Gaming My Way

04 Jun

RPG Hard Mode

Are you a soft GM? Go a bit too easy on your players perhaps? Let them get away with fighting anything in the campaign by fudging rolls or stats? Perhaps you give out way too much treasure? I am so guilty. Rather, I used to be. Then my players told me that it was too easy and they just weren’t feeling the challenge, the thrill of combat, wondering if they could actually fail. This is no fun. It’s no fun because when there’s no chance of failure, or it feels like there’s no chance of failure, then success doesn’t mean a lot. It takes the game part out of the equation and just makes it collaborative storytelling. Which is ok if that’s your thing. But my group wants to play a game, which also had a story to go with it. We decided it was time for hard mode.

Hard mode has a few rules for the GM. The world is what it is. No removing tough challenges just because the PCs wander into an area too dangerous for them. It’s up to them to find the warning signs, know their limits, and know when to back off. It’s ok to change things for storytelling purposes or to warn players of danger, but if there’s a CR 20 dragon in an area and some level 3 PCs are dumb enough to walk into the area with the beware of dragon sign prominently displayed, the dragon stays and there’s probably a tpk coming up soon.

Next, all encounters are played for keeps. The GM plays to win, just like the PCs do. Within the rules of course. There is no choosing to attack when there’s an option to sting the PCs for the same amount of damage and apply a paralysis poison. Wands and potions will be used during the combat, not just left behind for treasure. Even instant death spells are cool. That said, NPC motivations are taken into account here. A trained assassin may well finish off a PC that is unconscious before continuing the fight with the rest, while a goblin fighting for its life is satisfied to just get the PCs unconscious and run away after looting them.

In keeping with the above, there is no fudging die rolls, HP, or other stats. Once it has been written down and the session has started it’s set in stone. Even if I want the players to live, it’s too late to change it. If the PCs want to live that badly they will find a way. Against my expectations sometimes, they do. This is much cooler than the enemy falling over just in time to spare the party.

Treasure also has to be looked at carefully. Generally giving PCs more wealth than they should have at a given level is frowned upon in hard mode, but if encounters are scaled properly to the increased wealth it is permissible.

Some of the above is basic game balance. Some of it probably sounds needlessly adversarial. However, it is only adversarial when it needs to be. When there are hostile characters on screen, your job is to be the enemy of the players. When there are not, it is your job to work with the players to make an awesome story, but also remember your NPCs are what they are, and you can’t pull them away just to prevent an encounter the PCs aren’t equipped for yet.

My players responded very positively to these changes. The game developed the sense of challenge and danger they were looking for. Characters died, and new characters were introduced. Players learned to be more careful and how to overcome or avoid challenges placed before them based on the risk and reward of doing so. The world became a much more dangerous place, but it also became more alive with more movers and shakers than just the PCs doing their own thing. Enemies who escaped became new villains or occasionally reluctant allies against a common enemy.

This is not the way everyone likes to play rpgs of course. Some people really just want to play the collaborative story, develop their characters, and not worry about character death that isn’t brought on solely by character stupidity or meaningful sacrifice. And that’s totally cool. For those looking for more game with a higher chance of loss than the storytelling approach, trying hard mode might be just what you need. Trust with the group is essential, so the players can trust the GM not to cheat for or against the players, and the GM trusts the players not to hold it against him when bad things happen to their characters.  But the end result is very rewarding for those looking for the added difficulty and who are able to rise to the challenge.

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