Monday, June 8, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #36 - Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #6 - Easy, Average, Expert, Master, Nightmare, Hellfire, OMGWTF

Wasn't able to generate a Story Seed for today so I decided to bump this week's Nuts & Bolts up a few days and try to still deliver 2 Seeds this week starting on Wednesday....

Welcome to the roundtable ... once again the GM's gather and ponder the following:
Many of us probably remember the AD&D days when the DM could roll a black dragon on the random encounter table and end a low-level party’s career. The 3rd and 4th editions of the game led some newer players to believe that every encounter should be defeatable and appropriate to their level and capabilities. However, 5th edition has moved away from this structure.

We see this mirrored in other games as well. At one end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the PCs should be able to overcome any challenge that comes their way, that challenges should be “appropriate”. On the other end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the world should be realistic, that every fight shouldn’t be able to be won, and that one of the requisite skills of the game is knowing when to fight and when to run.

Where do you, as a GM, fall on this spectrum, and why? Should the PCs always be able to win?
+Lex Starwalker 
 So ... how do I balance difficulty? I could get cheeky and say "it depends," but that's a pointlessly vague reply and really doesn't lend itself to a good blog post ...

... or does it?

Because let's not fool around here, it does depend. It depends on the group, the genre of the game, and even the tone of the game within its chosen genre. It also depends on the game system/mechanics. So yes, it really does depend, but maybe I can elaborate a bit...

Let's start with your group. Every group is different, and will have different tastes with regards to gameplay, genres, rules, etc. This all really goes without saying, but it's wise to call it out because I have experienced some pretty alarming disconnect between players and GMs and players and the rest of the group over my years. As GM it's helpful to know what your players expect, and also what they want. You can ignore one of those two things if you still hit the other, but if you miss both you may end up with an aborted campaign, possibly even game session.

If my players expect a game to be deadly, and want to play a grimdark game I can certainly oblige, but just as easily I can give them what they want (grimdark) and subvert expectations by having things be less deadly than they were banking on. It could just be that I ride the grimdark edge without needing to execute (pardon the pun) a game of deadly death. Alternately maybe I dial back on the grimdark and have a dark game that is still deadly. Hell you could go with something like Paranoia and have a game that can be at times rather light and humorous and still deadly. Know your audience; it'll help no matter what the situation, and it'll help to inform how you dial in your difficulty.

How about genre and tone? These are easiest to talk about hand in hand because while there are base assumptions one can make about a given genre, many genres can vary dramatically depending on tone. Take the superhero genre for instance. There's certain a base set of expectations there, but when you specify golden age, or iron age, as a tonal descriptor you significantly impact how that genre will be represented. A character like Spawn or the Punisher probably wouldn't fit will into a golden age game as a hero (they'd work well as an anti-hero/villain though). Silver age games meanwhile imply a level of power that generally exceeds any other superheroic age.

How does this all interact with difficulty? Well, heroes from the golden and silver ages generally always won. They usually didn't lose anybody to the villains unless it was part of an origin story, or some other Major (with a capital M) event in their life. Slide forward into the bronze and iron ages and the heroes often had to deal with villains who had their shit together and presented long term challenges as the characters had to really work to overcome the enemy's evil plots. Look at something like X-men's Days of Future Past, the heroes had a no win situation. Their only chance for victory was to go back in time and undo the events that precipitated the war in the first place. Victory was far from certain.

All of that said, superhero games are generally designed such that the characters can "win"; on the flip side are games in the horror genre, where death and/or insanity is uncomfortably likely, and success is far from certain on even the simplest of tasks. It hard to call a game a horror game if there is no imminent threat of death, dismemberment, or losing one's marbles after all, and those consequences come at a direct relation to the difficulty of one's actions.

What about a genre that is more flexible though?

Fantasy is probably the most common genre in RPGs, and tonally it varies wildly between properties. Not only do you have the differences between high and low fantasy, where the common(ish) presence of magic in high fantasy can often mitigate or outright negate any impact character death would have on a game, but you can range in tone from dark to light in both of those spectra.

A dark and gritty low fantasy game may well be an absolute bloodbath where life is cheap, and survival is the most prized treasure of all. Such games are going to have encounters where victory is seldom or never certain no matter how good the planning, or skilled the hero. Flip the scales partially and you may run a dark high fantasy where the character's are more likely to be capable of taking on any given challenge they face, even as horrible things happen to those around them. These kinds of games may also mean that the price of those rare failures are truly horrible.

Even fantasy games with a more balanced, or even a light tone, may feature a scaling level of difficulty. Early on character's may be much more likely to perish, but after they make it past a certain point (or points) their challenges become easier, and their success becomes more certain.

And then there is the magic factor. If the dead can be raised to life once more, and often without any lasting effects difficulty matters less up until the point where encounters are a matter of victory versus TPK. This factor reveals something important: difficulty is as much balance by the consequences of failure as it is the raw ability to succeed or fail.

Lastly we come to the game system. Some game mechanics are designed for a certain tonal feel. It probably doesn't matter what kind of game you play using Call of Cthulhu, they will all be equally difficult and deadly. The Cypher System is built such that the GM can dial the difficulty of encounters up or down dynamically, not just ahead of time, but even in mid-scene via the use of GM Intrusions. The Cypher System also encourages GMs to use challenges that bypass normal methods of consequence; a poison may move a character down the damage track directly instead of dealing damage to pools, or a for instance.

You'll notice that much of my salient points and examples were with respect to character death as a gage for difficulty. This is by no means an indication that only combat difficulty matters, however a character failing to translate an ancient text can probably put more time into it and try again lessening the consequence of failure, and therefore lessening the impact of difficulty. The same logic applies to non-combat tasks however, especially if multiple attempts are not possible. You probably don't get more than one chance to defuse a live bomb, and if you fail it will likely not end well.

So ... to go back to Lex's question on where I fall as GM? It depends. I'm far more likely to engineer encounters for failure if I am playing with a group that more readily accepts such, a genre and tone that lend themselves to heroic setbacks more, and a game system that is set up for characters who don't always win. I know that I wouldn't make my encounters easily beaten in a game of Warhammer Fantasy, but a golden age supers game of Mutants and Masterminds would be geared toward allowing the heroes to do awesome deeds and look cool doing them.

As for whether or not the PCs should always "win" I don't think that's a discussion that relates to the difficulty of tasks or encounters. To me the goal line of for the game is a matter of the players being engaged and entertained in the creation of a good story. If that requires that player characters win so be it, but it can be just as engaging to watch an agonizing series of character setbacks and failures.


Got a question or subject for the GM's? Ask in the comments or send it an email to and we'll put it into the hat for future round tables!


Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. Every GM has his or her favorite system, but in these articles we endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you are a blogger, and you'd like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at and supply the URL of your blog.

Want to see some other blogger's takes on this subject? Check out the following (I'll add post specific links as they roll out):

+James August Walls - X at

+Scott Robinson - Realism and Challenge at

+Lex Starwalker - A Real Chance of Failure at

+John Marvin - Run Away or Always Win at

+John Clayton - See chameleon, lying there in the sun… at

+Peter Smits - the sliding scale of difficulty at

+Arnold K. - X at

+Evan Franke - X at

+Burn Everything Gaming - Game Masters' Rountable of Doom #6 at

+Tom Harrison  - Epic…Fail? at

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