Designing challenges for PCs VS designing challenges for the world


Advice


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Pathfinder Maps, Pawns Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber; Starfinder Charter Superscriber

Reading the GMG has got me thinking about how I design challenges for my players.

In one section, it talks about the PCs performing research in a library, and how the GM should pick three or more skills for the PCs to roll to represent their studying various aspects of the desired topic.

My question, and today's topic of discussion is this: Do you design challenges for the PCs? Or do you design challenges for the world?

Allow me to elaborate. If I'm designing the library challenge for the PCs, I'm going to look at their character sheets, and pick three skills that make sense and that they have.

If I'm designing for the world, I'm going to pick skills that make the most sense, whether or not the PCs have them. This is also what happens when I run published adventures.

This leads to one of three possible challenges: one where the PCs have all the skills and success is essentially a foregone conclusion, one where they dont and success is impossible, and one where some skills are relevant and others aren't.

As a GM, on what side do you fall and why?


I will use the library example on how I kinda do stuff.

The party goes to a library to get information about a certain Lich, by default the party needs to do Religions checks to get the information about it, but I would let them do other types of checks like Craft and Arcana if they asked, but that lead to a diferent outcome than if they had used Religion, Arcana would focus in the Lich spells and Craft would tell about staves and artifacts that they could have.

Basically I do world challenges, but these challenges are flexible.


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Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

In the words of my rogue player with no thievery, "why everything got to be locked?!"

Sovereign Court

It's a good question, and I think there are multiple answers, each of which will give you a bit different sort of campaign.

Designing for the world
Upsides:
- A kind of feeling of realism: certain goals require certain skills, if you are after those goals you'd better learn the right skills.
- Reusable: you can run the same adventure for other people without re-tailoring.
- Benchmark'd: if other groups play the same scenario, you can then swap war storied of how your party dealt with that famous challenge. APs and PFS/SFS have a lot of this.

Designing for the characters
Upsides:
- A kind of realism: this party is going after jobs that this party is good at. The know-nothing party isn't going to go to the library, their challenge is to rescue the brilliant librarian who'll do the research for them.
- More freedom in what kind of characters are viable.

Mixed mode/Iterative campaign planning
This would be a combination of the other methods, where the GM doesn't have a strict plan for the long-term campaign. The party will tend to take on things that they're good at, but sometimes they want to do things they're not good at. The GM doesn't necessarily change the required skills, so if the players really want to go there maybe they need to invest some skills into getting good at it. But the GM does let the players pick some of the direction of the campaign, so the players also get to leverage their skills a bunch.


I pick a default based on the world, but if players come to me with alternatives then I'm all ears. I like to encourage my players to be creative and not stymie them if they're really engaging.

So the library example I'd look at what the goal is, what the characters are capable of, what the library has available, etc. and probably give them a few options like Kyrone.

If it's something like, y'know, a rope bridge or whatever then I've done it like the chase sequences where you have a few options for resolving the challenge. Some options might be harder and faster, some easier and slower.

If it makes sense for something to be impassable because the players just don't have the skills to get through it then I'll tell them that and see if they can come up with another way, then try to work with them on making that happen.

I guess I just take it as it comes.


Pathfinder Rulebook Subscriber

My impression of the VP-based subsystems in the GMG (including the research one discussed here) is PCs have pretty wide latitude regarding which skills they can use. If one of the PCs wants to use an unusual skill that makes sense for the situation, they should be able to do it at a (probably) hard DC.

Given that, my approach when designing or improvising such a challenge would be to set a baseline based on what makes sense for the activity. If (when) the PCs do something unusual, I can use that to help me come up with an appropriate DC.


It depends on the challenge. Usually I consider what would make sense for the specific action, regardless of PCs (so world view). But I will select obstacles that would be overcome by a skill I know the PCs have.

Here is an example. My natural inclination is to have lots of Knowledge checks. This creates PC/Player agency in the story and avoids me handing out full page single spaced backstory handouts/emails. But in the last campaign I ran, none of the PCs invested in Knowledge skills (this was a P1 game). So I started trying to find ways to give info without asking them to constantly make skill checks they couldn't even attempt.

This is one of the things I like about P2 as a GM. I know for a fact that a Druid will be trained in Nature, and a Cleric in Religion. I mean with only 2 skills per level and no other viable dump stat, plus the requirement that you put a point in perception, it is perfectly reasonable for your P1 cleric to NOT have any ranks (or very few) in Kn Religion. God forbid you expected someone to make a Kn(nobility or history) check. Just by knowing the PC classes I can take for granted that they can do certain things.


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I never ask my players to roll a die if I don't consider they can fail.

So, I design for the world, but if something is very important and would completely block them if they don't succeed at it, I make sure they have alternate solutions or I just don't ask them to roll but just to invest time and resources in it.


For the world, full stop. That is, if I ever get to run a campaign in the first place. Simulationist sandboxing is my absolute preferred style, yet the majority of GMs find it too tiring to run...


Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber; Pathfinder Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber
Ravingdork wrote:

This leads to one of three possible challenges: one where the PCs have all the skills and success is essentially a foregone conclusion, one where they dont and success is impossible, and one where some skills are relevant and others aren't.

As a GM, on what side do you fall and why?

I tend to design based on the world. Along with that, you shouldn't design the challenge so that it is all or nothing. Your players should be able to get some level of success without succeeding at all three skill checks.


Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

It looks like the VP system is going to be good for the "not totally tailored" style.


SuperBidi wrote:

I never ask my players to roll a die if I don't consider they can fail.

So, I design for the world, but if something is very important and would completely block them if they don't succeed at it, I make sure they have alternate solutions or I just don't ask them to roll but just to invest time and resources in it.

Came in to say something like this. The important thing to determine is what happens on a success or failure. If it needs to happen for your story to continue, then you'd better build it so your players can pass or make it fail forward.

I should probably wait until my GMG arrives before trying to contribute more though.


Ravingdork wrote:

Reading the GMG has got me thinking about how I design challenges for my players.

In one section, it talks about the PCs performing research in a library, and how the GM should pick three or more skills for the PCs to roll to represent their studying various aspects of the desired topic.

My question, and today's topic of discussion is this: Do you design challenges for the PCs? Or do you design challenges for the world?

Allow me to elaborate. If I'm designing the library challenge for the PCs, I'm going to look at their character sheets, and pick three skills that make sense and that they have.

If I'm designing for the world, I'm going to pick skills that make the most sense, whether or not the PCs have them. This is also what happens when I run published adventures.

This leads to one of three possible challenges: one where the PCs have all the skills and success is essentially a foregone conclusion, one where they dont and success is impossible, and one where some skills are relevant and others aren't.

As a GM, on what side do you fall and why?

Is there another way for the PCs to succeed? Maybe they could hire a sage to do the research for them. Alternatively, is failure an option?

I tend to design for the world. For goals that are really important, I will then get flexible with alternate approaches if they seem promising. For goals that are purely optional, well, you can't win everything.


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You want to design challenges for the world, but the world should be calibrated for the players at your table.

At our table, we've generally used a Society roll to navigate the library if it's being maintained. Society will get you the contextual and historical information, but you might need subject matter expertise in order to get the details if the subject being researched is complex enough. The 2 intelligence focused characters with Society in our party are the only ones that have ever entered a library, so this system has been working for us.

If other characters were stuck trying to use the library, we would likely maintain our system. Characters with society would lead the other characters to an area with the subject matter they are good at researching, then the other characters would use their subject matter knowledge to do research from there.

At another table, I think skipping over the Society portion, as the description of the GMG the OP described suggests, would make sense, but I think the precedent of using society that was set by the intelligent library visiting character in our party early in our campaign works best for our table. At another table, I could see needing Library Lore to do what we are doing with Society. At a third, convincing a librarian to take you to the correct section could be the default. I don't think any of those ways are objectively correct.

Liberty's Edge

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I generally design for the world. But inasmuch as my players know this, I've seldom had a game where they didn't have most knowledge bases covered, and when they don't that's an opportunity for them to get help from an appropriate NPC...if they have the resources to find and persuade such a person. Which creates all sorts of potential fun.


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Pathfinder Rulebook Subscriber
SuperBidi wrote:
...if something is very important and would completely block them if they don't succeed at it, I make sure they have alternate solutions...

This! A thousand times this.

In these areas I take my queue from the Burning Wheel game, and the rule of thumb is this: Say yes or roll the die.

i.e. if failure isn't interesting, why waste time on the possibility of failure? simply say yes (in this case, present the results of the research) and move on with the story to the dramatic and fun parts.

However if you can make failure interesting... then roll! Even if (and, perhaps, especially if) they are doomed to failure because they lack a required skill.

"Why are all the doors locked?" Well, if the locked door is going to prevent them from advancing the story at all, then it's bad design. There needs to be a key that can be found, or there needs to be another (probably worse/more dangerous) way to bypass the locked door.

For the library example specifically - this won't always be the case, but scholars hang around in libraries. There are sample fees that an NPC expert would charge for the use of their skills. This is a great way to cover a missing skill in many areas, but when the skill check is being made in a town, it's all the more available to the party.


It depends on the way you are going to use the challenge- are you going to reuse it in the future with a different group or set of player characters?

If you plan to reuse it, then sure- definitely. This can also work if the players often have to get new characters due to deaths/boredom, and they can come back with the right skillset.

If you build for the world in a single use adventure, and it is not something the players can interact with in a meaningful way without the skills they have... then it is unused content. Potentially content the characters won't even know is there. That can be a fun exercise, but it is purely for the GM's benefit.

You can avoid the 'unused content' problem by providing logical alternatives. If a door is locked, then find someone with a key. If research needs to be done, then find an expert that knows how to do so. Once you present a problem, the players will search for solutions. As long as a method is accessible, then it is something they can experience.


Like many have said here, I design for the world, but allow for some leeway when it comes to creative solutions. Having a group with no Stealth or Thievery training makes quiet missions significantly more interesting when the barbarian looks across the board and states, "That's when I'm disguised as the waiter, Intimidating anyone who dares to say otherwise."

The one caveat to this is that I DEFINITELY design for the players when it comes to their Lore skills. I want them to feel like their characters' backgrounds have a bigger impact and ties them into the world more.


I always design for the world, within the players' level bracket (loosely).

I then give players appropriate Lore through campaign backgrounds and general tips, so that characters fit the world and thus the challenges. Sometimes. It's their choice.
I might add extra uses for a players' Lore pick if it's background related.


Somewhere in the middle I guess.

Or maybe a 3rd option.

The types of checks will depend on the action to be done. I'm not going to purposefully include a skill check that I know no one has and derail my own plot, so I also try to have 3 instances of "clues" that lead to the next plot step, with varying degrees of DC, but usually involving more time, leg work, and potentially combat to reach those lower DC options.

The next part that is, I think different from your suggestion, is that the DC will be completely based on the PCs level, and narratively the tasks will be more challenging task to make it make sense.

At level 1 you climb a natural rock wall with many hand holds.

At level 20 you climb a smooth wet wall in a monsoon.

So DCs are PC dependent, by skill check types are world dependent.


My challenges and DCs are based on the world.
The PCs abilities take them to dangerous parts of the world and face them off against greater threats.

So even if the rickety door to the Goblin lair at level 1 requires the same roll as the vault of the Fire Giant King at level 15, it's not because the world's morphed. It's because the PCs can now dare to go there, while there often remain areas they shouldn't trespass.
Sometimes this had led to danger for new players who do think the world scales to their power level. "Yes, simply because you have heard of dragon X, does not mean it's a quest hook. It's likely world-building, and perhaps foreshadowing."


Pathfinder Rulebook, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

I usually design challenges for the world, but give opportunities for a good roll to change the outcome more in their favor.

Library example: Researching a specific piece of info has a set DC, no matter what level the players are. However, high level players who exceed the trivial DC by a big enough margin might learn something extra they hadn't even known to be looking for.

So even basic "almost can't fail" tasks I still have them roll if I have something in mind for a little bonus. If it's straightforward, no-nonsense activity like picking a beginner lock as a master thief, then I'll just handwave the roll.


I usually design challenges for the world, but modify by either adjusting the DCs or adding additional options to the challenge based on the players.

For instance, in the Library example, if the relevant research skills are, say, Arcana, Nature, and Society, but only two players have those skills, that isn't very fun for the people who can't participate. So, I'll come up with some alternates, maybe at a higher DC or requiring more of an expenditure of time or financial resources. Perhaps the high-Charisma Sorcerer can use Diplomacy convince a librarian to help them find what they're looking for, or the Rogue with excellent Perception can search the stacks for the knowledge they need. Maybe one of them has a relevant Lore skill they could roll in place of one of the three checks (such as Dragon Lore or Academia Lore).

For another example, let's say the party wants to break into the evil baron's fortress to rescue a captured NPC. They take the time to scout the fortress, and determine the best way to break in is through the sally port. Now, does it make sense for the evil baron to leave the sally port unlocked? No, so it won't be unlocked. However, if no one in the party has kept up their Thievery score, then the lock won't be very good quality, so that they have a better chance of beating it.

If no one has Thievery trained at all, they can choose to break down the door - although someone's going to come investigate that banging noise.

They could also try to bluff their way into the evil baron's fortress or climb the walls, if they chose to. As long as they get access to the fortress to rescue the NPC, how they go about doing it is up to them. The world just needs to make sense for how they do it.

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