In my most recent Cortex Prime game, Aux, one of the players was making a roll to repair an ancient, alien machine. A roll that, back at the start of the campaign over a year ago, was a bit of a daunting task, and one that could result in failures with unexpected consequences. The stakes were no different, but this time the player made his roll and looked down at their dice with a smile on their face. They had not only made the roll but had accomplished a Heroic Success, which resulted in not only the repair but an additional direct benefit to the people they were helping. It was at that moment that the table recognized that the characters were no longer the novice geniuses who started the campaign, but now, seasoned, experienced, and most importantly capable geniuses who now create and fix things at a level that looks like sorcery to those they help. They were Luke returning to Tatooine, in Return of the Jedi.
So I thought we would take today to talk about when your players become competent – how to let them enjoy that feeling, while also still providing them a challenge.
The Need for Struggle in our Games
TTRPGs require some kind of struggle in order for them to be interesting. Struggles have a few components. One, they have some kind of conflict – fighting, stealing, etc. Two, they have characters who have the abilities to engage in the conflict, and finally, they have mechanics, often with some kind of randomization, to resolve the conflict.
Quick for instance:
In my Aux game, the characters are alien super-geniuses who travel around the galaxy helping people who are in danger or in need. A common conflict in the game is to repair broken or malfunctioning alien tech from the previous empire. The characters have various skills in different sciences and technologies, and using the Cortex Prime rules, they build dice pools and roll to see if they are successful or not.
Struggle is what makes a game interesting. The game asks the question, “Can the characters do X?”, and the mechanics answer that question. The outcome of that question then drives the narrative of the game. It is this constant asking and answering of this question that makes games so compelling. If the answer was a foregone conclusion, would asking the question be that interesting?
The Role of Difficulty in Struggle
In the framework of challenges, we talked about three elements – a conflict, the characters, and the rules. One part of those rules is mechanically representing how difficult something is. The mechanics of the game help define something that is easy and something that is difficult. This is represented in things like Stat Blocks and Difficulties. Nearly every game I know has some range of easy to near-impossible.
The mechanics of the game also define how competent a character is at any given action. The character sheet is a set of mechanics that translate between the narrative of who the character is and how that is represented in the game. Characters also have a range of abilities from incompetent to hyper-competent.
The Character Power Curve
Most RPGs (not all) are based on a power curve. They start the characters with a low-to-modest competence in their abilities and then through play, through struggle, they reward the character with the ability to advance and increase their competency.
Typically a power curve is somewhat logarithmic, meaning that at the start of the game, it is easy to increase your competency so that you go from stumbling to walking in a few games, but then plateaus in the later phase of the game, so that there remain some challenges at the higher end of the game mechanics.
How fast characters progress through this curve is set by the rules of the game, tempered by how the GM interprets those rules. GM’s have been known to tweak that power curve by doing things such as: starting players at higher initial levels, granting a few more power points for character creation, increasing XP bonuses per session, etc.
If you play a game long enough, eventually you will advance to a point where what was once a challenge is no more. What used to be a “normal” challenge for the GM now is easy. This is both good and bad.
On the one hand, it is a great feeling if you are a player. The things you struggle with are now so easy for you to accomplish. Let’s go back to Luke Skywalker. In Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, Luke has a lot of trouble wielding the Force. He struggles to get his lightsaber out of the snow before the Wampa eats him, he gets his ass kicked by his Dad on Bespin and loses his hand as a result.
But when we get to the opening of The Return of the Jedi, Luke is badass. He mind-tricks the Twi’lek and force-chokes some Gamorrean Guards, he runs a break-out scheme for Han that has put a tear in more than one TTRPG player’s eye. He is competent, he is cool.
On the other hand, the lack of struggle makes things less compelling. As mentioned above, if the answer is a foregone conclusion, is there any excitement in asking the question? So there still have to be some challenges for the character, otherwise the game will become stale.
Again, The Return of the Jedi does a great job of showing us this. Yes, Luke is all badass now, on one level, but Vader and the Emperor are now his challenges, and they are of a sufficient level of power to pose a threat. Can Luke, as good as he is, beat the Emperor? Can he save his father? Those questions are uncertain as we go through Jedi. Thus Luke’s storyline remains compelling.
Creating A Balance
As with most things in life, the more interesting option is to find balance. When characters reach a level of competency, you need to balance scenes where they get to be competent and ones where they struggle. Allow them the time to revel in the character they earned, by giving them moments where they shine, and then contrast that with newer, more powerful threats.
As I said at my table when we talked about that roll in the opening story, “Sometimes the Wizard gets to cast Meteor Swarm on the goblin army.” Meaning that when you have earned your way to casting Meteor Swarm, you should be allowed to have the time to cut loose and look like the terrifying power Wizard you are.
At the same time, you as the GM now have to move the goalposts for some of the encounters to make them challenges. Because sometimes you need to cast Meteor Swarm on the Tarrasque.
I say this because there is a tendency for GMs to just constantly move the goalposts so that the characters never feel more competent. As the characters advance the GM just keeps raising the difficulties. That does not make a character feel competent. They may have more options to do things, but they don’t feel more powerful. They are having a more complex version of their starting character experience.
By giving characters a few easier challenges, it reminds them of how far they came. Their beginning characters hid in terror as the goblins searched for them in the forest in their first adventure, now they are repelling a goblin army by themselves. That feels great! It feels like they have grown, because they have, and it is a reward for the hard work they put into their characters.
The End Game and Chasing The Curve
When a character reaches a high level of competency that is more than halfway up the power curve, the game tends to thin out in terms of challenges. How realistic is it that every week another world-shattering threat shows up (more acceptable in a Supers game, than anywhere else, but also still…)?
At the higher range of competency comes a signal that the campaign needs to end. The characters have traversed the power curve, it is time to give them a great threat/challenge, and then be ready to retire the game.
Otherwise, what happens is that each week the game is about some world/universe-ending event, and hitting the same beat over and over, becomes stale. When they reach this phase, it is time to give them one great challenge and then close out the campaign.
That is exactly what is happening in my Aux game. The story I told is during the character’s final journey where they are looking for knowledge to stop a subspace fracture from destroying their world.
“I Know Things”
Competency in TTRPGs is a journey. Characters start on the lower end, facing struggle everywhere they go. Through their wits and ability to survive, they gain experience and traverse that curve, getting better and better. At some point, they are so competent that what was once a struggle is no more.
In those times, remember to let your players feel the success of their hard work, and let their characters be the badasses they are. Temper that with greater challenges, but also know when to end the campaign before those challenges become cliche.
How do you handle your competent players in your game? Do you give them moments to shine? What are some of your favorite moments? When do you know that it is time to end the campaign?