There is a Greek legend about a thing called the Gordian Knot , a knot so complex that no one could untie it no matter how long they attempted to work it out. Then along comes this douche bag Alexander The Great , who whips out his sword and quick as you please slices the thing in two. He then goes on to conquer most of the known world. Ever feel like you are on the other side of that situation while running a game? You’ve developed an incredible scenario full of twists, turns, complications, and challenges, and along come the PCs breezing past your challenge with some off the wall solution. Dicks. We’ve all been there, and it can suck from the GMing side of things, but we’ve got to keep one thing in mind: Challenge does not always equal fun.
My current group is encountering this in spades. The current GM  is running from a published adventure in the Eberron setting, but because of the house rules  we are using, very little challenges us. In a recent game, the combat that was supposed to reign in our party’s wave of terror began and ended with a good tactical move (knocking the fiercest , plate mail wearing combatant into the water). From there it was cleanup of the medium challenge fighters and schlock, and merciless destruction of the plate mailed and waterlogged BBEG as he tried to climb out of the water. Thing is, it was fun. Were I currently on the GM’s side of the screen I might feel differently, but being a player it feels great to succeed. It feels especially good since we get our asses handed to us every other fight during the first few levels of our adventuring career.
As Game Masters, we tend to have a natural focus drift towards our side of the adventure – the value of the elements we control, the challenge of the encounters, making sure the various elements we are responsible for are getting enough playtime, etc. This is natural and important to running a good adventure, but if we drift too far into this mindset we take ourselves away from a place where we can understand how much fun the players are having with what we’ve created – even if they aren’t challenged by it.
Let me illustrate with a story I hear from my friends ALL THE TIME. It gets brought up almost every time we game or are talking about gaming. Regular game was called for the week, but my friend decides to run a Shadowrun one-shot to fill the gap. He used a published one-shot from Catalyst games. The goal: deliver a Macguffin from one side of the city to another. The group outfits themselves and proceeds into the dangerous war-torn area where they need to make the delivery.
- The first challenge was getting past a Lone Star blockade. Coincidentally, one of the players took a high level background that tied him into Lone Star. He flashed his SIN (identity number), the guards realized they were outranked and let them pass.
- The second challenge was being rammed by vehicles driven by opposition forces as they went through an intersection. The player driving had a high drive score and rolled like a haus, well above the level needed to not get hit AND get through the intersection, thus avoiding the firefight that was supposed to happen.
- The third challenge was for a hacker to hack into their vehicle and disable it. Unaware of this, the player who was the group’s hacker was bored and decided to hack random people he saw out the window. The GM made him roll an initiative to see if his attempt went before or after the attempt to hack the van. The player went first, the enemy hacker went down with a nosebleed, the driver saw it and asked what happened, the group’s hacker said “Nevermind that” and they kept driving.
- Having run out of scripted challenges in the one-shot adventure, and less than a half an hour having passed, the GM did what any good GM would do and started improvising. He decided there were random biker gangs out looking for trouble and that they threw down some spike strips on the road. The group dutifully hit them and came to a stop, getting ready for a firefight with a biker gang. Then, the person who purchased the van said “Would these  help? I bought run-flat tires when I bought the van.”, pointing out the place on the back of his character sheet where it was written. The GM sighed, retconned them rolling over it and continuing to move, they delivered the package, and then he closed up shop.
When my friends tell the story, they mention that the metaphor for that game is “A hovervan, floating over the speed bumps of plot while yawning.” The whole game took less than an hour. The thing is, the people involved in this game talk about it all the time. Even the Game Master who ran it laughs about how great it was to watch them effortlessly circumvent challenges. I hear about this much more than I hear about the epic fights with red dragons, the merciless way the group barely survived that encounter with the god-elf, or the ship to ship fight with the imperials.
I’m not saying that a lack of challenges makes a fun game, but just because players are breezing through the obstacles you set up doesn’t mean the game isn’t fun. Fun in a game comes from a variety of sources and the challenge level is only one of them. Watch how engaged the players are with the game, this is always a much better yardstick than how challenged they are.
Ever have a “Hovervan Moment” where the players just ran over the obstacles in their way without stopping? How fun was it? In your games what ends up being the most fun?