[This is part of the ongoing series on narrative engineering: design, organisation and writing. These short articles (which are republished from our wiki) deal with difficulty, rewards and punishment.]
Punish characters – they’ll love you for it. And it’s good for introducing a bit of strategy to your world.
When something goes wrong for a character – usually failing a challenge, but also choosing something that has a significant downside – you should mark that. You could take away some of their progress or resource qualities. Or you could introduce new qualities that are a problem and need to be managed (like Nightmares or Wounds in Fallen London). This is good, because it gives a sense of risk and reward. And it allows options like spending resources to reduce these menacing qualities.
It also means you get to be quite mean to characters if these problems get out of hand. That’s often fun to write, and it provides scars and war stories for characters. They won’t remember when you took a few actions of progress away from them, but they’ll remember being thrown into the weasel pits.
Players like being rewarded for play, so you should probably hand out rewards. This won’t be true for every game. Very small or simple worlds might not need reward qualities, and some styles of world might not suit. But for most games, you want to give out rewards.
Sometimes, these will be progress type things. You can get a Token of Appreciation for some actions, and you need to spend 10 of them to advance a major story. For this sort of thing, you need to plan out how much each quality is worth, and whether they can be exchanged for each other.
Another sort of reward is more like a souvenir or trophy – a mark that the character has done something in particular, like Hero of Broad Street or Silver-Tongued Devil. These are great. Players like them and they’re easy to do. But don’t go overboard – they become less valuable if you shower a character with them.
Talking about Difficulty
When you have challenges on qualities (especially ‘skill’ type qualities – Brawn, Charm and that sort of thing), don’t talk about how hard the challenge is in the surrounding fiction. If you talk about the ‘desperate, painful struggle’, it will be odd for the player whose character has lots of the relevant quality and a 100% chance of succeeding.
Characters will often end up with qualities at levels you didn’t expect. This is a problem in itself, but it’s made worse when the fiction doesn’t match up. So, don’t reference how hard a problem was, just that there was a success or a failure. If you want to emphasise how difficult something is, it’s better to give it a cost.