Difficulty mode

Dürer, Death and the Landsknecht

In addition to the background / reward dyad, another important game parameter is lethality. Next to incentives, lethality is probably the single most important determinant of how a tabletop RPG plays, because lethality is another way of saying risk. What do setbacks potentially involve? Is it possible to lose the game? Any consideration of lethality must also consider healing, because that is the other side of the coin. In D&D, the exact same dungeon and hazards can be made either very difficult or trivial, depending on the scarcity of healing.

This is a hugely controversial issue among fantasy gamers, as can be seen regarding the discourse around options for self-healing in 5E and the differing reaction to the idea of healing surges in Fourth Edition. Many old school games also use variations on the “healing surge” idea (though they are usually called something else).

Because lethality and healing are so important to how the game plays, I believe they should be explicit choices at the start of any campaign with clear options, though there is no reason to force any particular style. But what is it that is actually being selected? The thing being selected, which both lethality and the availability of healing are in service to, is how difficult the game is. This single choice will go a long way to make sure that all players (including the referee) are on the same page regarding the nature of the campaign.

Hit points in Hexagram, in any mode, are not persistent beyond any particular session. Instead, HP are rolled when required by the difficulty mode, the details of which are summarized in the table below. A character’s hit dice total is what matters; hit points are situational. I believe this reinforces the abstraction of HP, which is required for any lightweight system. In addition, I have been actually using this method of re-rolling HP in several different incarnations and have had nothing but good luck with it. It also greatly simplifies HP recovery, obviating the need for bookkeeping (the guidelines for when to re-roll take care of that).

Difficulty Modes
Mode When HP is Rolled HP Recovery Death
Very easy Each combat N/A Impossible; instead, a setback occurs
Easy Each combat N/A Only on TPK or if left behind
Medium Start of session 1d6 post-combat 0 HP, saving throw for unconsciousness
Hard Start of session Magic healing causes aging 0 HP, saving throw for unconsciousness
Very hard Start of session Magic healing causes aging 0 HP, no save

For the easy modes, why re-roll HP per combat rather than introduce some recovery mechanism? One, it is easier. It keeps the focus where it should be, on the conflict, rather than on the resource management (which by hypothesis is not of interest). Two, it adds uncertainty to combat so that it is not the first resort in all cases, and prevents the HP total from feeling like a fixed buffer against damage. This method is somewhat reminiscent of the Carcosa dice conventions, but keeps the type of die used for the HD fixed (d6) which prevents overly wild swings in possible HP totals.

This is essentially a way to do tactical gaming within a more traditional fantasy game framework without any secondary abstraction or rule system sitting on top of hit points. “Hits” are, of course, assumed to be blocked, or flesh wounds. Diegetically, any kind of sword to the gut event would be something that a character would get a saving throw to avoid. Note that this does not require higher-level abstraction like “luck” to enter into hit points — every hit can still be a hit, just not a good one.

Is using the idea of difficulty modes pejorative to different styles of play? I don’t think so, and there is some value to calling a spade a spade. It seems important to emphasize that the same rules framework, with appropriately tailored incentives, can be used for games focused on player skill and for games focused on other things. When I do play video games, I often play them on easy or normal mode, and almost never on hard mode, because I am not interested in building the type of skills most video games reward. Rather, I want to experience some other aspect of the game, like graphics, or art direction. I think that many people feel the same way about RPGs.

This design allows the game to work on all modes without assuming healing magic. One may include magic items or spells that perform healing, but they will not be very important in the easy modes (because you will be re-rolling your HP before the next encounter anyways), and are otherwise problematic in the hard modes (see healing & aging). Healing being problematic is required so that the tension and resource management required for a hard mode game are not undermined. Resurrection magic is of course important to perception of risk as well, but I will cover that in another post.

Incidentally, my current OD&D game is essentially on hard mode.

11 thoughts on “Difficulty mode

  1. John

    I assume, since HP are rolled at the start of each session, you never finish a session with the players still in the dungeon? How would you adapt the system if you had to start some sessions in media res?

    1. Brendan

      Yes, that’s right. For the easy modes, with rolling per encounter, it shouldn’t be an issue. For the hard modes, which are supposed to be about resource management, my initial inclination is to say that the previous total is preserved to keep the incentive to work within your means and retreat when necessary. Otherwise, there would be perverse incentives like ending a session right before a hazard so that the PCs would regain all the HP at the beginning of the next session.

      Forcing something like a “save to get out of the dungeon” if players do not retreat is another option. I like the idea of it, but I’ve never actually used it in play. See Jeff’s Triple Secret Random Dungeon Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom:


    2. Brendan

      Basically, it’s my attempt to make magical healing a bit more mysterious and potentially fraught with peril. I don’t think the ubiquity of magical healing serves fantasy gaming very well, and I think it is really a patch for something else.

  2. Brendan

    Also, I just realized that I didn’t cover “save or die” effects in the table, which are pretty important (though it’s probably easy to guess how it works). On the easy modes, combat save or die effects are either converted to damage or unconsciousness on failure.

    1. Brendan

      Being captured, having equipment taken away, external objective failed (like a cult sacrifice being completed) and needing to deal with the consequences of that, losing face or reputation. Depending on the kind of game, perhaps permanent changes to the characters including things like scars or persistent weaknesses. I’m sure there are more, this probably deserves a table or two. Other ideas welcome. 🙂

    2. Brendan

      If you’re tracking time well, it can make a big difference whether you succeed in something on your first try or second try, even if there is no possibility of death.

  3. Gusty L.

    I like the thought here – and while likihood of death at defeat is a big component of difficulty – I think its more about dungeon design and play style. Deadly traps vs. Injurious ones. Monsters with instant death abilities and so forth. Really two sides of the same coin. I personally am fond of Aos at Metal Earth’s badass rules (20ish starting hp, wound tables for missile weapons/magic, low hp level gain, minor recovery post battle and no non-item healing).

    1. Brendan

      I don’t disagree. The death and healing rules are certainly not the totality of how difficult a game is, but they are probably the most salient aspect from the player point of view. Can I be killed in one shot, and if I take damage will I be able to recover it? That is what players reason about. I hope to associate quite a few other parameters with this overall difficulty mode setting, including many of the things you mention here (how easy it is to find powerful magic items or technological artifacts is certainly also part of difficulty mode, as is trap difficulty). However, in the above structure, for example in “very easy” mode, even the most devious and destructive trap can provide no more than a setback.

      Hexagram is actually more of a content generation engine that plugs into the character advancement, but I have yet to post much of the referee-side stuff yet.

      20 HP to start is a lot, but I like the sound of no non-item healing!


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