Providing Challenge

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 01 July 2010

Greg Bilsland recently wrote an excellent post on his blog about the DM's dirty secret. Put simply, as awesome as PCs are, they are always going to be challenged. What's more, it's the DM's responsibility to make sure of it and the rules as written often can't provide that challenge.

That last bit is particularly important. My guess is that's partly why monster and encounter design is left loosely defined in the core books and why they remain a mystery to many DMs. Given the nature of D&D, the different player motivations and skill levels, it's impossible to craft monster and encounter generation rules that will challenge all groups in the same way. The DM needs to be able to make tweaks and changes that provide the type of tension and challenge that makes the game fun for the group.

The Kobold Guide to Game Design volume 3 echoes this philosophy. In the chapter "Myths and Realities of Game Balance," Monte Cook argues that the gamers' social contract is that "everyone is responsible for making the game fun for all involved" and that the players must "trust the GM to provide a fun and balanced play experience." While rules systems can provide a number of tools to make this easier on players and DMs, none of them can provide the actual balance. For that, you need the people at the table to trust one another.

Greg provides some pretty controversial methods for providing this challenge including fudging dice rolls and modifying monsters on the fly. Since players often feel like their characters live or die by their dice, I understand the hesitation and how such behavior affects trust at the table.

The second one is really only an issue at tables where a number of the players DM or are big into meta-gaming. It's a thornier issue because players are required to go by their character sheet. What often gets forgotten is that a monster stat block is a shortened character sheet with a lot of room left for modification. In addition, 4th edition is meant to allow characters, PCs and NPCs alike, to go off script. Page 42 exists in the Dungeon Master's Guide for a reason.

Personally, I roll in the open. My changes occur on the monster side, often before we even hit the table. When it comes down to it, I'm much more likely to fudge on the side of my players than not. If they are having a tough time in an encounter and the monster has a power that is likely to finish them off, I'm more likely than not to pull my punches. What I would ask for in return is that if they are totally blowing through an encounter that I thought would be harder, then I would like to recharge the dragon's breath weapon even though I rolled a 4 instead of a 5 or 6. It will provide a bit more fright but in the end, the group will be victorious and happy.

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