If you’ve ever literally hit a wall, you know how un-fun it can be. Yet that’s exactly what many GMs do to their players when they try to raise the bar of challenges in their game.
It’s natural to scale up the difficulty as a game goes on – in fact, your players will often be grateful for it. Waltzing effortlessly over armies worth of bad guys is cute for the first minute or so, then it quickly becomes tedious and yawn-inducing. The feeling of having to try to succeed validates the whole reason players are at the table rolling dice. If failure becomes so remote it’s unthinkable, why do the players ever need to participate? They’ll succeed no matter what.
In an effort to solve that problem, however, too many GMs go too far in the opposite direction. If your players suddenly come up against an enemy they can barely touch, success is now so remote that they might as well not roll – it’ll likely have the same result. It’s the same problem, except instead of boring your players, you’re frustrating and humiliating them, and that’s far worse than the alternative.
But any GM can tell you that perfectly picking the balance of challenge, especially across a diverse party, can be maddeningly difficult in its own right. So how do you ramp things up without accidentally beating your players down in the process?
Playing the Percentages
The first thing to keep in mind when you’re raising the bar is where exactly the ‘sweet spot’ is. In nearly any system, an 80% chance of success is that sweet spot for anything the given PC is good at. A rogue should have an 80% chance to pick a lock, a shaman should have an 80% chance of summoning a spirit without knocking herself out with Drain, etc. 80% seems like a hell of a lot, but it’s the thing you do best, and you should expect to be able to do it well.
That means a fighter character needs roughly an 80% chance to hit their target. By contrast, many of us default to creating opponents which are roughly equal to the party, aiming for a 50% success rate, but a 50% chance to hit feels far, far lower in practice that you might think.
No matter the level your characters get to, you want to try to bullseye that 80% success chance at what they’re good at as much as possible. Any challenge that goes up or down from that number you’ll then know to describe as particularly easy or difficult so that they’re prepared for what to expect.
Many systems make 80% success an easy number to target (D&D, Eclipse Phase, CoC, etc). For multi-dice systems, figure out what the player needs to roll to get one success. In Shadowrun, if they’re rolling five dice against a difficulty six, they have an 83% chance to get one success (1 in 6 chance per die, times five dice, is 5/6, or 83%). The moment you require that they roll at least 2 successes, that chance drops to 14% (1/6 * 1/6 = 1/36, so they have a 5 in 36 chance), so be very careful going to multiple successes required.
If you’re using a system like White Wolf where a 1 eats a success, you…may want to phone a statistician. Thankfully, at least in the case of White Wolf, anyone with as many dice to roll as the difficulty you set can choose to automatically get one success, which should help normalize your numbers a bit.
Ramps vs. Plateaus
Now, some of you running the math above may have already discovered a problem – if your players always succeed the same percentage of the time, the game won’t feel like it’s any more difficult at all. It’s scaling to match them as they grow and level, so it’s almost like there’s no point in them leveling at all – the monsters will just get equally more powerful to compensate.
That’s absolutely right, which is why it’s up to you the GM to change the shape of the challenges you’re presenting them with while keeping the chance of success level, and that often means changing what success looks like. If the challenge the PCs face is always one big monster, then nothing seems to change. But if they’re suddenly up against an army instead of a single ‘boss,’ it feels like a much bigger challenge, even if the rough chance of success is the same.
Now the fighters might be more likely to hit (or do more damage when they do), but taking one monster down isn’t as meaningful to the overall fight as it was with the single boss model. It’s also a chance for those character builds better suited to large groups of weaker opponents to shine. Just make sure to keep mixing it up so that the game doesn’t always favor one style over the other.
You can also switch up the situation and environment to make the fight feel more dangerous than it is. Instead of just adding more bad guys to bum rush the party in one big group, break the combat into waves of different types – ground fighters, enemy wizards, flying monsters overhead, etc. Perhaps the waves of weaker enemies were just to buy time while the cultists summoned the one big ugly to end the fight. While the strongest combat characters are taking said big ugly down, the skill-focused characters may have their own task of disabling the summoning portal before more and more big uglies come through to join the fight and take over the world.
Even if each of those individual challenges is something the players can succeed at as easily as they did the level before, having the greater number, complexity and concurrency of challenges makes the fight feel more difficult than it really is without risking anyone feeling like they’re just beating their head against a wall the entire time.
Unless you have someone playing a troll with “headbutt wall” as a skill – in which case, there should be an 80% chance they’ll succeed.