Games Should be Hard

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.


10 responses

  1. I am with you here. System mastery has its place (and I really missed it during the long years of system shuffling I had here with a multi-game, multi-GM set up), but what really makes a game sing is when the players show up ready to play their characters to the hilt.

  2. Nice post. While I agree with you, in my experience I’ve dealt with some players who prefer the easy out. They love to spam the “win” button, and do everything possible to generate the perfect characters to do so.

    I’ve rarely been able as a GM or fellow player to get them to engage with the game in the way you describe. Sigh.

    That said, when a player shows up to really play, and brings it on, it makes all the prep work worthwhile.

    1. I certainly hear what you’re saying. I struggled for a long time with the feeling of “let down” that happens when you have an engaged, very tight gaming group and then playing a lot with groups that didn’t have that. It’s a struggle I still fight with myself. And for me, system mastery will always pale in comparison to “play” mastery.

  3. I have had plenty of experience of both in my time, from live action games that have swung from high level inter PC political play to mook stomping in a matter of minutes. I ended up addressing this in a recent blog post, looking at how revenge can work in a game. The movie way, when the players are damned near indestructible, and yet the head bag guy just keeps sending in the troops to be killed, and the ‘hard’ level of game play that ends up with the players genuinely challenged by some one seeking revenge. Check it out and let me know what you think…

    1. I will. I’ll check it out. Revenge is a heck of a motive. And there is certainly nothing wrong with the occasional “mook-stomping” session.

  4. Games should have a variety of difficulties for different people. Arguing the other way is like saying that everybody should run marathons, and there’s no room for casual strolls. On the other hand, you can have an incredible conversation during a casual stroll, and it’s much harder during a marathon.

    I find getting into character harder in some high-lethality-style OSR games because I’m so focused on succeeding at the player skill needed to survive that the character sort of falls out.

  5. I’m not really sure we’re talking about the same things… I think there is plenty of room for casual strolls in the context of a game. Every second doesn’t need to be a breakneck thriller or a depressing downturn… but the arc of play should be a challenging. Players should be challenged – not numbers on sheet. Though part of that challenge does consist of playing your character appropriately with the numbers on the sheet.

    Overall though, I will always advocate on the side of pushing players to do more, engage more, and be challenged more rather than simply gliding through a game. Going back to the article I was inspired by… this was my takeaway:

    “Big games that don’t require us to do anything—ones that are just shattered movies that we walk around in—forgo one of the medium’s best attributes. Not every game need be as difficult as Max Payne 3, but the light expectations that many of today’s AAA titles place on players—long-familiar play mechanics, few real challenges—deprive us of things we may not even know we’re missing.”

    The power of games — especially table-top RPGs is the social aspect, and one aspect of that is being challenged and exploring new ideas in what is essentially a safe environment (around a table in your own home with friends). Games that let me do whatever I want, that make victory the assumption rather than the condition of my hard work and engagement, offer little. I want more. And I want to take people with me when I go.

    It’s not about High-Lethality OSR games. It’s about feeling like what I’m doing in game actually means something, even though that something – whatever it is – may only mean something to me and my friends sitting around that table.

    But going back to high-lethality. I find that I appreciate high-lethality, because it creates an iterative process to my gaming experience. If one character dies I get to explore another one and find ways to make that person tick. I suppose the difficulty for me is in perceiving the game from the point of “player skill” if that player skill is all devoted to simply “trying to survive.” At that point I do agree that one specific type of challenge is overshadowing the overall experience.

  6. Your example of the Star Wars game makes me think of the promise I saw in online MUDs way back in 1993. In my various tabletop RPG groups up to that time, there had always been social pressure not to roleplay hard enough to interfere with or distract from straight powergaming, with the party as a max-efficiency shoot-and-loot machine. This pressure was strong enough in most cases to “break” almost any player eventually. I hoped that MUDs would dissociate player enough from each other to remove that pressure; I wanted a game that was more like a microcosm than a game of Gauntlet.

    Of course, MUDs and their descendent MMOs do exactly the opposite, and your excellent description of 4e applies directly to them. I don’t see any solution other than gathering players who also want the microcosm game (easier said than done) and to keep rules light so they don’t become holy writ to be used against the DM.

    I found your blog because of your old post about Arcanum. I really think I’m going to start up an Arcanum/Atlantean trilogy game. Again, just a matter of just finding the right players…? I hope?

  7. It is unfortunate… but min-max loot & level is the heart of MMOs – especially the “raid.” I love the Gauntlet reference.

    And you do need to gather “like-minded” players, but I have also found that players can surprise you. It’s important to work to show players why this kind of play can be fun, if they don’t like it, that’s fine, but it’s worth it to put out this style and teach players that this can be another way to play. And the more I think about it, the more rules-light is the way I want to go.

    And I’ll just tell you – I’m jealous. I’d love to have an Arcanum game running anywhere near me. Really, just one of my favorite games of all time. Good luck with that!

  8. Thanks! I’ll be blogging my efforts — hopefully it won’t be too painfully slow.

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