Thursday, 2 May 2013

"Challenging Games"

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.



  1. This is the first time I've ever heard of the "10/80/10 Rule" (I have just Googled it, and hit a bunch of business management articles) -- do you have further thoughts on applying it to a sandbox-style game? For instance, if the players journey to a Orwellian-1984-style locale, do you throw the 10/80/10 Rule out the window in favor of the nature of the locale? Or do you just "flip" it? More broadly, if the players can go where they like, how does this Rule apply? Wouldn't the numbers be different in, say, Punjar vs. Cormyr? Or is it more of an over-arcing policy, where you *design* for 10/80/10, and where the players go within that is under their steering?

    1. Assume that the cultural sense of honor determines the norm. 10% are firmly entrenched in it, 80% can be persuaded to see it your way, and 10% are scum. In some societies, the "scum" might be the good guys.

      The other cool thing about 10/80/10 is that it is easy to use with 1d10. Don't know if the guard can be bribed? Roll 1d10. "1" is a clear NO with real consequences, and "10" indicates that the guard will use the attempt to bend you over backwards later....just a bit of blackmail, squire. 2 to 9 are progressively easier to turn as the numbers get larger.

    2. So it's more of a 'case-by-case' tool, not a 'hexmap' design consideration (e.g., "evil kingdom here, good elves over here") with any worrying over the proportions.

    3. Use it however you like. You can easily use it to decide the prevailing mores of a society by using the same tool, where 1 is a society that is young and thriving, and has strong social cohesion/social capital, whereas 10 indicates a society on the brink of collapse.

      You can also use it for Law-Neutral-Chaos in a game like DCC where those alignments are definitive.

      Anyway, beware the assumption that elves are good. :D

    4. lol -- That was a qualifier, not a given. : )