Friday, May 25, 2012

Challenge Accepted! An interview with Challenger RPG designer David Dostaler

by Randy
Hello there! One of the great things about blogging is getting to interact with amazing people. Recently, we got acquainted with fellow game designer David Dostaler. David is the designer of a roleplaying game called Challenger, which you can read about here and is available for free at DriveThru RPG or Amazon. After reading through his game, we decided to ask him a few questions about the game. We are pleased to share with you what David had to say. Enjoy!


1. One thing I noted was that you do not have the Game Master roll dice. I personally like this decision, and I want to get an idea of what you feel this adds to the game, and what, if anything, is lost. What led to this design choice?

Basically it just started out as a way to 'speed up' game play. With no dice rolls for monsters to worry about the game is immensely fast and simple. I know this also raises a heck of a lot of questions like "Well then, how 'do' you roll monster attacks?". Don't worry, all is taken care of in the full Challenger rules which explain it much better than I could here. I would like to say there was an unexpected benefit to this 'speeding up' of the game. All challenges are determined by the players response to them. For instance: in most RPGs the GM will say "Ten ninjas attack you, roll for initiative". In Challenger the GM will 'always' say, "Ten Ninjas jump out at you, swords gleaming. What do you do?" This may seem like a simple or trivial difference, but the game ramifications are actually huge. It lets the players dictate how the game will be played. Will they fight when you thought they should talk? Talk when you thought they should fight? Ignore the challenge? Use skills? All the decisions are in the player's hands. This creates a phenomenally responsive game, but the GM still retains some creative control by determining 'consequences' for inappropriately dealing with challenges in some rare instances. Really, what game wouldn't benefit from players negotiating with the bad guys or using skills instead of a combat? The possibilities are limitless.

2. The text of the game really emphasizes the player experience in action and the story, and encourages the game master to run the story the players want. What game systems or gaming experiences inspired you to put such a heavy emphasis on the players' stories?
Good question. Really I'd just say it's myself improving as a GM, writer, and person over time. When I started out (many years ago) all my adventures were pre-planned. Sometimes the players loved them, sometimes they hated them and I didn't know what to do. I would get so frustrated. I created an awesome adventure, the player's avoid it, I try to get them back on track, they resist more. I end up getting mad at them. It's a death spiral. Sometime after about 10 years of gaming it finally clicked: design adventures the player's 'want' to play rather than force them to play the ones I've created without their input. It's never failed. Initially, I would just ask my players 'what do you want to do next adventure?' then design the adventure. I've now reached the point where I can sit down and literally say, "What do you want to do today, guys?" and then whip up an adventure on the fly. The players love it. They can literally do anything, go anywhere, and meet anyone. I love it as a GM because my players are always happy and my adventures are never 'skipped'. I'll sometimes plan out adventure stuff still (everyone does) but the players feel so much in control they rarely, if ever, 'skip' the stuff I've written anymore. It's a great feeling and I think it's a great way to run a game if you're experienced enough.

Also, the 'static' adventures worked great when we were younger. Go in, kill orcs, grab money. Sometimes that's all you need. As we all grew older we didn't want a 'game' so much anymore; we wanted a 'story'. This is why I'm so excited about Story Realms, it's a great idea. When I designed Challenger the concept was definitely influenced by the fact I write fantasy novels and I'm an older gamer (and person). Priorities tend to shift. You don't want a 'game' so much as a 'great story', at least, I and my older players don't. Sometimes, I admit, I still just want to bash a few orcs and grab loot, but I consistently come back to RPGs for the 'story' not the 'game'. While I've more or less quit playing a lot of games as I grew older, RPGs still remain a favorite of mine (even though I have less time to play them and actually enjoy designing them probably as much if not more).

Here's another thing. Every good GM should know GMing is all about getting the players to have fun. The GM has always been an 'older/experienced' role. You don't go around trying to 'win'. You just want the players to have an awesome time. This is similar to a writer wanting the readers to enjoy the story or a game designer wanting the players of the game to enjoy it. All good GMs put the players first. Really, when the players have an awesome time, so do I. I could write the best adventure ever, but if my players don't like it I've still failed in the role of GM (no matter how brilliant I 'thought' my story/game was). Okay, I'm getting all esoteric here so I'll rest my case on this point.

3. Something I noted in reading through is a relative simplicity of rules. Despite the fact that there are 40 classes (if I counted correctly!), they seem simple and straightforward enough that you could have a multiclassed character ready to go in minutes. Am I correct in this? How long does character creation typically take, and in your experiences so far, how has character generation in the Challenger RPG evolved from its earliest prototypes?
Ha ha, I was hoping for an 'easy' question. Hm, that's a big question. Yes, I specifically made the rules simpler on each revision (Challenger is many years old now and you don't even want to know how many old copies are lying around my basement and in my hard drive). Initially, long ago, you had to roll for 200 traits for every Challenger character. It was ludicrous, it was insane, it made no sense. I had a lot of fun with it. After about a zillion very fine people (you can see their names in the credits and I tried to send them all free books when Challenger came out in print) helped me out 'a lot' no sorry "A LOT" with the game; it became simpler. What you're seeing is the product of a lot of hard work I can't completely take the credit for.

Okay, yesterday I created a Challenger character on the fly (including grabbing paper an doing minor math) in about 5 minutes. For most people it would probably take closer to 10 minutes (unfamiliar with the system etc.). The biggest thing which will slow you down in Challenger is if you want to check out every single option (some people, including myself, do). Because there are literally thousands of combinations and options this will take you a very long time. I recommend for new players to just go with their gut instincts (fast) and if they want to 'power game' or read 'every single option' they may feel free to do so after they've decided if they love Challenger or not. Some people just like to have the best character and I don't think anyone should be penalized for that (but watch out if I'm the GM. Power Gaming is kind of like saying 'dead/redundant PC in my games. Probably will get a few chuckles).

So yeah, instead of spending half your life coming up with the 'ultimate' character I'd just tell the Challenger GM to 'equal out' the players a bit and let them play the characters they want to. A. faster. B. simpler. C. more fun. D. no one has to worry about being 'upstaged'. However, if you want to make the 'ultimate' character, go right ahead. I've played a few pretty 'mean' characters in Challenger myself and they were a lot of fun to play.

4. "From a player’s perspective anything they can actually write down on their sheet is of added value." That's a great quote! One thing I love about Challenger from a player perspective is that there's no limit to the neat treasure you can get, and, from a GM's perspective, there's a maximum benefit you can derive on any given roll... a significant departure from most current RPG's. Can you tell us more about this?
Great question. Basically, it started out as a balance issue. I've always been strong into math. In the earliest versions of Challenger I was having 'power' problems which could end up in mathematical disasters. My solution was a cap of +5 to attack rolls (not damage rolls). Inadvertently, this also allowed me to say, "GM's give away as many sweet magic items as you want, it can't imbalance the game."

So far practically no-one's complained about it and some of the players just really love the sweet magic gear. It also takes the game out of the realm of numbers and puts it back into the realm of imagination which is where it ought to be anyway. Sure, your +5 sword might have an attack cap of +5 but you can still have totally awesome powers with it like magma control, cut through anything, or reverse time (at risk of paradoxes).

It also allows the GM to go crazy creating sweet magic items without fear of imbalancing the game. In my old D&D RPGs this was always an issue for me. Should I let the players get this magic item even though it could combo with x bonuses with x item? In Challenger I can just say, "Yeah, go for it, on top of that: why don't we add 'this' to the magic item too?"

5. Okay, here's a big one... how does this game shine? If you were going to say "X is why Challenger is the best roleplaying game out there", what would 'X' be?
Wow, that is a tough one. Hope you don't mind if I cheat a bit. 1. Free, 2. Player-created (you tell me you want it, I put it in the game, Challenger is the product of much greater minds than my own alone), 3. Faster, 4. Simpler, 5. Keeps all of the options despite being faster and simpler and, in fact, adds more, 6. play the character you want from day one, 7. get loads of sweet magic things, 8. GM's: never worry about your players skipping an adventure! 8. Players: never worry about your GM forcing you to do stuff! 9. Has sweet artwork in it I didn't even make so it's awesome (so if you hated the game it would presumably still be worth it to get it just for the art, 10. If you hate RPGs the Amazon version of Challenger has a free comic fantasy novel at the end (sweet, eh?) 11. What else could you possibly want? Okay. Write that down and send it to me via e-mail at: Thanks.

Thanks, David!

I hope you guys enjoyed that! I definitely advise popping over and downloading the Challenger Roleplaying Game. It's a fun read and looks like a blast to play.


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  2. Thanks so much, Randy! I really appreciate your putting this up here and the opportunity to answer all your great questions. I'm not sure I deserve the praise, but I thank you sincerely for it.

    Thanks again so much.

    --David L. Dostaler
    Author, Challenger RPG (free)