Difficulty is overrated

Difficulty is overrated

Difficulty is overrated

I’ve been thinking a lot about the design of this game lately and I think I finally understand one of the key things that’s tripped me up a lot, as well as my players. In a lot of games, the question the GM has to consider after many character actions is “okay, how difficult is that?” Then we break out the dice and find out if the action is successful. The notion is that more difficult actions should succeed less often, making it all the cooler when you hit that natural 20.

But why should a difficult action succeed less often? In a world full of danger and adventure, heroes do nearly impossible things with surprising regularity. And this is where things get interesting. It turns out that it doesn’t have to matter whether a particular action is difficult or not. All that matters is what the character does and the consequences. And maybe, with more frequency than you might expect, those consequences can be awesome. Or horrible.

So the next time a situation comes up and I start to wonder “hmm, that seems really hard, maybe there should be some modifier…” I can take a step back and say, “well, it would be cool if it worked, so why not?” And then if it still misses, oh, the possibilities… 🙂

15 thoughts on “Difficulty is overrated”

  1. That’s certainly one way to handle it. Have you seen Blades in the Dark? The dice rolls in that game never really change; you always take the single highest d6 result and a 4+ is generally a success. What changes are the fictional results based on how dangerous or difficult the situation is. You can apply that to DW too.

    A very easy example would be jumping a gap. That would probably trigger Defy Danger but the consequences will be very different depending on the situation. Jumping from one stationary cart to another will probably only result in minor bruising if you fall, but jumping a bottomless chasm? 😉

  2. How often does Jason Bourne fail to pick a lock or hotwire a car? Would you watch that movie?

    DW characters are assumed to be competent. They begin where more traditional games put you at maybe level 5.

  3. I noticed something similar in MHRP: Instead of deciding the difficulty by GM fiat, you either roll against an opposing character or the Doom Pool. The Doom Pool is set at the beginning of each scene, and certain moves can cause it to fluctuate, but the GM doesn’t micro-manage the difficulty of each action.

    Going back to 1975, Tunnels & Trolls embraced this concept in its earliest iterations: the “difficulty” of stuff was always based on how deep in the dungeon you are, and nothing else! That’s a feature I’ve carried over in Twisted Tunnels.

  4. Yep; there’s basically three shades of difficulty in DW…

    1: you can do the thing no problem, just do it

    2: you can’t do the thing in your current situation

    3: you might be able to do the thing, and trigger one of the appropriate moves

    #2 might refer to something that will never be possible (like walking up the side of a tower), or it might refer to something that you might be able to do if you set something up–like, to attack a ghost, you might need a special weapon

  5. Adam Dray points to the critical part of it – if there is no difficulty, then it removes a key avenue of differentiation. Your fighter may as well pick locks while your thief heals (which isn’t super fun).

    Obviously, there are other ways to deal with it (such as saying “only thieves can pick locks” or give the thief tricks that makes his lock picking result better in some way) but that can end up feeling like sleight of hand to slip difficulty back in (and those things can also be done alongside difficulty)

    (Depending on the game, similar logic may apply to the world at large, but that’s not a PBTA problem).

    Difficulty also provides a critical dimension on choice making. If all options are equally difficult, that calls for very different thinking than if all is roughly equal.

    None of which says that difficulty needs to be handled in any particular way. There are lots of problems with difficulty that are worth fixing but it does have its uses as well. It also can be used in ways other than modifying a roll. One very common application (which works quite well for me in PBTA ) is that difficulty is implicit in when I call for a roll. In a system where the difficulty of picking a lock might always be 50/50, the thief simply doesn’t roll unless there’s some complicating factor (a la Jason Bourne).

    It’s a valuable tool. Mangle it enthusiastically, but I’d avoid forgoing it altogether.

  6. I like to think of difficult actions as having higher stakes. The roll to Hack and Slash a goblin is exactly the same as Hack and Slash on an ogre. It’s just that the ogre carries a steeper cost for failure.

  7. “It turns out that it doesn’t have to matter whether a particular action is difficult or not. All that matters is what the character does and the consequences.”

    I disagree. When you and you’re table talk about what’s difficult or not, you set the tone for your game.

    If I believe it’s normal for us to kick off of the moon and use our shield as protection against re-entry then that’s cool, as long as we all agree.

    BUT if Larry (who has a silly name, but is incredibly insightful and plays in our game every week) believes that’s bonkers nonsense and he doesn’t want to play a game with that kind of Exalted scope then it’s his duty to speak up and say so.

    And it’s our job to take him seriously and determine whether the appropriate GM move is “Defy Danger Con” or “you fuckin’ die” or somewhere in between.

    Consequences of action rapidly balloon out of control unless we’re all working hard and checking in with the fiction about what makes sense in our game.

    I say: “I hit God with my sword. That’s Hack and Slash, right?”

    You say…

  8. Dylan Green That’s a bit of a different case. If the narrated actions aren’t coherent and consistent with the fiction you’re trying to build at the table, then the GM/players need to negotiate the boundaries of play a bit. The same kinds of things can come up in systems using the notion of Difficulty Class and, in those systems as well, making ridiculous things difficult isn’t a good solution (all it means is that if your players try ridiculous things a lot, they’ll only very rarely succeed.)

    I think what Adam Dray and Rob Donoghue describe makes the most sense to me, in that some variation of difficulty differentiation is still implicit in the stats and playbook moves themselves, but what really drives things is when you call for a roll at all. If you’re working in a system with DC, you might try to set up your challenges so that players need to find various things to modify their chances so they can succeed. So, if hitting God is DC 50, maybe this only becomes possible because you went on an epic quest to enchant a sword with Godslaying +20.

    In DW you just work out the prerequisites in a narrative way (rather than juggling modifiers) and only call for a roll when the situation makes successfully hitting God with the sword a meaningful action. And, honestly, by that point, it probably doesn’t make much sense for the sword to miss, since you’ve built up so much story by that point leading to that moment. Though if you hit God while rolling a miss, there are probably interesting complications. 🙂

  9. I think everyone is missing a point about how DW actually works. To do something, you have to describe how you do it. This “simple” principle dictates the resolution at which difficulty is resolved. Basically, it forces everyone to describe their actions in sufficiently fine resolution until those actions are the kind of thing you’d roll for.

    If you say, “I jump over the 20-foot chasm,” and the group agrees that a 20-foot jump is just something you could do, then you don’t roll at all. You just jump over it.

    If the group agrees that it’s something you could do, but it should be hard, then you’re Defying Danger.

    If the group doesn’t understand how you can do that, even with a roll, then the GM will ask, “How do you do that?” Player: “I can’t just leap over it?” GM: “Nope. It’s too far.” Player: “I snatch that 10-foot pole out of the hands of the lizard man, then use it to pole vault over the chasm!” Now the GM is asking you to make rolls to get the pole (Hack and Slash) and to vault the chasm (Defy Danger).

  10. I agree with Adam Dray here to a point.

    To throw in my philosophical minimum currency: The style of play in DW or it’s originator/spinoffs is that the difficulty is there, you can’t differentiate it very well from the narrative or story. Yes it is the group that “set’s the bar” on how epic or awesome the base is BUT there is an implicit and logical level of difficulty here. It is a balancing act.

    You can have the players describe the action that they want to do in too fine of detail that it slows things down and eliminates assumptions. this slows down the game and takes some of the fun out of the action. You can also as the GM describe the situation too well. This will make the players feel like that they are in a railroaded campaign and only filling a role in your story in an exactly predictable way. You balance between them, make some assumptions and those assumptions are going to be different from time to time.

    It is the situation of the moment, the action that is being attempted, the class and assumed competence, the player’s creativity/audacity, the gm’s flexibility, and the “what makes a good story?”, and the anticipation of “Did I just screw myself by trying too much or am I living up to my potential by going far enough?” that all factor into the difficulty and action. The biggest factor is “What makes a good Story?”

    Some of the difficulty factors are obvious: What bonus am I going to get to my roll and can I get help from my friends to “Pull this amazing thing off” Some are very well hidden: If the bad guys can’t get away now and then they aren’t bad guys they are fodder. And some look like they are not a difficulty but are: the Giant creature has Reach and I don’t so I am going to need to get creative to overcome that advantage. Or you are going up against a freaking Dragon and need special tools and the right circumstance to be able to affect it, planning is needed.

    Well, that is a part of the narrative difficulty, you need special stuff or to set it up. So we have 3 types of difficulties that are either implied or out right stated.

    Overall, the issue is not the difficulty, the REAL issue is “Let’s make a satisfying Story that is awesome.” That is the goal, not how difficult or easy it is. How far can we push the story and make if fun? As I said earlier: A balancing act.

    The human psyche doesn’t like things too easy, then the reward doesn’t seem worth it. Too hard and we don’t feel that we can overcome. It must be “Just” with in reach to succeed and feel like if we just stretch out just a little more or get clever and get a tool to let us get a little farther….

    That is what makes it sweet when we win. As a GM we need to walk the balancing act of giving the characters (and the players to) the illusion of it being hard, but possible if….

    Sorry, got a bit meta there but essentially what you are talking about is not about a given game, it is about storytelling and crafting the story. Harder to do when you have multiple writers but possible.

  11. I agree and believe that the consequences of a PC action are a far more important consideration than the difficulty of the roll. My general rule of thumb is that dice should only be rolled when the consequences are interesting.

  12. Adam Dray The argument about one character vs another and their + and – doesn’t seem to address the points being made. I say that because the point seems to be about consequences and difficulty, not variance among characters.

    Dan Bryant I disagree with your OP, because I think there should be different partial results on two identical moves/but different situations by the same character. Maybe you meant to convey that, but it doesn’t seem so. And the rules advice on relative consequences while Defying Danger to jump between two fences vs two cliffs could use some tuning (maybe even houseruling), if anything, to fit with the fiction at hand – not care thrown to the wind

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