Difficulty Settings in TRPGs

It’s a common thing for video games to have variable difficulty settings. Usually it’s some kind of slider you can move from easy to hard, or maybe hardcore, or insanity mode. There might be a setting that includes permadeath, or removes the ability to save your progress.

Very similar things exist in a lot of RPGs, whether they are noticeable or not. It occurred to me clearly when I was explaining Mage: the Ascension to players who had not played it before. They asked about Avatar – an optional background in the system. In MtA it represents the ability to absorb Quintessence, magical energy that makes doing magic easier, and also provides hints as to how a character can advance. The Avatar Background is, in effect, a difficulty slider for Mage the Ascension.

I thought about Vampire the Masquerade’s Generation Background, which functions in a similar way. More points allocated to Generation give a vampire character more blood to spend, the capacity to spend more blood at a time, and even limited immunity to one of the vampiric Disciplines, Dominate. As with Avatar, more points in Generation is like setting Vampire the Masquerade to easy mode. Without points in Generation, and especially taking a Flaw like Thin-Blooded, is like playing Vampire on hard mode.

Many other classic games have difficulty settings built in. D&D 3.X fixed a lot of the flaws with AD&D 2nd Edition – one of which was to un-break thieves and make them rogues. Rogues remained a more challenging choice, however, needing to focus on skillful play in a lot of cases. Tactical play to make use of the sneak attack ability and planning ahead to make effective use of character abilities.

Previous editions of D&D did this the wrong way, I think. Both editions of AD&D punished thieves by making them terrible at being thieves, and punished metahuman players by adding arbitrary level caps (I’ve read the arguments in favor of level caps and they’re just not convincing).

Why is this the wrong way? Because it is the wrong design choice to simply make some choices poor ones. Every player in a Vampire game can take points in Generation, but not every player in a D&D game can normally play a cleric. Having a difficulty setting and having some choices simply be less fun are two very different things.

In a game about advancement, it is a poor design choice to put limits on some player-characters’ opportunities for advancement and not others. Really, this is true in any game that features advancement at all. Level caps, or experience point caps or whatever, are a terrible way to add difficulty to a game. A game shouldn’t be challenging because it is more fun for the other players than it is for you.

Difficulty Settings in Your Games

Many video games have difficulty settings. These are easier to include in single-player games, and are probably not the right choice for competitive games. But tabletop roleplaying games are different, obviously. Each person at the table can be playing a slightly different game. We know this is true in terms of preferences – some might be playing a tactical combat game, and another might be playing a storytelling game, and another might be playing a skill-based puzzle game.

Further, the actual game they are playing might be slightly different. This is already the case with Mage players whose characters have high Avatar ratings, or Vampire characters who have lots of dots in Generation.

There needs to be some cost to setting the difficulty to “easy.” In Vampire and Mage, that cost is that Background dots are placed in Generation or Avatar rather than something else; some other advantage that is still an advantage. It’s important for the players at the table to know that the difficulty settings exist and that they are an option.

So look at your game, or your game design (assuming it isn’t a World of Darkness game, or another game that has a difficulty setting built in). See where parts of the system can be flexed one way or another. If you have classes, are some classes clearly easier to play than others? If you have races or species, do some have killer special abilities or advantages?

There are three things I’ve noticed that can affect the difficulty of a game: damage resistance, immunities, and extra actions. You can look for these three things, and others, keeping the following in mind.

Damage resistance is powerful, especially in a game where it is rare. It is a big advantage in GURPS, and in 3.X D&D, and is rare for that reason. Damage resistance is like multiplying a character’s health by the number of times they are struck in combat. It’s like sparring with pads, and exists for the same reasons pads do.

Immunities are even more powerful than damage resistance. Immunity provides not only protection but also new story opportunities. A fire-immune character can walk into a burning building, or cover themselves in fire and hug people to death. It is a point of leverage that almost no one else will have. (Example from above – lots of dots in Generation makes a vampire immune to Dominate, most of the time)

Extra actions, as has been pointed out many times, are game-breaking in a game with an action economy. Speaking of Vampire, Celerity is a nightmare. The haste spell in D&D, and similar spells, have to be nerfed, or carefully managed, because they easily double the effectiveness of anyone it is cast upon. In Mage, it’s the Time sphere. But one thing for having extra actions, it is a way of playing on easy mode. The downside is that players interact with the game through their characters’ actions, and giving one player more actions than the others is just like doing the same in a game of chess – it might very well cross the line into unfair.

Why Choose Easy Mode? Hard Mode?

Difficulty modes exist in TRPGs for the same reasons they exist in video games. A player might want a more story-centered experience, or might be a new player who isn’t confident with the game.

Players who want more of a challenge, or who want to demonstrate their skill in play, can set the difficulty to hard for their character. A character overcoming difficulties and limitations usually makes for a more exciting and interesting story than those who are played out on easy mode – and it gives players something to aim for when they play the game a second time, or a third.

Building in a difficulty setting can increase the replay value of your game, same as video games. That’s part of the fun, and it is one of the values of such a system, to be compared to other values, such as game balance. But I definitely see value in having ways for a player, in character creation, to signal what sort of game they want to play – easy, or hard.

Making “Failure” Interesting in RPGs

Image credit: https://www.fantasyflightgames.com/en/news/2012/11/19/at-the-core/

I had an idea come to me as I was listening to a review of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG. This particular review was from someone (Dan Repperger of Fear the Boot) who was enjoying the game he was playing in but was simply baffled by the game’s mechanics – specifically, the custom dice mechanic.

I feel like I have an OK handle on it, having run the intro adventure for friends and read through the Edge of the Empire book. The dice system is complex, giving six different interacting results: Success, Triumph, Advantage, Failure, Despair, Threat). Basically, when you roll dice, the result of the roll gives you a lot of information:

  • Do you succeed or fail in your intended purpose? (Success and Triumph versus Failure and Despair)
  • Does your success or failure cost you any stress, or allow you to recover stress? (a use for Triumph and Despair when there isn’t something else to do with it)
  • Does the situation overall get better or worse? That is, you could succeed but the situation could worsen for you overall, or you could ‘fail forward’ where you don’t succeed but your situation improves through some unforeseen windfall. (Advantage and Threat)
  • Does your success or failure trigger some kind of special effect, like the equivalent of a critical success or failure perhaps, or a special ability. (Triumph and Despair)

But this post isn’t primarily about the dice mechanic in Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG. Rather, it is about failure, and how to make failure more interesting, which is a challenge in any RPG that features a success/failure mechanic.

The thought is a simple one, derived from the complexity of Fantasy Flight’s dice system – that a failed roll can either mean 1. you don’t get what you want, or 2. you succeed and get what you want, but the situation worsens for you. This is a variation on the “succeed with a cost” mechanic, but it is rooted in the narrative, in the player’s decision to accept greater overall peril in exchange for succeeding on a key roll. In the FF dice system, this is kind of like rolling Success and Triumph paired with Threat, but without all of the complexity of six different colors of dice with multiple custom symbols on them.

For example: your fighter is surrounded by a gang of goblins. She activates her special ability that lets her attack a group of lesser targets with one roll – you roll, and miss. So, instead of just whiffing on your cool ability, your ability succeeds, but just as you mow down the fourth goblin, you look up to see that the fighting has drawn the attention of the Goblin King…and he looks angry.¬†

What do you do in your game to make sure that failure is still an interesting part of the story?