nerding out

I make no secret of my nerd nature (not that I could, really, but whatever). Part of the awesome combination of being a huge nerd and being an author is that you get to steal from everywhere, including things that don’t have anything to do novels. Case in point: the other day my husband (who makes and runs role playing games and is thus an even larger nerd than myself) was talking to me about the theory behind how a good GM decides what kind of threat to throw at players.

According to him, there are 4 types of challenges players face:

1 – Easy

This is a problem the characters can face without stretching at all. Think small scale bandit attack. The characters have to act and address the problem, but they’re not really threatened.

2 – Challenging

This problem forces characters to actually dig into their resources. It’s a serious fight where the characters are threatened and may be wounded, but if they don’t botch, there’s no real risk to their lives and they don’t have to do anything particularly clever to triumph.

3 – Difficult

This is a fight where the characters are outmatched. Their lives are really threatened, and they won’t be able to win unless they use their powers in new and interesting ways. Screw ups, bad decisions, and/or sloppy planning have real consequences in a difficult challenge. Think boss fight.

4 – Overwhelming

The characters are too short for this ride. Overwhelming challenges are large scale plot events the players aren’t meant to be able to face, and are often used by the GM to railroad wandering characters back into the plot. These world-sized roadblocks can only be conquered with help from the GM through deus ex machina or a powerful NPC taking pity on them. 


Generally my eyes glaze over when my husband starts talking about game theory, but every now and then, he comes out with something brilliant. This was one of those times. While all of these are framed in terms of players and a game, it doesn’t take much rearranging to see how diving challenges up into these categories can help with pacing a novel.

For example, an easy challenge at the beginning of the novel is a quick way to give characters instant cool factor. You simply set up a challenge that looks hard, but is actually something the character can do with ease. Stopping an assassin, say, or slaying a demon, it’s rough stuff for us normal people, but all in a day’s work for our heroes. However, this sort of thing can’t be used exclusively. A novel where the challenge level never gets above 2 (challenging) has no teeth. If the characters are never truly pushed, they’ll never grow, and you’re left with dull, static people. Plus, no one likes a main villain who goes out like a punk.

On the other hand, though, you almost never want to use an overwhelming challenge, and certainly never multiple ones. When you give your people a hurdle they can’t possibly jump on their own, you’re taking the power of the story out of your character’s hands, turning them into passengers on their own plot. While taking power away from a normally powerful character can create great tension, powerless characters are boring over the long term, and no one likes to see their favorite heroine get the shaft at the very end.

Yet I’m constantly amazed at how many novels, especially fantasy adventures (my favorites!), start at level 1 and end at level 4, but skip everything in the middle. Or, they start at 3 and never let up, so the characters are constantly in over their heads, and we as readers never really get a feel for them as competent people (which isn’t to say there haven’t been novels that have pulled this off, but it’s not an easy trick to have your character constantly on the losing side and not get beaten down or, even worse, unbelievable).

My ideal story (assuming a fresh book, not #2 in a series) starts at 1 or 2 and then slowly builds up (through a series of 2s and 3s) to a 3.5. This is a difficult challenge that looks like an overwhelming one until the characters apply some new trick and cut it down to size, tipping the situation on its head to come out on top. Those are the best! I love seeing characters start at the top of their game, and then get in more and more over their heads as things get tougher until they’re using every weapon in their arsenal, plus a few they had to make up along the way, to get out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into.

Again, this is stuff I always kind of knew, and I’m sure none of this is new to any readers of this blog. However, for me, the act of organizing challenge into set levels gives a degree of control over what is otherwise an abstract concept (which is the whole point of role playing games – assigning numbers to concepts). This system of levels allows me, as the architect of the story, to think about the challenges my characters face in a measurable way so as to preserve tension without working my into an impossible scenario I’m going to have to hand of god (or as I call it, WRITER SMASH!) my way out of. When writers smash, books get broken.

Anyway, just another one of those unexpected story paradigms I love and wanted to share, and I hope you found it useful, or at least interesting. For those of you who write, how do you approach conflict and challenge for your characters? Also, do any of you game, and does that experience have any influence on how you approach your stories? Inquiring minds want to know!

2 Responses to “nerding out”

  1. 1 mlronald
    May 10, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Ooo…yes. I like this paradigm, particularly as it applies to working out the tension for the story. Starting out with an encounter that’s dangerous but not OH GOD THE WORLD IS CRASHING DOWN can be a really good way to introduce the world and the characters. I tend to think of the tension level as “okay, just how screwed are my characters now? and now? and now?”, and that seems to match some of what you describe.

    I find there are some parallels between constructing an RPG adventure — either a one-shot or a longer campaign — and constructing a novel, particularly when it comes to capturing the players’ (or reader’s) attention. (Keep in mind that I’ve mostly been a player rather than a GM, so I may be talking out of my butt.) If the players are bored with how things are working out, they’ll go off on their own and tangle your careful plot. If a reader’s bored, though, they’ll just put the book down. Same with exposition: players can only take so many Convenient Elder With Useful Knowledge, and readers can only take so many expository lumps. But what’s cool is that players and readers will both come up with their own ideas if there’s enough mystery, confabulating details that you’d have never thought up. The trouble there is when what they’ve imagined turns out to not match what you had in mind at all.

  2. 2 mentatjack
    May 25, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Some of the fun when reading seems to me to be encountering situations that SEEM like a 4, but are really 3 so as to re-calibrate our expectations. In the aftermath, the climax may seem like a 2 or a 1. But that just means that we’ve ratcheted up future expectations. I’ve been encountering this a lot recently as the climax to the first book in a series. Now watch me attempt to talk about the climax of books with without spoilers … trust me I’m a web-developer.

    Sean Williams’ the Crooked Letter starts with an apocalypse and 2 utterly normal brothers … it ends with these brothers facing down the vary laws of the multi-verse which would seem like a 4. We hope that it’s a 3.999, but in hindsight it turns out to be a 1.

    Think about The Matrix.

    Greg’s Norse Code is similar with it’s prophesied end of the world. It’s actually underway at the start of the novel, but based on what we know we’re probably thinking it’s a 3, since most of the players are gods. As the options get whittled away we’re facing down that 4. The climax approaches in all it’s inevitable glory, but one of our protagonists IS a god. Is it deus ex machina if your main character is actually a god?

    Margaret’s Spiral Hunt has a similar climax, even if it’s not universe shattering. The climax seems like a 4, but it gets resolved like a 3 and results in an expectation that the threes of the first volume will be ones in the next.

    I guess my point was that a good GM (or author) won’t always let you know exactly where you fall in that 1-4. Did any of that make any sense?

    All this talk of numbers has got me itching to work on tagshadow.com

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