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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
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).
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…)
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.
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