So I have recently started playing the Chronicles of Riddick on the Xbox 360 – I know, how current am I? – and it had me thinking about difficulty levels in console games and how they might translate to traditional table top RPGs. Basically because it’s a bloody hard game, and I’m not that great at first person shooters anyway. I have in fact come upon an impasse fairly early on in the game, and before I continue I’m going to have to lower the difficulty. To sum up, I am trying to break out of a prison, but there are guards and turret guns, and I’m at a point where I’m struggling to find cover while being shot at from three directions, by two turrets and one guard. I can take out one enemy, but then die before I can make it to cover.
This is not a complaint about the game, which I think is actually pretty damned good, in fact the way the level has been designed reminds me a lot of the way that a Games Master would approach a problem. What both the GM and the Games Designer (GD) want is to make the level feel as realistic and challenging to the player/s as possible. If it was me designing the level, I would almost certainly have done the same thing. The guards seem to have some kind of radio transmitter that means the turret guns don’t target them, but prisoners are fair game. They have also covered all corridors with fields of fire, and then had guards around too, just to make sure. What I wouldn’t do was drop a few convenient chest high walls into the place to offer some cover. I’m sorry to all level designers out there, but it doesn’t matter if they’re collapsed bits of rubble, fallen trees or the corpses of my enemies, they all look out of place and just serve to warn you that a gun fight is about to break out. So thank you to whoever rocked this level design for not making lazy choices and keeping the game challenging.
What the GD didn’t do though was give the player/s a chance to come up with different ways to approach the problem. I know that by now a lot of readers will be thinking that this is just another part of the continuing story of why table top RPGs will also be better than computer games. Although this is certainly true, I think it’s worth saying again, and looking at what we can learn from computer games about things that we shouldn’t do as GMs. The biggest of these is limiting the choices of your players.
If I was a player for instance, I would be doing my damnedest to drag a dead guard into cover somewhere to see if I could figure out why they weren’t getting peppered with holes from the sentry guns. There may very well be a reason why I couldn’t just rip it off the corpse and make myself a tiny bit less killable, but I would like to know that and have a chance to examine things and find a way round that wasn’t just about shooty death and his less popular cousin stabby death.
This to me is why no table top RPG ever needs a difficulty level. No matter how dangerous you make a scene or encounter, the players will have near limitless options in how they approach and deal with any problems you put in front of them. Quite often they will work ways round your little obstacles that you would never have thought of, and the game is richer for it. They also – in almost every game – have real reasons to fear death for more than the slight inconvenience of having to replay a few minutes of a level to get to the point that they perished. Dying in an RPG should mean something more than a slight pain in the rear, and that means players have even more reason to think about different ways to solve a problem other than the all guns blazing approach.