I have studied tabletop roleplaying game systems for awhile now. With that has come =oodles= of learning that I then pass along here and there to you.
One of the patterns I cannot help noticing is the kind of experiences that recur again and again. From Dungeons & Dragons to Call of Cthulhu to 5e Hardcore to Tiny Dungeon and more, each picks from a small selection of difficulties. Or, what I call “modes.”
How Mode Is Established
A game sets its experience first and foremost with how well it prepares the fictional characters players use to face conflicts conflicts in the game.
Being well prepared decreases the difficulty and commonly increases the feeling of power in the player by overcoming conflicts. The opposite – likeliness of death, powerlessness in the face of adversity – grinds down the expectations of a player.
That laying of expectation is “mode,” a combination of difficulty and empowerment.
For example, a darkly-themed war between “the Heavens and Hells” would imply low expectations for a player playing as a meager human. However, if the player character slays demons and commands angels, that would clearly be a heroic or super-human achievement. Therefore, just because the theme says one thing, the tone is ultimately set by the mechanical achievement of the characters.
Let us explore the four modes I’ve identified (the most common to the least common):
This is vanilla Dungeons & Dragons, specifically the 5th edition (5e).
Though facing everything from giant rats to otherworldly gods and titular dragons in dark and dank dungeons, characters rarely die. Should a character bite it, they will not be dead for long.
With an abundance of healing potions, spells, and entire rituals to bring the dead back to life, 5e enables characters to slog through the worst. In addition, characters are given buckets of hit points (the things that allow a character to take punishment and keep on kicking), which lengthens both the attrition the characters can sustain and gives the players ample time to reposition or reconsider their actions!
Ultimately, the players are in near complete control of their fates, the randomness of dice smoothed out over the many rolls required to bring a character down.
At the end of the day, Heroic Mode is meant to make the players feel that they are the heroes in command of the story, and heroes never die.
A more grounded perspective on what a character is expected to do.
Characters may grow to become stronger, have eventual access to rare-but-powerful items, and can give as good as they get. Yet, “Human” characters can die, are more limited by their means, and may eventually cap-out with how truly able they can be.
Games I’d put into this category are Tiny Dungeon and Index Card RPG. Characters start at a common few hit points (e.g. 6 if one species, 7 if another, or 10 for everyone no matter origin), have a few useful-but-limited pieces of equipment, and the magic or technology of the world can only do so much (e.g. not make someone alive the way they were before death!).
Adventures can be had and bold actions taken, though consequences, if uncommon, will be felt. Confidence armed with caution is the rule of the day. (Luckily, Human Mode still lets folks run away!)
Hardcore Humbled Mode
Ah, the “grimdark” mode.
Games of this ilk are geared to punish characters for the hubris of attempting to right the game world’s wrongs, to fight against the will of things far more powerful than mere human understanding.
These games are brutal. Mork Borg, Call of Cthulhu, Zweihander, and Band of Blades would be appropriate inclusions, as would virtually all of the “old school renaissance” (OSR) games (some might be considered Human Mode if the game designers are generous).
Weapons break, armor protects but little, hit points are low and capped low, characters can become both temporarily better and permanently worse, and often the choice is whether to eat or have fire to stay warm and safe(r) from the dark. Characters are brittle and weak and progress but little towards any goals.
Obstacles are enormous: god-eating gods, titanic monsters that slay at a whim, powerful overlords that care not for the plights of mortals, and vicious consequences for any attempts by characters to do anything await. Characters will fail and they will fail often and failure will be all sorts of terrible.
Hardcore Humbled Mode is at the edge of what it means to be a game. This mode lets players know and know often that their fumbling is pathetic in the face of such impossible odds.
Super-Heroic, Herculean Mode
The last mode, the godly mode! The complete opposite of Hardcore and a step above Heroic!
I have included this because of how Dungeons & Dragons 5e changes as characters progress. At lower levels, characters will encounter threats that really are challenging. Even teamwork may fail (though the consequences, as mentioned, do not last). However, once top-tier levels are achieved, players become =unstoppable=.
A game enabling this mode poses no threat to character ability. With hundreds of hit points, equipment that smites mountains, magics and techologies that command the forces of nature and space and time, and other resources even the players stop tracking for their grandest treasures are but toys, players shall feel like gods.
Do what you want to who you want when you want where you want how you want, and consequences be cast to the wind. The only challenge might be fundamental cosmic and natural entities who band together to face the player characters, but even that is no guarantee of defeating the force of god-tier beings.
This mode I’ve encountered the least in my studies. I think it may be because such systems are immediately called “unbalanced” when encountered cold – why 5e gets away with it I suppose is because the gradual nature of slowly increasing levels to enter this mode.
Another reason Herculean Mode is so rare may also be this: Players find out that being godly is =boring=. When nothing can stop you, there is no real conflict, the spice that drives entertaining stories. Challenge with the possibility of failure is more fun 🙂
Perhaps that is why people in general like to topple the powerful and rarely rise to accept the responsibility of power themselves 🤔 I digress!
Four modes that every game adopts some form of. The theme tries to set the tone, yet the mechanical foundations laid for the players’ fictional characters establishes the feelings felt.
As an aside, BITS keeps these modes in mind for the specific kind of game it is trying to make. My WIP Gunslinger is a Human Mode game, while converting D&D characters is a Heroic Mode affair as opposed to BITS of Mork Borg and that Hardcore Mode adaptation.
I =really= think I have included all modes (there has been a lot of reading done!). Yet, if you have one or an amendment to make, comment! Let me know!
Toodles and cheers to your gaming ~
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