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GM as Video Game Designer (Apr. 2006)

Treasure Tables is in reruns [1] from November 1st through December 9th. I’m writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month [2], and there’s no way I can write posts here while retaining my (questionable) sanity. In the meantime, enjoy this post from our archives.
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Wired recently did an issue on videogames, and one thing that piqued my interest was this concept: Video game designers have to strike just the right balance with the difficulty of their games — too easy, and the player gets bored; too hard, and they give up.

That middle zone — where the game is difficult enough to be challenging, but easy enough to stay fun — is also an ideal goal for the majority of RPGs. And as GMs, that’s where we come in.

In and of itself, this isn’t a new idea — it’s at the heart of D&D 3.x’s Challenge Rating system, for example, as well as countless other tabletop RPGs.

But the conceptual underpinnings hadn’t grabbed me in quite that way before — the idea that we as GMs need to have this goal in mind when we run games:

Make the game challenging, but not so tough that the players become frustrated.

Thinking of it that way — as an explicit goal, both during prep and in play — puts it in a different perspective, at least for me.

So the next time you’re writing an encounter, ask yourself this question: If this were a video game, would I want to tear the controller in half? If the answer is no (taking into account the play styles and gaming goals of your players, of course), you’re probably on the right track.

The other element, of course, is something that gaming does much, much better than video games: Scaling difficulty on the fly. Last battle too rough? Just skip the next one. Fight heading for a TPK? Fudge a few rolls [3]. Players look bored? Skip ahead [4].

This goal isn’t going to work for every group, of course — but it should work for most groups and most games. Does it work for you?
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Normally there’d be a discussion going on in the comments below, but due to time constraints I’ve turned off all comments during reruns — sorry about that! You can read the comments on the first-run version of this post [5], and if you need a GMing discussion fix, why not head on over to our GMing forums [6]?