Player Ability vs Player Challenge

A few weeks ago my sunday D&D group reached 7th level and with 7th level came a whole host of new spells and abilities that gave them several brand new ways of murdering their enemies and taking their things. This also meant that the standard way of providing them with a challenging encounter didn’t quite work anymore so I had to go looking for new ways of threatening their treasure, lives and friends (in that order).

Appropriate challenge for a lvl 20 party? yes
Appropriate challenge for a lvl 5 party? probably not

This post, I’d like to take a moment to look at challenging players in the context of their abilities, especially at higher levels. I’ll be going over when to let players revel in their power and how to properly challenge their more powerful abilities.

So without furder ado, let’s get into it.

Dungeons and Dragons is probably the worst offender in the realm of GMs suddenly having to change things around to accomodate their players’ newfound abilities but several other games have similar issues. D&D is just a lot more obvious because of the way its levels are structured.

1st to 4th level player characters are simple, direct and usually not terribly dangerous. Sure, they can burn down a house or stab someone, but it’s all fairly mundane. And then lvl 5 hits and suddenly the wizard is flying, the sorceress is throwing fireballs left and right, the warlock can become invisible at will so long as there’s shadows around and the fighter can attack TWICE (!). 5th level may be the big gamechanger but D&D has this happen, on average, every two levels when the spellcasters gain access to a higher tier of spells.

Other games have this too, such as in  Anima when someone’s build really starts to cook off (usually around 200 attack, dodge or block) or Apocalypse world when someone begins taking the advanced moves that really change up the way the basic game works or even Burning wheel when someone finally shade-shifts their preferred skill.


And as a GM, you have to be ready for that. Not just in terms of continuing to offer them appropriate challenges for their skillset but also in terms of offering them the chance to show off their newfound abilities in a way that makes them feel as bad-ass as they now are.

So let’s start with that: showing off. Make sure that after PCs have achieved a major milestone, they’re able to show off their newfound powers. Ideally, you’ll throw a challenge at them that would’ve been fairly difficult a few levels ago but they can now breeze through with their newfound abilities or gear. A good example are D&D’s goblins. At the lower levels, a few goblins pose a genuine threat to the party. So once they reach level 5, give them a nice, bunched up group of goblins and let the fireballs and multiple attacks slice through them like a hot knife through butter.
In a game like Vampire, when the players finally amass that critical mass of political power, let them start their plots and manipulate the new vampires on the block. When your players in Call of Cthulhu finally get their hands on a crate full of dynamite, let them blow up some cultists. It won’t help, but it’ll make them feel good about themselves.

On a related note: let players use their cool unique abilities once in a while. Have a dwarf with a specialty in masonry in the party? Let them build something or break down a wall. Have a professor of physics in the party? Give them a particle accellerator and an alien threat to defeat with said accellerator. Or, in the words of Apocalypse World: Be a fan of the player characters.

Don’t be this guy.
Be the PC’s greatest fan!

So now that your players have gotten their chance to show off, it’s time to ramp up the challenge. There’s two ways to do this and in my opinion, one is wrong for most games.
Option one is what I like to call the Oblivion method (after The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion). Here, you ramp up whatever existing challenges you had. Those goblins you’ve been fighting? They all gain a few levels, some magical weapons and the party is back to fighting goblins, except now they have slightly shinier swords. This is both boring and trivializes the player’s advances.
The only exception is when a specific enemy type is the key to your campaign. In exalted, if you follow the default setting, Dragon-Blooded exalts are almost always going to remain part of the enemy force during the game. But instead of washed up outcast, you’ll end up facing the cream of the crop by the end of the game.

The second option is the enemy stepladder. As your players get comfortable with fighting a specific kind of enemy, they make way for a more advanced kind. They graduate from fighting goblins to dealing with orks and face off against demons and dragons. The curve doesn’t neccesarily have to be this steep, but certainly in fantasy games, as the PCs increase in power, they’re going to end up facing more and more fantastical creatures with a dizzying array of powers to match their own unique new abilities.

I like this type of escalation so long as the new enemies follow a similar theme as the old ones. For example, the goblins serve as cannon fodder for the orcs who are demon cultists led by an ancient dragon. This way, each of the difficulty steps hints at the next one and they all follow a nice thematic whole.

And that’s my advice for how to deal with increasing player power levels. If you have any thoughts, feel free to share them in the comments.

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