Thursday, 2 May 2013
For me, a challenging game requires that there is a chance for failure as well as a chance for success, and that the degree of failure or success is not an on/off switch. There has to be a palette of outcomes that depends upon the choices made by the players to determine just how much you win, or just how badly you lose.
It must be possible to obtain enough context to make rational decisions, and the consequences of those decisions must follow from the context and the choices made. NPCs should be mostly trustworthy, but follow the 10/80/10 rule, where 10% would never betray a trust, 80% could be motivated to do so if the right levers are found, and 10% are scum.
There should be lots of small-risk, small-reward jobs, quite a few high-risk high-reward jobs, and a few low-risk high-reward jobs.
There should be enough cleverly hidden rewards that all of "the treasure" will not always be found. Certainly, treasure does not teleport around behind you until you find it in convenient parcels that match your wish list.
Poor planning and/or bad luck sometimes means your cost in resources is greater than the benefits of an expedition. Conversely, good planning is rewarded, and good luck can bring you startling success.
There GM should be on the side of the players, but not sway his decisions or his die rolls on that basis.
Played by the book, any Gygax-era D&D will produce a challenging game. There is no need to "toughen up" anything; that was the expected play experience. Likewise, examine treasure placement in any of the original modules. A lot of treasure was not "intended" to be found - it was there to reward the odd bit of clever thinking or good fortune that might occur in play. Read in particular the advice in B1 about placing treasure, where it is made explicit that a good dungeon will have treasures that are not found.
(In fact, it is a critical failing of certain analyses of older modules that all treasure is assumed to be found, despite explicit statements to the contrary.)
To me, a challenging game is one where you take charge of, and ownership for, your victories or failures. Of course, a challenging game requires a fair GM who is as interested in meeting the challenges imposed by adjudicating the players' clever ideas as it does players who are interested in meeting the challenges of the GM's campaign milieu.