What Makes a Role-Playing Game Exciting?

To my mind the excitement of a role-playing game can be summed up in two words: risk and challenge. Challenge means that it's hard to win - victory is not handed to you on a plate, but you have to work for it. Risk means that you feel that your character may be killed. Games vary in the degree to which they challenge player characters and put them at risk.

Close to one end of the spectrum is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It's full of safety nets to protect PCs from real harm. First, the damage inflicted by weapons is ludicrously small compared to the damage needed to kill someone. Second, losing Hit Points has no bad effects as long as you are still conscious. If you drop to 1 Hit Point, you can still fight at full strength. Third, you can get healing potions to restore lost Hit Points. And finally, even if you do get killed, you can always be resurrected.

AD&D has encumbrance rules, limiting the amount you can carry, but these can be overcome simply by acquiring a Bag of Holding to let you carry more. For every hazard there is, AD&D provides a magical solution to get round it. If you have enough money you can buy any number of healing potions and a Bag of Holding to carry them in, which gives you unlimited portable Hit Points as long as you have money to buy them.

In an AD&D game, it is generally assumed that the GM will set the scenario at the right level for the players. This means that the players can succeed in the scenario, though it probably won't be a walkover. Playing AD&D, you expect to defeat the monsters and survive the scenario. You expect not to face monsters that are too much for the party to deal with.

Near the opposite end of the spectrum is Call of Cthulhu. In CoC, monsters are extremely formidable and often kill PCs. Human opponents often have firearms, which can kill with a single hit. On starting a CoC scenario, you expect there is a good chance that your character might not survive. Just getting a character out of a CoC scenario alive and sane gives a sense of victory. If you manage to defeat the monsters as well this is a great victory. This is only so because in CoC the PCs lose so often.

CoC is exciting in a way that AD&D just isn't because there is a risk. CoC is for people who want a really difficult scenario that they might not survive - challenge and risk. AD&D is for people who want victory handed to them on a plate, with no challenge and no risk.

Imagine a film in which an explorer discovers a lost city deep in a jungle, so he returns to civilisation to fit out a party to go there and bring the treasure out. He hired a train of pack mules to carry supplies in and to carry the treasure out. He hires mule handlers and guards. Then they trek deep into the forest, contending with jungle diseases, predators and hostile tribes. Getting such a party into the deep jungle is much harder than going in on his own. Men and mules may die or be lamed, and if the expedition loses too many mules it won't have the capacity to bring the treasure out. If it loses too many guards, the returning laden mules will be exposed to attackers.

All this is an exciting story because the expedition has to contend with difficulties. If the explorer could simply buy a Bag of Holding, then go in alone as he did the first time, load the treasure up and walk out with it, that would make it a very boring story. Taking away the challenge takes away the excitement.

The difficulties of transporting treasure through a jungle are the same no matter how rich you are. No matter how much the expedition leader spends on men, those men still have to be fed. More supplies requires more mules, which in turn need more men to guard them. And taking a larger expedition in will be more difficult overall. Throwing more money at the expedition will not make it more likely to succeed beyond a certain point. The organiser cannot simply buy himself out of difficulties by spending more.

But the magical solutions of AD&D let you do exactly that. A character with enough money can buy the magical items to fix almost any problem. This is utterly boring.