Opportunity in design philosophy of difficulty

Level 7
9 months ago (edited)

So being level 10 now, with the multi player group I play with, we made some observations and had some discussions about how a (our) DND game works at the table vs. the computer game and how difficulties are handled.

This led us to a thought which I wanted to share, as I think there is merit in it.

In a computer DND game, just like Pathfinder, you basically rarely have to endure longer periouds without a long rest. Since the long rest is mechanically always bound a campfire asset placed, level design needs to take care of a major vital part of balancing here and work closely with encounter designers.

In DND, the difficulty never was a single encounter seen by itself, isolated. The DND difficulty always was also in major parts "managing" your resources, as the pen & paper story usually gave you reasons or straight limits to not being able to long rest. 

Yet, in a video game, this is hard to realize, as you risk putting people into a dead end, when they exceeded their capabilities for a sequence of battles, and are out of "power" without any possibility to rest. Basically forceing them to reload to before the entire battle sequence till the last long rest, if a save game is available, or even quit the game in frustration, which is the last thing you want as a game designer. The last option is to customize the difficulty if you're stuck. The problem is that most people won't intuitively think of that option. And if they think of it, they might consider it to feel wrong to do it like that.

Additionally, no one wants to backtrack to a campfire, just to get fresh, so that is another reason we got campfires all over the place. 

That is why we have camp fires all over the place.

And this in turn, in large parts, shifts the challenge from a sequence of battles to the single battle (with exceptions, sometimes, here and there, e.g. the last chapter of the campaign).

But even in these exceptions most of them are usually designed rather easy, more like "have something to do" style of encounter sequence.

That being enstablished, let's look at how we can re-create more of the pressure of not long resting.

So we know that:

-Casual gamers will hate it, if they cannot rest, and blame the game.

-Level designers rather put one to much camp fire than one to less to avoid dead ends and frustration.

-Players will use long rest whenever possible.

-But some player also increase the difficulty because they like a harder game. Authentic mode, to a standard experienced gamer, isn't much of a challenge I would say (experienced gamer = anyone who played games like Dragon Age, Baldurs Gate, Pillars Of Eternity, Divinity, etc).

So it is fair to conclude that currenty difficulty is mainly (with exceptions) controlled by balance of encounters, creatures/enemies, and the player's heroes. Just like shown in the custom difficulty options as well.

However, for a true DND game feeling (which is the vision of the project, after all) long-rest opportunities must be a major vital factor in the difficulty balancing design.

The real "hard, harder, impossible" difficulty modes would actually evolve around the possibilities to rest and the skill of resource management, when to fall back to scrolls, trinkets, potions, etc.

To reflect that, I think campfire could be integrated into the difficulty design philosophy.

Possible parameters could be: "Number of uses" or simply a logic value attached to each camp fire assets, that tells the game if it is spawned or not. And a corresponding difficulty setting: "Long rest opportunities: With possible settings like  "Everywhere / Many / Authentic / Fewer / Sleep is for the weak"

And if custom difficulty is already a thing, allowing for getting out of many dead end combat situations anyway, you could also put a button in there that says "Emergency Long Rest now"  (Tooltip: If you're  really stuck, use this options and cheat your way to victory.) Maybe this would disable achievements or something like that.

Further factors to including long-rest into the difficulty balancing could be time pressure, or random attacks during the rest. Like an options that says: "Long-rest random assaults": " Disabled / Enabled but first rest per campfire is always safe / Always Enabled"

I think such options would make the game much more interesting to players enjoying a challenge, than things like "ironman mode" or "cataclysm mode", because periods of endurance and survival are actually what was always a core principle of DNDs long rest mechanic and a major part of what made many adventures challenging. Right now, in the default configuration, for example, a Barbarian never really needs to think much about managing his rage. There will be a long rest soon anyway.

So while I acknowledge that there is no Dungeon Master that can "secretly tip the scale in favor of the heroes" if they have a streak of bad luck but aren't able to long-rest, which makes videogame design in this aspect rather hard to do, and a designer would rather be "safe than sorry" to not lose the player to frustration or difficulty dead-end, I think the topic hasn't been explored to it's fullest potential, design-wise, and iterating on this mechanic with the stated philosophy could really add more pen&paper DND authenticity to the game-play.

Level 6
2 months ago

I'd tend to overall agree to what you say but instead of a potentially heavy change in mechanics and code, I think it may be simpler to just put narrative limits to quests.

Either a hard timeframe to complete (like the side quest tasking you to clear up bandits that are temporarily stuck in a place, if you wait 15 days and circle back they would either be dead or gone). Or a soft frame (higher/better rewards for completing a quest in a timely manner).

I would also have loved a toggler to NOT kill enemies when using blunt weapons and have some quests motivating players to not just genocide everything, but I guess it was too niche of a design aspect for the team considering they don't have the same kind of time and resources as other studios. ^^