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.

OSR-ing the Old World of Darkness

So, the OSR. It’s a thing. I’ve read a lot more about Story Games, though I don’t say that to be like I’m picking sides. I have a lot of experience playing ‘trad’ games, some experience playing Story Games, and almost no experience playing OSR games, though I’ve read a few. My friend Mabel is really into the OSR, and is designing an OSR game right now called Strange Roads.

We got to talking about how there are so many OSR games that are riffing off of old versions of D&D, but we couldn’t think of one example of an OSR take on the Old World of Darkness.

So, of course, now that’s what we’re doing. We’re working on an OSR take on Mage the Ascension 1st Edition.

But what the heck does that even mean? Simplifying a bit. Rulings over rules – and in part we picked Mage because it already has an incredible number of places where the ST needs to make a ruling: on coincidental versus vulgar, on the effects of the spheres, on what earns a player the right to raise their character’s Arete, etc. But also some random tables, because that’s definitely part of the OSR idiom.

We’ll simplify but still use the basic OWoD attribute system, just how games have simplified or adapted but still used D&D’s system. Not sure yet what to do with abilities and backgrounds. We’re looking at Over the Wall style playbooks for each tradition, as well as a more blank and flexible one for Orphans, and another fully blank one for customized characters. But I really like the idea of Tradition playbooks for Mage, as I think that they can be used to good effect to get you quickly into the head-space of the character and setting.

Most fun so far: writing up random Paradox backlash tables for each sphere. Right now I’m running a Mage the Ascension (Revised) chronicle, but working on this OSR-ification makes me want to try running this instead. I imagine my players will be confused enough, however, since this is the first time they’ve played Mage, so I should probably try to hold off.

What do you think would need to be part of an OSR version of the OWoD?

Profiles in Positive Masculinity So Far

Manly Men We’ve Covered So Far

We’ve had nine Profiles in Positive Masculinity so far, and I continue to enjoy the little bits of research. I think it’s very worthwhile to be constructive with regard to masculinity – not instead of deconstructive, but rather, to have something worthwhile left over. Popular culture continues not to really offer a positive alternative to toxic masculinity on the one hand and…nothing on the other hand, except agreement that toxic masculinity is bad.

Here is the list of scions of positive masculinity that I have discussed so far, with links in case you missed any and are curious. I’ve gotten some feedback, including encouragement as well as challenge, which has been helpful as I organize my thoughts and choose whom to profile. And don’t worry, we have plenty more coming!

Michael Forbes, who showed more backbone than the entirety of the US Republican Party

Justin Trudeau, who solved the puzzle of the Trump handshake

Nick Offerman, sawdust-covered oracle of self-reliance

Jimmy Carter, the nonagenarian former US President who will probably die with a hammer in his hand

Common, maintaining his moral compass as a hip-hop artist

Aziz Ansari, comedian, actor, writer, director

Newt Scamander – here I just shared a cool video about one of the heroes of Fantastic Creatures and Where to Find Them

Neil deGrasse Tyson, science educator and actual heavyweight wrestler

Mister Rogers, who deserves the title “Saint” if anyone ever has

What I’ve Learned So Far

I don’t have a standing theory, or thesis, on what precisely positive masculinity is. Just the strong intuition that if there is toxic masculinity, there must be positive masculinity that exists in contrast to that. It can’t just be rapist dude-bros on the one hand and a silent mass on the other. Right?

So, what is common among these men, in my view? Not to be an exhaustive list, but as I go back over what I’ve written and thought about and learned, these are things that come to the forefront.

Strength

Strength could come in many different forms, but I think that part of positive masculinity is some kind of strength. It could be physical strength, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, or moral strength, like Mister Rogers or Jimmy Carter. Part of this strength is courage, since a person has to be there in the moment in order to bring their strength to bear.

Integrity

Not all of you who have been following along have liked all of my choices, which is not surprising. But I think it is fair to say that each of these men is very much themselves. They have a strong sense of identity, and uphold a particular set of values, and you don’t have to look at them for very long to figure out what they are doing with their lives. Some of them ignore outside pressures to do what they think is right, while others simply have lives that hang together over the long-term.

Creativity/Making

Each of my examples of positive masculinity are makers. Common makes music, Aziz Ansari makes a television show, as did Mister Rogers. I’m not sure Justin Trudeau is a maker in the same sense, but I would argue that some creativity comes through in how he has governed as Prime Minister. Michael Forbes is a farmer; Nick Offerman makes beautiful canoes. And so on.

So then, for now, maybe positive masculinity is being strong, being yourself, and contributing something beautiful or useful (or both) to the world.

We’ll see what the next crop of many folks adds to this list…

What would you list as aspects of positive masculinity? What have you noticed that I missed? Feel free to comment. 

Edit: Had a friend point out something I had missed – an attribute of positive masculinity as I am looking at it. That attribute is a commitment to make the world around them a better place. Each of these men, in their own way, is speaking out and/or taking action to make other people’s lives better. That’s a crucial attribute of positive masculinity, I think, and it definitely goes on the list with strength, integrity and creativity/making.

Fighting Class Obsolescence

add thief

Clearly, not all classes are created equal. I remember playing AD&D as a kid, and wanting to play a thief. I read through the thief class description where for the first 10 levels or so, my thief skills would be abysmally low. I’d have a less than 50% chance to do the things that thieves are supposed to do – pick locks, pick pockets, that kind of thing. As a result, I never played thieves in D&D, because I didn’t want to be consistently terrible at my character’s wheelhouse.

Melee classes in fantasy games that include spell-casters often suffer from being under-powered, especially at mid and higher levels. While the spell-casters are traveling to other planes, raising people from the dead and incinerating their foes, the fighter is still swinging her sword once or twice per round. The druid shapechanges into a huge cave bear – the fighter swings her sword.

I get that fighters are a good option for players who want a simple character to play. Playing casters, or classes with a lot of special abilities to juggle, is challenging. 4th Edition D&D, designed to help address problems like this by giving all classes special abilities that functioned in similar ways, ended up striking some players as repetitive. Your function in combat mattered more than your class, and the differences were boiled down to fluff and flavor. Previously in 3.X D&D, and then in Pathfinder, they attempted to address this issue with feats and feat chains providing special abilities like Great Cleave and Whirlwind Attack.

Then there is the “dirt farmer” class that some older games include. The System Mastery guys love going off on these kinds of classes that are clearly not fun at all, but included because of misguided ideas of “realism” or “history.” Why be a cleric when you could be a merchant?

Point is, for forty years of character classes in TRPGs, it seems there are almost always some classes that are clearly less fun than others. At high enough level, that class is normally the fighter. So, what to do?

Fix It In Design

4th Edition’s attempt – replace class with role. 5th Edition D&D – give them all magical abilities. Fighters with superiority dice. Look at level capabilities that other classes have and try to give the weaker classes abilities that, if not equivalent, are at least comparable, while in line with their theme.

If your 10th level mage is flying through the air lobbing lightning bolts at her foes while your fighter is still trundling across the ground waving a sword around once or twice a round, that’s a design problem. Not because “balance” is intrinsically valuable for its own sake, but because in a game based around a group of adventurers, all classes should be able to contribute to similar adventures. It’s a problem if some classes become luggage for their more powerful, versatile allies.

Fix It With Equipment

This is especially an option in games like D&D that become dependent on equipment at higher levels. Often, fighter types (who are usually the under-powered ones) have more equipment ‘slots’ than other classes, wearing armor and bearing shields and often able to simply carry more.

Think about the things that other classes can do in your game, and give the fighter, or equivalently limited class, the ability to do similar things. Of course you don’t want to impinge on what makes other classes special, but just make it so the fighter doesn’t have to be accommodated or left behind every time.

Fix It With Hacking

Go into the game you’re playing, lift the hood, and mess around. Talk to anyone playing a class they feel is under-powered or just being left behind by the other characters. Find out what your player sees as a win, and give them a bit more of that. See when the story slows down because she has to be accommodated somehow, and figure out how to keep her going.

Play Better Games

Not all games use classes at all, and not all games with classes are created equal. If you’re frustrated with the incompetence of your AD&D thief, maybe check out an OSR game that emulates AD&D but benefits from 30 years of design insights.

5th Edition D&D is a pretty good start here. I think that 4th Edition also did a good job, but in essence your combat role replaced your class, and then class became a source of color and some customization options, like a sub-class from previous editions.

Obviously, other games get rid of classes altogether, relying on point-buy systems or using other methods to describe characters.

The idea, of course, is for everyone to be having around the same amount of fun, and engagement with the game, each session. There is just a lot of sub-optimal design out there that gets in the way.

 

The Bodhana Group

The Bodhana Group exists, and the world is better for it. If you have not heard of them, then you’re about to have that enviable experience of learning about them for the first time.

I first learned of The Bodhana Group when executive director Jack Berkenstock was interviewed by the folks at Saving the Game. Jack is great at talking about his passion, and I’ll just link a video below of him doing just that.

(Oh yeah, they also run an annual local gaming convention called Save Against Fear as a fundraiser.)

The Bodhana Group uses tabletop games therapeutically, in particular with children, including children who are victims and perpetrators of sexual violence. So they use something I treasure, gaming, to help some of the most vulnerable children as well as people who our society so often abandons. In a country where convicted sex offenders live beneath bridges in Florida, The Bodhana Group works to heal through the power of games.

Not long ago I was made inordinately proud to become a member of the Board of The Bodhana Group. I don’t think of myself as much of a joiner, and it’s still weird to do something like be on a Board of anything. But I’m happy to be part of The Bodhana Group, to help them however I can.

One thing I’m going to help them with is a book they are putting together about therapeutic gaming. I got to go through a copy for an editing pass, and in a group as small as Bodhana I might actually be the most experienced writer and editor. The other project I want to help with is a board game they are designing. It’s been a while since I was in on a game design project, at least one that is headed to publication, so I’m excited about that opportunity.

In the meantime, it seems like Bodhana is in the midst of some rapid and exciting growth. They just relocated to a new HQ, which is pretty cool, and have been contracted by more than one organization to run therapeutic games. They recently had a training day for volunteers, and of course we’re all looking forward to Save Against Fear, featuring Bodhana’s first celebrity guest, Martin Klebba.

Back to the beginning, though, when I first heard about the existence of The Bodhana Group – I felt better about the world. I felt like it was a place with more good in it than I’d previously realized. It came at a time in my life that was very hard, when I really needed some good news. The Bodhana Group is good news. I’m so glad to be a part of it.

Tear Down Every Confederate Monument

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Why Tear Them Down?

There are so many reasons to tear them down. They were erected primarily to intimidate black people in the South. Monuments went up at times we can best understand by looking not at the history of the Civil War but at the history of the Civil Rights struggle in the South. Preserving them has nothing to do with preserving history – books exist, and there is no chance of erasing the Civil War from American history, which is something that precisely no one wants to do. Confederate monuments do not preserve history, but they do seek to preserve white supremacy.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center studied Confederate monuments and concluded that they are overwhelmingly placed in order to support white supremacy. 

Who is defending them? We have recently seen in Charlottesville and elsewhere that Nazis, the KKK and other white supremacist terrorist groups are the ones literally up in arms defending the Confederate legacy. Those are the people who are stepping up to defend these monuments – all the more reason to tear them down. Nazi support alone is a reason not to do something, and if we find symbols that Nazis and the KKK feel they can rally around, we should tear down those symbols and replace them with symbols that, ideally, Nazis and the KKK will detest.

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The South Has A Lot to Be Proud Of

Maybe it’s hard, sometimes, for some Southerners to find things to be proud of, but I think that’s only because a significant number of them insist on trying to be proud of the Confederacy. It’s like a Robert DeNiro fan insisting on being a fan of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, or insisting that Ben Kingsley’s greatest film was The Love Guru. The same people who decry participation trophies seem to desperately want to erect monuments to that time they were on the wrong side of history and lost a war. I have a lot of family in the South, and they don’t have to dig around for something to be proud of, nor do they need Nazis and white supremacists to tell them about their heritage. 

The Right Side of History

Most of the people who risked the most, fighting on the right side of history during the Civil Rights Movement, were Southerners. All Southerners can be proud of what black Southerners have fought for and achieved, and of the white Southerners who marched and fought beside them. But the people who showed the greatest courage, and fortitude, and restraint, and who achieved the most progress in the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s were Southerners. Where do you think they learned the values that carried them through that struggle? Where did they learn to fight like that?

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American Music

American music has largely been defined by the South. Jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, folk, gospel and rock music all originated primarily in the South. While hip-hop originated in New York and LA, multiple strands and sub-genres have developed in the South. Most of the music we hear every day would not exist without Southern artists, and that has been true for at least a century.

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Natural Beauty

The South includes places of incredible natural beauty. The Gulf coast, the Ozarks and Appalachian mountains, the Florida Keys, the barrier islands of the Atlantic coast, Daniel Boone National Forest, the bayous and waterways of Louisiana, the Craggy Gardens of North Carolina, and more. The South is beautiful, whether you like historic places or natural beauty. If we made more of these beautiful places into state or national monuments, it would also protect them for generations to come.

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Writers and Storytellers

Many of the best American writers and storytellers have been, and are, Southerners. You might think of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, or more recently Cormac McCarthy. We could be here all day listing great Southern writers, and the novels that many consider to be “great American novels” are largely representative of the South as well. In many ways, the voice of American storytelling is a Southern voice.

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Tear Them Down and Replace Them

Of course people in other parts of the country have things to be proud of as well. They have music and art and natural beauty and their own history of struggle. That isn’t the point. The point is that the South does not need Nazis and the KKK and other white supremacist bigots to tell them what to be proud of. They don’t need white supremacist bigots to stick for them or tell them how to honor and protect their heritage. And they definitely don’t have to fall back on the Confederacy as the last great Southern moment. The South is good. The South should be proud. Just not proud of white supremacy and slavery.

So tear every Confederate monument down, and replace each one with something to truly be proud of. 

 

Dungeons & Dragons : Meetings & Retreats

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In part because my last post was about suicide, and I kind of want to push that baby down the feed a step, I’m breaking from my usual pattern of uploading posts on Fridays to post about something that has become more and more clear to me: being a good DM, or GM or ST or whatever, is an incredibly useful skill. (I’ll use GM from here, as it is the term in widest use)

My sister goes to a lot of meetings. She’s been in higher education for a long time now, and is now in higher education administration, which means meetings galore. Her complaints about these meetings make frequent appearances on her Facebook feed, and then comes the chorus of agreement from others, in academia or related white-collar fields, who have similarly bad experiences in meetings.

I’ll say it – I give good meeting. I don’t love meetings and I understand why no one else loves them either, and in part because of this knowledge, I run pretty damn good meetings. In fact, I have realized that running good meetings (or good discussion groups or similar things) is one of my few features. I am currently the President of the Phoenixville Area Clergy Association and the leader of the Phoenixville Area Refugee Initiative solely because I am good at running meetings. (I have literally no other leadership qualities anyone can detect) As a pastor, I also run a lot of meetings – our board, and multiple committees, as well as Bible studies and other classes, planning meetings for weddings and funerals, annual retreats and training events; on and on. If I was bad at running meetings, or even just average, many innocents would suffer.

Where does this skill come from? It comes from running games for the last 25 years of my life. Think about it.

Taking Turns

In a discussion, making sure that everyone has a turn is exactly like running a combat encounter. Making sure everyone has approximately equal time and spotlight, that everyone gets to try to move their agenda forward a step, etc., is part and parcel of the GM skill-set. As a bonus, you’d no more skip a POC or a woman in a meeting than you would skip the rogue or the fighter. You know everyone gets to have a turn each round, and you keep going in rounds until you are done.

Keeping Up Momentum

As a GM you have learned when to talk to move things along, and when to sit back and let people roleplay with each other. You know when things begin to lag and you need to step in and move the story forward. You know how to creatively interrupt people who are stuck in a cycle that isn’t going anywhere. This skill is immediately applicable to any meeting or event you are running – you can read when people are just spinning their wheels and when they’re getting things done.

Rules and Rulings

When GMing a game, you always have to keep the rules in mind, and not only understand them, but also know when to apply them and when not to. In theory, most meetings are run according to Robert’s Rules of Order – where we get motions, and tabling, and calling the question, and all that procedural stuff that makes C-Span so action-packed. But not only is there widely variable knowledge of Robert’s actual Rules, but there are plenty of times when it is best to just set them aside. And who knows better when to set rules aside for the greater good than a skilled GM?

Prep

As an experienced GM, prepping even for a complex or difficult meeting is made relatively easy. If there is a curriculum or an agenda already, that’s kind of like having an adventure module to run. You have to read through, plan for the possible pit-falls, sketch out a few ideas for improvising, and you’re ready to go.

I tend to create things like retreats or classes form scratch, though. It can be a bit of a challenge, but honestly it’s usually nothing compared to prepping for a four-hour game session every week, where I have to keep five adults entertained while also telling a story, keeping rules in mind, adjudicating questions and debates, and juggling the agendas of every member of the supporting cast.

Go Run Awesome Games (and Meetings)

Compared to GMing a good game, running a good meeting is easy. I’m sometimes shocked at how bad some people are at it, but then I remember that they have not spent hours a week for 25 years prepping for, or playing in, RPGs. I have a feeling my 10,000 hours is long past, actually.

So everyone in every white-collar industry that features frequent meetings should start playing RPGs, is what I’m saying. Those of you who want to run good meetings should learn to be good GMs. As a bonus, you’ll be starting in on literally the best hobby there is, period.

You’re even welcome at my games – Friday and Sunday nights. I’ll show you how it’s done.