When designing a game area, how much is too much? There is a real difference between early adventures, wherein PCs could die – or there could even be a TPK – without any obvious clues that the hammer was about to fall, and Dungeons & Dragons under Wizards of the Coast's 3rd and 4th Editions, where balance was expected and the PCs should be able to take most encounters they met with.
I will assume that readers of this blog understand that encounters do not need to be “balanced” against some idealized party, and that sometimes it is okay for the players to choose to run away. Still, the question remains: How deadly is too deadly?
I have three rules of thumb that help me gauge appropriate threat levels:
(1) Before I put anything truly deadly in, did I include a “footprint” from which the players might be able to deduce that Bad Things Might Happen?
If Smaug lives in the Lonely Mountain, and the PCs head there at 1st level, that's too bad for them. There was certainly enough "footprint" leading up to the Desolation of the Dragon. On the other hand, the footprint need not be so clear.
Adventuring – going into dangerous areas to strive with dangerous things, and hopefully to reap the rewards of the same – is intrinsically perilous. There is a reason why villagers stay home and bake bread, reap the crops, and repair your horseshoes rather than face what lies out in the dark. Sooner or later, what lurks in the darkness will kill you. Expecting that everything you meet will be a “balanced encounter” is not only foolish, but it defeats the experience of challenging the unknown.
Trying to figure out the clues is one of the places where player agency shines. In WotC-D&D, it has been said that the GM has been given better tools to judge the balance of encounters. In a game focusing on exploring the unknown, it is the players, not the judge, whose job it is to determine whether or not an encounter will be potentially profitable, or even survivable.
This is not a subtle distinction. In one sort of game, the GM is primarily responsible for ensuring that his encounters are survivable by the PCs, and often the GM is responsible for gauging the average resources to be expended and ensuring that replacements are at hand. In the other sort of game, the judge is primarily responsible for creating an interesting environment to explore, and part of that is ensuring that the players can obtain enough information to make reasonable choices. Note, I did not say that the players will obtain enough information – merely with good play, and a little luck, they have the potential to do so.
There is another real benefit to a good “footprint”: When the Bad Things are finally revealed, the players get either a moment of “Aha! So that is what those clues meant!” or a smug sense of “Aha! I told you so!” Both of these feelings are among those that gamers talk about long after the dice have cooled and the foes are dead.
(2) Is it possible to handle the encounter? Even if handling it means “running away”, is it possible to run?
Imagine an “encounter” where you walk into the dungeon, and, regardless of what you do, the first corridor collapses on the party, killing them instantly. That would suck. Imagine, instead, that at the end of the first corridor was a lever that did the same thing. Now the players have a way to handle the encounter – they have agency. A spell (second sight, for example, in DCC) might give a clue, or the players may discover a way to pull the lever from a distance. A thief might be able to determine that the lever is a trigger for a trap. The PCs might just leave it alone.
For those of you who have played James Raggi’s excellent Death Frost Doom, you will know that there is an encounter which, depending upon how it is handled, affects the way the rest of the adventure plays out. That is a good example of an encounter that can be handled in many ways, but which is likely to be handled in a particularly disastrous way.
Playing Death Frost Doom, my older daughter swore at me for the first time. Not unfairly; the game was tense, and I was enjoying their reactions to it. Nonetheless, the players remember that game, and that is an important thing. They did not simply waste their time; they were challenged in a way that was both entertaining and memorable. When they finally managed to undo the consequences of that first disastrous attempt, the triumph was all the sweeter.
(3) Am I willing to live with the consequences of the PCs’ failure?
Perhaps the simplest rule of thumb to adhere to. If the PCs failing means the End of the World, and you are unwilling to let the World End, you are doing something wrong. Suddenly, you need to fudge the dice, or the encounters, to ensure that the PCs win. This is not the players being challenged by the game; this is the players being spectators while you play with yourself.
Really, if there is a TPK, so what? As Joseph Goodman points out in the Dungeon Crawl Classics core rulebook, you can always play through the party’s desperate attempt the escape Hell. And I would not make that attempt easy, either. A “second death” would render future attempts impossible…
In terms of acceptable consequences for failure, all that I can say is look at the material I have written and had published. Even the characters who survive may find that they have been altered for the worse (or sometimes for the better), if they are foolish, or unlucky, or both. And I play a game that supports me in that – an unlucky corruption roll, misfired magic, or a critical hit against you can change your life forever in Dungeon Crawl Classics.
Player agency is not only “how do I get what I want?”, but also “How do I deal with what I get?” Both parts are important. The judge should never be “out to get the players” – that is an uneven contest, and is frankly not much fun on either side. What the judge should be out to do is to present a world where there are many things which may be out to get the players, and in which it is possible for the players – through greed, impatience, lack of caution, or even sheer bad luck – to discover that they have bitten off far more than they can chew.
A note on horror: Horror in an RPG works best when the players begin with a lot of agency, but as a consequence of their choices see that agency dwindling while they are being herded towards an unknown, but clearly evil, end. The struggle to restore agency before it is too late – often by dealing with choices that you would never otherwise consider – is horror’s bleeding heart.
Avoiding those choices and still succeeding offers a eucatastrophe that only works if the choices were real, and the need to consider them equally so. You will never find players so eager to think outside the box as when they are faced with three bad options and they are desperate to invent a fourth.
Another Note on Deadly Games: When I mentioned that I was writing this blog post, my son’s initial reaction was a blank stare that spoke volumes. Really, what is the point of overcoming a “challenge” that is designed to allow you to defeat it? That’s like eating chili without any spices. In many ways, the potential to fail defines the potential to succeed.
How far is too far?
I don’t know. My players surprise me. Every time I think I have gone too far, it turns out that I have not gone far enough. Greater challenges seem to just create greater players.
Last night I played the first session of Silent Nightfall with a party consisting of two 8th level warriors, an 8th level wizard, a 5th level cleric, and a 2nd level dwarf. One of the warriors was knocked to 0 hp (in his defense, he started with a 4 Stamina). Thus far, they have explored only one room and part of the central shaft.
They did really well against some foes that came into a nearby village when they ignored the village’s “silent nightfall”, but half the party is already ready to run away from the adventure site.
CE 5: Silent Nightfall is rated for characters of level 2+.
Ask me again how far is too far, and I will tell you again that I don’t know.
I try to figure out where the edge is, and then inhabit the zone just beyond it, but my players are always pushing the frontier back. These days, even 0-level funnels often have more survivors than slain, as the players figure out how to deal with what they have available.