Inspiration comes in funny ways. I opened a box at work today, and right on top was a torn up piece of newspaper with half an article about hard video games. I was so intrigued by the bit that I read, when I came home I searched the internet and found the original article in its entirety.
If you don’t want to take the time to read it now, here’s the important gist: Hard games offer more than easy video games. They offer more in the way of challenge but also more – in very special ways – in the way of storytelling. And I tend to agree. When it comes to video games, I’ll admit – I’ve been lulled into that sense of playing games where I’ll turn down the difficulty, “to experience the story.” I get that. And it can be fun sometimes to lay waste to screens full of enemies with no real chance of failure.
But the real value of the article for me is to consider it in the context of table top RPGs. I missed a big chunk of the explosion of the video game era because I already had games that were a million times better — I had friends and I had the world of Dungeons and Dragons. Call me a Luddite snob if you will (I do play video games these days) but I’ve yet to play any video game that has the social and entertainment value of a table top RPG.
But what about “hard” and “easy” when it comes to RPGs? And am I talking about “hard” mechanics or “easy” mechanics? Am I talking about the expected challenge level of the gameplay experience based on the mechanics? Or am I talking about group interaction? Honestly, I’m talking about all three but I think the last one has the most value.
Hard and Easy mechanics – This is easy enough to tackle. I don’t think a game should be hard to learn. It can be hard to master, but it should not be hard to learn. I like to be able to go from reading the rules to playing in the same day. To make your rules or writing obtuse is just silly. I’m not saying that a game can’t have complexities in the rules. I just don’t think a game should make a habit of leaving potential players and GMs scratching their heads instead of playing.
Expected Challenge Level based on the rules – I’ll just call a spade a spade. This is the D&D4E problem. 4E is not the only game with this problem, but 4E represents this problem very well for my playing groups. In 4E, the game has a built in tendency to heavily favor the PCs. The game is “easy” and challenges are designed with the expectation of victory. More importantly, the challenges are designed with an expectation that victory can always be achieved through applications of the rules. Now, don’t get me wrong – I realize that a clever group easily avoids this outcome. I also realize that certain initiatives (like Lair Assault) address this (to an extent) but even Lair Assault only addresses one half of the problem. But overall, the core expectation of experience with 4E is a group of superhero PCs who should function like a highly trained commando squad and should be able to solve any challenge in the game through rules application. I’m less of fan. Again, don’t get me wrong, I went through a phase where I loved the idea of a game devoted to mathematical balance and perfecting the encounter mix. But when I actually played it, well, a lot of the experience just felt pointless.
Group Interaction – perhaps I should express this more as player/GM interaction or player/world interaction. But honestly, as I think back over the groups and games I’ve loved the most, some of the most important and challenging play has been between players – leaving the GM to watch in awe just like everyone else. When given the chance, I’ve found that players will surprise even the savviest GM with the immensely poignant decisions they’ll make. I think that players can challenge each other, challenge the GM, and challenge the “rules” and that they should do that whenever they can — in a respectful way to their fellow gamers, of course.
I remember one Star Wars game. We were playing Jedi. One of our number had unwittingly set off a dark side doomsday device underneath a planet. The surface and the people who lived there were doomed. We were frantically trying to evacuate the planet, keep as many people as we could safe, and fight off the dark side. The session after the disaster, a new player joined the group. He played the role of a young Jedi, fresh from the Academy, a little arrogant, and a little sheltered by his master. When he got to the planet and saw what had happened, he basically started his first conversation with our existing PCs with something like, “well, based on what you’ve done here – it’s a good thing some real Jedi are taking charge of the situation.” It was awesome. Words were exchanged, tempers (in character) flared. Our frazzled, exhausted Jedi who had been on the front lines were incredibly challenged by this guy. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep it up. After that first encounter he just fell in with us and kinda stopped pushing our buttons. It was odd. We told him how much we loved his challenging us, that we thought it was awesome… but he didn’t keep it up. I would have loved to have seen how that all played out if he’d kept that edge – that intensity. Of course, it was his character, so we only pushed so much, but what a game it might have been if he’d shown us that side a little more.
Examples aside, I think that gaming, RPGs, like anything else take practice and commitment to be good at. And even though I’m a big fan of lots of different games, I really don’t think that “system mastery” is what I’m talking about. I’m talking about developing the skill and confidence to show up at the gaming table and “bring it.” To ham it up and be willing to share a potentially difficult, emotional, social experience with other people. I think the challenges, whether they stem from the rules interaction or social interaction should be hard. And if you need to lose, sacrifice a character, or whatever, remember – the story is not about your character (singular) its about you playing as a player (and if that means characters (plural) then so be it).
Is there a place for “easy mode?” I think so. Some nights I just want to kill Stormtroopers. I get it. But if most sessions are like that then what’s at stake? What are we – as players – getting out of the experience? Play Hard. I think its a lesson we could all do well to remember sometimes… myself included.
As always, thanks for reading.