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Challenge Em – Get Your Players To Feel The Challenge In Your Game

Posted By John Arcadian On July 29, 2009 @ 1:11 am In GMing Advice | 13 Comments

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.

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Challenge Em – Get Your Players To Feel The Challenge In Your Game"

#1 Comment By Bercilac On July 29, 2009 @ 6:40 am

I think “changing the paradigm” comes close to what I read as scarecrow’s intention in making players “succeed at a cost.” I once read that in war one should “put your enemy on the horns of the dilemma.” I.E. put them in a situation where there are no good choices. Does Batman save the saviour of the city or his one true love? (Well, he does both, but make it so the pcs can’t take the easy way out.) The dark lord’s legions are marching on the innocent halfling villages… Do they try to prevent loss of life, or go for the knock-out blow in the interest of “the greater good?” (It’d be fascinating to see how different “good” characters handle this.)

If you have an evil party (and I think they’re more common than orthodoxy admits), you just need to pick something else that they’re afraid of losing.

#2 Comment By Bercilac On July 29, 2009 @ 7:49 am

Another thought:

Know the consequences of failure, and if they aren’t interesting consequences don’t call for a roll. As the D&D DMG says, “encourage the players to take 10 (i.e. settle for an average result).” Related to the advice in a previous article (What a GM must never say), try to say this with in-game messages. “The lock looks tricky, but nothing you haven’t seen before. You’re confident that it’ll give way if you give it a bit of effort.”

Call for a roll if there’s a time limit, or if failure will cause irreparable damage (to the pcs or something or someone else). Let them roleplay through most situations and be creative. When you call for a roll, there’s tension on it. Then the tough part: every now and again the players miss a roll (even if it’s just rolling a critical failure, or whatever your system has). Then you have to follow through. Failure for a roll should carry consequences dire enough that the players have to at least modify their plans or try a new line of attack, but not so dire that messing up a single roll destroys any chance at succeeding at their main objectives (messing up a whole SERIES of rolls is another matter).

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On July 29, 2009 @ 9:42 am

Bercilac’s advice is excellent– if the PCs blow through a certain level of challenge, stop rolling for them but don’t take them out of the world. Instead, describe them blowing through the locks would make that a master thief sweat [but that you know they won’t fail at]… and spend more time on the challenges that are still challenging.

I’ve had some trouble with my PCs breezing past appropriate+ fights (in 3.5)– I’ll borrow several of your suggestions and see if they restore tension to the game. It’d be nice if there was a mechanical way to incorporate “succeed at cost” and “yes, but” successes. I’ll have to research and see what looks good.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 29, 2009 @ 10:08 am

Whatever ‘metric’ you’re using to scale encounters, make sure you take notes. I found that my D&D 3.5 party was fighting at approximately “level +1.5″, and when I started scaling the fights appropriately, the game got that much more fun.

Don’t be afraid of “combined arms” just because you don’t like a certain class or type of critter. I hate casters (too much research and prep), so I tended to hit the party with a bunch of fighters or One Big Critter. When I got over that hang-up, life for the party got really interesting.

Come up with tactics ahead of time. Find and exploit synergies in the system (necromancer + undead + Desecrated area = win). Find the weaknesses of the PCs. After all, they’re probably famous at this point, and bad guys do research, too.

Be both sensitive and a hard-ass. Be sensitive to your players’ needs (as it sounds Scarecrow is), but be enough of a hard-ass to make them fear what you just might do. It’s a balance I wrestle with pretty regularly.

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On July 29, 2009 @ 11:16 am

@Bercilac – Nice advice. A lot of rolls do come down to if you don’t succeed, there are no consequences and that takes a lot of the sense of danger out of the game.

@Scott Martin – My players always jumped passed the level of monsters rather easily. In D&D 3.5, I think the nature of PC powers is always scaled above the nature of things out of the monster manual. I took to using NPCs of races for fights, but came across the problem of always losing track of all their unique powers. I started using much higher level adversaries and toning down one or two factors when necessary.

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – “Be both sensitive and a hard-ass.” I love that. Most of the GMs I’ve talked to are the type who want to see the party succeed. Maintaining that “I can kill you with my dice” aura, while reveling in the party’s success can definitely be challenging.

#6 Comment By Nojo On July 29, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

This is a great topic.

In Warhammer FRP and Dark Heresy, the chance to hit is often very low, 20% to 40%. A standard round can result in most or all the bad guys missing. There are plenty of rules on improving the odds: point blank range, ganging up in melee, and so on.

My problem would be the players are worried about maximizing their PC’s chance (or helping another PC). They get a round to think. I don’t. They are also good at noticing when I’m doing things to improve the bad guys’ odds, and work to break it up.

Sometimes I plan an ambush, and it all works out.

But for on the fly combat, I’m experimenting with doubling the badies chance to hit, but turning them into Mooks. The Mook part keeps the combat short and balanced, but the chance to hit means players are taking damage. Dark Heresy has a concept of a 2HP Mook, where if you don’t cause a lot of damage with the first hit, the Mook lives on until it takes a second hit.

For BBEGs, I like to play Jack in the Box. When the BBEG goes down, and the party isn’t beaten up enough, then the real bad thing cuts loose. However, should the party have stumbled, and just barely survived the initial BBEG, the GM can just not bring out second act.

Examples: The BBEG’s deamon sword fractures: releasing the deamon. The rival bad guys who were hoping the PCs would take out their competition now reveal themselves and act to eliminate the weakened PCs. As the BBEG’s blood flows into the ground, he rises as an undead. The deamon who was possessing the BBEG is unharmed, and takes up the fight. And so on.

#7 Comment By karazax On July 30, 2009 @ 7:40 am

In regards to the original article, it’s also possible that the PC’s just had a hot night with the dice, based on the fact that the DC’s were set where the DM felt they were high. When that is the case some times you just have to make guaranteed complications that don’t have a die roll chance of being avoided. Besides in most cases a night like that may be boring for the DM, but is often still fun for the players. Perhaps not over the long haul, but for an evening, having everything go right can make the players feel like real heroes.

#8 Comment By Nicholas On July 30, 2009 @ 9:30 am

Beyond knowing their powers and using them effectively, you can set up the situation to optimize them. If your villain has a AoE powers make the room cramped. If he can move people around, throw in some traps to toss your players onto. Putting an enemy in the right terrain can ramp up the challenge without having to change any stats.

#9 Comment By BryanB On July 30, 2009 @ 9:42 am

Note to Scarecrow:

I noticed you were running Saga Edition Star Wars. While Saga has many good features, encounter balance is not one of them. It is very difficult to get the challenge level right in SWSE.

I have been running SWSE for nearly two years. There is a free PDF floating around that lets you use a budget system for Saga Edition that is similar to the system in D&D 4e. That PDF has helped me a great deal, though it isn’t perfect by any means. The advice listed in the corebook is bogus. The advice listed in the online document at WotC isn’t the right answer either.

Google for Encounter by Budget System for Saga Edition. If you can’t find it, visit RPGnet or RPGSite and send a PM (with your e-mail in it) to PaladinCA and I’ll send it to you. I hope that it helps you with SWSE.

Challenging players can be a tough task, especially when the system has some built in design flaws that increase that difficulty.

#10 Comment By theEmrys On July 31, 2009 @ 7:07 am

I think a big way to add challenge has to do with your Changing The Paradigm. I think back to AD&D days and once you hit name level (around 9 or 10), your challenges are more around building a stronghold… politicing with leaders.. etc. What I don’t like in games personally are when the combat challenges etc are artificially raised just because the PCs are better. Why should a 10th level Thief have a harder time to climb a wall than a 1st level thief? (or Rogue depending on your system.. ;) ) I like to throw in DIFFERENT challenges. Maybe the party can wade through an army of orcs, but if the adventure is to rescue a kidnapped child, suddenly now the challenge is to get through in time rather than kill the enemy… and maybe you can’t use area of effect spells… What if they’re fighting a plague instead of a physical opponent… the tactics and approach change drastically.

Now, I’ve recently switched to HackMaster Basic as my game of choice and it adds some other elements to it which is nice. The “Threshold of Pain” mechanic combined with penetration (exploding dice) makes it so even a low level monster/opponent can take down a high level character on a lucky shot. I heard of one group who recently had a PC take a 31 hp hit from a goblin with a dagger due to some lucky rolling on the GM’s part. Now, some might not find this fun, but it adds a level of challenge and danger to the game no matter who your opponent is, and I like that because I don’t like the idea that a higher level character is invincible to “normal people”. That’s how my games work anyway… :)

#11 Comment By LesInk On July 31, 2009 @ 7:41 am

@theEmrys – In response (not necessarily defense) of the scaled up difficulty of climbing a wall, I would hope a GM is not just making the same wall more and more difficult, but encouraging player characters to try scaling walls that before would have been too difficult (like ones that are much more slick and possibly at strange angles). In short, high level characters should be going after harder encounters, not the same encounters becoming more difficult.

But you are right on the rest of it. Time limited scenarios are good too. But higher level characters might have devices that stop/slow time (talk about major problems with the power curve)!

But, yes, change up the type encounters so the players have to try use something different than their same ol’ overly used and trusted techniques.

The irony is I’m in a 4th edition game where I have a player with some ungodly plus to his diplomacy check. This causes a strange situation where every word is practically a charm spell. What I realized by having the player in the group was that I was depending on the diplomacy skill for too many things and I needed to mix in many of the other skills (bluff, intimidate, streetwise, insight, etc.). I quickly have found that my diplo player didn’t maximize those skills as much as that one.

#12 Comment By John Arcadian On July 31, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

@Nojo – “They are also good at noticing when I’m doing things to improve the bad guys’ odds, and work to break it up.”
There are usually 3 – 6 players against 1 GM, and they are plotting the whole time you are checking stats and writing things down for a combat. Even when you’ve got the stuff worked out beforehand, the players still have the edge on # of brains.

“But for on the fly combat, I’m experimenting with doubling the baddies chance to hit, but turning them into Mooks. ”

This is a really good idea. They still hit and can put a little fear in the PCs, but they also get taken out easily and keep the combats short.

@karazax – “Perhaps not over the long haul, but for an evening, having everything go right can make the players feel like real heroes. ” That is definitely true. One of my GMs hated most of his games because we played well. We loved them, because we played well.

@Scarecrow -I’d love to hear how subsequent games have gone for you.

#13 Comment By Amory On May 24, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

thanks for the ideas ive had trouble with my PCs since the beginning they sure will love these new challenges


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