I’m beginning to have deep misgivings about the slavish adherence to CR-appropriate challenges in adventures. Of course, I’m not actually against CR-appropriate challenges; far from it. However, I’m beginning to think that any decent adventure should feature at least a few fiendishly tough and blindingly easy encounters.
For example, toward the end of a recent session of my Shattered Star campaign, two PCs—cut off from their fellows and lost—knowingly opened a set of double doors and gate-crashed a huge party. At the party were roughly 40 revellers and a tremendously powerful and legendary wizard. Of course, as the mob of enraged revellers hurled themselves at the two seemingly doomed PCs I called an end to the session (as we were almost out of time and it’s good to end on a cliff-hanger).
This was good as it built tension, but it was bad as it gave the players time to think. It seems the idea of CR-appropriate encounters is so deeply engrained in the “water supply” of Pathfinder that even children get it. A few days before the next session, my 12-year-old son who has only been playing for about a year, was telling me how everything was going to be alright. His rationale was either:
- The whole thing is an illusion or
- All the revellers are 1st-level commoners and thus he can easily slaughter them from range with his bow (he plays the ranger Zainnis in the session write-ups).
He observed that if the situation was anything but that, the encounter wouldn’t be CR-appropriate! If a 12-year-old with under a year’s worth of experience can work it out, I’m pretty sure every other player at the table had an inkling as to the truth (at least subconsciously). Goodbye tension. Goodbye consequences of doing something really stupid (bursting into a huge hall full of people in the depths of a dungeon while two-thirds of the party are elsewhere). Goodbye caution.
It reminded me of an incident that occurred many years ago during the last Gen Con UK. I was helping run the Living Greyhawk events at the convention when I was called upon to adjudicate a complaint made by a player. (I was on the Circle of Six at the time and thus I wielded immense power—often capriciously like a bored god). It seemed that in one of the modules, the PCs had spotted an army approaching them as they were leading some refugees to safety. Any sane person would have beat a retreat—and that’s what the module assumed—but of course two of the players didn’t do that. They charged, and they died.
Why did they charge? In the ensuing appeal, it transpired the players believed they’d just face a series of “fair” encounters and that eventually they’d either buy time for the refugees to flee or they’d drive off the army. That’s right, they thought they’d drive off the whole army. Both of them.
Of course, Living style events are somewhat different to normal home games, but the general principle remains the same. The players believed they’d only face a set number of foes based on what the system said the designer was allowed to throw at them. Thus, they did something very, very stupid.
It’s an old adage that the sense of achievement you get from achieving something is directly linked to how hard it was to achieve. I’m beginning to wonder if we are doing our players a disservice by making everything “fair,” “appropriate” or—dare I say it—“balanced”. As a player, some of my greatest, longest lived gaming memories come from salvaging victory from disaster and/or beating almost impossible odds.
Again, I guess it comes down to how much the players trust their GM. (The more I think about it, the more trust is absolutely central to the game and the hobby). A good GM would never just dump a tremendously tough encounter on the PCs without warning. For example, a great wyrm just flying down and attacking a 1st-level party is beyond unfair. However, if the same 1st-level party sees the same dragon flying over head and launches a volley of arrows at it on the assumption they can kill it, that’s their problem.
What Do You Think?
Am I a fool? An I intent on crushing my players’ fun and making them cry? Alternatively, do you agree? Let me know in the comments below.