Challenge vs. Slog, Part 1: Mechanical Factors

There is nothing many game groups like more than a challenging fight. But somewhere in every battle is a point where it goes from a brilliant challenge they’ll be talking about several plot arcs down the road to the worst thing a fight can become: the dreaded slog. The slog might not defeat the characters, but it latches onto them like a leech and sucks out all their enthusiasm, draining them for whatever else might be left of the session or, if it ends with the slog, leaving them with no gamebuzz and diminished interest in whatever comes next.

Slogs are subjective—one person might be sighing over a fight another still considers an exciting challenge—but there are a number of factors that all seem to contribute to them. Catch them sneaking into your fights, and you might be able to cut off the slog before it takes over what used to be a challenge. Today, I’m going to talk about the purely mechanical factors—the things that are facts about the bones of the fight itself, rather than about its context.

Duration. One of my lot pretty much summed it up during a fight that was run for us last weekend: “If this battle’s still going when it (an Enlarge just cast on one of the PCs) wears off, [his character] is committing suicide.” While most of us aren’t likely to have quite such extreme responses, our interest being worn down over time is pretty much universal. Even if we have all the options in the world, we’ve probably run through them. We’re out of pretty stunts or decent one-liners, out of good ideas, will these blasted things either die already or put us out of our misery so we can move on?

Foregone conclusions. There’s a point in a fight past which you generally know if you’re going to win or you’re going to lose; once you’ve reached that point, the rest is just filling in detail. This isn’t to say that you can’t have an awesome battle that you know perfectly well you’re going to win because there’s some other detail still up in the air, or that you’ve gone into knowing you’re going to lose but wanting to see how awesomely you can go out.

Reduction of options. There are some people who are fine with only ever doing one thing in a fight and letting the dice (or, in some cases, the teammates they’re eagerly buffing) take care of the rest. You can generally tell who they are, because there’s only one thing they tend to do in a fight, and possibly only one thing they can do in a fight. This isn’t about them. This is about the people who make a point of having options—or, even if they have only one primary tactic, having multiple ways of implementing that primary tactic. Taking away their toolkits might not guarantee dissatisfaction, but it’s certainly likely to push them in the direction of the slog threshold, particularly as the situation wears on. Doing so in the same way you did it the last three or four times only makes it worse. Which brings us to…

It’s all about the numbers, isn’t it? There are players who love leaving everything up to the dice. This isn’t about them, either. Sometimes—often due to the reduction of options above—there’s a fight where for one or more of the participants, the only thing they can do is just roll the dice and cross their fingers, again and again. If what they’re in it for is the tactics, or just the chance to be inventive, you’ve probably got a slog.

Quantity over quality. This is one of those lot-of-little-guys fights, and not in the tactical, Tucker’s kobolds sense. They’re easy, individually they don’t stand a chance, but there are a lot of them, or the reinforcements won’t quit, or for whatever other reason it’s impossible to see any progress. Are we done yet? No.

Stupid invincible villains. This one is actually a combination of other issues, but is common enough that it’s worth its own entry. The cause may be in any of a number of factors. It wasn’t supposed to be a random chance battle, but one or more of the dice hasn’t rolled in the double digits since initiative was resolved. Any of the options being used should theoretically work, but none of them have beaten the difficulty. Or it really is a foregone conclusion, and either nobody’s realized that or nobody wants to accept it. Either one gets into duration, and next thing you know, there goes the battlefield.

Tomorrow, we’ll get into contextual slog: how the situation around a fight can build up its slog factor. See you then!

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  1. Challenge vs. Slog, Part 2: Contextual Slogging | Exchange of Realities
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