Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Hard Mode"

AKA "Revisiting the Value of Character Death"

Just bear with me for a moment.

In writing a fantasy heartbreaker, or ANY old school style RPG for a combat heavy genre (Space Opera, Magic-Punk, Cyber-Western, etc.) I find myself approaching certain systems with design ideas based on my own experiences in gaming, and my exposure to other games and design theory.

One of the theory things I'm always trying to get at is "design the game so it does what you want it to do." God, that can be hard sometimes. You don't WANT the game to be tweaked or fudged in-play...for example, my Shadowrun-esque game fell down on its face for being TOO close to 1st edition SR, specifically with regard to the initiative/extra action rules, which allowed some cyber-roided (and physical adept characters) outshine all the non-wired kids in the party.

End result? A lot of disgruntlement and comments like, "my next character is going to make sure to have X, Y, and Z implants"...regardless of the player's character concept.

See, that's MY failing as a designer. If you build the game in a certain way, that confers certain advantages, then make those advantages necessary as par survival (due to a heavy combat style to the game)...well, of course, your game is going to devolve into a min-max twink-fest. Which is NOT what I was aiming for, by the way.

[and which is why that particular game needs a lot of work before being publishable]

Now I look at a game like Stars Without Number, which is a fine and dandy piece of work. For me, I can see it being used to play a particular style of space opera...something akin to B/X Warhammer 40,000. Why? Because the way the game is written player mortality is going to be exceptionally high. Character starting out with single digit hit points are going to get splattered by the weapons involved in the game. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is A thing...a thing that should be noted.

And yet, folks (including the designer) feel that with the right "massaging" the game can be used for most genres of space opera. I disagree...but then I prefer to play with rules as written, without tweaking or fudging or "drifting" to get the desired effect.

That's why I try to be ultra-specific in my game design.

SO...back to the original reason for my post: revisiting character death in RPGs. I find myself lately adding all sorts of "take backs" and metagame mechanics into my designs which will increase PC survivability. Something that irritates me to no end about myself. For a guy that totes "character death" as a FEATURE of the B/X game system, why would I get all wishy-washy with my own fantasy heartbreaker, adding things like "luck points" to the game.


Because not everyone wants to die.

I enjoy the challenge of a game where my PC might's like playing imaginary Russian Roulette (at least I get to walk away from the table, even if my character doesn't). But the truth of the matter is, I spend much more time running games than playing 'em, and not everyone shares my weirdness.

In fact (news flash!) some people like to play fantasy adventure games because they like to imagine themselves as some sort of heroic fantasy character! Wow, you never would have guessed that, right? These people want to play a fantasy RPG, AND they want a simple fantasy RPG (like B/X or similar) AND they would prefer NOT to die.

Really. Really, really, really.

[I am repeating this for myself, folks, so I can wrap my head around it]

Role-playing is a type of entertainment, it's a method of social interaction, it's a form of escapism that allows us to shrug off the shackles of our mundane life for a few hours and pretend we're someone doing amazing things in incredible environments. And, no, the threat of death does NOT have to be present for players to get a charge out of it.

[...really, really, really...]

Now having acknowledged that, and acknowledged that some people might enjoy playing this game for nickels instead of going all-in with the family mortgage payment, shouldn't the ones willing to risk more get something greater in return?

Shouldn't we reward the folks with the balls to step into the death match?

In video games (a comparison to RPGs I hate to make but oh, well, there it is) you often see different game settings, like Easy, Medium, Hard, Suicidal, etc. Kind of like different degrees of spiciness at a Thai restaurant. How much heat can you take?

What about including a "Hard Mode" in role-playing games?

In my current fantasy heartbreaker project (up to page 8...I'll try to keep it under 64 pages), there are classes and levels (max 5, right?) and experience points awarded to track those levels. What if the XP awarded was determined by whether or not players were playing on Easy or Hard mode? What if level maximums were capped based on a player's chosen style of play?

I'm just throwing the idea out there...I haven't included anything in the book, yet (hell, I can always delete the wimpy "save your bacon" points if I decide to go "all hard"). But this is me tossing a bone to people who want to play fantasy characters in a fantasy world without getting bitten in half by a purple worm when they least expect (or want!) it to happen.

Here's what I'm considering:
  • Default Easy: Players who choose to play on Hard Mode (no luck points, critical damage tables, instant death on failed saves, no re-rolls) earn DOUBLE the normal XP.
  • Default Hard: Players who choose to play on Easy Mode (taking all the bennies listed above) earn only ONE-HALF the normal XP.
  • Max Level: Players who choose to play on Easy Mode have their max level capped...possibly as low as 2nd or 3rd level. Without real risk, why do they need increased effectiveness?

What do y'all think? Am I talking crazy (again)?
: )


  1. What do you do when exactly half the party wants do go easy and the other wants to go hard?

  2. Ehhhhh. I would not bother to play it. Advancement to me is ehhhh. You can just make it 10 level and give me all the shit and I am stilll ehhhh.

    It is earning/developing a history that matters and not through some hardcore mechanic. It is roleplaying my character through the situation, taking my lumps, learning, communicating, encountering, EXPERIENCING the world and moving on that matters. It builds "character" :)

    We want memorable things. I will say it again we want things that are truly memorable. Not instant gratification.

    Great roleplay can be achieved sans just about any mechanics - maybe just common courtesy. As long as everyone agrees to the baseline, and maybe a calm way to handle disagreements.

    IMHO you do not need to go about making up lots of rules. You need to construct a memorable experience. How is your experience memorable in a positive way. How can your mechanics aid in memorable play.

    Leveling is not memorable. How you leveled is.

    I hope that made sense

  3. It's an interesting idea, but I wouldn't use XP as the difference between modes, I'd have some other mechanic (like your Luck one) for the Easy mode, stuff like that; optional rules, really.

  4. Interesting...very interesting indeed. But perhaps instead of level caps for the easiest mode, how about they only earn one-quarter experience? And when do players set their character's mode? At time of character creation, never to change? Or can they change modes at the beginning of each session? And I would need to know the stratification for each of the three modes, i.e. what are the bennies (if they exist at all) for each level?

    I'd have to read some more details before giving a more solid judgment on the matter, though...

  5. Hi. I think that if you do go through with this, it would be great if the change between the two modes would be relatively easy. So that for example the last session of an adventure could be played in hard mode and the previous ones on easy?

    Other than that, I think it's easier for players to accept bonuses than penalties to XP. Otherwise players on Easy would feel punished.
    Unless that's the way you like it >:)

  6. @ Everyone: Okay, here's how it would work.

    Assuming "easy" and "hard" modes only pertained to earned XP, then it's relatively easy to ask players at the beginning of each session:

    "What mode do you want to play tonight."

    DM notes responses. Players who opt for Easy will be allowed to use luck/fortune/karma points to save their asses or re-roll saves and will be KO'd/captured rather than killed, etc. Players that opt for Hard Mode get no such breaks. At the end of the night, XP is figured and awarded to PCs based on the mode they played for the evening. They can change modes from session to session.

    With regard to "level caps" it's a little trickier: a player would have to opt for it right from the start. From then on, any XP gain would be the same as for players playing on Hard Mode (they would advance at the same rate) but there would be a finite limit to what they could achieve for "playing it safe."

    Or maybe THIS would be a better way to do level caps: You only get "easy mode" up to a certain level, and if you want to progress any higher the kid gloves come off. For instance, no more "luck points" (or whatever) may be spent after reaching 3rd least, not if you want to continue to advance (i.e. "earn XP") towards 4th level.
    : )

  7. You only get "easy mode" up to a certain level, and if you want to progress any higher the kid gloves come off.

    sounds good to me. much better than fiddling about with xp.

  8. I try not to sound spammish, but...

    Echelon ( lends itself to this sort of thought. The power bands are fairly explicitly described. 'Easy' is probably Heroic tier, level 5-8 -- tough enough to probably easily survive your likely encounters without too much risk because the interactions are generally simpler) while 'hard mode' might be Basic tier (level 1-4 -- "level 0" in AD&D terms, kind of) because you're fragile, or a higher tier such as Master (13-16), Champion (17-20), or Legendary (21-24) because as the tier increases the stops are removed -- at Champion and Legendary tiers almost all the stops are out and you may be expected to Get It Right or die.

    On top of that the talent selection available in-game can adjust the power curve of the PCs. Some talents are designed to be Really Good (i.e. powerful and often applicable), others might be Less Good (powerful but not often applicable, or often applicable but relatively weak), and it's up to the campaign designer to decide which are in use. For instance, I can readily imagine several ways to model spell casting that have different power curves. Echelon might end up with all three talent sets defined and the characteristics and consequences of each described. If you want to keep magic similar to D&D 3.x you can, or you can tone it down to 4e, or FantasyCraft-level, while choosing a similar or different power curve for martial characters.

    (I mention that last bit in passing, since it directly addresses one of the fail points in D&D 3.x.)

    So, through choice of tier to play in and/or talents available you have some fair ability to establish a game in 'easy mode' or 'hard mode'. In fact, you might even have 'you win' or 'wimp' talents that explicitly grant the 'easy mode' abilities to a character. Take that talent and you get your luck points, bulletproof skin, whatever -- just make it clear that this option is known and intended, or it looks like crap design (well, it *is* imbalanced design, on purpose).

  9. As for XP and level advancement it doesn't really come up in my campaign (though it could in a game using more 'conventional' advancement) because I work it all off completing stories. You don't have to be 'successful' in the story arc or element, but you do have to complete it.

    As a mostly contrived example with some obvious flaws:

    * Successfully rescuing the princess is good (and gets you rewarded). XP for you.

    * Failing to rescue the princess because she died is bad (and may get you punished, or considered useless), but does end the scenario. XP for you.

    * Failing to rescue the princess because the Evil Duke managed to outfight you and escape with her is unfortunate, but may end this scenario, in which case: XP for you. And possibly a recurring villain (or villains, if she decides to turn and join him...) for another time.

    * If you screw around, beating up the Evil Duke's guards instead of focusing on the goal, and he just walks away with her, no XP for you because you didn't complete the scenario. It completed on its own and you were irrelevant.

  10. @ Keith:

    Hmm...interesting. Never heard of Eschelon, but I already use a layering system called "tiers" in my space opera game. Have to get back to that at some point...

    Just out of curiosity (regarding the "rescue the princess" story arc you describe):

    Do the player characters receive the same amount of XP upon completion of the scenario (i.e. in any of the first three outcomes described)? Or do they receive more XP for some outcomes than others?

  11. You are talking crazy, but in a good way. I hadn't thought of how the different systems are geared towards different life expectancies. Its a interesting way to play it by asking the players what mode they prefer, just don't let them control the reset button.

  12. Have you ever considered that in BECMI and B/X the Hitdice of each class suggests how difficult it is to play it?

    Fighters and Dwarf are D8
    * Both classes are deadly, defensible, and relatively straight forward in play. The dwarf advances slower, but has a host of nice abilities to make up for it.
    * I would argue that for new players playing a generic adventurer(ie Fighting man) is one of the best and most open ended options.

    Halfling, Cleric, and Elf are D6
    * Potentially three of the most powerful classes in D&D. Particularly the Cleric and Elf are more fiddly than the easier classes. Once either class is out of spells they can engage in melee combat. Looking purely at class abilities the halfling is a MONSTER to go up against. 90% chance to hide in woodland environments? holy.
    * Once a player has grokked the metagame mechanics of the various sub-systems of D&D either of these options open up new possibilities.

    Thief and Magic-User are d4
    * The hardest classes with the lowest survivability. The thief deals with this by offering quick advancement, the Magic-User has unparalleled potency at higher levels. Neither class has particularly great saves and once combat starts have to mix a bit of creativity and luck to survive it.
    * Don't go crying if you picked the TOUGHEST class to play and find yourself without options. Yes. Once that spell is cast you are in the shit. Yes. You aren't a sword slinging frontliner. Get creative.

    Now. Don't get me wrong. I've seen plenty of awesome Fighter concepts played intelligently. Nor would I suggest a natural order of progression from fighting man to magic-user as a player gains experience with the game. I'm just saying that some of the difficulty is already built in the game!


  13. About Echelon and tiers-of-power in D&D... a little long...

    @JB I've been working on Echelon, in various incarnations, for years now. About two or three years ago I finally made the right mental connections to make it work. It started as a re-engineering of D&D 3.x (the remnants of which can still be seen at my other site, that started okay but wasn't sufficiently extensible. I stepped back and realized that really *level* should be the measure of awesome, not class... and then the character options became "type of awesome" (combat vs. magic vs. shapeshifting vs. having a demonic bloodline vs. psionics, etc.... and that it shouldn't be difficult to mix them as long as it involves reasonable tradeoffs, such narrower spell casting ability in exchange for some narrow-but-level-appropriate combat ability).

    D&D play, in practice, has distinct tiers of play. BECMI (which incidentally influenced the tier names in Echelon) was explicit about it. Basic tended to be very constrained environments and low power, Expert was a little more powerful but less constrained in movement and encounters, Companion moved you into the political arena (you could become a mover and shaker), Master was the highest of the mortal powers and moved you to other planes (more often), Immortal was where you went after that.

    These clear distinctions were largely lost in AD&D and D&D 3.x and (in 3.x at least) the expectations shifted to "casters do amazing things, non-casters are guys with weapons and mundane skills"... which mightily screwed with balance.

    Echelon instead throws away classes and looks to the tier each ability is trained to (if trained at all). 'Fighters' can now have abilities commensurate with their level, such as being so good with a shield (even mundane ones) they can block magic out. *That* is some mad fighting skill.

  14. (note that while I talk about 'tiers' and the like below, this is mostly an artifact of my current application of the technique. I've been doing it this way in D&D for a while now, I just didn't have the 'tier concept' when I started.)

    As for the XP question, I don't actually track XP as XP. I'm pretty narrativist regarding these things. I figure out how much advancement I want to see through a scenario (or story arc) and break up any leveling based on that. Outcomes (good or bad) don't much matter as far as XP is concerned, but how much is resolved does.

    Success or failure is an in-game event, so I don't base XP on it. I do base in-game consequences on it, though. As above, successfully rescuing the princess gains the gratitude of her father, the enmity of the Evil Duke (assuming he survives, or possibly his heir if he doesn't -- or his heir's gratitude as well), possibly romantic consequences involving the princess (and response from those currently courting her).

    A stand-alone scenario is typically enough to gain a level. In D&D 3.x terms it might have 15-20 encounters in total, with multiple paths through such that it could be completed in as few as 10 if the players are clever enough. The order the encounters are run ends up in the players' hands and they can, in a sense, choose how much they do.

    If they do the minimum or all, they get the same experience. They may miss out on certain consequences of any skipped encounters (including treasure, removing future opponents early, gaining favor or alliance... and possibly negative results as well), but the critical story element is resolved, so they get the 'XP' and level.

    In a story arc there might be 5-10 scenarios, with a minimum of four or five key scenarios to be completed to fully resolve the arc. As with encounters above, completing additional scenarios doesn't necessarily increase your level but gives you the opportunity to achieve other benefits.

    This leads to the completion of a story arc being a good transition from one tier to another. An Expert story arc (starts at fifth level) might have 5-10 scenarios to complete, minimum of five. After the key scenarios the PCs gain a level (except the last one; I like to give people extra time at the end of the tier, both because it gives them time to enjoy their new capstone ability and because it's the climax of the story arc). Other scenarios are available if they want to do more, but they don't gain 'XP'.

    This has largely removed the concept of grinding for XP. They went to the tomb of the legendary warrior to borrow (seriously, they asked permission and brought it back) his sword to fight the adversary because it helped their goal, they skipped a couple of side quests because they didn't need what could have been gained (as missed out on some things they could have used), and so on.

    Note that this doesn't particularly increase the amount of prep work I do, since I only describe the outline of each scenario until it's needed. I know roughly what it's about, I know why the PCs want to do it, I know what happens if they don't, and I know how to suggest to the PCs they want to go there... but no 'real work' is done until they decide that yeah, that magic sword really *would* be good to have.

  15. ... wow. Man can I be long-winded. Sorry about that.

    I really should grab that and add it to my campaign setting (scenario) design series on my non-Echelon blog.

  16. I think this is best handled by playing the game together, and hard-wiring it into the rules will lead to as many problems as it solves.