Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The First Pillar - Challenge

Dungeons & Dragons is a game that challenges its participants…and I don’t just mean by forcing them to read hundreds of pages of text to grasp the rules. I‘m talking about game play itself. Playing the game of D&D requires participants (players and dungeon masters) to accept and meet challenges. If no one is being challenged in the game, then you’re most likely NOT playing Dungeons & Dragons.

By “challenge” I mean:
“to summon to action, effort, or use; to stimulate”
As well as
“a call to engage in a contest”
[both definitions coming from the American Heritage Dictionary]

Now as I said, when I talk about challenge as a fundamental concept (pillar) of D&D, I’m talking about it within play of the game itself. I am not talking about the challenge of getting through the rule book (which in recent years can be a fairly daunting task), nor the challenge of learning a system from others (for those not interested in purchasing/reading the book), nor the challenge of character creation (another daunting task at times, especially given the incredible array of options presented in recent editions), nor even the challenge of cooperating and working in conjunction with fellow players (sometimes the toughest non-game challenge of all!).

I’m talking about challenges faced within the course of the game

For participants acting as player characters, there is a near limitless number of challenges that might be encountered in a fantasy world, though they can be broken down into a number of general categories:
  • Monsters and NPC antagonists
  • Traps and threats of a “dungeon” (i.e. an adventure site)
  • Environmental hazards (arctic conditions, desert, swamp, etc.)
  • Resource management (food, arrows, spells, hit points, etc.)
  • Puzzles, riddles, and choices of mental quandary
  • Intrigue, political maneuvering, choices of social quandary
  • Spiritual temptations, ethical dilemmas, alignment and moral quandary
  • Magical or divine curses, quests, geas, etc.
I’m sure there are other categories I’m forgetting at the moment.

All of these examples are challenges: in-game events designed to summon players to action as they consider the best method of overcoming the challenge. The majority of these challenges can be confronted in a number of ways, and part of what makes a D&D game an engaging experience is figuring out different, interesting ways to overcome difficult challenges.

For example, in a recent game, my player (and the rest of the party) started the game at 1st level, locked in a prison asylum with almost nothing in the way of equipment. My own character’s “gear” (assigned by the DM) consisted of some rags and a thick wrap of cloth around one hand that gave me the equivalent of a boxing glove-like punch (1D3 damage). We soon found a large, brass key out of our communal cell and upon leaving I unwrapped my fist and re-wrapped it, key inside, to make a nice heavy cosh. Finding the hall lit by torches, I took one down to act as both a light and a secondary weapon…later on, I got hold of a rusty old dagger, which I incorporated into my wrapped hand to make a workable punch-knife, a fine weapon for my assassin. Other players in the party took similar steps to acquire armament, the (mental) challenge being: given your predicament, how can you arm yourself against the wandering zombies in your prison?

In a different game, played a year or two ago, my party stumbled into a nest of troglodytes…which in B/X play is pretty much a killer for even 2nd level, plate-armored characters (due to the creatures claw-claw-bite plus stink attack). This was a bad blunder on our part, and two of us (including my cleric) decided to sell ourselves dearly that the other characters could escape the encounter (and, yes, our two PCs did indeed die). The challenge here was not “can we overcome the encounter” (we couldn’t) but rather, can we acquit ourselves admirably and save our buddies (which we did)?

In a third game played MANY years ago, my character was in love with a particular NPC who was, unfortunately, being wooed by an even bigger, more powerful NPC (a lord baron with a lot of land and armies and such). The challenge for my character was to find a way to win her heart away from the guy, and somehow do so in a way that didn’t antagonize him into exacting a terrible retribution (he was not known as a ‘live-and-let live’ type of guy). Funnily enough, two other player characters were also enamored of the same NPC (she had a few desirable qualities) and were working towards the same end themselves, though in different fashion. As I recall, it was not my character that spirited the love interest away from the lord (that was the cleric PC who actually launched a whole invasion with his army of the Faithful in true Trojan War style. I believe the lord baron ended up crucified on the road…) but the girl did eventually end up marrying my character…if only briefly (that’s another story).

Challenges can come in a lot of forms for the imaginary character avatar: physical, mental, emotional, etc. But the challenges do come…at least in a game of D&D. The game itself is set up to encourage proactive ACTION by awarding points (i.e. experience points) for overcoming challenges. Experience points are a measure for “keeping score” in the game, and while it’s usually unfair to compare characters from different campaigns against each other (my 15th level character versus your 3rd level character may not be reflective of the players’ actual ability, but rather the circumstances of the campaign), WITHIN a campaign it is possible to compare players to each other, as they have the same DM and same imaginary environment. And even though a new PC has fewer "points" and levels than the PC that’s survived the longest, you can still compare the “rate of gain” between the two to see how well one is “scoring” compared to the other.

In the Forge articles on “creative agenda,” D&D is held as one of the baseline examples of an RPG that facilitates a “gamist” agenda. And with good reason: it is a game where challenge is integral to game play. Some editions have de-emphasized the challenge and its connection to reward (for example, Mentzer’s Companion rules provides heaps of XP for doing nothing but tracking the tax rate of your dominion), but most retain SOME degree of challenge (in Mentzer, character’s must adventure the “normal” way just to reach Name level and dominion status, and once there they face outside interference or…horrors! unwelcome visit from local nobility requiring a holiday/tournament to be paid out in their honor).

There are other role-playing games where challenge is NOT integral to the identity of the game. But those aren’t D&D.

For the Dungeon Master, too, there is challenge within the play of the game: the challenge of NOT just managing the system and players (as GMs in other RPGs generally have to do to some extent). The challenges that face D&D refs in-play include creating challenges for players that ARE challenging (and neither over-whelming nor “softball”), adjudicating and arbitrating rules on the fly, and keeping the pacing quick and the imaginary action (physical or not) lively and engaging. In addition, DMs are challenged by the need to keep things “fresh” for players, by changing up encounters, tweaking monsters and traps and enchantments, so as not to simply be putting out the “same-old-same-old.”

But mainly it is the antagonist role of the Dungeon Master that sets the D&D game apart from many other RPGs. If the DM does not provide challenges to the PCs, there is no advancement. Without advancement there is little reward. The constant challenge, the infliction of dramatic or traumatic or batshit crazy events on PCs is inherent in the structure of the game. And that role of being a “challenger” of players IS a challenge: being a mean, dastardly, no-good DM while at the same time being an impartial referee and arbiter and neutral with regard to the outcome of dice rolls.

If you DON’T include this aspect of the DM in your game, if the DM is told to simply fudge the rules in the players’ favor for example, than there is no real challenge being presented. A large part of what makes the game “D&D” is the challenge, and finding that proper balance for DMs is their specific challenge.

It’s part of the fun of being a DM.
; )

While some challenges can be overcome by combat, combat never needs to be integral to a game of D&D, despite what WotC would have you believe. Characters can always use brains to overcome challenges, or glib social skills, or magic, or fleet feet (i.e. turning tail and running). The example is right there in Tolkien, one of the major inspirations for the Dungeons & Dragons game: does Bilbo and the dwarves fight the dragon, Smaug? No. Does the Fellowship confront Sauron in his lair and chop him to pieces? No. Stealth, wit, trickery, courage, fortitude, discretion…these are on heroic display in Tolkien’s books. They can be a larger part of your D&D game, too, provided players are given the tools to use them.

In building a new D&D game THAT should be kept in mind: the need to challenge players. It’s not simply about making each class useful in combat or whatever. In D&D a player character can be looked at like this:

Ability Scores: describe the character’s basic capability in six distinct arenas.
Class: provides a small suite of skills to be used.
Race (if separate from class): provides a small variation on class skills and capabilities.
Hit Points: provides a measure of health/vitality
Armor Class: provides a measure of defensive value
Experience Points: provides a character’s current “score” in the game.
Level: provides a measure of a character’s survivability and increased effectiveness/power as a result of achieving a good “score.”
Alignment: a moral compass for your character’s in-game behavior.

With this “stat block” in perspective, one can see that the most important thing in game play is the character’s BEHAVIOR in the game. Because it is the behavior that is going to determine WHICH challenges are confronted as well as HOW they are met. Can you find your way out of the maze? Do you give half your treasure to the starving villagers? What are you going to do to defeat the 100’ tall undead colossus? Whether in the dungeon, in the wilderness, or in the king’s court, CHALLENGE is an integral, fundamental part of the D&D game.

Building a new D&D game means making sure challenge is honored. If the game is modular in design (as is planned for the 5th edition), modules should be designed to change and vary challenge for the players, and address the challenges of the DM’s role.

One Last Note: while other RPGs make use of conflict, danger, and/or dramatic tension in their games, the challenges of D&D have a very strong (imaginary) risk factor involved. More often than not, with true D&D challenges the consequences of failure (which must be present for a challenge to be "worthy;" it's not enough to just ask, "how well do I succeed at an inevitable success") are more often than not DEATH to the failing character. Fortunately, the game of D&D offers rules to off-set this "tragedy" (resurrection magic and easy character creation in early editions), but death, even for an imaginary character, can have an emotional impact on a player at the table. It makes the challenge of the game all the more savory.

Oh, yeah...and just because you have heavy challenge in your RPG doesn't make it D&D. There are THREE pillars, folks.
: )

Next pillar up: REWARD.


  1. What rpgs don't have challenge?

  2. @ Fumers:

    Many RPGs have no inherent 'challenge.' Traveller and most White Wolf games are the first two that pop into my head. You can certainly ADD challenge...but you don't have to. Pinnacle's Dead Lands would be another.

    There's also a difference between challeng ingrained into game play and 'conflict' as part of background setting. If it's only setting, it can be ignored in favor of exploration. Ignoring 'challenge' in D&D means staying on the farm, at level 1, for eternity. At that point, the game ceased to be recognizable as 'D&D.'

  3. What you have described is your interpretation of D&D patterns within the scheme of a Challenge. You can go nowhere in D&D too, perpetually playing 1st level campaigns (like I have done many times in the past) simply because the players and/or DM prefer the Challenge of a 1st level game.

    You might also want to give a more fair picture of Mentzer's Companion. While Mentzer's Companion provides XP for domain administration, it also clearly states that ADVENTURING is the key route to gaining XP. The amount of XP gained by administration is TINY and really negligible at the scales involved in Companion games. It would take literally years of game time to gain a level doing nothing but administration; and the outside world is surely not waiting for the PCs while they sit on their asses.

  4. So you're saying playing the game of Traveller, Vampire, or Dead Lands does NOT REQUIRE participants (players and game masters) to accept and meet challenges.

    It's hard for me to imagine anyone playing those game that way, and that generally doesn't agree with published adventures for those games. Is there any rpg where you do stay on the farm?

  5. This is a fair way of looking at things. But there are others. For instance, I can take your list of challenge categories, and break them down into each of the three pillars suggested by Cooke and Co:

    Monsters and NPC antagonists: Combat or Roleplay

    Traps and threats of a “dungeon” (i.e. an adventure site): Exploration

    Environmental hazards (arctic conditions, desert, swamp, etc.): Exploration

    Resource management (food, arrows, spells, hit points, etc.): Roleplay

    Puzzles, riddles, and choices of mental quandary: Exploration/Roleplay

    Intrigue, political maneuvering, choices of social quandary: Roleplay

    Spiritual temptations, ethical dilemmas, alignment and moral quandary: Roleplay

    Magical or divine curses, quests, geas, etc.: Exploration/Roleplay

  6. [Hmmm...not sure why the formatting of the post looks so wrong on this computer. I'll have to fix it when I get home tonight...sorry about that!]

    @ Antonio: I don't think I'm being particularly unfair to Mentzer. I've PLAYED Mentzer's Companion Rules (both as a stand-alone BECMI game and as an "add-on" to AD&D), and my experience is it takes very little time to "rack up the XP" depending on the size of your domain, especially ones that have a lot of resource income. And as I said, there ARE still challenges presented in his edition.

    @ Luke: Really? have you played Vampire?

    Unless the GM forces the characters to become involved, usually by railroading them (many of the published adventures for the first two VTMs, such as Ashes to Ashes and the Succubbus Club collection are effectively railroads), nothing forces players to do anything but pursue their petty vampire existence. I played VTM for 5 or 6 years and that was the case. The only thing that made players say, "hey let's take on a challenge" (with regard to published adventures) were the Diablerie ones, which were pretty much "D&D for Vampires."

    My experience with Traveller (as a player) and several license-type games has been the same...especically with licensed IP, you are expected to "know what to do." Which is total BS.

    Contrast that with D&D where players step up and say, "hey, where can we find some adventure/treasure?" D&D forces players to be proactive. I'll talk about this a little more in the next post.

    @ Nicco: I'm not arguing that there are a variety of ways to overcome challenges. I'm saying CHALLENGE is the Pillar, not "how that challenge is met." The WotC line that "COMBAT (for example) is an essential part of the tripod" is utter and complete bullshit. It ain't 'essential;' it's just an OPTION (and one of rather limited application, as your response seems to illustrate).
    ; )

  7. JB,

    I think I'm beginning to understand you. Combat is indeed an option... one that can be avoided. Looking forward to your next post.

  8. I think you're being disingenuous here, Jon. Combat IS central to the way 99% of the people play (and have always played) D&D. Yes you can and often should avoid it, but it's still one of the main, meat-and-potatoes activities players expect if you tell them they're going to be playing D&D (as opposed to Vampires, or Call of Cthulhu or whatever).

    You can get into the whole drama-club aspect where you play in a city for sessions at a time and not a sword is drawn, but that is by FAR the exception.

    HOW combat is integrated, and whether or not it is just assumed the players will win is a different story.

  9. @The Iron Goat

    Play without combat does not mean drama-club play in a city. It means tricking gollum into leading you out of the caves rather than slaughtering him. It means sneaking into Mordor to destroy an evil artifact rather than confronting Sauron head-on. JB gave several clear examples of this. You can indeed have D&D without combat; this doesn't mean that there are no monster challenges.

    I agree with you that many players don't seem to know this. They assume they should be able to kill everything (and further, that monster encounters should be balanced in a way that they don't even need to work particularly hard to do so). I think this is silly, and has lead directly to many of the decadent aspects of the game (healbot clerics, wands of cure light wounds, healing surges).

    I just today wrote about this on my blog actually:

  10. I don't think you've produced a good argument here. Arguing that the game IS challenge but that the challenge does not have to be about combat seems weak. Nor can I really agree that your argument about "challenge" defines D&D, or a roleplaying game, or anything really. I presume that's what a "pillar" would be - some kind of definitiion.

    Many things are a challenge. Tiddly winks are a challenge. Rising in the middle of the night and hitting the toilet bowl without dribbling is a challenge. It doesn't carry the cachet of argument, if you understand. It matters not whether the challenge is this or that ... the question is, have you SEPARATED out the game of D&D from any other particular thing by this argument. Have you provided the means to crystallize anyone's thinking about the game?

    I think not. I don't think anyone reading this, or playing the game, is mystified about the quality of challenge the game offers, nor do these words produce a clearer vision of what their world should be.

    You've replaced corporate bafflegab with other bafflegab. To paraphrase: "A pillar? My ass."

  11. @Brendan: I think you're oversimplifying my point in order to make your own. I already acknowledged that there are plenty of cases where combat can and should be avoided and that there are other things to do in the game. That doesn't change the fact that combat IS a central part of D&D and the WOTC guys aren't necessarily asshats for pointing that out.

  12. @ IG/Heron: you know I love of a good (role-playing) "dust up" as much or more than the next guy. At the same time, I have been part of D&D games where combat was NOT a central component to the game...though "challenge" still was.

    Part of the problem here may be the format in which I'm writing this series. I've got 12-15 pages of this stuff, but I'm trying to space it out over the week rather than just posting it at once (the reason being two-fold: I want to be lazy and not write something new every day, AND my buddy Kris already complains that a 3-page post is "too long" for his taste).

    However, I guess I need to reiterate what I'm doing here:

    1) I like D&D. So much so that I'm starting to look at the similar kernal of the editions and put aside my prejudice against various editions (it may not SEEM like that, from some of the things I write, but just take my word for it).

    2) In reading up on the intention of the 5E designers, I came across this "three pillar" concept and thought it was a heaping pile of shit. That is to say, it's like they just want to set themselves up for failure.

    3) I decided to offer an alternative three pillars. That might not have been clear. These are my opinion (not anything God whispered in my ear) and my reasonings behind 'em. I feel (personally) designers would be better served by looking at something like MY idea, because it's better than theirs (again, my opinion).

    4) I acknowledge that they don't give a rat's ass about my opinion. But I write a blog and it's something to blog about and interesting to discuss (from my point o view).

    Whether or not combat occurs in 99% of D&D games is dependent on a lot of things, not least of which is the design of the game. If WotC makes a game where every skill and feat is combat related (see for example, Saga Star Wars) and then award points (i.e. XP) for defeating opponents, what do you think is going to happen? Design matters...if you want your game to look like something OTHER than a slug-fest, then you have to take it into account when designing the game.

    Like the Republicans, they're starting off on the wrong frigging foot regarding their ideology.

    @ Alexis: Which is why I consider myself a hack as opposed to a writer.
    ; )

    See my response to the Iron Goat. It may be that the series will make more sense as a whole.

    (I suppose I could just devote a week to each pillar, but dammit, I DO have other things to do!)

  13. One point i made recently about challenges in different editions of D&D is whether or not the PCs are meant to overcome every one every time. I agree with the jist of the post here, but wasn't sure if thise idea was touched on. To me, one of the biggest differences in the style of play from OD&D/Classic D&D/1e to the later editions, even 2e to some extent, is that in the old school, failure was expected sometimes. You'd die if you failed the wrong saving throw. The DM, or even the module writer, would include encounters, traps and scenarios that would kill you if you attempted them at the wrong time. (The caves in the Keep on the Borderlands for example; there is no "set" order, but if your party is 1st level and tries to beat the hobgoblins before the kobolds, you're doomed). I guess what I'm saying is, "modern" D&D only has the illusion of challenge. All encounters are designed as beatable, and even if you botch things or the dice are against you, failure is usually not catastrophic. Is this really challenge? Is this also why attention spans and campaign longevity have fallen among modern players? The game just isn't all that fun in the long term if there is no chance to fail. Winning is great, but you have to lose once in a while to really enjoy that win.

  14. @ Darva:

    Your thoughts echo my own, pal, though I didn't go quite so far as to say the "illusion of challenge" (ha! but I thought it!).

    I tried to touch on that (O So Gently) in my "One Last Note" section regarding "worthy challenge," but I didn't want to get into a huge discussion on it. However, it's worth examining: If there is no true risk (or chance of loss) is there really a challenge being tackled? If no one fails but instead the game is about "how well do you succeed" is that really the same game? I'm not sure it is.

    Perhaps this is endemic to the Generation Y kids (or "millennials") who are being wooed to the game with the idea that "everyone wins, nobody loses, here's your trophy for having the nicest freckles," (or whatever). Perhaps. But being a little older this is just one of those things for which I don't have the stomach to be truly objective.

    Personally, I don't think 2nd Edition was very bad about this (though they WERE bad about some other things)...a challenge was still a challenge. And 3rd Edition wasn't all that bad, either...though they started moving in that direction when they made everything a damn skill roll.

  15. I see what you're saying but to be honest, I'm not really sure where I stand. I strayed from 4e into Pathfinder territory because I didn't like the game mechanics of (what I thought at the time anyway) WoTC's bastard child of tabletop and mmo.

    Your post did get me thinking about this new edition though. Will I play it? Probably not, my players are too comfortable where they are. Will it be bad? No one really knows yet.

    What I do know is this: If Pathfinder didn't exist, My group would be playing 4e because it is what's available. And if that wasn't around? Probably 3.5 or even back to AD&D2e!

    Every game platform contains plenty of challenges - combat, role play, exploration, social dramas with your own teammates... the list goes on. At the end of the day, books and modules and rules have very little to do with the game - the players and the GM do.

    I'm willing to bet your DM didn't force you to fall head over heels with the lord baron's love interest. You chose that path yourself, and created your own challenge-no rules needed.

    The same goes for any game system. Players just sitting around in VTM, bored and with no driving force? Then the DM needs to give them one!

    I hesitate to judge 5e too early on, you never know, they may be on to something. My suggestion to all gamers is variety. At least try different things. If you don't like them, move on! You may be a die hard fan of GameX, and never give yourself the chance to discover you enjoy GameZ ten times more!

  16. @ Matt:

    While I don't hold out a whole lot of faith that I'll LIKE 5th, I am interested to see what WotC rolls out. On the other hand, I haven't purchased a single WotC product since circa 2002 or so and am currently on a long-standing boycott of their product.

    RE: The challenges I mentioned

    The challenges WERE chosen by players, but the rules supported them, at least insofar as the DMs awarded XP (or bonus XP) for the actions taken. See the new post on Reward.
    : )