D&D General Should D&D Be "Hard"

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Okay. Maybe that means your players don't actually want to play the kind of game you are trying to run?

I legit do not get this response. If the players are complaining, maybe it is because you're doing something that doesn't fit the group!

If we were talking about subsystems, maybe. But even then, removing is often just as hard, you've just ignored the why of it.

Cut out short rests. Suddenly most of the game breaks. Cut out hit dice. Suddenly there's a third less healing. Cut out bonus actions. Etc., etc. Removing subsystems is quite risky, Jenga-style.

But the actual thing that makes encounters difficult is monster design, not subsystems. Adding new features to monsters to make them hard is often a trivial task. Double their damage. Done! But taking brutally hard monsters and generating a set that are reasonable but NOT trivial? Extremy difficult.

Adding well-balanced is very difficult. Adding "piss easy," sure, but that is boring and no one really wants that. Adding brutally hard monsters isn't difficult at all. Adding brutally hard monsters with a puzzle solution, likewise easy (trolls are not some monumentally impressive feat of game design.)

IME, this is far from true. Because players want the challenge types present: combat (with both brute damage and more complex traps/magic/terrain to deal with), exploration (ditto, but also fatigue and resources), socialization, puzzles, moral/ethical quandaries, etc.

But they want these things in such a way that it is reasonably likely they will succeed if they (a) make smart decisions, (b) pay attention to their surroundings, and (c) exploit their resources (abilities, equipment, teamwork, environs) effectively. Every group I've played in has recognized that sometimes all of that just won't be enough, and beating a retreat is necessary, even in games people accuse of being too easy.

And I absolutely stand by the claim that getting that delicate bal—er, equilibrium JUST right is a very hard design problem.
You have to tweak and adjust and test, test, test until things work out just right so the challenge is true but not overwhelming, such that variance allows the real possibility of failure but in the long run a relatively low actual failure rate.

Adding stuff which breaks this delicate bal—equilibrium is easy. Building this delicate equilibrium yourself is stupidly hard. Believe me, I would know; I tried to do so with 3.5e. It was beyond me...and beyond every 3.5e/PF1e DM I ever played with.

And yet nearly all of the brutally hard monsters remain. All of the "welp, looks like that's a crit. Hope you don't instantly die" is still there. All the many, MANY save-or-die spells are still there. The ear seekers. Etc., etc.

Good thing you don't need to, because you already know they could exist!

Oh, awesome, you found the inarguable objective definition of D&D that everyone should be beholden to! Can I see it? Where did you find it?

Seriously Lanefan, I respect you too much tk believe you meant this. You literally just said the One True Way of D&D is zero-to-hero. You definitely know better than that.

A first level 5e character can (with the "right" choice of class) die outright in a single hit from a single low-level (IIRC CR1?) enemy. Even if they don't die outright, a single hit can bring even a Fighter to Dying, without being a crit. That, as far as I'm concerned, is being an incompetent rube at adventuring.

Going off to do something so unbelievably deadly when you literally don't even have the ability to survive two attacks, attacks that are quite likely to hit you, is eithet the height of stupidity, or reflects starting on something long before you have achieved even the most limited form of competence.

So yeah. I stand by that too. First-level 5e characters are incompetent rubes. Some folks want to play that. That's fine. That's what "zero" means to them, and more power to them.

I should not be shackled to that.
Players also generally want their PCs to be more powerful, and I think it's natural given that that hearing that the DM wants to make them less so might cause some irritation. If you have to make the baseline harder rather than easier in 2023, you are starting on the back foot.

Regarding Hit Dice, 5e works just fine with a third less healing IMO.

Also, people doing dangerous jobs die from a single hit in real life all the time. You don't need to start your career as a hero, it just became popular to do so.

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Follower of the Way
Also, people doing dangerous jobs die from a single hit in real life all the time. You don't need to start your career as a hero, it just became popular to do so.
I did not say you need to. Remember the context of the question I asked. I was asking why I needed to be forced to play incompetent characters.

I have, this entire time, explicitly and repeatedly said I want to support both those who desire a brutal, dangerous game where characters have little they can do to alter their risk of instant death, and those (like me) who want a more powerful, more competent start to the journey. I have explicitly said that I want to make sure that folks whose preferences differ from mine get mechanics that are actually GOOD, that are well-made, stated up front, and truly recognized as being just as much part of the game as whatever things I or others like.

You saw what I wrote above. I'm not the one telling others that the only way to play D&D is the way I prefer.

How so? If you have a system that is already quite functional and works exactly as intended, adding uncertainty is extremely easy. If you have a system where the numbers already work to favor one side, all you need to do is add bigger numbers to the other side and you've already increased the difficulty.

Having a system that is brutally hard is very, very difficult to turn into something that can be easy if you want it to be. Having a system that is easy is MUCH easier to turn hard, because you just add hard things to it.
D&D is about the only exception I can think of to this design principle. You find exploration too hard? Have the Create Water spell. Or give the ranger the ability to bypass exploration mechanics.
Whatever your preferred game style, there are perfectly valid reasons for starting at a level other than 1st. But many, many, many, MANY DMs out there think that you absolutely, positively HAVE to start at 1st level. Even if it would be detrimental to the game to do so. Because it's first, and first is where you start. As I said, I would know--I've experienced it firsthand. Three times now.
A big problem with D&D is the inverse difficulty curve - that the tutorial levels are the hardest.

D&D is about the only exception I can think of to this design principle. You find exploration too hard? Have the Create Water spell. Or give the ranger the ability to bypass exploration mechanics.

A big problem with D&D is the inverse difficulty curve - that the tutorial levels are the hardest.
It is possible to make high-level play challenging. I've killed at least one eighteenth-level character. Of course it wasn't perma-death because the only way to perma-kill a character that level is to kill the whole party. My point is that at some point the DM can more or less just throw stuff at the PCs in the blithe presumption they'll figure something out.

EDIT: To be clear that's not entirely disagreeing with you that characters are at their most fragile at the "tutorial levels." I think though that if a DM can put high-level characters in fear for their safety it should be possible to run low-level characters through things they're very likely to survive that are still fun. I've done that at least twice in 5e.


The question is: should D&D be hard? That is, is D&D better when the chances of success are slimmer, when encounters and puzzles are more difficult, when a bad die roll or a poor decision can end lives, adventures or whole campaigns?

For experienced adults, "Yes."

But you adjust the difficulty slider to your table.

That said, "Random" is not the same as "Hard". It's easy to make an encounter mathematically difficult without making the skill required to win any higher. So you should be striving for "Hard but fair", where luck is there but can be mitigated against.

Hardest to survive because the PCs are weakest/most fragile? Yes.
But those levels are also generally less complex, so not the hardest in that respect.
There has seemed to be some conflation of "easy vs. hard" and "simple vs. complex." There may be some correlation between how they're perceived but they're not the same thing.


Uncomfortably diegetic
I think the default difficulty of 5e is "Just Hard Enough".

The closest style of play 5e has to a default is trad play with strong neotrad shadings, such that the main focus of play is "demonstrative invocation of character". Less formally, the main goal of 5e play is to show off your character doing cool stuff.

As such, challenges need to be just hard enough to allow time for a demonstration of the full breadth of the characters' abilities, and maybe even occassionally have a character die to demonstrate stakes. But not hard enough that the party's ability to progress their efforts is actually hampered or stopped.

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