Tobold's Blog
Monday, May 18, 2020
Progression vs. Challenge

Since my previous post on my D&D campaign Dragon of Icespire Peak we managed to play 3 more sessions and finish the adventure. I played the final encounter as written, with the group of level 6 characters fighting the Young White Dragon on to of Icespire Hold. That ended up as somewhat of a damp squib, with the fight being far too easy. Especially the paladin with his divine smite can have a huge damage output in a very short time, especially when he crits. And the druid had cast earthbind on the dragon, preventing him from flying. So the dragon didn't have all of his tactical options, the whole group pounced on him, and took him down before he could do very much. In hindsight the fight needed some minions to make it more interesting, but the dragon in the adventure was never said to have any of those.

On the other hand, if the group had gone to attack the dragon let's say 2 levels earlier, it would have been a far tougher fight. In this adventure basically the final challenge is fixed, and the players progress from level 1 to maximum 6 before taking him on. Other challenges in the adventure scale with level or player number, but not the final one. That makes it susceptible to being outleveled.

This is a constant challenge in games with role-playing elements and character progression: How fast is the growth of power due to character progression, compared to the growth of challenge along the story. I am now 23 hours into the latest XCom game, Chimera Squad. Earlier this year I played Phoenix Point, another XCom clone. In both of these games, towards the end of the story, character progression stopped, while the challenge was still going up rapidly. In Phoenix Point I finally succeeded in the final combat, but it was a slog and not fun. Chimera Squad is a much more open software with accessible config files one can edit, so I managed to make the end less of a slog for me. Unfortunately not many games make modding to easy; often you can just set a difficulty level, and if character progression and challenge progression diverge, the difficulty setting that was great at the start isn't what you need later.

Of course that is only a problem as long as a game follows a fixed story. We already started the next D&D campaign after Dragon of Icespire Peak, and went with the same level 6 characters directly into the Dungeon of the Mad Mage, which is a mega-dungeon. The deeper you go, the higher the challenge, and every level has more than enough opportunity to gain xp to level up. Thus how fast you descend downwards to the more dangerous and lucrative levels depends on you. There are even magical gates that let you skip levels and instantly get much more deadly. But the group can always decide that a level is too hard, and go back up, clean up previously skipped content and earn xp and levels until they feel powerful enough. I always liked that option in previous generations of computer role-playing games. Too bad that this has a bit fallen out of favor, and monsters to kill are now often a limited resource, forcing you to progress even if you would quite like to farm some more xp first.


I feel a lot depends on where the characters are in their resource consumption. If they recently had a chance to refresh some of their spells they are much more potent and able to take on much larger challenges than otherwise. If the players also know that a creature is the end boss they know that they can just go nova because they will be able to rest afterwards. But, you already know all this. I imagine it is quite challenging as a GM to balance each encounter for the characters' level and current effective strength/power.
Have fun with Mad Mage!
I am not big enough fan of dungeon delves to run it, but I pillaged upper levels for dungeon locations in my home-remake of Princes of the Apocalypse.
Overall, I find it somewhat dull, but with little gems of fun hidden inside.
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