That Edge Between Doom and Boredom

This is a gaming post; I know, it’s been awhile. Recently I’ve been running a D&D 5th Edition campaign (set in the Greyhawk world – my personal favorite) and, while it has been going relatively smoothly, I’ve run into a minor problem: the PCs are just too dang good at things. The lot of them are floating around 7th level at this point and every time I try to send them a challenging encounter, I have two options:

  1. The Encounter can end in 35 minutes or less, or will be way too easy (snore).
  2. The Encounter will be challenging and threaten them, but will involve tons of creatures and take more than an hour (snore).

Sometimes I don’t even get that.

Now, this isn’t a post bemoaning game balance, but it is a post about game systems and campaign theory. A lot of players like having encounters that don’t seriously threaten their character’s survival. You waltz through the dungeon, take a few hit points damage here and there (quickly replaced by the healer), go outside, take a nap, and BAM – back to 100%. If that’s the game you want to play, then fine. Personally, I think that kind of play is dreadfully boring for everybody. Without risk, there is no drama.

So, what do you do, as the GM, to create a sense of peril? When I have a Fire Giant loom on the horizon, I want my players to be actively concerned. I want them to feel like they could very well be pounded flat. Thing is, by 7th Level, a party of 4-5 PCs don’t have to feel that way about a 20-foot giant anymore, and I consider that an issue. The answer seems to be “more giants,” but soon the plausibility of the encounter begins to create problems. The image of five giants swinging giant swords at targets that stand about knee-high seems…stupid. For that reason, my current experience of 5th Ed D&D (while fun) has been mixed.

Of course, you can go the other way entirely. Consider the game Riddle of Steel. It boasts of the “most realistic combat system in all of RPGs” and, honestly, I have to think they’re right. The problem, though, is because it is so realistic, people die all the goddamned time. Like, seriously – one goon whacks you in the temple with a two-by-four and your character is down for the count and likely permanently disabled. While this certainly ups a sense of risk (one guy pulls a knife and shit gets real really fast), it also forces players (who are inherently conservative folks, anyway) to start acting like real people. Everybody becomes more polite, they don’t do stupid things like “storm the castle,” and, hell, if I gave them the option, about half of them would settle down with a good woman in a town somewhere and sell dry goods. Adventure wouldn’t happen.

Heart-in-throat moments are what good RPGs are built on. Good stories, too.

Heart-in-throat moments are what good RPGs are built on. Good stories, too.

There is that sweet spot, though – right in-between “too easy” and “too deadly” – that spot where really, really cool stuff happens. Old school Shadowrun was like this: get shot, and you felt it, but otherwise you were awesome and it was really hard for mooks to shoot you (though, it should be noted that recent editions of the game have really made it safer to run the shadows, even with bullet wounds). Of course, this isn’t just dependent on game system – I firmly believe you can make a game ride this edge with enough forethought and planning, though it is harder in some games than others. In every game I run, that’s the goal: keep things dangerous enough that the players feel the risk, but keep them safe enough that everybody doesn’t die of dysentery or are knifed in an alley by a pickpocket and bleed out. Of course there are variations, too – some games, depending upon concept, are more or less fatal and that’s fine – but the edge between the two is the golden sweet spot, for me.

I can expand this idea, by the way, to include fiction, too. Good adventure stories need to find this zone, as well. Stories where everybody is worthless and dies are usually just dismal whereas stories where the proverbial “Mary Sues/Stus” just gaily tramp to victory with no cost to themselves or others are pretty dull. If you want players or readers on the edge of their seats, you need to work them up to it. It takes some doing, but I’ve found both in writing and gaming that anytime this is done well it makes for a memorable experience.

It ain’t easy, though.

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on February 1, 2016, in Gaming and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I know exactly what you mean. I tended to lean towards more powerful characters in my games, average people would be farmers not adventurers, but I consequently made my baddies even badder. Maybe a simple idea, though it requires some planning, is to make the stock bad guys tougher. As an example, a pack of hobgoblins isn’t much of a concern to a party of decent size. Until you make it a party of hobgoblin mercenaries who are fighters of equal level to the players. Just a thought.
    I agree with you though about it connecting to fiction. It’s a hard balance, which I think you nailed by the way. I think this is the problem movie script writers have with Superman/Supergirl movies and shows. They’re basically Gods, so what can you throw at them that they can’t shake off? But if it was simple, everyone would do it, right? haha

    • Thanks!

      Yeah, I do that sometimes. There comes a point when we’re whacking swords against each other with no discernible effect for too long, though. One of the reasons I spent (many) years outside of D&D, as it happens.

  2. One thing I did recently with a group of players was a bait & switch boss. I designed him based on MMORPG bosses, so there were phases to the fight.

    At around 10% health a spirit NPC came in and shielded the boss, started to healed him and summoned 4 other enemies. Now these 4 were much weaker but by then the characters had gone all out on the primary target. So now they had to think things through and be strategic about their power use.

    I also told them that the new summons were connected to the spirit and the shield. They fought the creatures but then the Cleric had the stroke of genius of attacking the spirit. The result was weakened enemies and direct damage to the boss. So then they split their efforts and kept the summons at bay while the cleric went to town on the spirit.

    Boss defeated and party celebrating on a tough boss.

    I’ve done that many times, adding another layer of complexity to the fight, another mechanic that makes things challenging, particularly if the fight becomes puzzle-like. Video games are a terriffic source of inspiration for RPG encounters.

    Also, giving monsters classes is always a good idea hahaha, or adding unique (read made-up) abilities to them 🙂

    • I do a lot of stuff like that, yeah. I try to steer away from video game-esque encounters mostly because they tend to seem arbitrary/break the rules a bit (I don’t like having creatures appear from thin air, for instance, nor should unintelligent beasts be rocking magical stuff without significant explanation).

      The other issue becomes timing. Battles that drag on for too long get dull – people get tired, I get tired, and we degenerate to dice rolling and that’s it. Gotta keep a battle under an hour, is my rule.

      I’ve been using Heroic Actions and Lair effects to boost things, too, which works fairly well. The thing I’ve underestimated in this edition is the efficacy of both healing magic and rogue sneak attack damage, both of which have been devastating to the big bads.

      • Sneak attacks in particular are really powerful. Can you give me an explanation on Lair Effects? Sounds intriguing.

        On my encounter I had the forethought of bringing in that spirit NPC during their conversation with the boss, so they knew it was there and served the big bad. If I hadn’t, then they would’ve called shenanigans.

        It also helped that we were playing during my livestream for Extra Life, a charity event, so I had donation incentives set for the game and mid battle someone donated to have the extra monsters come in. It made it easier to bring in new things, I had a charitable excuse haha

  3. In 5th Ed, some creatures have persistent effects that work in their Lairs (Dragons come to mind. A couple others). Basically you can set up a modest background effect that can tip things a bit in the monster’s favor. For instance, I had a lair recently so full of the stench of rot that all PCs needed to make a DC 10 Constitution Save or have the Poisoned condition as long as they stayed inside the lair. This served to make it more difficult for the Rogue to get the Sneak Attack, since they were consistently at Disadvantage while there.

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