Friday, 16 November 2012

Difficulty: Not Just For Players

What if the players one-shot your BBEG?  Do you fudge his hit points?

What if the players decide to head north, when your elaborate deathtrap dungeon is to the south?

Do you use DM-PCs to keep the party going “where it should go”?  What if the players refuse to listen to the DM-PCs?  What if they slaughter them in their sleep?

In a recent blog post, I talked about “difficulty” in role-playing game scenarios.  That post was about the kinds of difficulties players experience to make an interesting game.  But difficulty is not just for players.  The Game Master also experiences difficulty, both away from and at the table.

A lot has been written about the difficulty GMs experience away from the table – after all, designing a scenario has its own types of difficulty.  Designing a scenario well may be one of the largest challenges facing a role-playing game enthusiast.  One might even say that, the better you design your scenario away from the table, the less difficulty you will experience at the table.  But there is no getting away from difficulty at the table entirely, and the way you handle it says much about the kind of Game Master you are.

To some degree, role-playing games are built upon a fundamental tension between the people playing the game and the person running it.  The person running the game has done some heavy lifting in the design department, or spent money for a module, and wants that investment to pay off in terms of the players going along with the scenario the GM wishes to present.  The players, for their part, want to have fun, have their characters survive, and have their characters prosper.

The experienced GM knows that players have the most fun when they overcome adversity.  The blog post about difficulty was, in some ways, a discussion of what adversity is within the context of a role-playing game.  Yet the experienced GM also knows that the player goals of “survive and prosper” run counter to “meet adversity” where the outcome of that meeting is not known ahead of time.  Players want to “play smart”; the GM wants to lure them into situations where the outcome is uncertain.  Both players and GM are trying to meet the goal of making the game as fun as possible.

Trying to keep the players “on track” is trying to keep play in the zone “where the fun is”.  This is a potentially laudable goal, if the players are of the same mind as to what “the fun is”.  In this event, the GM need merely provide more context to the players in which to make their choices, and the result is good for everyone.  Sometimes, though, the GM is trying to protect his investment, and the interests of the players is not taken into account as strongly as they should be.  In such a situation, the players cannot “play smart” – they are not allowed to.  Dungeons move, die rolls are fudged, and events conspire to drive the players “where the fun is”.

I am not a big fan of this sort of thing.  When the party heads north even though they know that “the adventure” is to the south, chooses to avoid your carefully stocked dungeon, and runs like hell from your DM-PCs, maybe it is time to re-evaluate how you are running your game.

Dealing with the unexpected actions of the players generates at-the-table difficulty for the Game Master.  Want your players to deal well with the difficulties you put in their path?  Now is the time to show them how, by dealing well with the difficulties they put in your path.  Sooner or later, the players are going to diverge from the path you imagined.  Tacking with the wind is an essential skill for good GMing.

Note that this does not mean that there has to be “an adventure” anywhere the PCs go.  It does not mean that everywhere need be equally interesting.  But it does mean that there should be options and that, when it makes sense within the context of the world, going away from the expected route should be rewarded.

Why rewarded?  Doesn’t that train the players to ignore adventure hooks?

Well, it does to some degree, but it also teaches the players that their choices matter.  It teaches them that the world is not just the GM telling them where to go and what to do; when they end up in difficulties, it is not because the GM forced them into it.  If a character dies because of those difficulties, it is not because the GM forced them into it.  If there is a TPK because of those difficulties, it is not because the GM forced them into it.  By being allowed to make these kinds of choices, players become responsible for the choices that they make.

If the GM really wants the group to explore the Death Trap of Deadly Von Lich, don’t force it on them.  Entice them.  Let them know something about the treasure that might be found there.  Give them reasons to make going there a goal that they choose.  Have dangers issue from there.  Dare them.  Indeed, warning them away from the dungeon is the strongest lure to it for some players.  In other words, supply some context that motivates your particular group.  Create hooks between various locations in your game milieu, to remind players of areas yet unexplored, to pull them back to old areas, and to entice them into new.  That’s just part of good scenario design and presentation.

The GM has vast powers within the context of the game.  When things don’t go the way you planned, it is tempting – and all too easy – to merely force things back on track.  Just like experiencing difficulty makes things better for the players, doing the difficult thing, and letting the players go where they will, can make things better for you. 

Remember how the players having to change tactics denotes difficulty for them?  Well, so does the GM having to change tactics denote difficulty for you.  Have fun with it.  Keep a couple of minor lairs ready to place where you will.  Roll for wandering encounters.  Make shit up.  Keep in mind what is nearby, and important, and keep throwing hooks to those areas – towns, dungeons, castles, or whatever.  Let the PCs encounter a wandering circus. 

Although it may seem strange, I have found that the more you allow the players to take their characters wherever they will, the more attention they pay to the hooks you hand out.  After all, now it is incumbent on them to figure out where “the adventure is”!  The more choices the players feel they have, the less likely they are to avoid following your lead on principle.

Most of the difficulty the Game Master experiences is away from the table, in scenario design, selection, and/or comprehension.  There is always difficulty at the table, though, unless you demand your players to run their characters in lock-step with your wishes.  Accepting difficulty in play is less frequent for the GM than the players, but, if anything, it is more important that the GM be willing to experience difficulty for the game to be its best.


  1. I have been lurking the DCC Barrowmaze campaigns for a while (trying desperately not to spoil an actual campaign attempt as a player) and signed up for an Unseen Servants account so that I may one day play. I bought the DCC full rules last month, and have been devouring them every evening that I have a spare moment.

    Do the DCC and Labyrinth Lord rules interchange well? Do you find you need to crank down the difficulty? Do you take many liberties or play it as written? I confess I've read the rules and overarching plot and monsters of BW but have not read many of the room descriptions or encounters. Have you had any TPKs, as most of the reviews suggest? Keep up the good work! I rolled up a sheet of 4 0LPCs during a slow spot at work and will likely submit it when I can remember to bring it home... noahms456 on the US forums

  2. I received your email, and will notify you of the next expedition.

    IME, it is easy to convert LL to DCC. I do not need to crank down the difficulty, although I do need to consider the different game economies in terms of treasure. No TPKs yet, but, then, the DCC parties are larger than LL parties, so probably the same number of character deaths.

    My methodology is to play *almost* as written, with the advice to "keep monsters mysterious" and to keep magic magical always in mind. Barrowmaze is pretty well written in terms of its monsters, but I reserve the right to adjust them in DCC terms. Normally, I just invert the AC and run as written.

    Spells from LL present a different problem, but one that is well covered by Crawl! Fanzine's articles on NPC Magic and converting OSR spells.

    I am using a different system module for "Survivors of Fallen Tempesta", and it took a lot more work to adjust, but I think that the effort will pay off!