Second Draft: Difficulty Mode

Andy has some good comments on my post on Difficulty Modes, and I’d like to expand on that discussion.

I’m really not sure allowing each player to choose a different difficulty level would work very well. If I want to play on nightmare mode and someone else wants to play on easy, that means that the easy mode character is going to beat the shit out of the enemy with their uber stats, weapons and abilities while the enemy they’re hitting is attacking me, giving me a debilitating condition and then knifes me when I’m down.

I also don’t think “easy mode” goes very well with the gritty campaign theme you’re trying to set up. I COULD see some of these things working on easy mode – mulligans makes sense. I like that idea. Unless you’re making rules for the system vs. making it for the specific setting.

I think all of it makes a lot of sense from a group perspective. I just think it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for the world to react according to the mode we’re playing. Two people are fighting Jamie Lannister. Easy mode dude is beating the shit out of him while I’m barely hitting him and then he chooses to attack me instead. Doesn’t feel immersive to me. Feels like a video game.

I don’t think I’d give the easy-mode character much better stats, or much better equipment – they shouldn’t be “uber” compared to a nightmare mode character. That’s why I called it “casual” mode instead of “easy” mode.  My goal here is to let someone who doesn’t want to invest as much play the game that way – but still accommodate someone who wants to invest more.  These different levels would be “badges” on the character sheet.

Let’s say Jim wants to play with the group, but he basically wants to be along for the ride.  Maybe he has attachments to his character, and his participation in the game might derail entirely if that character becomes significantly handicapped or dies.  This may be a person we socially want involved, and who adds quite a bit to the game in a different way (maybe they are the “drummer” of the game, using a band metaphor).  Maybe this player has no interest at all in learning the rules, and just wants to be told what to roll and when.  Because he doesn’t know the rules as well, he also wants to be able to take-back mistakes or make late decisions, or look-up rules, have plenty of time on his turn, etc.

Andrea, on the other hand, wants to take the ‘challenging’ mode, and basically have that flag on her character sheet that says “Nightmare mode.” For that badge of honor, you’ve got to randomly generate stats (we’re talking 19+1d6 instead of 25 build points, and random assignment instead of complete build choice), no mulligans, and if you die, you’re character is probably actually dead – because that’s what Andrea wants to have happen when her character is reduced to 0, because that threat of character death is exciting to her.  She wants to play a more lethal game than Jim and is willing to see characters die if she “loses” a combat. I used quotes, because Andrea might not even see a character death as a loss in the same way Jim might. Andrea might have just as much fun if her character dies an epic death than if she had killed the goblin king.

In the particular game Andy and I are in, there’s already a dynamic of people that clearly want to play on a higher difficulty level than others.  In some cases though I have to guess how a player will react.  If I’m selecting who to attack and who not to attack, or what strategy to use in a combat, I think it would be useful to have the player expectations about the game, selected upfront with a clear social contract.  If a player chooses a specific difficulty mode, then as the GM, I know what I can work with and what I can’t; and what to expect from a player and what not to expect.

I was brainstorming in the last post, and I think you’re right, I don’t want “casual” mode characters significantly more powerful than “nightmare” mode characters. One thought I had was to give special “rewards” to Nightmare mode characters, but I think I’ve decided against it.  I want the relative power level to be the same.  I think playing a Nightmare level character is its own reward for the type of player that wants to play that kind of character.  I don’t want someone selecting that mode if it’s not what they really want, only because they feel like they can’t get all the goodies if they don’t.

3 thoughts on “Second Draft: Difficulty Mode

  1. Andy

    I’m honestly not sure how to respond to this one. I want to say that I’d pick Nightmare mode given a choice but I don’t like the idea of having a stated uneven playing field very much. I guess my inclination is to just leave decisions like that “behind the screen.” If you feel like you shouldn’t attack someone while they’re unconscious then I’m ok with you making that decision as the DM. I can appreciate that you would benefit from the feeling of a social contract, but I think the game as a whole loses more than you would benefit.

    I feel like all of us are mature and would be able to cope with a character death. Shit, 3 out of 5 of us have HAD at least one character death. The more deaths you have the easier it is to cope with! I’m ok with players not knowing the rules and I don’t care if people don’t read to get better outside of the game. What I DO care about is that people learn and pay attention while they ARE playing and get better. If you are trying to learn how to play your character I’m cool. I actually really enjoy playing with new players. But I DO feel that learning how to play your own character is a reasonable expectation of etiquette. BTW this isn’t a rant for our current table as everyone knows how to play their character. More of a philosophical question.

    That was not very well written and I don’t feel like I’m doing a good job of making this point. I guess my overriding point is that we should help people to get up to the “nightmare” level, not provide an easy mode to the game so they never get there.

    I also want to reemphasize that IMO it won’t feel like a gritty and dark campaign unless you play it nightmare for everyone. If you treat some players with kid gloves the entire setting won’t feel the same IMO. At least if it’s obvious you are doing it.

  2. connorbros

    Well, I’m not there playing, but this plays really heavily into what Core Aesthetics a player wants when they sit down, and the game potentially has a lot to gain by letting some people ‘play casually’. As a player who often wants puzzles and challenges, to learn and pay attention, I often err on the side of saying that others should do the same otherwise it’s no fun, but I’m starting to learn that I think that is just flawed. What’s wrong with someone sitting down at the table just to participate and be present and have fun, while someone else wants to be challenged?

    Anyways, it might not be my place as someone not involved with the game itself, but I really like your ideas for individual player ‘modes’, and the idea that none of them are better than the others, it’s just a statement of how you want to engage with the game. I think more and more games could benefit from at least considering this possibility, and not thinking of ‘easy/medium/difficult’ just as a way to accommodate players with ‘less skill’, so much as a different (and equally valid) way to engage with the game.


    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      I already find I’m having trouble writing this into the rules, because it’s pervasive. I want to make this choice as simple as possible, made during character creation.

      I want to avoid Andy’s concerns that a game where a meta-choice is significantly impacting the fiction. But at the same time, I want to let players make that very real choice on how they want to engage with the game we’re playing.

      I’m pretty certain I’m going to have some incarnation of this choice in character creation – I’m just not sure what impact it’s going to have.


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