Tobold's Blog
Friday, November 23, 2012
Challenge in D&D

Pen & paper roleplaying games span a large variety of different play styles. But in general they have two main parts: One roleplaying part of interactive storytelling, not unlike improvisational theatre; and one combat part where dice are rolled in some sort of turn-based tactical combat system. Yesterday there was a discussion in the comment section whether playing D&D held any challenge, or whether it was just players sitting around, shooting the breeze. Now as I said different people play these games differently, but most of the pen & paper games I have played, and especially D&D, sure had challenge.

Obviously in a pen & paper game it doesn't matter how fast you can react or roll the dice, so the challenge is very different from that of a real-time computer RPG. But it is comparable to turn-based RPG or tactical computer games. For combat to not be boring, it must fulfill two conditions: Different outcomes must be possible, and the decisions of the player must matter in determining that outcome. So assuming a decent DM running a campaign with a non-trivial amount of combat, there is at the very least challenge during combat, a pressure on the player to make the right tactical decisions to make combat go their way. And ideally there is also a bit of challenge in the roleplaying part, where the strategic set-up of the encounters would be determined: Coming up with a great plan before the combat should help make that combat easier.

If different outcomes must be possible, it also means character death must be possible. Now in some systems character death can be kind of random: In early editions of D&D/AD&D a level 1 wizard had 1-4 hitpoints, while a simple arrow did 1-6 points of damage. One stray arrow and you were dead. 4th edition D&D has combatants with more health compared to the amount of damage dealt, making combat slower, but also more tactical. More dice rolls means less dependence on a single lucky or unlucky roll, and more influence of player decisions. But unless the DM cheats, a mix of bad decisions and bad rolls can still very much kill a character.

The reason why some DMs cheat to prevent character death is that they value the story part of the game higher than the tactical part. In terms of story, a character death is messy, especially if your story is on the scripted side: If you built a campaign around one of your characters being the long lost heir to the kingdom, you don't want that character to die. But personally I have always found that the strength of a roleplaying game is its improvisational style, and that a certain amount of randomness does help. If the rogue decides to sneak past the guard, his skill check to move silently determines how the story continues. That prevents the story from becoming too predictable, for both the players and the DM.

Thus personally I believe that a D&D campaign in which character death is possible is better. It adds challenge to the combat part, and creates a wider variety of possible outcomes for the roleplaying part. I'd rather live with the risk of certain story arcs getting broken by some character dying than with the possibility of combat without excitement turning into a "kill 10 foozles" chore.

There is character death and then there is Total Party Kill. How many times have you let TPKs occur?

I am not sure I would call D&D combat (of any edition) "challenging," given it depends entirely on what the DM does. Will the DM consistently throw higher CR mobs at players? Will the DM fudge rolls? Will the DM play the monsters "dumb," e.g. not bothering to finish off downed foes, not having the dragon attack the same character with all 6-8 attacks, not leading off with the most powerful/insidious spells, not focusing on the least-armored player all the time, etc etc etc.

And on the flip side, the DM can only challenge players up to a certain point. What happens when you have a mixed group with varying tactical gaming skills? A challenge for the wizard could lead to the fighter and ranger getting killed (and leading to TPK).
I've never known a DM to pull a TPK.

Most DMs I know wanted:

1) The players, who are real people (friends?) sitting in front of them, to have a fun experience

2) To maintain the confidence of the players that the DM is capable of (1)
Will the DM play the monsters "dumb," e.g. not bothering to finish off downed foes, not having the dragon attack the same character with all 6-8 attacks, not leading off with the most powerful/insidious spells, not focusing on the least-armored player all the time, etc etc etc.

I do think combat in D&D with a good DM is both more challenging and more believable than MMORPG combat in that respect. The DM can make monsters choose who to attack on based on logical criteria. You don't get the complete "aggro control" you often see in MMORPGs.

In my campaign, the decisions of the players influence who gets attacked. Did the fighter mark an opponent? Is some lightly armored character standing right in the front line?

But it also depends on the monsters, with an intelligent dragon or NPC being more likely to use focused attacks or coup de grace or seeking out the weakest spot than some less intelligent humanoid or animal.

Total Party Kill is an extreme outcome, which would only be justified if the party did something extremely stupid. It is a possibility, but shouldn't be a random result of a bad dice roll. Depending on the nature of the enemy a party defeat can also be capture without killing everybody.
My experience is that even in a really tactical D&D game, one player gets really into the tactical side and pretty much moves all the pieces around and everyone else just states which mob they want to attack and rolls dice when they are told to.

I don't really know how you think this is more challenging than MMO combat, because the actual combat is replaced by a dice roll. Combat is one of the things that computer games can do better than tabletop (I make exception for a very narrative heavy pen and paper style of game where everyone describes their cool combat stunts in detail -- you can't do that in computer games.)
Using your criteria, what percent of an average D&D campaign would you say is challenging? Remember now, significant portions of combat would not count, as they do not determine outcomes, or the choices are so obvious as to be trivial (pressing key 1, followed by 2 or 3, 4 if it is flashing).

The argument could be made that D&D, under such criteria, falls under 2% as quickly as WoW or any twitch MMO.
I think a turn-based game is always more intellectually challenging than a twitch game, which challenges reflexes. And in the context of percentage of time spent challenged, a turn-based game has a huge advantage: You can think about your next move in advance. Thus you spend a much longer time and much bigger percentage with a challenge than only the moment of execution.
Your central problem is you are allowing for only two options: total victory or total defeat (death). You have already talked about the problems with allowing your players to die (not to mention that they would hate it), so most DMs have a large aversion to player death, leading to assured victory in most situations.

I don't think the best way to create challenge is to try threading that needle, trying to come to the edge of possible death without delivering. I think the better way is to offer viable options for failure (the main bad guy manages to escape a fight, guards show up to rescue your party resulting in loss of reputation and reward, the hostage or hostages the players are trying to rescue are killed, etc.). You need options for failure or at least partial failure that the DM is not afraid to let happen.

To me, challenge is defined by the potential for failure. If failure is something that never happens, you are just talking about creating the illusion of challenge where none actually exists.
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