D&D General Should D&D Be "Hard"


Victoria Rules
EDIT: I intended this question to be about your personal preferences, but I guess I phrased in in such a way that indicated I was asking about what the game's default design should be.
Hard, by today's standards.
This is a simple question with a lot of complex possible responses, so I decided to not do a poll.

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?
Yes, with the one exception that campaigns (as opposed to character lives and individual adventures) should be designed in a robust enough way that a single poor decision or die roll can't end one.

log in or register to remove this ad


Victoria Rules

Lemme ask you: What volume do you put your electronics at?

See how silly that question is? Because OBVIOUSLY you're going to change the volume depending on the specific device, circumstances, and preferences of the moment. You don't set everything to 100% and leave it there forever.
No, but the general answer "as loud as I can get away with" still applies.


Victoria Rules
I, personally, try to aim for a default that is the most broadly accommodating and easiest to bend toward other ends. As a rule, for example, it is much easier to add difficulty than to remove it.
The exact opposite is true in every milieu I've evern seen it done: it is much easier (in terms of getting along with people) to remove difficulty than it is to add it. It's also generally easier at the design level to remove difficulty than to add it.
It is much easier to throw something out of balance than to bring balance into an existing unbalanced structure. It is much easier to design things which conform to typical (even if poorly-justified) human intuitions, rather than trying to defy those intuitions and just expect folks to think differently.
Agree on both of these, however.
All of these are why I advocate for well-made, fully-featured "novice levels" or the equivalent. Because those can be specifically tailored to be hard challenges, something players can opt in for if they want a more difficult thing. That doesn't mean 1st level should inundate players with choices--it's good to give new players a chance to get their feet wet--but a 1st-level character being wet tissue paper is a pretty serious problem that will drive people away from the game.
There's about 49 years worth of old-school players who might take issue with this statement.
Unfortunately, DMs and players alike have the facile but understandable belief that "first level is where you start, because it is first, that is what starting IS, the first thing, so you shouldn't start anywhere but first level. Because it's first."
Yes, and rightly so; and the idea that not everything is going to go well on your first try is also perfectly valid. I mean, absent beginner's luck, is there any endeavour at which people can expect to even be competent at the first asking?


Is not the DM free to make the game as hard or as easy as they desire??? This is the age of DM empowerment!

I've always made the game as hard as I want. I regularly have to pull back a bit because my players don't want a particularly deadly game. While I have infinite dragons, I don't need to use them. I can set up encounters on the high end of hard and kill of a PC or two on a fairly regular basis. Double tap, focus fire, separate the group, some minor terrain features that benefit the enemy. It's not going to be every time of course, the dice are fickle. I just disagree that the current version is going to always be easy mode.

It is easy-ish mode by default. It's designed for groups of 4 novices with average ability scores and no magic items. It also assumes several combats between long rests. But there's nothing stopping the DM from cranking it up to 11 if they want. I will add that I almost never have a 5 minute work day, we use point buy, I ignore the number multiplier when it comes to determining challenge and even my high level PCs aren't walking magic stores.


Follower of the Way
I wasn't actually, but I obviously didn't make that clear. I suppose I should have written "When you sit down to play D&D, do you want it to be hard." The way I phrased the OP obviously made people think I was asking about something else. I find that a little frustrating, but it's ultimately my fault so I'll own it.

In that case, when I sit down to play, I want the D&D I get to be:
  1. Challenging, but achievable. Meaning, it's meant to take effort to overcome, but major loss/destruction is very unlikely even unless I, as a player, make multiple bad decisions. (Which, to be clear--I've done that before, as have my co-players. In games people deride as "too safe.")
  2. Difficult in ways that cannot be solved purely through calculation, which must come down to value judgments. This can be the typical moral/ethical issues, or it can be purely personal, e.g. putting a Chaotic character in a position where they must choose between their opposition to structured authority and whatever deeply-held goals they have (e.g., they can go after the man who killed their parents...but they would only have the power to do so by accepting a position in the constabulary they have philosophically opposed in the past.)
  3. Genuinely fair. Meaning, if there actually is a shot at victory, it's a sincere one, and I am sufficiently well-informed to be able to make a reasonable decision in context. Further, it should be designed with an eye to the fact that your enemies only deal with one encounter (or perhaps a couple), while the PCs have to endure an indefinite string of them. It sounds fine to have a 5% chance of instant death per encounter, until you realize that means an average of 20 encounters between deaths (meaning, a couple of months at most) and fairly high odds of at least one TPK per year.
These are all, IMO, best served by creating a system which starts off well-balanced, and offers tools for pushing things away from that balance in an intentional, if not necessarily predictable, manner. Like how 13th Age has the "Nastier Specials" rules for how to spice up various monsters.

Today? Today I'm looking for something with a small (10% over duration of campaign) of character perma-death, but high (80%?) chance of individual encounter failure that leads the campaign into recesses and unforeseen paths.
The problem is, I'm not sure that that is meaningfully achievable. Keeping even a roughly fixed chance (e.g. maybe only 5% for a short campaign and 15% for a spend-many-sessions-at-cap campaign) is going to be an extraordinarily difficult design problem. Perhaps even mathematically impossible. Because if it's even 0.5% chance of TPK per encounter, all you need are 140 encounters to have a 90% TPK rate. If a short campaign has only, say, 100 encounters, and a long campaign has 300, how can you possibly design both to end up in the same place? Unless, of course, what you actually do is make the risk of TPK go down as the game gets "harder"...which I suspect is not what you intend for this!

Also--you really want 80% of encounters to fail? Like...run away or surrender because you just cannot succeed? That's...extremely high. That means nearly all encounters end in failure. I dunno about you, but failing at 80% of the things I attempt sounds unbelievably demoralizing, and at that rate, almost a third of five-encounter runs would be literally all failures (.8^5= .32768). Even a 50% "sorry, this is just failure, you get nothing, good DAY sir" rate would probably drive me away from the game after only a few sessions.

I mostly agree enthusiastically with you but I will point out there are reasons to start at first level that are neither facile nor circular. It is my preference because I want to give everyone a chance to grow into the PCs and I want there to be at least some opportunity to reconsider choices.
I did not mean to imply that there are absolutely no other reasons that it might be desirable. Though I would say that simply allowing players to respec if they feel they have made an error would be a better solution than enforcing first level. I've just had multiple 5e games crash and burn because the DM doggedly insisted on starting at 1st level because it was 1st level. It's pretty frustrating to be Cassandra predicting disaster, warning folks about it, being ignored, and doing everything you can to prevent it...only to have it happen anyway.

I run a Hard game, or by today's standards an Impossible Game. Not only do I expect players to pay attention for the whole game and immerse themselves in the game. Not only I have a ton of house rules that must be followed. But my game world is a "living" detailed, complex place based around classic, traditional reality.

A company should make a hard game by default, but sure also have a EZ version for the players that want it.

An Advertisement