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What does it mean to "Challenge the Character"?

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
All it means is it can challenge the player, if they choose to engage more cleverly, but as a baseline it immediately challenges the character.
It always challenges the player and the difficulty of the challenge is mitigated or aggravated by the player's choices. If the player makes choices in line with the system's expectations, then the party will suffer no deaths as a result of the encounter.
 

Celebrim

Hero
So... If I am presenting an obstacle that can be overcome via the use of game mechanical resources, and the player is playing a pregenerated character, am I challenging the person that is playing the character, or the person who generated the character?
Well, you now have a good example of why I can't agree with [MENTION=6859536]Monayuris[/MENTION] when he proposes its not possible to challenge the character, only the player. Monayuris assumes that character generation is even a thing in which the player has agency. It may well not be.

I think before we start dealing with the range of complexity that can be found in a game like 5e, we need to have a solid understanding of the difference between "challenging a player" and "challenging a character". I think my "Choose your Own Adventure" example is simple enough that we can clearly see the two challenges are distinctive in character. One depends entirely on player choice. One involves no player choice. In most situations there will be some mixture of player choice and mechanical resolution, but we can imagine a spectrum and in most cases decide whether the challenge is more like player choice only, more like mechanical resolution only, or lying in a fuzzy area between that so that the best description is "both".

Both is probably more typical in a full fledged PnP RPG, in that most propositions involve adopting a strategy and then making some doubtful proposition which is resolved by a fortune mechanic. But, as my early examples with the locked door show, it's possible to find pure examples in play.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
Eh, in the sense that "facing the challenge" means the same thing as "deciding to do a certain thing a certain way," sure. But that wasn't what I was getting at. See, the player can decide actions, but the player doesn't decide to pass a skill DC, or decide to score a critical hit...those results come from luck, and are influenced by the numbers on the character sheet.

So to "challenge the character" the DM should select challenges and DCs that would make certain actions statistically probable (or improbable) to succeed, according to the numbers on the character sheet. There aren't "constraints," per se...just varying degrees of probability.

Absolutely. I think it's important to have a mix of "Challenge the Player" and "Challenge the Character" (and also "Challenge the Party", which hasn't been discussed yet) in my adventures. I like to mix it up to keep the game fun and the players engaged.
Way way back In another thread where this came up Idescribed four categories of challenge that I will rehash here...

1 - the obstacle can be overcome by using player choices alone. No PC stats are involved. There is no PC stat resolution that is at all reasonable. Answer the riddle to get the macguffin from thoth's emissary. No clues by dint of PC checks.

2 - the problem can be overcome by using PC stats and basic mechanics of the game. The player choices in the moment will likely affect the odds of success, maybe to 100% after taking into account the character stats. To get the macguffin from Thor's emissary, win a strength challenge.

3 - there are both #1 and #2 ways to overcome the challenge. Answer the riddle and a rope is lowered for an automatic climb *or* make a difficult and risky climb without the rope. Or, you can choose to deal with Thor's emissary or Thoth's but you only need to beat one.

4 - to overcome the challenge both #1 and #2 are required. A straight action to stats will fail. A series of player choices then brings the chance to overcome it with those kinds of tasks. You must pass both Thoth and Thor emmissary.

#1 is in this thread context challenging the player. Any character can give the proper response and overcome. No stats needed or useful.

#2 is challenging the character. PC stats must be used.

#3 has both represented in a way that either can succeed.

#4 has both represented in a way that both are required.

Within a campaign and most rpg systems, there are long lasting choices made at chargen. Those typically involve trade- offs. Getting good at ABC means being meh at def.

The frequency and import of challenges of each of the above types put into a campaign, that the players see in practice being resolved in one way or another is very important to seeing how much those choices made that differentiate character matter to the gsme.

The classic example is a game where the players see in practice they can avoid pitfalls of social skill lacks by "player choices` and do you wind up (shockingly) with an entire party with no Cha scores above 10, maybe multiple 8s.)

In my games, there are almost no cases of #1 that matter. These are not presented as obstacles or challenges. **They may be opportunities** - your character deciding to help strangers with mundane tasks after a storm or offer up supplies to hungry folks can be a major thing in the game, but that was not an obstacle.

In my games, #2 is the most common type of obstacle by a landslide and #3 and #4 bring up the rear.

As I like to describe it, the character is driving the car but the player is choosing when to drive, the route and the destination.

If one uses challenge the player #1s the character is stuffed in the trunk.

To me, #1 is basically a board game like Monopoly or Go where the piece or token makes no difference. Those are fun, we enjoy them, but it's not what we seek to spotlight in our rpg play.
 
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Celebrim

Hero
These all sound like pretty reasonable things to attempt in my view. Please feel free to judge these actions as you would rule them as DM in the context of the rules for D&D 5e.
Cool. Now I have perfect information, because you've made me the GM.

If the player adopted these sort of actions to bypass the room, then I would consider them to succeed pretty much automatically. Once I was certain the players had a good plan and would stick to it, I'd probably handwave the steps, and just say, "Alright, you've now gathered together on the other side of the room."

As such, I would view this room as having been a pure player challenge that the player's succeeded at. (And not a particularly difficult one at that.)

If the player's failed at the challenge, then sort of as a saving throw, the players would have recourse to survive this room based on their character resources. That is to say, if you failed the player challenge part of the room, then it would become (as a sort of mercy) a character challenge where we made reflex saves and opposed strength checks and deducted hit points and made climb checks and so forth until the player's, relying on their character's abilities, extricated themselves from the traps, and now - hopefully wiser for the experience - tried to use their imagination to bypass the obstacles that had now been made apparent to them.

On the spectrum of 'pure player challenge' to 'pure character challenge', I would consider this closer to 'pure player challenge', and consider it close enough to a pure player challenge that I wouldn't feel amiss in calling it a "player challenge".

But that's just how I would run it. I've had plenty of arguments by people on this board who have suggested that, since players can invest in skills like "Search" and "Disable Traps" that propositions like I've discussed above should be interpreted as "Search" or "Disable Trap" checks irregardless of the fictional positioning that the player has (improperly?) expressed. And, I'd suggest that there are games other than D&D 5e where the authors have, in describing the process of play much more tightly than D&D usually does, have actually endorsed that position as proper to the game that they intended to create.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
Well the challenge is an abstract value that only translates into difficulty when matched against a particular party - their level and number dramatically affecting the rated difficulty?


Sure but that also massively varies by player, whereas the characters stats remain constant. I would estimate that the majority of players are not particularly clever in combat and simply have their characters hit/cast/fire at the enemies until they win/lose. :)
I think this is why some find the 5e CR too easy. The "setting" pretty much seems dialed for "novice" not "veteran" or "hard mode" and even a typical party of four with decent builds working in coordinated fashion will have an easier go of it than some like.

But, as you observe "difficulty" is more the combo of what happens when party toolkit A meets challenge that toolkit A may or maypy not be ideal for.
 

Celebrim

Hero
[MENTION=6919838]5ekyu[/MENTION]: The thing I like most about your post in which you describe your 4 different categories of challenge is that we almost entirely agree on the definitions and meanings of the terms, but having done so, you express an entirely different set of preferences and processes of play which you also present a reasonable case for. I don't agree with your preferences, and I have different ones and different processes of play, but I can't actually prove that you are right or wrong.

Yet, we also agree that "challenge the player" and "challenge the character" are reasonable labels and define very different things.

You probably won't be surprised to discover that just as you are trying to eliminate all category #1 challenges for your game, I'm trying to eliminate all category #2 challenges from mine.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
Is it even possible to challenge the character? Or does the phrase really mean "challenge the player's ability to build a character, and then use those abilities"?
There's an important distinction between those. Sure, a character without a player isn't anything. Maybe you could mathematically model DPR or somethign to see if it passes a threshold, so that could be a "challenge", but any real-world tabletop challenge for the character is the player playing that character. With emphasis on both player and character.

I'm a better storyteller then musician (by leaps and bounds), better at sketching then coloring, better at most things than dancing - but I still dance. The character is the choice of media on how the player interacts with the world and it's challenges, and they are an integral part of it. The same challenge with the same player but a different character could be a very different thing.

So to me the phrase "challenging the character" means tailoring to make something that will be difficult specifically for that character to accomplish.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Cool. Now I have perfect information, because you've made me the GM.

If the player adopted these sort of actions to bypass the room, then I would consider them to succeed pretty much automatically. Once I was certain the players had a good plan and would stick to it, I'd probably handwave the steps, and just say, "Alright, you've now gathered together on the other side of the room."

As such, I would view this room as having been a pure player challenge that the player's succeeded at. (And not a particularly difficult one at that.)

If the player's failed at the challenge, then sort of as a saving throw, the players would have recourse to survive this room based on their character resources. That is to say, if you failed the player challenge part of the room, then it would become (as a sort of mercy) a character challenge where we made reflex saves and opposed strength checks and deducted hit points and made climb checks and so forth until the player's, relying on their character's abilities, extricated themselves from the traps, and now - hopefully wiser for the experience - tried to use their imagination to bypass the obstacles that had now been made apparent to them.

On the spectrum of 'pure player challenge' to 'pure character challenge', I would consider this closer to 'pure player challenge', and consider it close enough to a pure player challenge that I wouldn't feel amiss in calling it a "player challenge".

But that's just how I would run it. I've had plenty of arguments by people on this board who have suggested that, since players can invest in skills like "Search" and "Disable Traps" that propositions like I've discussed above should be interpreted as "Search" or "Disable Trap" checks irregardless of the fictional positioning that the player has (improperly?) expressed. And, I'd suggest that there are games other than D&D 5e where the authors have, in describing the process of play much more tightly than D&D usually does, have actually endorsed that position as proper to the game that they intended to create.
Thanks for the analysis.

I ran this scenario twice for two different groups. One group made it through with a few checks, chiefly due to interacting with the tilting floors. The other group made it through with no checks at all by triggering the spikes with the pressure plate from a distance (good ol' 10-foot pole), weighing them down once triggered, then leap frogging their way down the corridor.

My position is that this challenge, as with all challenges, is for the players regardless of how the DM adjudicates. The characters are simply a tool to resolve uncertainty if and when it arises when there's a meaningful consequence for failure. Some DMs will assign more uncertainty to the outcome of the characters' tasks than others and therefore there will be more checks. Even so, it's the player who is being challenged in my view and the smart play is to avoid the rolls if you can since the d20 is a fickle friend at best.
 

Celebrim

Hero
My position is that this challenge, as with all challenges, is for the players regardless of how the DM adjudicates. The characters are simply a tool to resolve uncertainty if and when it arises when there's a meaningful consequence for failure. Some DMs will assign more uncertainty to the outcome of the characters' tasks than others and therefore there will be more checks. Even so, it's the player who is being challenged in my view and the smart play is to avoid the rolls if you can since the d20 is a fickle friend at best.
We seem to be on the same page, but you are I think being biased by that perception and so assuming both that all GMs run their game that way, all game systems encourage that view point, and that all players prefer it. I don't believe that is the case.

It's possible to run this challenge you've described using a only flow chart which at every branching point features, "Character failed or succeeded?" and never branches on player choice at all, and I think some GMs lean very strongly to preferring that process of play. If I used such a flow chart, this would be entirely a character challenge, and even if it wasn't a pure character challenge because a few trivial decision points for the player remained, it would still be close enough to a pure character challenge that I wouldn't feel amiss calling it a "character challenge".

Some games, at least as written in the rule book, have a process of play where every player proposition ALWAYS is mapped to a particular rules proposition which calls for a fortune test, and for each proposition offered to the GM, the GM's role is to interpret correctly which rules proposition the player actually made. I've even read rule books where it called out that if the player made a natural language proposition, and it was unclear which rules proposition - which character 'move' - the player was making, that the GM should invalidate the natural language proposition and force the player to phrase the proposition as a rules proposition.
 
Is it even possible to challenge the character? Or does the phrase really mean "challenge the player's ability to build a character, and then use those abilities"?

Thoughts?
The distinction I see is not 'challenge' - the game is challenging (or not) to the player - but /resolution/.

The game rules (& DM) can use a form of resolution that takes the imaginary capabilities of the character into account - a STR check, for instance.
Or, resolution can be purely random ("roll even/odd, on odd something bad happens").
Or you can use the abilities of the player (often as judged by the DM) - "solve this riddle to open the door."
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
We seem to be on the same page, but you are I think being biased by that perception and so assuming both that all GMs run their game that way, all game systems encourage that view point, and that all players prefer it. I don't believe that is the case.
Please bear in mind I am speaking solely of D&D 5e and, in particular, a challenge that was presented in my game. I might argue differently if we were talking about D&D 4e or someone else's game. That said, I cleave to the rules and processes of D&D 5e quite closely and I think to some extent any DM who does the same is likely to reach the same conclusion. I make no judgment here about what players prefer, only what are usually optimal decisions in this paradigm (avoiding the d20, for example).

It's possible to run this challenge you've described using a only flow chart which at every branching point features, "Character failed or succeeded?" and never branches on player choice at all, and I think some GMs lean very strongly to preferring that process of play. If I used such a flow chart, this would be entirely a character challenge, and even if it wasn't a pure character challenge because a few trivial decision points for the player remained, it would still be close enough to a pure character challenge that I wouldn't feel amiss calling it a "character challenge".
I would likely call it "random number generation." The important choices were made at character creation/advancement, short of the few trivial decision points you mention.

Some games, at least as written in the rule book, have a process of play where every player proposition ALWAYS is mapped to a particular rules proposition which calls for a fortune test, and for each proposition offered to the GM, the GM's role is to interpret correctly which rules proposition the player actually made. I've even read rule books where it called out that if the player made a natural language proposition, and it was unclear which rules proposition - which character 'move' - the player was making, that the GM should invalidate the natural language proposition and force the player to phrase the proposition as a rules proposition.
Dungeon World is something like this, where a fictional offer made by the player is judged as to whether it "triggers" a move and that both the GM and players are tasked with making sure that moves are used when appropriate. Most but not all moves require a die roll. That's a different kettle of fish for sure than D&D. (And I really like that game, for different reasons. I was a playtester for it as well.)
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
[MENTION=6919838]5ekyu[/MENTION]: The thing I like most about your post in which you describe your 4 different categories of challenge is that we almost entirely agree on the definitions and meanings of the terms, but having done so, you express an entirely different set of preferences and processes of play which you also present a reasonable case for. I don't agree with your preferences, and I have different ones and different processes of play, but I can't actually prove that you are right or wrong.

Yet, we also agree that "challenge the player" and "challenge the character" are reasonable labels and define very different things.

You probably won't be surprised to discover that just as you are trying to eliminate all category #1 challenges for your game, I'm trying to eliminate all category #2 challenges from mine.
Not at all. And let me be clear, the ratio of 1-4 for me varies from gsme/syste/campaign by setting, theme and tone.

I will **never** want a lot of #1 in any significant chargen gamebecause to me it bypasses too many choices the player makes, but the balance of 2-4 will alter fairly dramatically in a spy game modern or scifi, a Vampire gothic game, even a supers team game using relatively indie tules or a horror game like say ten candles or... the list goes on.

That dial helps set the tone.

A key element to me is owning and respecting the work.

If I make my players go thru 5e chargrn and go level after level of stats, choosing to trade off ABC for def, then I as GM try and respect that by presenting the value of those in play - which means few obstacles like #1s. The #1s turn into opportunities that might well pay off later and help #2s or be critical in #4s.

But if it's a 10 candles game, where chargen is like five index cards with a word or sentence each - thrn it's much more about choices and story and those stats, obviously, are a one time edge sort of thing.

But imagine if it's an rpg where "chargrn" is. "Its you in another world" like many novels have gone, taking a modern guy thru a portal. Then a greater number of #1 might well have more of a place.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Eh, in the sense that "facing the challenge" means the same thing as "deciding to do a certain thing a certain way," sure. But that wasn't what I was getting at. See, the player can decide actions, but the player doesn't decide to pass a skill DC, or decide to score a critical hit...those results come from luck, and are influenced by the numbers on the character sheet.
I think this gets at why I personally dislike the philosophy that “challenge the character, not the player” is shorthand for. I hate feeling like my successes and failures are primarily a matter of luck. RNG can be a great way to introduce some unpredictability into a system, which can make it more exciting, but for me if player choice is not a bigger factor in determining success than RNG, I don’t find it very satisfying.
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
So to me the phrase "challenging the character" means tailoring to make something that will be difficult specifically for that character to accomplish.
So maybe "challenging the character" really means "challenging the players in such a way that each player approaches the problem differently, depending upon their character."

(And even that can mean from a roleplaying perspective and/or a mechanical perspective.)

I could get behind a definition like that.

Although I still think that the player has to actually be challenged for it to be interesting. As I said in the other thread, if "I roll Skill X" conveys enough information to the rest of the table that everybody understands the intent, the challenge isn't really a challenge, and it isn't really very interesting. It's just a speed bump toll booth.
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
I think this gets at why I personally dislike the philosophy that “challenge the character, not the player” is shorthand for. I hate feeling like my successes and failures are primarily a matter of luck. RNG can be a great way to introduce some unpredictability into a system, which can make it more exciting, but for me if player choice is not a bigger factor in determining success than RNG, I don’t find it very satisfying.
Totally agree. "Can you roll above a certain number on a die?" is really not a very interesting challenge, even if one player has an easier target than another player. So if that's all that's behind "challenging the character", count me out.

But I don't think that's really what its proponents mean. At least not all of them.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
So maybe "challenging the character" really means "challenging the players in such a way that each player approaches the problem differently, depending upon their character."

(And even that can mean from a roleplaying perspective and/or a mechanical perspective.)

I could get behind a definition like that.

Although I still think that the player has to actually be challenged for it to be interesting. As I said in the other thread, if "I roll Skill X" conveys enough information to the rest of the table that everybody understands the intent, the challenge isn't really a challenge, and it isn't really very interesting. It's just a speed bump toll booth.
Or it rewards/punishes players for the decisions they've made while building their character which to some people is important.

If I've built my character and made decisions that maximized my diplomacy because my PC has a silver tongue and the DM never calls for a single diplomacy check but rather relies solely on what the player says, I wasted my time. I should have just focused on combat abilities instead.

If a PCs skill proficiencies don't matter, I don't see why anyone would anyone ever focus on anything other than combat skills.

That's why I try to have a balance of PC challenges and Player challenges, or more often encounters that challenge both.
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
Or it rewards/punishes players for the decisions they've made while building their character which to some people is important.

If I've built my character and made decisions that maximized my diplomacy because my PC has a silver tongue and the DM never calls for a single diplomacy check but rather relies solely on what the player says, I wasted my time. I should have just focused on combat abilities instead.

If a PCs skill proficiencies don't matter, I don't see why anyone would anyone ever focus on anything other than combat skills.

That's why I try to have a balance of PC challenges and Player challenges, or more often encounters that challenge both.
The only nitpick I would have with this is the implication, perhaps imagined by me, that the DM is designing challenges that are specifically meant to be solved in a certain way by certain PCs, or that are meant to force other PCs to use skills they are bad at, just to remind them that they are bad those things.

However, I'm all for:
a) Creating a variety of challenges, across all three pillars, without the DM expecting (or requiring) specific solutions to each one.
b) Rewarding players who find interesting ways to solve those challenges using the unique strengths of their characters by allowing those solutions to succeed (or giving them a decent chance, at least).

As I said upstream, if the player has to figure out how to use his/her character's unique strengths to solve a problem, that's far more interesting than cases where it's obvious which character should use which strength.

So, yeah, include a neutral PC who has something the players need, as well as trait/bond/flaw/ideal. If the silver-tongued player learns the flaw or ideal or whatever, and wants to leverage that to convince the PC to help the party, either give him an autosuccess or have him roll a die, depending on how effective you think that approach will be.

Another less eloquent character trying the same thing might have a much harder time, and might want to use a different strategy.

But I think the important part here is that persuading the NPC to help is just one possible "solution" to the problems the party faces. They might be able to progress without his help, or steal the McGuffin that he has locked up, or blackmail him with a secret they find, or cast a Charm spell, or....etc. The adventure shouldn't be planned such that persuading this NPC is a "toll booth" that must be passed.

Does that make sense?
 
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lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Totally agree. "Can you roll above a certain number on a die?" is really not a very interesting challenge {...}
Spoken like someone who has never gone to Vegas! ;)

I dunno; different parts of the game appeal to different parts of the lizard brain at different times. There is certainly something ... satisfying ... about a good roll. Even if the payout is in hit points instead of cold, hard cash.
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
Spoken like someone who has never gone to Vegas! ;)

I dunno; different parts of the game appeal to different parts of the lizard brain at different times. There is certainly something ... satisfying ... about a good roll. Even if the payout is in hit points instead of cold, hard cash.
High stakes can make it exciting, but that’s different from it being a challenge.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
The only nitpick I would have with this is the implication, perhaps imagined by me, that the DM is designing challenges that are specifically meant to be solved in a certain way by certain PCs, or that are meant to force other PCs to use skills they are bad at, just to remind them that they are bad those things.
...
Does that make sense?
Without getting into the weeds, I think we do agree on general approach for this. How that goal is accomplished is going to vary, and how we express what we do and why may vary.

I try to put a lot of variety into my encounters (and fights). Some game days will go by where the dice are being rolled constantly, others they may be used a few times.

So I agree. I strive for a mix of challenges, and have multiple possible approaches whenever possible, including some I didn't even think of but my players do.
 

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