. They’ll be much more dangerous. Put an advanced security system in the building so that the PCs will be detected easily. When the PCs are trying to run from enemy ships, ramp up their speeds at the cost of blowing out their hyperspace capability. If you don’t want to make these changes in the current situation, make them in the next one.
Define The Challenges
Playing freeform is a wonderful thing. I love sandbox games where the players do most of the leading, but they don’t always work to challenge players. Put a group of stormtroopers with heavy weaponry littering a field with suppressing fire. Put a goal on the other side of it and make sure the PCs know the goal is to get the item, not defeat the stormtroopers. Put a time limit on getting the item to make it essential that they don’t waste their time with the stormtroopers. Getting the item might normally be easy but doing it while getting shot at is definitely harder.
A good way to define the challenge is to put some factor into it that is out of the players hands. Make the adventure an escort mission. The players will be spending all their time escorting and protecting the target and will definitely be taking damage or rushing around trying to keep it on track. If the PCs are given a mission to carry, oh I don’t know, plans for an imperial base to the rebellion, make sure they know that running is a better option than fighting because of when the plans are needed.
Think Like A Player
Here is the one best piece of over-arching advice I can think of. Sit down and think like a player, not a GM. Make up a character of your own and imagine what you would do in the players situations with that character. Grab their character sheets and re-run through a session you just played, short forming the scenarios and rolling the dice. This will help pick out the places where the players were waltzing through the game, and whether or not it was fun to waltz through them. If it isn’t fun for them to waltz through, figure out what you need to ramp up.
Making any game more challenging is about figuring out where it isn’t challenging. More important than making it challenging is making it fun, and scarecrow picked up on the lack of fun at the table because of the lack of challenge. Being able to analyze the game and determine what needs improvement is a great GMing skill to have. So where do your players like to find their challenges in a game? What are your special GMing touches that keep a game challenging? Throw some advice in the comments section.