imageThere is a Greek legend about a thing called the Gordian Knot, a knot so complex that no one could untie it no matter how long they attempted to work it out. Then along comes this douche bag Alexander The Great, who whips out his sword and quick as you please slices the thing in two. He then goes on to conquer most of the known world. Ever feel like you are on the other side of that situation while running a game? You’ve developed an incredible scenario full of twists, turns, complications, and challenges, and along come the PCs breezing past your challenge with some off the wall solution. Dicks. We’ve all been there, and it can suck from the GMing side of things, but we’ve got to keep one thing in mind: Challenge does not always equal fun.

My current group is encountering this in spades. The current GM is running from a published adventure in the Eberron setting, but because of the house rules we are using, very little challenges us. In a recent game, the combat that was supposed to reign in our party’s wave of terror began and ended with a good tactical move (knocking the fiercest , plate mail wearing combatant into the water). From there it was cleanup of the medium challenge fighters and schlock, and merciless destruction of the plate mailed and waterlogged BBEG as he tried to climb out of the water. Thing is, it was fun. Were I currently on the GM’s side of the screen I might feel differently, but being a player it feels great to succeed. It feels especially good since we get our asses handed to us every other fight during the first few levels of our adventuring career.

As Game Masters, we tend to have a natural focus drift towards our side of the adventure – the value of the elements we control, the challenge of the encounters, making sure the various elements we are responsible for are getting enough playtime, etc. This is natural and important to running a good adventure, but if we drift too far into this mindset we take ourselves away from a place where we can understand how much fun the players are having with what we’ve created – even if they aren’t challenged by it.

Let me illustrate with a story I hear from my friends ALL THE TIME.  It gets brought up almost every time we game or are talking about gaming. Regular game was called for the week, but my friend decides to run a Shadowrun one-shot to fill the gap. He used a published one-shot from Catalyst games. The goal: deliver a Macguffin from one side of the city to another. The group outfits themselves and proceeds into the dangerous war-torn area where they need to make the delivery.

  • The first challenge was getting past a Lone Star blockade. Coincidentally, one of the players took a high level background that tied him into Lone Star. He flashed his SIN (identity number), the guards realized they were outranked and let them pass.
  • The second challenge was being rammed by vehicles driven by opposition forces as they went through an intersection. The player driving had a high drive score and rolled like a haus, well above the level needed to not get hit AND get through the intersection, thus avoiding the firefight that was supposed to happen.
  • The third challenge was for a hacker to hack into their vehicle and disable it. Unaware of this, the player who was the group’s hacker was bored and decided to hack random people he saw out the window. The GM made him roll an initiative to see if his attempt went before or after the attempt to hack the van. The player went first, the enemy hacker went down with a nosebleed, the driver saw it and asked what happened, the group’s hacker said “Nevermind that” and they kept driving.
  • Having run out of scripted challenges in the one-shot adventure, and less than a half an hour having passed, the GM did what any good GM would do and started improvising. He decided there were random biker gangs out looking for trouble and that they threw down some spike strips on the road. The group dutifully hit them and came to a stop, getting ready for a firefight with a biker gang. Then, the person who purchased the van said “Would these help? I bought run-flat tires when I bought the van.”, pointing out the place on the back of his character sheet where it was written. The GM sighed, retconned them rolling over it and continuing to move, they delivered the package, and then he closed up shop.

When my friends tell the story, they mention that the metaphor for that game is “A hovervan, floating over the speed bumps of plot while yawning.” The whole game took less than an hour.  The thing is, the people involved in this game talk about it all the time. Even the Game Master who ran it laughs about how great it was to watch them effortlessly circumvent challenges. I hear about this much more than I hear about the epic fights with red dragons, the merciless way the group barely survived that encounter with the god-elf, or the ship to ship fight with the imperials.


I’m not saying that a lack of challenges makes a fun game, but just because players are breezing through the obstacles you set up doesn’t mean the game isn’t fun. Fun in a game comes from a variety of sources and the challenge level is only one of them. Watch how engaged the players are with the game, this is always a much better yardstick than how challenged they are.

Ever have a “Hovervan Moment” where the players just ran over the obstacles in their way without stopping?  How fun was it? In your games what ends up being the most fun?

Gordian Knot Image: Here | CC 2.0
Crappy Hovervan Image Crappily Compiled from: Van | Parking Lot | CC 2.0

17 replies
  1. The_Gun_Nut
    The_Gun_Nut says:

    The thing is, it’s not that the challenges weren’t challenging, and it’s not that challenges themselves are or are not fun, it’s OVERCOMING challenges that is fun. Even if it seems the players are breezing through the obstacles before them, the players are being rewarded for their forward thinking and their creativity by taking something that they know would normally be a long dangerous encounter and “cutting through the knot.”

    Sure, bludgeoning through with brute strength can be fun and rewarding, but it is much, much more satisfying to encounter an obstacle and find a way to make the obstacle just not matter anymore.

    Overcoming challenges is tons of fun. It only becomes boring when the players feel like there was never any threat of failure to begin with. Even if they breeze through the obstacle, if they believe that they got through it because of clever thinking or correct decision making on their part and not because it was easy, then they will not only have fun, but be satisfied.

  2. unwinder
    unwinder says:

    I’m sure I’ve told this one.

    I had a moment like this when I put a river in front of my players, and gave them two options to cross it; A tunnel underneath containing a legendary boss, or a bridge with an entire regiment of enemy soldiers on it. The only reason the bridge was there was because I was using a real-life location as the setting. The soldiers were only there to scare the players away.

    I was taken completely off guard when they decided to take the bridge, and needed to take a few minutes to figure out the bridge encounter. Out of spite, I made the enemies especially numerous.

    When we came back, the players opted to explore in some nearby ruins before crossing. I was getting frustrated with them, and I’m not too proud to admit that I went into railroading mode, and put a humongous monster in their path.

    Anyway, they lured the monster to the bridge, and it killed all the soldiers, and they never even had to lift a finger.

  3. Hawkesong
    Hawkesong says:

    I was in a situation where I was the player causing the hovervan moment.

    Playing in a Pathfinder Society game, and my good friend was the GM. She’s new to gaming: this was only her third time behind the screen, and she’s always used modules.

    The plan in the module was for the party to meet up with some supposed merchants, share a camp, and for the camp to get attacked in the middle of night by bandits – the party’s mission was to somehow fool the bandits into taking a false magical item that would then lead us straight to their lair.

    The meet-up, the camp, and the beginning of the attack all occurred right on cue.

    Then I got a bright idea. The fake magic item was in a wagon pulled by a pair of mules. Best way to make mules run? Slap ’em on the hind end!! And I figured that the bandits would much rather chase the mules than face our blades.

    So I smacked some, well, mule (I’ll keep the language clean)…and the GM was sitting there for ten minutes trying to figure out how to make that work, because it cut the battle short as half the bandits went straight for the wagon. Plus, the merchants we had met were no such thing, and were actually the King’s guards…so what were they to think?

    Fortunately for her, the game group was laughing for ten minutes solid.

  4. valadil
    valadil says:

    Players want to be awesome. The bigger the challenge, the awesomer the players are, provided they overcome it. Just because a character circumvents a challenge, the challenge is not diminished. It just means that character was really, really awesome.

  5. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    Sometimes it all works out beautifully– and that’s what makes the night interesting. I have some players who would enjoy rolling over every foe– for them it’s the thrill of victory. Others really want a challenge and want to sweat along the way. Knowing your players is key.

  6. crowofpyke
    crowofpyke says:

    I had two experiences at GenCon that are in this vein – one good, one very bad.

    I played a D&D Living Forgotten Realms game of the SPEC2-2 P1 module. Our group managed to RP our way around two combat encounters and the DM worked *with us* instead of railroading us with box-text. That was a really fun experience.

    I also played a couple of the Shadowrun CMP modules at GenCon. In one of the games our party was rolling “Hovervan” style through the challenges – we were hitting every note precisely and quickly. We were 1.5 hours into a 4 hour time slot. We were THISCLOSE to being done with the entire module, only one unavoidable combat encounter left to go. We could have been done in another 30min and be on our way to other GenCon adventures in 2hrs of a 4hr slot. But no. The GM decides to DRAG OUT finding the location of this final encounter unecessarily, throwing one arbitrary time delay in after another. For another 1.5 hours. Then drags out the final combat as much as possible for another hour so that the game finishes right around 4 hrs. Now that being said, I left the table before the end and told the GM I didn’t appreciate being railroaded and dragging out a time slot when we (the players) have clearly done well and should have ended early – he has trumped the player fun of overcoming obstacles by dragging things out. I left the table feeling unhappy about what had been a great deal of fun with the players at the table because of an overreaching GM. How do I know things took the full 4 hours? I ran into one of the players later at the con and he told me how things resolved. He was not happy about it – he enjoyed the player interaction as I did, but he didn’t enjoy the GM shenanigans.

    I DM/GM a lot, and I have a lot of respect for people who are willing to “step up” and DM/GM as well. However, that does not mean I won’t walk away from your table if you make the RP experience unenjoyable and ruin the player fun with DM railroading and/or shenanigans.

    I use the word “shenanigans” twice. That means it wasn’t fun.

  7. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    @crowofpyke – .”I swear to God I’m going to pistol whip the next guy who says ‘shenanigans’.”

    In defense of anyone who’s done this, sometimes a GM isn’t happy until he’s challenged his players. It’s not right, but it is an excuse.

  8. BishopOfBattle
    BishopOfBattle says:

    I’m sure the perfect balance is somewhere inbetween both. I’ve got players that sometimes breeze through the obstacles and love it. Then there are other sessions where they’re escaping by the skin of their teeth which have also gone well.

    I imagine without one it makes the other meaningless. If the group gets their butts handed to them a few times and so they aquire some tools and formulate a strategy that allows them to sail through the next encounter, then that is a huge win for them! Conversely, if they breeze through each encounter, that really tough one that nearly drags them down carries a lot more weight.

  9. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @The_Gun_Nut – “it’s OVERCOMING challenges that is fun.”

    Very true. While Roleplaying Games are a highly narrative experience in many ways, they are still games and the act of overcoming something is a win scenario. That is the thrill for a lot of players.

    @unwinder – Sounds like it turned out great. Sure there was a little railroading involved, but sometimes you need to motivate the game along. Their unique solution seemed to take care of things nicely.

    @Hawkesong – Sounds like a totally valid plan. I’m taking it that your GM let it go off? I know a few GMs who, when they were new, would have found any reason to disallow that. “The Mules were tied up” or “The item fell off the back of the wagon” and other such excuses. How did it end?

    @valadil – Definitely. High level players like to take on high level challenges. It just doesn’t feel as great if they aren’t. Still, even if the PC is up against a really low level challenge, handing it to them just doesn’t feel the same. I’ve watched players go ecstatic about rolling with their +38 against some infinitesimally inferior merchant in negotiation. Sure they had it without the roll, but the margin of success made them all sorts of giddy, despite the lack of challenge.

    @crowofpyke – I can see where a GM who is given a 4 hour game to run at a convention wants to give the players their money’s worth. It sounds like this GM might not have handled it in the best way, but I can see where his or her mindset might have wanted to make sure no one felt cheated by not having enough time. The better option might have been for the GM to ask if the players wanted some improv or if they preferred ending it early. It goes back to Scott’s comment about knowing your players, something that is key. Even if the GM didn’t know what the players would prefer, it could have been asked.

    @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – But our shenanigans are cheeky and fun.

    @BishopOfBattle – Right on. There have to be some challenging ones in the adventures in order to make the easy ones not feel like gimmes, and the easy ones can build up egos so that the really hard ones feel challenging. Balance is key.

  10. knowman
    knowman says:

    One of my fondest memories involving running a plot was also the most painful at the time as the players just hovervanned over challenge after challenge. It was actually for a fantasy LARP and the particular quest involved a number of challenges with physical as well as mental elements.

    To start it off the players learned that they had a very limited time to complete the quest – the actual time was somewhat flexible as I was looking to create the sense of urgency but didn’t want them to fail simply because of some arbitrary time limit, but we expected it would be roughly an hour. But there was an audio cue (basically a gong) being rung every 30 seconds or so that they could hear across the site, and they were told that when it had rung 200 times, they would all be dead and gone. It did serve to immediately create a sense of urgency for the PCs, which ironically led to some very creative solutions.

    The first challenge was a fairly common puzzle I’m sure many folks have seen or heard of. There was a pile of junk beside a pool of acid, maybe 15′ in diameter. In the middle of the pool was a container (in our case a Home Depot bucket) in which was a widget the PCs needed. The junk included a spare tire, a single length of chain, a pole that was just a little too short to reach the container and two lengths of rope. The PCs quickly figured out the solution (at least the one we had thought of) was to use the rope by hooking it under the lip of the bucket on either side. Then they were supposed to slowly and carefully bring th bucket over to the edge of the pool out of harm’s way. But we had made them very conscious of time, and so as soon as they got the rope under the bucket lip, they violently flung it into the air, sending the rather fragile prop inside said bucket to go flying while another PC position themselves to catch it like some punt receiver who’d lost the ball in the sun. This was a sign of things to come.

    The next challenge they faced was a barrier represented by lengths of rope tied at various heights between some trees (think the laser eyebeams spies are always slithering between, except these would kill you). Not only did they have to avoid touching the individual strands, but once someone went through a particular opening, that opening closed. So they had a limited number of easy ways to pass through and then a number of challenging ones (maybe 9 total, and they had brought a couple of extra people), and needed to figure out the right people to go through in the right order so other people could be lifted or helped over or passed through. We plotmasters felt very clever having modified this from a much more benign puzzle into the deathtrap it was meant to be, and expected the PCs to waste lots of precious time not to mention spells as they would inevitably have people die in the process and need to be raised from the dead. And they only had a couple of healers, so the spells were a precious a commodity as the time. I remember the marshaling of the puzzle going something like this:
    PC: So if we touch the rope, we die, right?
    Me: Yes
    PC: What happens if we pass through a space that’s already been used?
    Me: You die – think of it as a forcefield that becomes active once a person passes through it.
    PC: Can you be pulled through from the other side if you die?
    Me (a little confused): Sure, but you’ll still be dead.
    PC: Okay.

    They then proceeded to have one healer crawl through one of the opening, then had all but one of the PCs throw themselves through the same opening, killing themselves in the process, and then the last PC crawled through and helped the other one raise the entire party. That entire encounter, which we had expected to take a good 20+ minutes, was over in about 5.

    I think I’ve purposefully forgotten the other three or four obstacles they blithely sauntered through without breaking a mental sweat. They finished the entire quest in something like 23 minutes.

    The irony is that many of those same players still have very fond memories of what a great and challenging quest that was.

  11. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Diceman – I’d say that is one aspect of them. There are many indie games out there that do a beautiful job of not presenting the “standard” types of challenges found in other games, but they are still challenges. Every “game” has an element of challenge to it, but the focus and overcoming of those challenges can occur in an infinite number of ways. Being able to bullshit a good solution overcomes a challenge, but so does rolling the dice and succeeding against a target number. There is a whole lot more than that actually going on though. The players are interacting and building a shared story, each person at the table is imagining the scene a little differently, there are outlets for creativity, aggression, and awesomeness being enacted, etc. There are a multitude of things going on, but I would say challenges and overcoming them are a key element of most roleplaying games.

    @knowman – That actually sounds pretty awesome. I’ve not gotten into the LARPing scene much, but this story makes it appealing. There are many things like this that my group might try in-game, only to be told that that isn’t the way the game works (we don’t play with that GM anymore). The idea of doing it “in real life” adds that layer of creativity and semi-realism. “Well I flipped the big stone artifact out of the bucket and caught it just fine, why wouldn’t that be viable in the game?” Where was this larp? We’ve got NERO in my area, but I know nothing about it except the name.

  12. knowman
    knowman says:

    @John Arcadian
    The LARP is simply called “The Realms”. It’s a New England LARP, although some Realmsies have moved to different parts of the country so I think there are smaller chapters in incubation period. It’s not a corporation like NERO, which is good in some ways and bad in others. The combat is better than NERO in my opinion as it is based on simple hit locations (getting hit in a limb means you can’t use that limb, getting hit in the torso or head = dead), so there isn’t a lot of math in the middle of combat. More info can be found online a – our rulebook is called “The Omnibus” and is available freely via a link on the navigation menu.

  13. Diceman
    Diceman says:

    @John Arcadian – I had the feeling you’d say that. Apparently it’s a pretty common approach. Interestingly, it’s quite different from the way we look at RPGs over here (The Israeli role playing community). Hmmm…

  14. Bercilac
    Bercilac says:

    I “hovervanned” once. The opening scene of a campaign that my mate ran was a peace conference between the court of nation A and representatives of nation B. I was representing nation B. There was also a religious divide (kings of A and B both claimed to be the one true god). I was playing a level five Paladin with a magic carpet.

    At some time during the dinner the temperamental 7-year-old (read: low-level) king of A decided to have all of his guests murdered. I hopped on my conveniently stowed magic carpet, drew my dress sword, and skewered the nasty little infidel.

    It was never explained to me how he survived, beyond being destined to ongoing villainy. I felt a bit cheated. I wish the little turd’s uncle or someone had just inherited the throne and I could have become a regicide in session one. We ended up running across the country for our lives anyway.

  15. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    I haven’t had a hovervan feeling in years and years. Play games that aren’t GM-active|player-reactive and those moments pretty much never occur. When the players drive themselves towards the action, it’s not like they’re going to swerve out of the way.

  16. Airk
    Airk says:

    I don’t think the “Well, everyone talks about the super easy game where they won in 30 minutes” metric is even remotely valid as a measure of how good a game was or even how much fun the players had. Which do you talk about more, the time your scheduled plane trip just went as planned, or when you were stuck in the airport overnight subsisting only on vending machine peanuts? Just because you talk about it doesn’t mean it was good or fun. Just unusual.

    Frankly, it sounds to me like everyone talks about it because it’s a case of “LOL, that game just went sooo badly.” Those are fun stories to tell, but they shouldn’t be used as a model for what makes a good game.

    Now does that mean that your argument is invalid? No, but it means your example really isn’t very good. Challenge doesn’t necessarily equal fun, but neither does it necessarily equal non fun. The PCs experiencing the thrill of victory is fun. Sometimes you can get that thrill by running roughshod over what was supposed to be hard, but you can bet your last wooden nickel that if that happens more than once in a blue moon, it’ll get old real fast, because Victory with no thrill is just a nap.

    It’s the job of a good GM to challenge the PCs -enough-. And enough is not always the same, even given the same PCs, the same game, and the same GM but a different night.

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