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Threat, challenge, and being awesome
Posted By Scott Martin On February 6, 2009 @ 4:06 am In GMing Advice,Gnome Gnews | 12 Comments
I recently read Robert Donoghue’s article called, Exploring the Premise, 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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