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Threat, challenge, and being awesome

I recently read Robert Donoghue’s article called, Exploring the Premise [1], which brought up an interesting tension that I’ve noticed in my current D&D game. His points and mine differ slightly, but we’re in talking about the same area.

In most games characters gain power from their adventures. At first level, a small pack of kobolds might make for a tense fight, but by 10th level there’s no need to break out the battle board– the kobolds have no chance. The same is true in other systems; powerful Vampires in White Wolf play their games at a level that new PCs can’t match, Star Wars characters outgrow fearing a squad of storm troopers when their blaster skill is 12d, and so on.

We rarely see this though– to keep the tension up and the game part interesting, you rarely see the small groups of weak foes once you’ve got lots of experience under your belt. Instead of storm troopers, you face storm commandos, or instead of interacting with the other Neonates, you soon compete with the Elders of the City and their high powered thugs.

Showing Off

Rob points out that characters tend to do what they’re good at for a while in most entertainment. (It is especially noticeable in movies– see his examples from Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day.) This builds up identification and celebrates what the movie’s about. Primetime Adventures calls this expected stuff the franchise– it’s what watchers tune in for each week. It’s a big part of why we come to the game.

Remember to throw in the small fry every once in a while in your ongoing games. Letting the characters casually do something they previously struggled with really helps reinforce their growth. It’s also an opportunity for things to go in a completely different direction; when PCs are confident they can’t be harmed, they may interact entirely differently with the situation. The paladin might take several minutes of enemy fire to inspire a few kobolds to leave their evil ways– something that a low level Paladin who risks death each round would swiftly regret.

Doesn’t that suck the tension out of a fight? It does, transforming simple fights like these into an extension of the characterizing that goes on in other less tense moments.

This can come up in other situations as well. Creating a campsite instantly, or sleeping in a secure extradimensional space reinforces the change in priorities and required effort as the game goes on. Similarly, the vampire with a capable staff is living a much less precarious life than poor neonates who risk someone crashing through their improvised shelters during the day.

Plot Structure

Powerful characters have many ways of approaching a goal. Planning out intermediate steps can be very difficult, as powerful characters often “cut to the chase” and ignore travel complications (by teleporting, flying, or using another power to skip to the end).

A nice compensation for this is the increased direction that the PCs provide. Subplots and character arcs often become bolder– even deciding which plot giver to follow can say a lot about a group. Yesterday’s article about using your sandbox too [2] shows the value of a less structured session, with chances to involve their PCs in new subplots, tie their new mission into existing patterns, interact with allies and enemies, and so on.

Cakewalks are fun only in moderation

It is important to remember that while these extra moments are nice, they are only half the equation. While it can be nice to slaughter kobolds effortlessly every once in a while, if that’s the only opposition in the world, the players will soon be bored.

Now, there are several options for dealing with this increase in power. The first is to to scale opposition along with the PCs, leaving all else the same. This practice is often derided and compared to MMOs, but it’s a good default. If a system is particularly good at one thing, it might be best to do that same thing with a new coat of paint. If small unit combat is the heart of the game, you might want to increase the modifiers to the dice but keep the number of foes constant to keep down GMing overhead.

Another way to keep the challenge is to increase the scale of the conflict. Basic D&D’s continuations emphasized this in the Expert and Companion rules. Ruling over a barony, carving out newly explored lands, and leading large forces is a great way to change up what PCs do and accomplish. In Trollbabe, this is handled by increasing the scale of the conflict. At first your decisions affect the fate of a individuals, but as you increase in power your efforts affect towns and entire regions. Similarly, conflicts in Reign are usually between roughly equal organizations– as your influence grows from a patch of territory in one city to entire nations, even similar problems look different on the broader canvas.

In the end, not every scene in a campaign needs to be a solid fight against a nearly equal foe. It is important to keep challenge around– but it’s also important to take a break every once in a while and let the characters strut their stuff. If you haven’t let your players run roughshod over lesser foes in a while, consider digging out your first level random encounter table and rolling up some opposition. If nothing else, they might amuse you by trying to figure out which foe is a dragon in disguise.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Threat, challenge, and being awesome"

#1 Comment By BryanB On February 6, 2009 @ 10:59 am

That is a very good point about cakewalks being fun only in moderation. If the PCs aren’t challenged, they will eventually get bored.

It can, however, be fun for them to mop up an entire street gang or a room full of crazy cultists from time to time, almost without breaking a sweat. This shows how awesome the PCs are vs. the average flunky.

When you break out a pair of Sith Apprentices and their Elite Commando detachment, you will certainly have a stark contrast of cakewalk and challenge, but it will probably be one that the PCs can appreciate.

Either victory by the PCs can be satisfying, but for different reasons. In the cakewalk, the PCs can say, “Wow, look how awesome we are. They shouldn’t have messed with us” After a challenge, the PCs can say, “That was really tough, but we survived it. Good job everyone.”

I think pushing the PCs to their limits is more satisfying in general. It should be greater risks for greater rewards in most cases. But that mook fight is a nice change of pace when used infrequently.

#2 Comment By Rafe On February 6, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

I totally agree. I’ve always felt that it’s difficult to gauge one’s abilities if conflicts are always proportionate to the party. Sometimes the party ought to run from tougher foes, and easily carve their way through easier foes.

One of my favourite moments in a 3.0 campaign a number of years ago was when the party (14th level) had to make their way through a goblin army (1/4 CR each) and face its champions (CR 14s). Everyone flew above the goblins except my Sorcerer. He rode straight at the army, using lightning to blast a path. The goblins scattered from his path. It was great! Truly showed my character how far he’d come. Moments like that are fantastic.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On February 6, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

[3] – I like your point– as a player both victories are satisfying, but for different reasons. Your warning that cakewalks should be rare is very true.

[4] – I like that Sorcerer! The wizard in our D&D campaign began as a very physical, risk himself kind of a character, but his transformation into a magic wielding genius has really been shining bright recently.

#4 Comment By theEmrys On February 6, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

I really liked this. I’m not a big fan of “every encounter has to be challenging”. I think if the characters have earned their advancement they should get to enjoy the rewards. That being said, it’s also good to have them encounter something that is overwhelming once and a while… Not that I don’t leave them an avenue to escape but in general there’s always something weaker and something stronger than you.

One other thing to keep in mind though is that it might seem like a cakewalk.. but is it really? Sure, they might only be 1/2 hd creatures but a few grapples later, anyone can be taken down… It’s sometimes a fine line between flexing your muscles and forgetting your mortal…

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 6, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

I played in a game where our level 15-ish party ran across a group of bandits who were a more appropriate challenge for a 2nd level party. It was completely awesome, watching my barbarian as he “conaned” his way through them, and the rest of the group doing their thing as well.

From the player’s point of view, occasionally reminding a party “how far they’ve come” is truly a lot of fun.

#6 Comment By sealer04tx On February 6, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

One way I’ve incorporated similar “cake walks” into session sis by having stealth combat. The PCs have to eliminate the goblin guards outside the camp their sneaking into and they have to do it entirely in a surprise round. Use a threat/alert system similar to Metal Gear where ever round more people become alerted until the 5th round when the whole camp is alerted. That way you have both the “mowing through” effect and the tension of combat.

#7 Comment By peter On February 7, 2009 @ 6:39 am


the problem I would have in my group is that they would fight to the dead when facing to tough opponents. they seem to live under the illusion that it is forbidden in D&D to give not scaled encounters. (this is a result from playing some pre written campaigns with them)

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 7, 2009 @ 10:37 am

[6] – Talk to them about it, throw them into a fight that they will lose, and about halfway through the fight, ask them if they remember the talk you just had… 😉

#9 Comment By roamer On February 7, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

my best major battle I ever did, was when my group were attempting to kidnap Stradh von Zoravich in the old D&D 2nd Edtion, via the ravenloft setting. The party had been brought to ravenloft via the mists and were doing thier damndest to try and return to thier homeland. A vistani seer had told them that if they managed to get Strahd and his fellow rulers togethe and postion them within the chamber upon the symbol that marked thier authority. A portal would open fed by the lords very essence. Needless to say the entire idea was one long and arduos battle throughout Ravenloft Keep. But I get ahead of myself. The Vistani Seer in question was the mother of one of one of the reincarnations of Tatyana. Who once Strahd found her one night, he ordered one of the gargoyle clan’s under his control to attack the gypsy caravan and bring him Tatyana unharmed. The rest of the gypsy caravan were to be brought to the castle and placed within is larder. She barely escaped, but by the time she did her daughter kaytlin had allready been turned into yet another zombie to serve him throughout eternity.
However strahd in his passion forgot about the potion he had given each of the vistani that allowed them to pass through the mist surrounding his land’s borders unharmed. As my party sat before the campfire of the vistani camp, they also leanred that the caravan they were now the guests of was comprised completely out of the survivors from various other gypsy families of Strad’s attacks. A caravan that was itse;f part of a larger intelligence arm of a growing army. The army was comprised out of those few stalwart souls within this damned realm that were willing to oppose the rule of thier dark masters.

Inshort the party was enlisted to bring strahd before the ruling council of the rebels. So that he might face justice for the otrocities he had forced his subjects to suffer and endure throughout his 400 years of terror. In return they would be hailed as hero’s and should they still wish to return home after all of this. The Leaders would do everything in thier power to speed them home.

The fight to gain control of castle ravenloft was fierce, the rebel forces laid siege for over a month to the castle, destroying countless numbers of his minions. Only to see them raise once more as undead, all while strahd remained inside, quite content to merely sup from his larder.

In the last battle the party had just finnished destroying a set of Strahd’s coffins when Strahd himself returned to find the leaders of the besieging army within his very fortress. The battle was long, hard and fierce, with Strahd using virtually every last one of the powers at his disposal. At one point he even managed to have 3 of the 5 party members briefly turn on thier companions via dominate. Thankfully the mage had prepared for this battle the night and perhaps this very fight. Using an orb he infused it with blinding light, and had the light take on some of the characteristics of sunlight. As he saw his friends fighting each other while strahd looked smuggly looked on, He grabbed the orb and tossed it to the ground. Causing the orb to shatter and the light to be released. Strahd thinking it was sunlight fled via bat form and party fled via a portal to saftey to regroup.

#10 Comment By roamer On February 7, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

I had DMed this battle as a wake up call for the party. as well as to teach them that not all NPC’s are trustworthy. As it turned out all of the so called ‘rebels’ were really a mixture of some of strahd’s army, and his various Gypsy spies. He had used them all as a means to try and discern the actual strngth of the PC group. They barely escaped from that over all fiasco with thier lives, but they were wiser as both players and PC’s for it.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On February 8, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

[7] – That system sounds interesting; I’ve had a number of “ambush the guards on watch” fights. Borrowing a good system like yours might help them work better.

[6] – It’s difficult to do– Telas is right, talk with the PCs and figure out the ground rules together. I’d make sure the first fight against overpowering odds is very clearly labeled…

[8] – That certainly sounds like the challenging side of the coin. Did you have lots of character development moments in the campaign too?

#12 Comment By theEmrys On February 9, 2009 @ 8:42 am

[6] – I can think of a great way to cure them of that belief… 😉 Seriously though, I personally like to run a game where you might be outclassed. (that’s one of the reasons I like truely random encounters… some can really kick your party’s butt). That being said, I’ve thrown “overwhelming” encounters at parties before and they’ve won… It’s never been from a straight up fight, but rather through some great plan, but they have beat an “unbeatable” encounters, and certainly felt better for it and know that they earned it.

Personally I don’t like the idea of always having balanced encounters because if you get too reliant on them, you always know you CAN win and in my experience, that means you don’t have to be creative and you lose some of the “fear” of consequences.

Of course, you can also put a twist on things like having a weak encounter if it was straight up, but make the consequences or situation more challenging (hostages, “Tucker’s Kobolds”, etc)