D&D 5E Challenge in 5E


B/X Known World
In a recent poll about the top three things people enjoy in playing D&D, challenge received quite a few votes. Challenge was only behind narrative at the top of the list. And since it keeps coming up in various threads, let’s talk about how we define challenge in 5E.

Now, it would be great if people would answer from their own perspective and leave others to answer from theirs and not have a general repeat of how these kinds of threads typically go. If something here makes you mad, just remember it’s an elfgame. If you’re not having fun, stop and go do something else.

For me, the key to challenge is having a risk of failure. The greater the risk of failure, the greater the challenge, and the greater the satisfaction if you succeed.

Now, that risk of failure has to be real. No illusionism, no railroading. And the consequences for failure must follow. No protecting the players from their choices or the consequences thereof. No padding the loss, no repeats, and no take backs. You can try again later when the circumstances change, but you can’t just pound your head against the wall infinitely until you succeed.

If you roll the dice, they have to matter. If the system or the referee make it so you can’t really lose, there’s no challenge.

So how do you define challenge in 5E?

ETA: I should have made it a bit clearer. To me, challenge ≠ combat. Challenges are any obstacles, complications, or barriers to the players’ or PCs’ goals.
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad


He / Him
I agree that challenge includes a risk of failure. I also think that challenge requires clear goals.

To me, though, the greatest challenges in a campaign don't come from a single fight, but from overcoming greater difficulties. In fact, the "boss fights" in my campaigns are usually not challenging because the players have put so much work into planning, gathering resources, and coming in strong.

And yet, overall, the adventure will still be recognized as a great challenge.

For example, in my last campaign, the players came to Umber Dell, a swampy valley where the indigenous Tortles were enslaved by a temple secretly run by a vampire. There were mysterious oozes (side effects of the vampire's experiments), a town of aristocratic slave-owning Tieflings, gnolls toughs enforcing social dominance, and a hidden fortress with a magically slumbering Tortles resistance

The players knew if they just went in swords swinging to free the Tortles, they'd be enemies of the entire town, hunted down by dozens of gnolls and an angry vampire. So they took their time, freeing the resistance, forging magical weapons, seeding doubt in the Tieflings population, making duplicitous alliances with gnolls and the priesthood...

It did come eventually to an epic battle at the top of the temple tower, but the real challenge was in all the hard work of gaining every advantage possible beforehand!

Challenge in conventional TRPGs like 5e is usually pretty straightforward. The PCs have a goal. There are things in the game world the GM has placed between them and that goal. Maybe the PCs achieve that goal. Maybe the PCs don't achieve that goal. Maybe the PCs achieve part of that goal. The challenge might be resolved in a single roll or over a session or over a campaign.


If you roll the dice, they have to matter.
This is the most important thing to me. People roll dice too often when the outcome doesn't matter, or have the result in mind beforehand. Worst of all, GMs ignore or change die rolls to preserve their preconceived notions about how the game should go.
So, the biggest challenge in D&D, to me as GM, is getting out of the way of the game. that is, knowing when I have established sufficient situational and NPC information to just let the rest flow naturally from the player choices and the results of the dice.

In a perfect world, I would never make up anything again after play began and my responses would all emerge from the players, the dice, and my established facts.


I think that it's more than just a risk of failure. Certainly that is one important thing part in the chain but it needs to be supported & extended beyond the immediate moment of play that make an srns crossed "so we failed you make it work" ultimstum untenable. Specifically that gets done by having things the players need for their characters through the campaign's life that they can work towards or increase challenge when they fail. That extra link shifts it from an srns crossed "well we failed that, what are yougoing to do about it?" to why "we" can't fail & immediate building pressure to solve both problems when failure happens.


Loves Your Favorite Game
Challenge in conventional TRPGs like 5e is usually pretty straightforward. The PCs have a goal. There are things in the game world the GM has placed between them and that goal. Maybe the PCs achieve that goal. Maybe the PCs don't achieve that goal. Maybe the PCs achieve part of that goal. The challenge might be resolved in a single roll or over a session or over a campaign.
I didn't answer Challenge in that poll (I picked Discovery, Fellowship, Narrative), and I think this sums up a good chunk of my feelings. In TTRPGs, challenge is obstacle, it is friction. It doesn't overly matter to me if abject failure is rare, or if the average thing we're up is something that we're likely able to handle. As long as there is opposition such that we don't just get everything we want the second we ask for it, and negative consequences follow naturally from our actions and provide new or altered challenges as a result, I'm happy.

If I want a challenge, I'm going to play a single-player game, probably one with a static difficulty. Doing that with a party of people introduces too many variables for me to risk riding that specific aspect for enjoyment.

I know folks in other threads say that playing without death on the table makes it meaningless, but if I knew going into a campaign that the consequences might be anything except death? I really don't think that would bother me, though I leave room for myself to be wrong.


I agree that challenge involves a risk of failure. That said, failure comes in many forms.

Take the following example. A merchant has some McGuffin that the party needs. He wants a sum that is more or less the total wealth of the party. Unless the party does something foolish, acquiring the item is basically a given. The challenge becomes to acquire the item without losing all of their wealth.

Similarly, in a dungeon, a few orcs might not pose a lethal risk to a mid level party. However, the challenge becomes to get past those orcs while expending the least amount of resources (HP, spells, etc) possible, because too much resource attrition might shift a later encounter from dangerous to lethal.

I would tentatively define a challenge as something with real stakes, or something that has the potential to raise the stakes of subsequent challenges. Of course, those "real stakes" are only real in a limited sense. There aren't any real stakes from a real world perspective (at least I hope no one would ever be exiled from the gaming group for failing a challenge). The "real" stakes are only real within the fiction of the game world. In the real world if we TPK we roll up a new party and keep playing.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
I didn't choose challenge in the poll, its still important, but not as a top priority. Though, I would consider the challenge to come from the campaign itself more than combats. I have come to the conclusion that I am a strategy over tactics style player. I like to spend most of my brainpower and gameplay outside of combat. Now, that doesn't mean I don't like combat, or try to avoid it, but its best used purposefully in narrative terms than random droppings to provide challenge. I like the challenge to come in terms of exploration, political intrigue, investigation, etc..

I believe one of the reasons that 5E is my second favorite edition, is that its easy to dial into what I want it to do. A lot of folks want the combat design to be accurate, predictable, and complex. I find the more tactical the design becomes, the more combat chews into table time. It is just not where I want to spend the majority of my game time. So, challenge for me in 5E is in what I or the GM come up with as obstacles, puzzles, investigation, and encounters during the campaign.

That said, I'm also the type that likes death on the table. I see the PCs as ordinary folks in an extraordinary world. If they are clever and persistent they can become very powerful. Though, there is absolutely nothing special about any PC (at game start). So, being able to impact the narrative, change the setting, and become powerful are the real challenge.


Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
I chose Challenge in your poll as one of my top three aesthetics and did so in the "game as obstacle course" sense of MDA. I would further define challenge in 5th Ed., as I would in any other RPG I've played, as the adversity and risk involved in the PC's interactions with other characters and setting-elements. The fun in the aesthetic is in utilizing one's character to overcoming the adversity as an arena for competition against the situations presented by the DM.


5e is general too low agency for my tastes in this arena. People have generally put it well, players have goal, world has obstacles, players overcome/circumvent obstacles to get goal. I get iffy when that starts coming down to die rolls. Talking about "difficulty" in a skill check is silly, there's no effort expended in rolling a 20 instead of a 4.

The challenging bit, ideally, should be in choosing the most likely to succeed course of action with the least cost, and then engaging in risk analysis when you do need to roll dice. 5e is particularly bad at this, because it doesn't have codified actions for skills, and generally limited non-combat abilities outside of a few spells.

An Advertisement