Table Reflection: Challenging versus Punishing.

“Your torch illuminates more of the dungeon past the cobwebs.”

“I lunge onward, ready to bring the goblin king to justice!”

“The ground gives way underneath you, dropping you into a pit of spikes. You had 20 HP left, right? Yeah, you’re dead.”

Most veteran roleplayers will immediately see what’s going on in this exchange-the Game Master has just killed a character with relatively little justification. Today’s Table Reflection will look at creating a gaming experience that is rewarding and challenging at the same time.

First, let’s define our terms here: What is the difference between something that is challenging versus something that is punishing? A challenging experience requires skill, creativity, and cooperation on the behalf of the players, and isn’t easily overcome. A punishing experience, on the other hand, is directly linked to forcing players into certain experiences “or else”. As seen above, the person running the game probably didn’t want his players dashing in, so he resorted to one of the classic psychological exercises; punish for misbehavior, and reward for compliance. This may work, from a strict storytelling perspective, but from a gameplay experience it’s really punishing. Players are often invested in a game, whether or not they’ve been deeply involved, and sidelining them for a mistake is not part of an ideal gaming experience.

This punishment approach is considered to be one of the hallmarks of a “bad” GM; let’s bring in an anecdote from my own table just to spice things up. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but in one of my Shadowrun campaigns the players fell afoul of Renraku for dubious reasons (it was my first major campaign, and had plot holes like you wouldn’t believe). All of them were rookie roleplayers, and I tried to scare them straight by introducing the concept of killer nanites in their bloodstream (this was for 3rd Edition, and it was cool to have nanobots cutting up blood vessels from the inside), and telling them that while the majority of them were tough enough to survive, a couple of them were in danger of dying. Now, the unfortunate thing about this was twofold; one from a narrative perspective (one of my players explicitly told me not to do such things again, because it hurt immersion), but also because it caused the thing to become even worse than it had before. A failed run later, their hope of getting their promised “antidote” was crushed. Being merciful, I presented them a shady back alley opportunity to get an antidote. Lo and behold, a Renraku agent disguised as a neutral party gave the “antidote”, and one of the players hogged it for himself and drank it all. Unfortunately for him, the agent hadn’t delivered an antidote, but instead a poison, and walked off laughing about how he had fooled them into believing they were in danger in the first place, then telling them that there had never been killer nanites, they had been suckered in, and the player who selfishly hogged the “antidote” to himself got thoroughly buried for his efforts. He was mad, and with good reason-I killed his character off “for good” because I wanted to add a degree of conspiracy to the campaign and remind the players that they were mortal, and with very little warning. Were I more experienced, I would have probably skipped this plot altogether and moved them into another plot, since the whole “you’re all going to die but not really” thing is not really a deep or engaging plot.

A good example of this in Classical literature would be basically any story in which characters mess around with fate, get on the wrong side of a prophecy, and are struck down by some Grecian god on account of their transgressions; Oedipus, for instance, whose parents send him away because he is to kill his father and wed his mother, winds up doing these things despite his intent and the intent of his parents who gave him up as an infant. These are things that are decreasingly popular in storytelling-they feel forced and bulky-and don’t have a huge role at the table, either. When running a game, remember that the storytelling is cooperative-predefined narratives seem to be one of the major causes of this punishing difficulty; if a player cannot make their own decisions without being struck down for interfering with the paths of the gods, perhaps the story is better told by a single individual rather than a group. Of course, there are times when this sort of thing is okay, such as in a game that legitimately looked at the concepts of destiny and fate, but these games are few and far between.

Challenge, on the other hand, is something that is visible to the players. They know about any risks and payouts ahead of time and make the conscious cost-benefit analysis for every possible outcome. Of course, there are issues with deciding on an exact challenge level for a group; some games, like most of the ones I run, are rather low lethality, with death being low. Most of my players, even the power-gamers, are playing for the story-they’re happy so long as I keep giving them new stuff to see. However, challenge is a crucial way to add death to a campaign; most roleplaying games involve situations from which a character can never socially, mentally, or physically recover, and everything from sanity points and infamy ratings reflect this. When running a game, look at the rules and use them as a basis for things; Shadowrun is a game in which players are threatened by loss of financial assets, a temporary hit-point pool, and a more permanent hit-point pool. Every month of game time they must pay for their lifestyles, which can range from insubstantial to pretty significant sums, but come with appropriate benefits; and being in the hospital is about half-way up the exponential price tree. Being stunned doesn’t carry any major penalties unless you get knocked out, but it does make everything harder; being injured has a similar effect but takes a while to heal from-especially for augmented people or mages who must seek higher quality care or in the case of the former often take longer to heal. As such, a good challenge would be something that involves risks to these assets, with only a catastrophic failure ending a character’s career.

And so it is with challenges-they are informed decisions that involve risk and through the chance of failure increase the dramatic tension of the story; as opposed to punishment. challenges have inherent game rules; few games throw in rules that explicitly say “and then the players die”; games that do tend to be either poorly written or involve very lethal forces (Call of Cthulhu, for instance, tended to just write down the approximate number of characters who die per turn when Cthulhu appears). This is because the stories of knights in shining armor and princesses in other castles rely upon a degree of risk to keep their appeal; it’s like how many people don’t like Superman as a character because he only has two weaknesses; kryptonite or unavailability, and his powers make it so that he pretty much always saves the day except in the darker issues.

A challenge acts as a way to flavor the game, rather than force certain behaviors; the party may manage to talk down the terrorist before he pries open the airlock of the space station with a crowbar, but the normal “safe” route would be to just attack as hard as possible so that he never got a chance. Challenges provide agency within the game, which allows players to enjoy it a whole lot more as they get the sense that their actions influence the game.

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