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Variations on the Difficulty Theme

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

In The Danger of Difficulty Despair – With Graphs I talked about the risk of a game suffering from boring encounters if the difficulty progression was always identical.  I showed, with the aid of graphs, how linear encounter difficulty combined with character improvement at the end of each adventure could create a universe which sees the player characters improve but never lets them experience the improvement.  I’ll come back to that problem in a future post.  First I’m going to suggest a few alternative difficulty variations that can be used for adventures.

To quickly recap the linear difficulty encounter adventure is an adventure where a series of encounters occur starting with an easy one and building up to a harder one.  The difficulty of each encounter is roughly similar.

Capability and Linear Difficulty against time for a Role Playing Game

Capability and Linear Difficulty (blue vertical lines represent the end of adventures)

A common variation on this is the Swooping difficulty adventure where the difficulty starts out at a level, drops down and then rises for the climax.  My notes included a mention of the “extreme” swoops favoured by one of the DMs we played with who used a lot of very easy encounters and then towards the end things got really tough.

Swooping Difficulty (blue vertical lines represent the end of adventures)

Extreem Swooping Difficulty graph

Extreme Swooping Difficulty (blue vertical lines represent the end of adventures)

Another type of progression happens in dungeons built of areas (which may be levels) where several encounters of similar difficulty are grouped together followed by an area with harder difficulty and so on till the final, climactic encounter.

Stepped Dungeon Style Difficulty against time for a Role Playing Game

Stepped Dungeon Style Difficulty (blue vertical lines represent the end of adventures)

Last time I said I’d talk about one of the worst games I ever played in.  I’d played in games run by the DM responsible before and he was usually pretty good.  Then came his experimental phase.  First a game where he let two of us generate nominally evil (really just not good) characters and then decided he wanted only the cleanest of clean characters.

Then came what I think can be best described as his attempt at a game combining psychedelic elements from 60s TV shows, American film musicals and Dungeons and Dragons.  He topped that strange combination off with difficulty so varied that I think it can be best described by this graph…

Random encounter difficulty graph

If you've read this far already you shouldn't need any explanation for this graph

It was just as frustrating for the players as the linear progression of difficulty.  Here the frustration came from the feeling that the world didn’t make sense.  It might be “realistic” but it lacked drama.  Players never knew when to heal and when to use their limited use abilities until it was too late.  We suspected there was a lot of dice fudging by the Dungeon Master going on so we didn’t get wiped out.  We stuck with the game for about five sessions and then, to our relief, it came to an (unsatisfying) end.

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