Friday, February 28, 2014

Beyond Impossible Difficulty

Run a game for long enough and it is only a matter of time before your players want to do something impossible. You, as the GM, might then consider assigning a high difficulty as a form of disuasion. But what do you do when they keep going for it? Or, more to the point, what do you do when the difficulty your game suggests for the impossible isn't high enough? Today, I want to talk about that.

Meet Oswald Brown
Oswald Brown, or Oz as his friends called him, was an ex-Army Ranger turned HRT Sniper that was pulled into a special JSOC spec-ops team in a near future RPG I was fortunate enough to be a part in. Throgh a bit of accidental luck, I ended up putting Oz's highest stat in perception with the idea being that he was a canny observer as well as a good shot. Turned out the system we used agreed with that synergy and the Sniping skill keyed off of Perception as well.

Now, in this system the book had a passage that read "if you are setting the difficulty at 12 or higher you should just not bother, because that is so impossible to reach that it is unfair to dangle it as possible in front of your players." Or, at least, it had something like that. The only problem was that on an average role Oz was hitting a 12. If he aimed, or rolled moderately well, he was hitting 14-16s. Effectively, I had a character who, on a regular basis, could pull off shots that the system deemed to be beyond impossible.

L5R And TN 60
In the Legend of Five Rings RPG, the TN for a "near impossible act" is recommended to be 60. This isn't even a bad idea when you think about it. On average a D10 will give you a 6. So if you have 10k10 (nearly impossible in the system) you could do a TN 60 most of the time. For every other dice pool though, especially the more common 10k5 a high level character might have, it is a really high number.

And yet, at my table I regularly see people defy the odds and roll 60+. Not enough that they want to call home about it perhaps, but it happens at least once a session. Someone has a ten explode twice, and suddenly instead of rolling 10k5 aainst a 60 it is more like 10k4 against a 35, which is far more makeable.

Climbing The Wall
In the third season of Game of Thrones there is a sequence where a group of wildlings climb the wall that protects the north. The wall is 700' straight up, and the group does it using climbing claws, cleats, spikes, and rope and effectively climb up the ice that has built up on the wall rather than the wall itself. It is a very impressive and dangerous thing to do.

In L5R there is a similar wall. Maybe not as iced up, but a big wall none-the-less. The scene in Game of Thrones got me thinking about this wall. What Target Number would I assign if my PCs were to try this? It is a task that is believed impossible, so maybe it should be 60? Should I then lower it for preparation the PCs make? Say, drop it down to a 45 for the climbing claws and cleats. Maybe another 10 for climbing as a group with rope and spikes?  That'd make it a 35. Pop a void, have good Athletics and Strength, and that isn't all that bad. Especially since it allows resting and such along the way.

Then my mind turned the other way. What if there was no prep? No climbing tools? Someone just wanted to free climb the wall. Seven hundred plus feet straight up, no rope to tie off, just hand holds and foot holds. How would that work? It's not completely outlandish, Wesley does it in the Princess Bride on the Cliffs of Insanity and that is about as "high fantasy" as L5R. But it still feels not right. Like a 60 maybe shouldn't be high enough.

Alternative Tests For Alternative Conditions
Then I started to think about it. There are other options here than simple TN modification. Penalties can be given for lackof proper gear...but that would seem to be what put it up at 60 in the first place. The check could need to be done multiple times. Sort of a "this is so impossible it requires 3 checks to do it!" sort of thing.

One of my favorite ideas was changing the appropriate stat. Since free climbing would have less ability to rest the test then has to be made with the lower of the character's strength and stamina.

Other difficulty could be done in what happens to a failed check. Say the climb was 3 or 4 checks (it is a very tall wall) and someone failed on check 2 or 3, well a free climber would have more issues than someone roped off so there is that.

The Point
The point I think I came to was that there is more to a "simple" check than just the dice and the number you get. There are ways to manipulate the check, its outcome, or what goes on around it to show severity beyond impossible. I mean, hovering off the ground is just as impossible (maybe more so) than free climbing the wall, but it isn't as dangerous to try.

Something to think about, at the very least.

1 comment:

  1. Last session it was suddenly apparent that a player planned on the group escaping off a balcony, which I assumed was impossible for various reasons. His grappling hook, it turned out, had extremely fortuitous qualities, making it the 'Bag of Holding' of grappling hooks. This was a situation of an impossible task made possible by a vaguely-defined piece of super-equipment.

    I asked the player specifics of how it pulled off its various special qualities, to which he couldn't answer. So I nerfed it back down to earth, but felt it was unfortunate that the hook was getting downwards defined at a critical point & gave them a break which still allowed them to escape via the balcony.

    It definitely changed the story because escape otherwise would not have been easy. I dislike those situations where it seems to put a rather subjective GM decision overly at the center of the group's well-being.