Challenge vs. Slog, Part 2: Contextual Slogging

Yesterday, I talked about mechanical factors that could turn a challenging battle into a boring slog. Today, I’m going to talk about contextual factors; reasons why what’s going on in the game could bring out the slog in an otherwise awesome challenge.

We really can’t see the relevance. One of the things that helps keep a fight worthwhile is the fact that it’s advancing the group’s goals—and at that point, you can get away with a lot of difficulty, because it’s part of the big fight. On the other hand, something that seems to be just there to be a complication, that’s not clearly related to the A-plot and possibly not even to the B-plots or C-plots, can rack up the frustration a lot faster, because what’s the point? This even goes to the point of affecting clashes that technically are plot-relevant, but that people can’t tell yet; you have to remember, the players only know what you let them know. (This goes for stories as well, and especially serials.)

We’ve got an agenda; why does it keep being delayed? Sometimes, the issue isn’t so much the story relevance as the fact that the group had plans. This is frustrating enough when it’s just something everyone thought would be cool, but if your fight is getting between the group and a practical concern, like adding the two new party members whose players are standing right there, outright rebellion is probable.

We’ve been doing this all session! Proportion matters: the larger a portion of the allotted playtime a given fight takes up, the more frustrating it’s going to be as the duration increases. One could just as easily have a larger number of smaller fights, or a mixture of encounter types, so no specific situation would end up being too much of a good thing.

Why are we stuck with the small fry? Yes, it’s useful for motivational purposes to establish the Big Bad early on but not really have a full-on fight between him and the PCs. I get that. On the other hand, if the group is fighting mooks while the Big Bad is right there, or worse, the group is fighting mooks while someone else fights the Big Bad, and the situation wasn’t their idea, frustration is likely to mount, and small impatience with the pacing is easily magnified. (You may have an exception to this when the group knows perfectly well they can’t handle the Big Bad and went out of their way to find someone who could—maybe. Keep a close eye on the group.) Even having a fight where one needs to get through All Those Minions to stop the Big Bad from doing whatever the Big Bad is doing only really works if there’s a reasonable, visible chance to do so; otherwise it crashes into yesterday’s foregone conclusion and quality over quantity issues and a slog emerges from the wreckage.

Haven’t we already had this battle? This actually goes for just about any situation, not just battle, but the principle still applies; the more like something else the group has done recently the current situation is, the easier it is for the group to get bored or frustrated with it.

Most really bad slogs are going to be combinations of both mechanical and contextual slog sources; keep an eye out for both types of issue. Good luck!

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