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I Hate the Ice Level

Posted By Matthew J. Neagley On January 5, 2011 @ 12:39 am In GMing Advice | 5 Comments

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It never fails. You’re playing a platformer video game, doing pretty well, and then BAM! Ice level. That’s the level where the designers thought something akin to:

“You know what would be really funny? Let’s make the players do the same precision jumping dodging and attacking as every other level, but instead of adding some feature or theme to make it fun and interesting, let’s add one that intentionally makes the controls unresponsive and kludgey and stopping impossible, and let’s make sure it doesn’t effect the enemies, and that we have more bottomless death pits in the level than actual floor to stand on. Watching the playtesters sob quietly through the two way mirrors after they attempt this shitpile of a level will be the highlight of this job. Then we’ll go hope and force our young children to kick the dog until the both of them have permanent mental scars, because that’s just the kind of twisted sadistic bastards we are.”

At least that’s what I imagine is going through their heads. I can only assume that it would take an asshole of the highest caliber to think it’s a good idea to intentionally include a section in your game that’s whole theme is “Annoying and frustrating to play”.

So seriously guys, when you’re designing adventures for your group, don’t do that. Challenging players and challenging characters is what RPGs are all about, but annoying frustrating challenges, especially large sections of adventures composed entirely of annoying frustrating challenges is just bad design.

Do it Again, Stupid!
Do it again, stupid! challenges are ones where if the party fails, they must start over from the beginning. These are especially frustrating if the challenge is exceptionally long and painful, or if the challenge becomes more difficult each time you fail (which is sadly a base feature of too many systems).

Challenges like traps that drop or teleport the party back to the beginning of a maze, extended challenges that reset themselves if failed, or repeating time loops (think Groundhog Day) are examples of Do it again, stupid! challenges.

To make Do it again, stupid! challenge less frustrating, make it easy or simple so repeated failures are unlikely (Sure the lock resets but it only takes two fairly easy rolls to succeed), make it get easier the more it’s repeated (The maze gets easier to navigate each time as threats are eliminated and the PCs map/mark where they’ve been), or give it multiple paths or options with different results several of which could be considered successes (You can get out of the time loop several ways. Some are clearly better than others, but at least they’re all an ending).

Unreasonable Difficulty
It’s never a good design choice to make a roll or challenge for which success is necessary for continuing the adventure difficult, though optional or bonus challenges can be as difficult as you feel like. However, some adventures are nothing but roll after roll of unreasonable difficulty. In general, this is a bad idea. Long strings of failures build frustration and lower player interest. Instead save high difficulty for optional (ones that grant bonuses, easter eggs and the like) and dramatically appropriate challenges (“boss” fights, high stakes confrontations, etc…)

Inappropriate Stakes
What is at stake for any given challenge should be appropriate to the type of challenge, and the dramatic purpose and timing of the challenge. While it may be fine for legendary tournament one shots to have death as a stake for every challenge no matter how inconsequential, in general this is a good way to make your players give up in disgust (and deforest a few acres of woodland). Save the highest stakes for the right time and right type of challenge. PCs can be captured for ransom or questioning, of just stripped of possessions and rolled in a ditch.

So yeah. Don’t do that. Or your players will do horrible horrible things to you.

About  Matthew J. Neagley

First introduced to RPGs through the DnD Red Box Set in 1990, Matt fights on ongoing battle with GMing ADD, leaving his to-do list littered with the broken wrecks of half-formed campaigns, worlds, characters, settings, and home-brewed systems. Luckily, his wife is also a GM, providing him with time on both sides of the screen.




5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "I Hate the Ice Level"

#1 Comment By BrianLiberge On January 5, 2011 @ 6:48 am

A rule I try to live by in DMing is every failure should open the wrong door.

That is to say, failure is still failure, but something significant still happened and that failure should present a new and interesting option.

Falling in the bottomless pit on the ice level does not magically transfer you back to the bottom of the hill. However, it might bring you to the fifth layer of Hell and an audience with Levistus.

With Mundane Tasks, like opening a door, I agree that the DC should go down with attempts. When the PCs seem to be beating a dead horse I like to say “Remember, most skill checks can be used as a free or Minor action.” Which seems to encourage them that it probably won’t hurt to think creatively.

The exception to this, is when the players passionately want to repeat history, which generally comes in an unfortunate defeat in combat. In 3.5, when the party cockily faced a couple of Gorgons in a random encounter, they forgot to spread out. As a result of that and some lucky rolls they all got turned to stone in round 1, even though they were levels above the enemy.

That simply would not do, and I allowed them to create lower level characters, from a local monasteries, optimized to take down these Gorgons and save themselves. It was memorable, fun and I had three new NPCs afterward.

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On January 5, 2011 @ 10:48 am

Mmm, dunno. Your “bad video game” description captures neatly two games that are often lauded but are, in reality, execrable: Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (a text adventure of tooth grindingly poor design) and Starship Titanic ,which featured just about all your “never do” bullet points and added in poor interface design so that even if you had figured out to the word what needed to be done you might not be able to find the minuscule hotspot you needed to drag-and-drop to. That these come from the fertile mind of a well-loved author only goes to show that you step out of your field at your peril. Plot elements that were hysterically funny in a third-party/observer medium were intolerable first hand.

I’m in two minds about your “failure brings ease” thinking though. I can envision a situation in which failure can and should bring extra difficulty.

But in the general case I find your arguments persuasive, especially those made in “Unreasonable Difficulty”.

I feel the points made under “Inappropriate Stakes” only apply if your players are in a highly directed plot. In those places where they are responsible for the situation they are in, such as a Sandbox or a dungeon for which the players received ample warning of impossible danger, I think the arguments are rather less compelling.

Provocative train of thought. Thanks.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On January 5, 2011 @ 11:11 am

I should also add that all these points will be turned on their metaphorical heads when I finally get my 3.5 campaign dungeon “Mortal De Murder’s Lethally Deadly Dungeon Of Homicidal Doom”.

This is a real project.

Player-characters will start at level one with a Wardrobe containing one each of everything in the Player Manual (and as much ammo for it as they can carry). Within the dungeon are items from the DM guide. Plus whatever the player-characters have left in there. Whimsical traps and lethal monsters will conspire to strip the player-characters of gear, treasure and life itself.

Rule One: There Shalle Bee Noe Redeeming Feature Of Ye Dungeone. Whiniyng players desirous of “balance” shalle be laughed att.

Rule Two: Thou Keepeth Thatte Whych Thou Canst Tug Back Owt Of Ye Dungeone Before Ye Wivverns, Dragons and Sundrie Other Denizens of Ye Dungeone Taketh Yt From Thee.

Rule Three: Ye Encumbrance Rules Shalle Be Yn Effect, As Shalle Ye Catastrophic Damage Rules. Reade Themme.

And everyone desiring to play should read about Tucker’s Kobolds because I did and found them to be good.

The dungeon is designed to emulate the fun of Munchkin games while staying firmly in the D&D mold. Teamwork will always work better than rugged individualism, but I have factored in ways that a single person could make a stab at running the first few levels and expect only a moderate shellacking.

Resurrection insurance will be offered by Mortal De Murder at usurious prices.

#4 Comment By nolandda On January 5, 2011 @ 11:19 am

Hi. Found a typo:

“… let’s make sure it doesn’t effect the enemies …”

should be:

“… let’s make sure it doesn’t AFFECT the enemies …”

#5 Pingback By Writing the Adventure: Building to a Climax : rpgGM.com On January 9, 2011 @ 11:46 am

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