Wednesday, 19 February 2014

How Much Is Too Much

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.

In Conclusion

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.


  1. First, let me say thank you for creating this article per the questions I had on this subject. This has been very informative and given me a few ideas for questions to flesh out the generalities of your post.

    I'm returning to gaming after a long hiatus, and this blog has changed a lot of ideas I previously had about player agency, and resulting harsh consequences. The idea to make those consequences harsher strikes me as being a better approach to a successful, riveting game style, where player decisions actually matter.

    If the Referee provides a footprint for the players to take note that there's a danger some place ahead, what ways are there to give the PCs an indication as to how potent it actually is? If, for example, the PCs hear rumors of some terrible beast in the countryside killing off livestock and the few brave armed shepherds that went after it, how much should the players take that with a grain of salt? Peasants and shepherds stay home, because they have no real combat training, and Everything is scary and too much for them to handle. Is there someplace the PCs, if they use their wits and actively search for adequate clues, that they can find indicators of enemy potency vs. their own, before encountering the unknown menace?

    On the other hand, if there are creatures that live by ambush, how does the Ref handle ambushes, where he/she is telegraphing their existence beforehand? I guess you can let the PCs know there's a threat in some hex, or on some path, and they don't know which 100 yards it will jump from, or which tunnel it may lurk in.

    1. You're welcome.

      Let me turn this back on you: If you heard there was some terrible beast in the countryside, how would you go about determining how potent it actually is? Or, consider the movie Jaws. Sometimes, in the field, you discover that you need a bigger boat. Is it possible to pull back and plan better?

      The judge need merely consider the footprint of his creation. If you toss a Medusa into the countryside, do you imagine that it perfectly conceals all the stone it makes? Or that no one sees Bob turn to marble and lives to tell the tale? Of course not. That Medusa may be smart, but she's ultimately as lazy and careless as anyone else.

      In a game like DCC or D&D, you can obviously use spells to get some info. Even if you can't, politeness goes a long way (I have yet to have my players master this; they think that everyone is just waiting for nosy questions to be asked, and don't even bother to introduce themselves first, 9 times out of 10).

      As for ambush predators, you may not know where a cougar will strike, but surely you know there are cougars in California?

      Of course, in DCC, your characters WERE those peasants and shepherds who did go out and handle something, and lived to tell the tale.

    2. Hmm. If I heard there was a terrible beast in the countryside?... As a PC, I'd go to the marketplace, the local taverns and ask for rumors and try to spark up interest in those who might converse about it. In a friendly, let me buy you an ale manner of passing the time - kind of way. If the village had any elders, savants, headman-types, or local lordlings that would give my PCs the time of day, I'd try to find if they had any information about tracking the beast down and if there was a reward for it's head/hide.

      If there were two paths, and we could cast a 2nd lvl cleric spell of Augury, maybe we could determine if one of them was likely to result in serious danger to us within the next 60 seconds of traveling down it.

  2. This article makes special note that it's not guaranteed the PCs WILL obtain sufficient information, merely that with good play, and a little luck, they have the potential to do so. Is this saying they could have found info, but the people who had it, didn't react positively to the charisma of the questioner, and didn't feel like saying what they knew? Or, the PCs failed to locate the correct text in a library of books? Maybe I'm missing the obvious, that the players find things, if they think to ask for them properly, and I'm making too much of the issue being something beyond player skill and becoming something about failed dice checks executed after player skill 'triggers' the rolls?

    I like the idea of danger that actually may catch up with at least some of the PCs in a party, and potentially kill them. Total party kills are an issue I'm having more problems with. Living breathing worlds, sounds like a great idea, but can't it still happen, and can't there be consequences, if say, half the party dies due to unfortunate events/dice rolls, and the remainders manage to flee battered and with their lives? I guess, I'm asking if it's necessary for a beast/ group of bandits that probably could run down the survivors and dispatch them, to just decide to eat/loot the bodies and risk nothing further. That the ref decides, "Half the party died, so they had serious consequences, and there isn't any need for another roll to determine if there's a chase. It serves no point, and player skill will come from this learning lesson, without insisting on a TPK. The living breathing world can still happen, without me needing to hit any harder." Is this acceptable, or does it violate living breathing worlds that exist beyond players' wishes?

    You mentioned DCC having longterm consequences of corruption, etc that have permanent consequences to a PC. I haven't bought that game, but I plan to when I finish a few research projects, first. In DCC, how likely is it that PCs have these dire long term effects happen to them in a lifetime? Or, in a single level? Corruption rules, that I've read about, seem to be highly likely to afflict a wizard at some point, increasingly, in DCC. Is that your experience?

    Again, thanks for the excellent article! This blog of yours has taught me tons of ideas, even if I disagree about some of the full applications of them, instead of my more "watered down" versions. You do really excellent work, and it's certainly piqued my interest in getting into DCC and looking through your modules after I find a Ref to run them for me as a player, first.

    1. Go back and read my articles on Choice, Context, and Consequence. The GM, in my view, should WANT to give the players info. If they think to look in some Alexandrian library, they should find something....even if it is an idea of how long it will take, or that they might need help from an expert.

      There can be consequences even if no one dies. The idea isn't to run about trying to kill the characters, but merely to create the threat that they COULD die, and then accept it if the DO. I.e., create interesting threats, and then allow the dice to fall where they may.

      Living worlds exist beyond the players' wishes, but that doesn't mean that the judge needs to be a slave to the dice. If you roll, abide by it. If your party has left a bunch of dead behind, and you're pretty sure that the threat would likely stop to eat, let them stop to eat. Injury is more serious to a predator than we tend to credit, and most attempts at predation fail. If a lion, an allosaur, or a dragon is too wounded to hunt down its natural prey, barring magic of some sort, or a friendly hand, it starves.

      In my games, I've had (sadly, for it is fun!) only a bit of corruption. However, if you are knocked to 0 and survive, you lose a point in a stat, and the critical hits of enemies can have long-term effects. Likelihood varies with circumstances; a "1" on a spellcheck could be a misfire, for example, instead of corruption.

    2. Another way to look at it: Modern games (by which I mean WotC-D&D derived games for the most part) have made the "too hard" encounter something of a problem. Part of this is because you are supposed to plan your character out, and that plan is lost, and part of it is because it takes a fair bit of time to create your fallen character's replacement, esp. as your group rises in power.

      In a game like DCC, creating an 8th level warrior for someone fairly unfamiliar with rpgs took us about 10 minutes last night. And that was letting him pick from 4 sets of stats with occupation and birth auger.

      You shouldn't be afraid of "too hard", in my opinion. You should be afraid of "boring". Making it harder helps avoid boring.

  3. Damn. This thing deleted my posts 3 times in a row, after hitting "preview," and also: "publish." Something's wrong with it.

  4. Re: The GM should want to provide information to the players. Sure, that always seemed clear to me. Likewise, there isn’t any interest in ‘trying to kill the characters,’ but in creating threats. My thinking was that if there was a dire breakdown in combat, to allow up to half the party to face the unlucky dice rolls, and the remainder to make a get-away. Maybe losing some of their equipment in the process, too. The monsters stop chasing to eat the dead, the bandits don’t bother running after them (too lazy, or too risk averse that they might get an unlucky injury from a weakened but still dangerous PC, etc. Now that they have enough money from the bodies to go spend it on a tavern-binge, that meets their objectives). Your comments about lions and predators avoiding injuries I think is an excellent one along these lines. It’s a good real world anchor for this kind of justification.

    WotC D&D brand game-like product has never been something I’d consider spending the time to learn, with it’s rules heavy system mastery requirements and 10 odd ‘core’ rulebooks. Lots of people enjoy it’s various iterations. For me, the time, money, and assurance that the next inevitable cyclical iteration guarantees you will be required brand new expenditures of time and money a few years down the road, would frustrate me too much.

    Re: The WotC derived game design that makes ‘too hard’ encounters a problem, is a corner they painted themselves into. New PCs should be quick and easy to recreate on the fly, so there isn’t an incentive for the ref to avoid meaningful consequences in encounters. If DCC can have a game where 8th lvl characters, made up in 10 minutes by newbies, and they can find a challenge in a 2nd level and up adventure, it sounds like they have some kind of sweet spot for lots of these issues.

    The idea of having a challenging game for multiple levels of PCs seems very appealing. It mostly comes down to player skill to avoid the obvious dire consequences in the first place, it seems.

    1. I urge you to take a look at Dungeon Crawl Classics. If nothing else, check out the modules.

      Or, as you said, best to get a judge to run them for you first. There is a lot of fun to be had, and from your comments I think you would like the system. I know I do!

  5. Do they run DCC games on google plus that you can just log onto? If so, how do you go about locating the game once you log onto Google plus? I'd like to see how the feel of the game runs, if possible.

    Asides from having an encyclopedic memory from the books and games you’ve previously played in, do you use any rules of thumb, or tables for creating contextual elements on the fly?

    1. There are games on Google+, but I am not sure exactly how they work. You may wish to join the DCC community on Google+, if you have not already done so, to find a game.

      When creating areas, you can always create tables to aid in creating context. That is, after all, one function of random encounter tables, dungeon dressing tables, etc.

  6. I reviewed the three articles on Context and Consequences, and some things jumped out at me:

    "On the other hand, be wary of having NPCs that usurp player choices. NPCs should always act from their own motives, and from their own limited information. Rather than have a Council of Elrond that tells the players what must be done, have NPCs who urge the players in this direction and that….some offering good suggestions, others offering less good, all from the basis of their own goals and understanding. Just because an NPC wants to hire adventurers to perform some task, it does not follow that the PCs should be perfectly suited to that task….or suited to it at all."

    "Players get used to the idea that, if an NPC wants to hire them, this is “the plot hook”, and it should be taken. If you want a living game, based on player choices, you need to break that cycle. In minor ways at first, and then more strongly, have NPCs offer jobs that are not suited to the PCs. They might be boring, and so glossed over, or they might be jobs that the PCs are outmatched or undermatched. You must make certain that the players come to understand that NPCs are not the GM. What they want is not what the GM wants. They must be taken on their own terms."

    "When the players understand that you are not going to tell them what to do, that you are going to offer them many choices, and that the pacing of the game is going to be largely based on their decisions, you have set the stage for truly satisfying play. This is what a role-playing game can do….what it is best at. You cannot get that experience from a novel or a movie, or from a computer game. This is where the medium shines."

    Is it safe to assume you can tell your players before hand that your basic approach is to allow the players to create these satisfying choices and pacing on their own decision making? Or is there a benefit in having them stumble on the facts about reality in your worlds, by their own slowly earned tedium? For my bet, I’d tell them that they should scrutinize the plothooks offered for value: “You may be offered bogus jobs, you should think about that if you accept them. Be proactive, or you may find it boring until you do.”

    1. By all means, apprise your players of the basic approach that you will be taking!

  7. Spoilers following for the Old: Adventure Module N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God:

    Along the lines of choices, how do you handle an issue where a party ends up TPK'd. The players are still eager to roll up new characters and try their luck again, and do so. If the players discovered something crucial before their deaths, how do you isolate that fact when they go around the second time? I'm rereading an old adventure, "Against the Cult of the Reptile God," and was trying to visualize how it would be handled with choices, context, & consequences, etc in mind. If the players figure out there's a cult using specific tactics in one encounter, like drugged food/drink, or there are deadly traps in another spot...and this killed off the PCs the first go round... what to do?

    If the Ref tells them they can't use out of context information, then it would appear they're doomed to take the poisoned drinks each time they’re offered, or to continue to take a deadly turn down a hallway, each time. Maybe DCC has a way of handling this, or its solution is old hat for a lot of gamers. Any ideas? Thanks.

    1. Move forward in the timeline. Rather than let them head out immediately, months pass before the next party appears in the area. Determine what changes there should be to the area, and then implement them. Is it wrong that Bob's fighter doesn't turn left into danger? Maybe the spirit of Bob's cleric still lingers in the corridor, and the hair on the fighter's nape tingles in dread when he considers going that way. And maybe going that way is now the best choice, because time has moved on, and things have changed.

  8. Very neat idea!

    If you are running a non-magical, post apocalyptic game, or Sci Fi game, is there still a way to handle a situation like this, where you are using a scientific cause and effect kind of logic? i.e. if the cult has been and is still drugging people (after all, it worked before, and nobody survives to expose the ruse) and you can't have ghosts giving subtle warnings, is there a solution to that?

    The Thugees were pulling stunts like this for centuries, because none of their victims survived to alert anybody to the methods employed, as a real life example.

    1. People have hunches in the real world too, you know.

      Consider this, if you like: That first, TPKed, party, was like the prologue in a story, where we see how dangerous the villains are.. The second party is a little more suspicious, and they don't fall for the same thing (although they still may fall).

      In the real world, crimes are solved very often because (1) someone tries the same thing one too many times, and creates a discernible pattern, or (2) someone talks. (2) is a good way to go, placing a party between the first set of PCs and the second set of PCs, where one person survives to tell the tale. Or, enough of the tale to give the PCs a reason to be suspicious within the game milieu.

  9. Good idea, saving that to my notes. I'm changing a lot of the approaches I used to assume were inviolate. Adding in more NPCs to give info or clues was something I previously avoided, as my focus was wrapped up in first person experiences of the party, and that would be about it.

    Off that subject, maybe you know where I can find some other data that doesn't appear anywhere I've looked on the internet.

    1) Do you know where I can download a copy of a famous article "Monsters are People, too" by Edward E Simbalist?

    2) I've heard that Traveller had an introduction or article that gave the best reason as to why people role-play. Can't find it anyplace, or even a hint as to its contents.

    I'm assuming it's not copyright protected and is out there someplace, do you have any links to this stuff? It would be much appreciated.

    And yet another unrelated issue to the previous ones: How many DCC modules have been printed, and what is the rate of new ones per year? I've looked at the link you posted and there seemed to be a lot of them. I've heard there are much more than that out there.

    1. 1) Nope. Sorry.

      2) Also "Nope. Sorry."

      RPG Now lists 83 items in their DCC filter. Not all of these are adventures, though, and some are only available in pdf.

  10. Very nice article that sums up my opinion on quite a bit.

    What are you feelings regarding the current trend of making failure "attractive" as an option by virtue of "failing forward" in game design? To what extent does this impact the legitimacy of a challenge? If "the game must go on!" eliminates some failure scenarios because the players might find those scenarios undesirable...would you say that that undermines the concept of failure? Should failure from a PC stand-point be undesirable from a player standpoint with undesirable consequences that accompany it?

    1. Those are good questions. I think they are worthy of a post or two on the topic, which I shall get to as soon as time permits.

    2. Ah excellent. I greatly appreciate the consideration. I find it a very interesting (if divisive) topic in game design.


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