I have been playing through Divinity Original Sin with a friend. It has been taking us several months in real time (about 100 hours game time) already, and I do not regret a single hour. It is a great game for several reasons; if you enjoy story-driven RPGs with tough turn-based combat and/or have been waiting for a game you can fully enjoy playing with a friend (even sitting on one couch with the split-screen mode), go get this game. It is truly awesome.
The developers did some nice things with the engine and the writing that I think the game-master me can learn from.
I do not know about the lower difficulty settings, but on normal and in tactical mode combat encounters are hard. We got our asses handed to us several times; in the beginning, we did not understand at all how anybody could win these fights. But we figured it out.
We needed to cooperate and employ tactics that combine our characters’ abilities. The ranger can summon a puddle of oil which the fire mage can ignite, creating a patch of burning ground and a smoke cloud. We can throw water bottles to make opponents wet, making them more susceptible to the electric spells of our mage. The list goes on.
The important thing is: this is fun. We do not just succeed just like that. We fail quite frequently, in fact. When the happens we reload, discuss tactics, and then win. The more often we have to reload, the higher the emotional reward when we finally beat the challenge.
How can I adapt that in a table-top RPG?
If you have conflict, make them tough encounters. That goes beyond combat. Whichever challenge the group faces, make it so that they have to cooperate and combine their skills.
Of course, if the games does not have a reload/respawn mechanic, you have to be careful enough to not wipe out the party. They should have the fear of their gods in them, but not have to create new characters all the time. Except, of course, that is the kind of game you are running.
Use mechanics that enable combining skills.
Because this is dear to me, I will probably write more about this in the future. I have played games that make this all but impossible; others are designed for it from the start. For now, I try to keep it in mind so that I will let story (and cool, and fun) trump rules when it comes to this. All games have mechanics that allow you to fiat together advantages for one character if another does something smart.
Create tactic-enabling scenes. Give your players terrain, decoration, anything to work with.
Make the enemies use tactics as well. That is part of making combat hard, but also sets an example and makes you think about setting the scene. In particular, if the enemies choose and prepare the area of engagement, they should never be caught with their pants down.
This is a narrative point entirely. In Original Sin, we frequently run into quests that force us to make a choice. Kill the NPC, or let him live and torture his slave? Tell the animals to go towards their promised meadow (where we know ever-hungry goblins dwell) or do we tell them to go home to their dear owner (who we know to be the local butcher)?
This immediately translates over to table-top RPGs. Force your group to make tough decisions. That is, make it so that no option is clearly better or morally right. Have them discuss it out. Present the options so that you know some characters will favor one and others another.
If you want or the story suggests some urgency, set a countdown: I have used multiple hourglasses from one to five minutes, put them on the table for the players to see, and whenever one ran out the situation got worse. That worked beautifully. Instead on drawn-out metagaming, we had a really dramatic scene and they ended up acting, taking a risk.
Be careful with the topics and ethics involved, though. We can wring the characters through the grinder for all I care, but we have to make sure we only bring up conflicts our players can handle emotionally. Otherwise, the game stops being fun.
This follows from the above: whenever there are decisions, there have to be consequences. In Original Sin, we uncovered a plot and had the leader of a village sent into exile; we couldn’t finish the quests he had given us. We coerced a slave to go back to his grumpy master; he got killed before our eyes for running away. We set an example for being true to our orders, so our companion betrays us to her former master despite him being one of the bad guys.
As a GM, I think this follows naturally: When you set up tough decisions, assign obvious and hidden costs to each option. Whenever the characters do something that influences the world or anybody in it, extrapolate and jot down a short-term and a long-term consequence. Have the characters made a friend just now, or an enemy? Have they told their enemies how to counter their strategy? Do the authorities or media know that something is up now? The possibilities are endless.
All of these things are hard, and certainly do not come naturally to me. You have to include these things in your planning, be flexible about them at the table, improvise on the spot, and go back over the session later for long-term consequences.
But that is what we are there for, right? Sure, you can do that. But…