There’s a point in No More Heroes 2 when the main character walks into a(n American) football stadium and is immediately surrounded by two-dozen identical cheerleaders, all introducing a football star that the main character has been send to fight. They trade some barbs for a minute, until the football player confesses that a stadium is an insufficient setting for their fight. The cheerleaders take off like rockets, shooting into space and converging into a giant beams of light that gradually take the shape of a building-sized, humanoid robot. The star himself rides up to the robot in a football-shaped ship and lands on it, forming the head and completing his giant machine. The main character, a young man with a sword, looks up, says “I thought something like this might happen,” and summons his own giant robot, which up until then had not existed.
This sort of thing is one of my biggest payoffs in gaming. The player is faced with an impossible situation and can only succeed through wits, preparation, reaching down deep and finding a level they didn’t know they had, or some combination of the three. Sometimes, this manifests as a quick, “suddenly there’s a mecha” moment, and sometimes it’s a more drawn-out spectacle as the player considers the situation, assesses his or her resources, and through skill and luck dismantles the problem through a single battle, an entire night, or occasionally even longer. In particular, I’d like to discuss the latter.
The word “impossible” may seem a bit off here, since the player can eventually overcome the problem, but I like it. It speaks a lot more to the situation I mean than the word “difficult”. In a difficult situation, a player can succeed by being lucky on rolls, or having the enemy be unlucky, or barely surviving after a long-drawn out meeting. Difficult combats are perfect for final battles or hated rivals, difficult skill challenges are perfect for disarming the magic ritual or guiding the starship into port, and difficult puzzles are perfect for finding your way out of the maze before it fills with water or finding which guest is the murderer before they kill again.
Something impossible is different. An impossible combat is stopping the entire army with three heroes and a bard, an impossible skill challenge is moving an entire kingdom to rebel against their leaders, and an impossible puzzle is an ancient poem that speaks of the end times but offers no actual hints or substance. The point is that applying a player’s forehead directly to the problem is unlikely to work, no matter how well they roll or what their character is. They need to think outside the box and approach the problem from a standpoint other than declaring an intent and rolling a die or going through the motions of their normal problem-solving methods. A difficult problem challenges the characters, and an impossible problem challenges the players (a distinction I want to make more of in a future post).
I’ve hit my players with a few impossible situations lately, and I’ve been hit with a few others as well in the campaigns in which I play. With everything coming so quickly, I’m starting to develop a feel for how and how not to run an impossible problem:
- Make sure the players exactly know how bad the situation is — This is a hard sweet spot to hit. You want the players to know that this is an impossible problem, and not merely a problem that looks hard at first but through which they will eventually triumph. If the players dive face-first into an impossible problem, they will likely fail spectacularly, in an incredibly frustrating way. But you also can’t pretend the problem as too impossible right off the bat, or the players will avoid it altogether. They may convince the villagers to flee rather than whittle down the army with guerilla tactics, or they may give up on repairing that artifact and just do without. Sometimes, what the players come up with can be more exciting, but just as often, they’ll just be angry that you’re railroading them in whatever direction leaves the problem behind.
- Accept good ideas, whether you expected them or not — In 4th Edition, I have a sort of running rule that the DC for a check in a skill challenge is based on how good the player’s idea is. That is, the more clever or useful the check the player wants to make, the lower the DC. This makes clever ideas more likely to succeed, which is more interesting for me as I react to them and encourages the players to make good decisions with any skill rather then try to shove square peg of their best modifier into the round hole of the problem. It allows gives the players a chance to succeed even if they don’t have the perfect abilities for a given problem.
- Feel free to help the players out sometimes — Especially at the beginning of an impossible problem, when the players don’t have a plan yet, or halfway through, when they begin to feel that they’re not making any progress, the players may become frustrated. The nature of an impossible problem is such that it looks impossible for a long time until it all comes tumbling down, and the players can easily get lost halfway through. A lot of players resent being given an obvious hint, so for something like this, I think it’s best to slide some extra information in as the result of a skill check. For example, a player makes a Perception or Spot check looking for something and fails, but they still see something else that they can use to accomplish something similar, or maybe a failed attack puts the player in position to notice something about an enemy’s armor that they can exploit.
- Don’t overdo it — Impossible situations work because they force the players to think beyond the normal restrictions they apply on their characters’ actions. When you hit players with too many impossible issues in short order, however, breaking out of the routine becomes routine, and it defeats the point. You also run the risk of burning out the players that take the initiative in such situations, as they get repeatedly put on the spot to deal with the problems. But above all, the impossible situations lose their luster as they stop being a significant, different, challenging break in the normal action and lose their narrative impact.
I feel that impossible problems work best not as as capstones, but as preparation for capstones. It’s the players cleverly whittling down the elite guards in a castle so they can fight the king unmolested, or disabling the power so they can reach the secret labs without setting off the alarms. Players traditionally sign up for a D&D campaign to play D&D, and keeping a final battle in traditional D&D helps meet that expectation. But more than that, it gives the players to time to work on their plan, deal with a problem, and gather themselves together before enjoying the fruits of their labor. There’s nothing quite as great as seeing half of the enemies flee because your campaign of intimidation worked, leaving the general exposed, or watching a scientist summoning his robot only to see it collapse due to sabotage. An impossible plan is fun to execute, but the most fun is in watching it all come together at the end and seeing the enemies panic as they realize the characters were apparently in charge all along.