I talked a bit before about what inspires cool gaming moments. The hardly subtle (the b is silent) tone of that post was about GMs molding their games to the players to make cool things happen. This is one of many ways to get players to talk about a game’s moments after the fact, but it is far from the only one. Here are a few more ways that I can think of.

Impossible Odds
When the players overcome something that is not viable in the real world it is incredibly cool. When the players overcome a challenge that Indiana Jones or Neo would have issues dealing with it is just plain incredible. Insurmountable traps, awe inspiring village destroying enemies, life or death of a nation negotiations, etc. These types of impossible things happen all the time in movies and movies are a good place to style impossible odds off of. Though they seem impossible the heroes always have a way to defeat it. Conveying the feel of an impossible odd while convincing the players they have a chance at beating it is what will hook them and make them feel great when they do.

Personal Impact on the Characters
Is fighting a random encounter of 4 bugbears as interesting as fighting bugbears who had raided the PC’s home village? Not usually. If a character has a personal investment in a challenge they are facing, then the player is usually more engaged in the action. Tailoring encounters to these kinds of flags can turn a so-so encounter into one that makes the players feel more rewarded. Throw a ranger against his favored enemy. Link an encounter to a character before leading the group into it. Watch for the players cues or flat out ask them what kind of things they would like to take on.

Noted and Notable Enemies
The Big Bad Evil Guy. Players know they are going to take him/her/it on at some point. Who and what the BBEG is can be important. Making the BBEG someone big in the world setting can make players salivate to take it out. Making the BBEG a magnificent bastard (think Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica) can have a huge impact. If the villain is full of intrigue and unique details, seems to be one step ahead of the party, and never seems to let defeat get it down, then it is going to be glorious when the characters get to hand it the final defeat.

Rewards of Renown
Some people do it for the money, some people do it for the fame. Making sure your players know that they are going to be big people in the world if they beat a challenge might be all the motivation they need. The key factor of a reward of renown is not that it is given to the player, but that they feel the effects of it. A king granting a title might affect a player less than a village staring at the characters in awe asking: “Are you really going to kill the dragon . . .? OH GREAT SAVIOR!”. Another effective technique is to have the characters overhear some tidbit about one of their previous adventures. “Truly this Dashite fellow must be 7 feet tall and shoot fire from his eyes to have defeated Sardaukar.” This gives the players a sense that their actions impact the world and have meaning. They will be even more stoked to take on the next thing with its impossible odds.

The WTF? factor
One thing that I’ve noticed is that players have great fun when engaged in moments of WTF (What the Fudge). If the situation is so absurd that it boggles the mind then it makes an impact. Some horrible beast that the characters are fighting might start preaching pacifism. The players might bust through the last door of the dungeon only to find the BBEG having dinner with his family and venting about the rigors of running an evil empire. Then there is always the Calzone Golem.

Now what advice do you have for making challenges that the players love to beat? A conversation is multiplied in worth when it is shared.

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.



9 Responses to Making Challenges That Players Love To Beat

  1. Then you mix and match all of this and you have a Brigade of Sky Bugbear pirates on an Air-elemental and Flumph powered Airship attack said village while the Grand Pirate Admiral gloats from his Flying Castle and cavorts with all of the PCs’ sisters who are madly in love with him!

    Excellent post dear John, thanks for the link… :)

  2. Ha! The calzone golem! I can’t believe you went there :)

    I’ve been afraid of eating calzone ever since, for fear of getting burning hot tomato sauce all over me :D

  3. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    Cool moments are great, but watch out for making hard challenges easy in the name of coolness. It’s not in the nature of RPGs to emulate (for instance) Bard’s slaying of Smaug without it sounding like Monty Haul.

    Otherwise, right on. Make it tough, make it personal, make it worth it.

  4. You created a Gaius Baltar tag for this post? So cool! :)

  5. @sektor: Yeah, the calzone golem was pretty fun. I did have a player hit it with a scorching ray and give it an INSANE armor class. That was a blast.

    @kurt: Absolutely right. Nothing will sap away a player’s enjoyment quicker than being completely overwhelmed by a challenge. There is a nice level where the players will feel like they have overcome something, but didn’t think it impossible. The pull it off at the last moment with the incredible action is quite possibly the most awesome thing that can happen in a game, but it isn’t really possible to set that up without fudging or controlling every single factor of the action. It just happens and that is what makes it incredible.

    @chattydm: Of course there is a Gaius Baltar tag :).He is a magnificent bastard!

  6. The calzone golem was indeed the yummiest adventure EVAR!

  7. I can still recall a moment during one of our Fighting Fantasy rules-lite adventures, when one of the scenes involved being overwhelmed by a group of Fishmen with Tridents and nets as players trudged through an Underground sewer. A bit of railroading, i know, but I didn’t give it a second thought until the Players (God bless them) refused to surrender even though the odds seemed insurmountable and they were getting hammered. Incredibly, they came up with a plan that involved electrifying the sewer water and simulating the sound of a Giant Centipede (the most feared creature of the Fish Men!) – I just had to relent and give credit where it due. The players had one…. and the tables had been turned….it was my turn to sweat as I had to adlib the next hour which always gets the adrenalin pumping!

  8. I’ve always found slander to be very effective for this. ;) When a powerful NPC or group slanders the PCs, stains their honor or otherwise makes them out to be asshats, I’ve met few players (myself included) whose blood doesn’t start to boil.

  9. Most of my success with games is making sure what the players want in the game and for their PCs. I outlined this in Starting a Campaign the MoonHunter way. http://www.strolen.com/content.php?node=1461

    In short, before we even start the campaign I poll the players for what they want in a campaign. I ask each player for one to five “bits” they want to see in the upcomming campaign. Each bit is a campaign element, character types, major NPCs (or type of NPC), types of story lines they want to see, the kind of settings, type of adventures they want to see, types of opposition, important elements (magic, tech, skills), and subgenre.

    After we have refined the campaign a bit, I will represent the upcoming campaign, usually with the beginings of the world pack in place. We will create characters for the campaign (have a casting party). In addition to any notes I make during the casting party, I ask each player for 1-5 things they want to see in the game, with an emphasis on their characters. This time they will give me actual roles they want to see in the game (love interest, evil wizard to be their enemy, etc), storylines they want, types of scenarios they are now intersted in, opponents or types of opponents, and so on.

    After we have run a campaign for a while, I will check the pulse of the players again, looking for 1-3 things they want to see (or don’t want to see again) in the campaign.

    This way I make sure that I am always doing things that the PCs are having fun with.

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