RPGs on Nightmare Mode

I was turned onto Raph Koster’s (lead developer of Ultima Online) site awhile back, but I have to admit I hadn’t been there in awhile until Alexis over at Tao of D&D referenced this post about game design thought out in game difficulty modes.  From the post:

Basically, these are the difficulty levels for game designers. Easy mode is the cop-out game adaptation, the easy answer. A more adventurous team might go for normal mode. But Hard and Nightmare are the regions we rarely venture to in games… some would argue because they aren’t commercial enough. But the movies mentioned all get these points across — in commercially successful content even… so why couldn’t the games?

Raph goes on to describe several games as designed with various modes of difficulty.  Now, the thing about a good RPG, and I certainly hope Lost Worlds will be that someday, is that I think the design of the rules themselves are trying to get out of the way of the people playing – and that the combination of GMs and players, far moreso than the game designer of the framework, determine what mode we’re all playing on.

Because of the hierarchy, it’s simple to judge “Easy Mode” as worse than Hard Mode, although I don’t think that’s true.  If RPGs are a diversion for you, you may not want a game that, as Alexis puts it, “forces players to question who they are, challenging their belief systems while psychologically re-engineering their habits and expectations..”  Though I’d love to give that game a try sometime, that type of game would be hard, not just to create and run as the GM, but to play in.  Of course, that’s the point of Raph’s analogy.

I wonder too if Alexis would have a rebuke for me here as well.  I just think people are looking for games with different difficulties – and even the same person might want to play games at different difficulties.  Sometimes I want to read Crime and Punishment, and sometimes I want to watch Indiana Jones.  I think the same applies to gaming.

14 thoughts on “RPGs on Nightmare Mode

  1. connorbros

    I agree that it does not makes sense to judge difficulty on a goodness scale. It is more of a personal choice that can help bridge the gap of different players’ expectations, thresholds and what people want out of the game.

    Dust and I talked a fair deal about difficulty and game design in the context of Fire Emblem: Awakening. Perhaps too much to go into in this comment, but it was interesting to compare our experiences and expectations going into the game and how playing through on different difficulties helped or hindered us in trying to mold the experience to get what we fully wanted out of the game.


    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      With that being said, should an RPG have “difficulty levels” going in? I’m starting to think – YES! That computer RPG industry figured this out long ago – let the player choose the difficulty that’s most fun for them.

      In an RPG, could you have different members of the party using different difficulty settings?

      I realize I’m mixing metaphors now, since the initial “difficulty mode” was a game design difficulty mode, and now we’re talking about designing a difficulty mode into the game – but I like the new direction of the thought.

  2. connorbros

    I agree completely, and honestly hadn’t thought of it in these terms. I think even at a single RPG table it can be difficult to get people in the same group all on the same page. Unless you are aware of these sorts of distinctions in advance and communicate with your players, it’ll always be difficult to give the group a collectively great game. And then sometimes the same player will want a different kind of experience from one session to the next.

    I think I err on the easy-normal side of DMing (I always want things to be fun, convenient, and controllable, if not always ‘easy’), but some of my players would really enjoy something a bit more like Hard mode, and I simply hadn’t given it much thought.


    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      And I’m afraid it would take a lot of thought, which is why it’s Hard mode. I think we’re making a clear distinction between game difficulty from a mechanical RPG standpoint, and game difficulty from a Running the Game/Game Themes standpoint. Need to find a good way to clearly identify these two different things.

  3. Alexis

    Then think of it like the gears on a car. If you want your car to travel in first gear, because you’re just moving it for convenience, does the fact that the car also has three higher gears make the first less useful? Or is it, rather, that having the potential to drive in every gear give far more opportunities and choices?

    Granted, you may not always want to play the hard game. Still, its preferable that if your party sits down on a particular night and asks for it, you’re able to deliver.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Gears on a car implies that the framework is giving you the capability to reach higher levels of gaming. I’m curious what you think such a framework would hypothetically entail.

      The counter would be that the framework gets out of the way, and it’s really -where- you drive the car that matters, and how much you decide to drive it. That puts the capability of reaching higher levels of gaming onto the GM and players, and the system steps out of the way.

      Now, since this blog focuses on the how to build a great RPG, I’m very interested if you have conceptual ideas for how the framework can facilitate Nightmare mode. It seems to me that a lot of your posts though focus more on the actual skill of the GM and the players as being the main drivers for it.

  4. Alexis

    In this metaphor, the DM would be the car. The stick shift would be the DM’s capacity to ‘handle well.’ To some degree, the DM is the road as well. The player is and should definitely be the driver.

    So in the ‘Nightmare mode,’ it’s really the player freedom to drive that is going to make that introspection of self possible. If the DM has the mental acuity to recognize when the player is driving too fast, using too much brake or not making the turn, then the DM’s actions can bounce the player around just like a road would, or skid just like a car would. The player may be in the driver’s seat, but a complex and difficult course will make the player sweat, doubt his or her self, question their judgement and so on … and ultimately learn something about themselves and their limitations.

    This relies on the DM being FLEXIBLE, smart, educated, imaginative and able to react faster than the player. But then, the DM should be more experienced than the player, if you want the Nightmare mode.

    Without the metaphors, the DM should be able to think up situations that sprout from the player’s own actions so as to make their manifestation seamless and part of the world, so that the player believes, beyond question, that it is his or her actions that has caused this result, and NOT the DM’s whims. This can be done. Not easily, but it can be done.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      It seems that your comments then are based almost entirely on the GM running the game in Nightmare mode, more so than the actual structure of the rules facilitating that level of difficulty.

      If you had to distill the responsibilities or the pieces of game structure necessary to run a game in that mode, what would they be?

    2. JackOfHearts Post author

      The question is this: How do you play on that higher level? There are three parties involved.

      1. Game Framework/Rules Design (This is what Raph was discussing)
      2. The GM – This is where it looks like you are focusing your attention on the subject
      3. The Players

      I’m curious, what do you think the key ingredients are to a game being played in a “higher gear” within each of these categories? Does Category #1 (Framework and Rules Design) even matter much? I feel like if you were going to chart out a weighted importance of each category, the first would be the lightest in importance. Yet, all of this was started from a blog post about how to design games in Nightmare mode – so I’m interested to know what elements you’d think would actually belong in that first category, and if you think it really is the least important.

      1. Alexis

        There is no short answer to that. I mean, seriously, not even a few thousand words. I’m in fact writing a book right now that I intend to put out in the fall that would answer the question in more depth.

        Concisely, the best I could do would be to say that no, the exact rules don’t matter very much, except that the rules that ARE in place must emphasize a level playing field between player and DM, and player vs. player. Everyone playing the game must feel they have a legitimate ability to succeed or flourish under the rules as they’re written, so that they do not favour the loud, the boorish, the inconsiderate or the godmodder.

        Raph’s problem was that the rules have to apply to programming, whereas a DM does not need to program the rules, but his or her self. He or she must be a) educated; b) impartial; c) inventive and d) must consider his or her gain as something secondary to the player’s gain. That requires making a better PERSON, rather than better rules, and that is indeed a nightmare.

        That is why the first part of the book I’m writing considers the problem, how to manage yourself as a DM, before the problem of how to manage your players. If you cannot manage your own needs first and foremost, you cannot manage anyone else’s. The difficulty then, in running the really hard game, the one in which players find themselves becoming introspective as a result of gaming, is to be faced with a DM who has been very introspective, and able to be a guide through possibilities of character development and mastery that they players never considered.

        It is, in fact, nothing less that first gaining wisdom, then imparting that wisdom to others.

        A nightmare? Certainly. I have no idea how a programmer would do it, as the software I work with is all flesh. I know how I do it. I sit down to play and discount everything I want, then enjoy and appreciate my players having their world opened for them in ways they did not expect. I watch them be astounded at their own risk-taking, their own success, their own chutzpah, because they created the set up and they won the day.

        I am only a facilitator, and while what I get is second hand, I get so much of it I have no reason to complain.

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