If you need each post of this blog to have “IMHO” and “YMMV” written into it, this is probably not the blog post for you. I recommend that you just move along to the next blog. Today I’d like to talk about something that relates to the sandbox series of posts, fudging, and the Dungeon Crawl Classics role playing game. The topic is difficulty in role-playing game scenarios.
What is difficulty? In this context, I am talking about when the players need to strive in order to succeed. Note that I am not talking about their characters needing to strive – “The swamp is infested with leeches” has little bearing on the players, unless the players have reason to believe that the characters will be affected mechanically. Nor am I talking about “pretend difficulties”, which miraculously clear themselves up regardless of what the players do (through fudging, for example, or the “timely” intervention of NPCs, or whathaveyou).
Contrary to what years of WotC-D&D have told you, a “difficult fight” is not simply one where the characters’ resources are stretched or used up, it is one where the players cannot rely on their usual tactics and still win, regardless of how their characters end the scenario. In other words, even if the characters are beaten, bruised, and bloody at the end of the scenario, if they win without the players having to stretch their imaginations to figure out some new tactic beyond what they conventionally use, the scenario is not really difficult.
Because the game is about the players’ experience; the characters’ act as a conduit to that experience.
I recently ran a modified version of the haunted house from The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh as a 0-level character funnel. It resulted in a TPK, as the players did not decide upon a stealthy approach, and eventually ran into almost all of the potential opposition in a single go. Having allowed intelligent opponents to know that they were there, they ended up facing those opponents acting intelligently. When things began to go south, they failed to change their tactics to match the situation. And they died. Which is as it should be – changing the outcome, fudging, or those other “GM tricks” to ameliorate outcomes train players not to change tactics when things go south. Why should they, if they are consistently rewarded with “almost failing”?
One of the most exciting things about the Dungeon Crawl Classics game is the decision to make monsters monstrous. Not only in the core rulebook, but in the modules. Especially as the modules contain encounters that encourage players to think laterally…or die. Even game mechanics like the warrior’s Mighty Deed of Arms require players to think about what is happening in the game situation, and strive for outcomes that will actually affect that situation.
The entire “Quest For It” section is a breath a fresh air in a role-playing environment where PC options have become a menu to select from. Want a caveman character? Here is a funnel adventure; hope you survive. Want to learn a specific spell? Your research indicates it might be learned from the un-dead lips of a colossal sphinx. Good luck.
This sort of difficulty does not result in characters who are “cool” just because you thought up a neat way to use the rules – these characters are “cool” because you, as a player, overcame difficulty and made them cool. And what they have gained is cool because no one else can get the same simply by picking up a splatbook or a character generator. It is not bought. It is earned.
The original Dungeons & Dragons modules were the same way; if you played them without fudging, players would have to overcome difficulty or characters would die. A lot. And that was glorious, because when you won, you had actually accomplished something. You had to become a cannier player, one who could read a situation, decide what response was called for, and then – should events prove your decision wrong – adapt your strategy on the fly.
I know that there are players who prefer fudging. I know that there are players who do not want to have to adapt, and who do not wish to face difficulty. I know that there are players who want to feel the thrill of vicariously overcoming the illusion of difficulty without ever actually having even their characters in danger. And, obviously, if you are one of these players, you may play whatever you wish. But the farther down this road you go, and the less difficulty included in your games, the more that game becomes one where “there is no strategy involved – players are never required to make choices, just follow directions.”
To my mind, how utterly boring.
Thankfully, I have been blessed with excellent players over the years, including those who play in my regular weekly games and in my play-by-posts. Thank you all, current players and past! And thank you, Joseph Goodman & crew, for making a game that encourages the sort of play where players face difficulty on a regular basis!