How do the players control the difficulty of the game?

In Dark Souls, it seems straightforward enough. If you choose to use melee weapons, you’ve selected the game’s “hard mode.” Ranged weapons and spells change the way the game is played from reflexes and quick timing to one of patience, diligence. The pace at which the game is played changes.

It isn’t the same as selecting “Easy, Normal, or Hard” from a menu.

As a game master, you’re responsible for adjusting the difficulty of your game to best challenge your players, but it’s important to realize that your players also control the difficulty of the game through their choices. In the early editions of D&D, playing a magic-user meant “pain for a long time.”

So, what kinds of choices do players make that change the game’s difficulty? It seems character class is a big one. Class turns out to be a strange measure of difficulty since it varies depending on party make-up.

A bunch of Rangers or Rogues tend to work better together (everyone can sneak or shoot well), whereas a bunch of Fighters tend to overwhelm monsters. Magic-users… tend to get killed a lot. And a bunch of priests have an overabundance of healing but often little in the way of damage output.

Most of the above is based on experience, observation. In my group we call an abundance of priests (or another support class), a “healing flood.” There is so much magical healing available that characters are scarcely hurt for long.

Healing effects are “wasted” on superficial injuries.

A bunch of sneaky loners (see: Rangers and Rogues) tend to work so effectively when used in combination, they quickly overwhelm enemies with sneak-attacks and ambushes — but they are destroyed in those encounters where they don’t have the advantage of surprise.

Curiously, the effect of having a so-called “balanced” party seems to be one where encounters play out more predictably. If you prefer the chaos of players assuming different roles throughout a fight, then you can use any of the myriad combinations of “non-standard” party make-ups.

A “standard” party of characters — warrior, priest, thief, and magic-user — tends to have all “roles” covered, with everyone having a go-to action when their turn comes up. When someone goes down, it’s noticeable, but the party “knows” what to do — everyone is important and has a unique job.

Sure, there might be some contention between the thief and the fighter (who scores the most kills), but nobody questions the importance of the priest to keeping the party alive. The character roles are effectively incomparable.

But in what way does that make the game easier?

In some ways, everyone having a different role can make it easier and harder to tell when someone is doing a bad job. The magic-user is typically in charge of “crowd control,” so if the party finds groups of enemies difficult to combat, the fault often lies with the magic-user.

Class is just one way players control the difficulty of the game — but it’s a doozy. Many 4e GMs talk about how much fun it can be to run a campaign for a bunch of strikers (Ranger/Rogue equivalent), but just as often you wind up with fights that are too overwhelming — PCs who are too fragile.

There are other factors that have to be considered. 4e did a remarkable job of putting “Class Choice As Difficulty Setting” at the forefront of the game experience. Many of the classic modes of difficulty (light sources, navigation, tricks & traps) fell by the wayside. It made for a very different game.

In the end, whatever you do as a GM, you want to make sure you adhere to the concept of difficulty fostered by your players. This may be where “unfairness” comes into play — when your players develop one idea and you have another.

Their PCs have enormous to-hit bonuses so you ramp up the defense scores. In turn, players double-down on combat advantages. Et cetera.

At some point you have to accept that the players want to be good at the combat portions of the game — it’s what they’ve invested in the most. Your focus will have to be either in diversifying the combat — which can often lead to problems similar to the ‘arms race’ above — or diversifying the game experience.

It bears repeating that many of the most interesting stories are about characters working outside their area of expertise.